Q. Greetings to the weblog administrators of Mode of Life Project. I was wondering, when reading the Bible, there are references that cite that all idolators and atheists go to hell. Does that mean all Hindus and Buddhists go to hell?
You ask a loaded question according to a personal reading of the Scriptures and without providing me a reference from which passage you refer to. The reason I cite this point firstly before providing some answers, is that it is very easy to ignore the context in which something is written and intended. The Scriptures are a collection of Divinely inspired writings that were composed in various literary styles to express universal spiritual truths and revelations (that is what God has revealed to humanity). The language of which may not be perceptible or comprehensible to our modern-day use of language and expression. Thus as you can see context is essential.
Secondly, I do not know who you are or why you ask such a question, but the best answer can be given by attending liturgical services at church and living a true and proper Orthodox Christian life.
Thirdly, to highlight the teaching of the Church regarding salvation, is that neither I or you or anyone else (and cited in Scripture also) cannot pass judgement on the spiritual state of another person asserting whether a person is saved or not. This is a blasphemy according to Orthodox Christian phronema, because only God knows what is within the heart of a person. So we say that salvation is a mystery that only God knows, as He is the only one who knows what is in the heart of a person (more so than the person themselves!).
In any case, to be more direct to the point, you should ask the question what is heaven and hell, and why we need salvation. And in a nutshell, heaven and hell are states of being before the presence of God. For those who have cultivated love in their heart, have been receptive to God’s grace and message, and responded in a positive, humane and godlike manner, coming before the presence of God will be heaven. For those who have not done this, their soul will resist and seek to avoid God’s tender and loving embrace, and for them His presence and light will be like a consuming fire.
Those who are outside the Church and its liturgical and sacramental life that seeks to cultivate spiritual authenticity and responsibility, the struggle to attain the goal of unification with God (theosis), sanctification and purity is immense and difficult. God may look upon such people with greater mercy because of their ignorance or because of their context, but He will see their heart and their sincerity. But again their struggle is immensely difficult, because those who are in the Church are like spiritual athletes, and the sacramental and liturgical life are like those power drinks that marathon runners are given during a race. The spiritual father, is the trainer who guides them, encourages them and holds them accountable to their discipline. And this race is a journey from being created and born in the image of God to becoming in His likeness (theosis/omoiosis).
Given this reality, those who are in the Church and living its life are called to a higher state of being, to realise their reason of being, their journey to return to their origins in God from where all peoples come from (divine nostalgia); they will be held accountable to a higher standard than non-believers. The responsibility before God is greater than what a Hindu or a Buddhist or an atheist might be expected to fulfill, than an Orthodox Christian who has access to the gifts of grace and truth, and who has by virtue of their baptism, the grace of the spiritual priesthood. Yet the Good News (Evangelion) is for all peoples irrespective of their race, colour, culture or religion, God calls all to Him as they are all His children, who are created in His image and are offered the gifts of grace, and a direct life of communion with Him.
To not accept such a gift of love is tantamount to living in hell, because God is the source of all life, and to seek a source of life outside of God is death, because it does not exist. That is why God warns Adam and Eve of partaking of the fruit, not because He was threatening them, but because they sought a life away from Him who is the source of life.
But in any case, why worry about the salvation of others when we ourselves cannot even be true to the Gospel message. How can we help others seek out salvation if we have not begun to put our own house into order? For if we wish to change the world for the better or to bring others close to God, then we must take responsibility for our actions and strive to become not only good people (which really should be our starting point anyway not our goal), but become godlike people capable of even unlocking the God-given talents within us and performing miracles for the glory of God and for the benefit of humankind.
Remember, before the Christian Gospel came, there wasn’t these ideas and tradition of philanthropy that we now take for granted such as public healthcare or education, we have much to thank in the persons of pious Orthodox Christian Saints, common-folk, authorities and so forth such as St Basil the Great or unmercenary saints like St Panteleimon and so forth.
In any case it is our own actions which judge us, not so much God. God will simply ask us what we did and why, and the spiritual disposition of our hearts and souls will reveal the truth and thus what form of salvation we will live for all eternity. And make no mistake, God created us from nothing and could easily return us back to nothing; but His love is unconditional to such an extent that even those who reject Him or do evil things against other people (which is a rejection of God in itself), are not returned to nothingness, but dwell in His presence in the lowest form of salvation known to us as hell. And that dearly beloved was not of God’s making but a person’s personal choice to not become the manifestation of love or God’s presence within the world.
Therefore, the references throughout the Scriptures which speak of idolaters, usually does not specifically refer to a non-believer, but also believers as well; because we all form our own idols of one sort or another through our service to the addiction of the passions (pathoi). It is easy enough to turn money into an idol, or drugs, vanity, love of glory and fame, obsessiveness and so forth. These are merely indications that we have not put God at the centre of our lives and do not allow faith in Him to guide every aspect of our lives, but we compartmentalise our life into various sections such as our work life, our love life, our domestic life etc. And the measure and determining factor in these various “compartments” is our own self-reasoning or the ideas that the world throws at us (usually not in our own best interests), which means that our focus is not “theocentric” despite appearing to be as such, but egocentric and secular. And these are idols in of themselves, as well as creating idols to which we submit our freedom and life to. Nevertheless, there are some references within Scripture that make specific note about various pagan cults such as those of Baal and Molech that involved things such as human sacrifice, “sacred” harlotry and other such questionable practices. But the Scriptures usually cite how with the true Faith, the dangers of falling into the various passions and the creation of new idols is lessened, but not destroyed altogether as a believer can easily fall also. Though, a believer has the various tools to which they can awaken to their folly and overcome it.
In the meantime, if you wish to learn more, I would encourage you to attend church, go to catechism lessons or utilise the wonderful resources that are now available both online and within our archdiocese.
With the sincere humble love of Christ,
VM on behalf of Mode of Life Project