Orthodox and Catholic Views on Heaven: Essential Differences Express A Deeper Divide

This post is going to be a little different. I normally try not to make this blog too overtly religious, but I read something by Ann Barnhardt that caught my attention and got me thinking, even though very little of it was new information. But first this will require several paragraphs of prefacing.

The article she wrote is “Do Aborted Babies Go To Heaven?”, and what stuck out to me is how different the Catholic perception of the afterlife is from the Orthodox Christian, because the way they read Scripture is so different. This article of mine is not intended to exhaustively debunk Catholicism – though there is certainly value to that kind of article – but to use her writing to illustrate a key difference that no amount of tea and crumpets between Bart and Francis will ever resolve.

Also, I’ll say that I adore Barnhardt’s writing, even though I obviously don’t always agree with it. She truly believes in her beliefs, and that demands respect.

Before we get to what she’s written, I need to explain something about the nature of Orthodox Christian doctrine.

In Catholicism, they have an 800 page catechism that explains everything very tidily. Because the Church has a singular central administration, anything published by that central administration is automatically free from error (which is why I can’t understand how Catholics would try to de-legitimize Vatican I and Vatican II or the election of Francis). If you want to know what is Truth, you just look it up in the reference book and quote it.

Orthodox Christianity doesn’t work like that at all. I’ve been attending Orthodox Church for six years and did a semester of laity correspondence seminary, and I still don’t know what the Orthodox Church believes. Some clergy have written catechisms, but these all differ from each other to some extent and none claim to be divinely infallible.

Orthodox Christian theology is expressed more in patterns than in definitions. The only thing the Orthodox agree on is the Nicene Creed (though many would disagree with me that that’s the only thing we agree on, thus proving my point), and in some ways it’s easier to say what we don’t believe than what we do. But there are general tendencies of what we believe. Theology is more like a series of memes than a party position. But of course Truth is not determined by majority rule, and so perhaps at any given time a large number of Orthodox Christians may believe something wrong, and so someone has to write something to correct it.

In other words, Orthodox theology is really really difficult to pin down, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either drunk on hubris or totally ignorant (usually the former). Yes, this absolutely drives me insane. My mind works best with perfect logical categories I can swap around as necessary. The amorphousness of Orthodox theology – plus practice and then just mundane definitions of foreign words like “lavra” – is something I’ve learned to not think about.

Nietzsche said that the fallacy in a belief system is not a flaw but a condition. I’m not saying Orthodox Christianity is inherently fallacious, but it is definitely vague and supra-rational.

Even from a normal American perspective, try defining beauty or art or romantic infatuation. Can’t do it, can you? Now apply that to all of Christian theology.

But our beliefs don’t change. You can appeal to any century in Orthodox Christianity. Catholicism on the other hand changes constantly. They’ve even codified their word game theology with the term “development of doctrine”, which is a clever way to say “fallacy of equivocation”. So it you point out that Aquinas did not believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, it’s totally irrelevant, even though the Catholic Church also teaches he was infallible as a Doctor of the Church.

The best textbook of Orthodox Christian theology is the Octoechos, a series of liturgical hymns on an eight-week cycle. Originally it was written for monastics, but it came to be used as a means of educating illiterate peasants. However, most of it is self-referential and the whole thing goes back to the 800s, and so protestants and Catholics would agree with most of it. So you can’t really use it as an apologetic (though it criticizes the Jews).

American convert priests Fr Andrew Damick and Fr Josiah Trenham have both written and spoken extensively on the topic of how Orthodox Christianity varies with other belief systems, and a lot of it they have made available free online. (I’m a big Trenham admirer, even though he has some California values I don’t like.)

Free apologetic materials for those who are interested: Trenham’s apologetics are here and here, and Damick’s apologetics are here.

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The basics of what Barnhardt has said is that babies who are aborted go to hell but are not condemned. Hell is the place without Christ, and some parts of hell are horrible agony and others are just lovely resting places where you are stuck forever but otherwise enjoy your stay. This is because heaven is a participation in the Trinity, which absolutely can only happen after baptism. This participation is called the beatific vision.

What about the thief on the cross or catechumens (people who are waiting to be received into the Church)? Augustine and Ambrose resolved this issue with “baptism by desire”, meaning that they receive a kind of baptism by credit because they intended to be baptized. Barnhardt doesn’t touch on this, but I’m trying to fill in some gaps.

So for Catholicism, it is very clear how the mechanics of heaven and hell work. To get to heaven, you must be baptized (which she says can be performed by a non-Christian) and you must die in a “state of grace”. I think by grace she means in a good standing with God, but she doesn’t define this term.

Okay, now we have to make a slight side quest. What does grace mean? The Greek word originally meant gratitude or favor, and “favor” seems to be how the Bible uses it. In the next few centuries, the definition of the word became more specific to mean the energy of God. “Energy” means how God works in the world – it’s a part of Who God is but isn’t His essence, which means it’s kind of an extension of Him but not His most self-ness.

That is to say, grace is the manifestation in which God works. So the sacraments are said to have grace. The Orthodox Church teaches correctly because it has grace. Protestants and Catholics do not have grace (or perhaps they might have some measure of it – again, near impossible to say exactly), because they are outside the Church.

In Protestantism, grace is almost synonymous with mercy. Except in Orthodox Christianity, mercy means something different than it does in Western Christianity. Mercy is, much like grace, God’s intervention for your benefit. So the glass of water you had this morning is mercy, because you could be dying in a desert.

I’ve never heard the term “state of grace” used in Orthodox Christianity. Nor have I heard the term “beatific vision.”

So in Catholicism, things are very cut and dry, except that we may not know how much of a state of grace someone is in and how long purgatory lasts. In Orthodox Christianity, nothing is cut and dry.

Take a deep breath, and here we go. Here’s what the Orthodox Church teaches about heaven and hell:

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First, there’s no purgatory. Perhaps heaven is a kind of purgatory, but that’s just my theory. The protestants are right that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. Except that Christ was more of a victorious conqueror than a benevolent loan shark. So there’s no purgatory. If you love God, you go to heaven. If you don’t love God, you go to hell. There’s no in-between. Perhaps someone who is falling into hell could shout out “Save me Lord” and be saved, but that’s just speculation. We don’t know how the mechanics of the afterlife work except that those who love God go to heaven and those who don’t love God go to hell. In some sense, everyone gets what they want.

There is however a kind of waiting place. You don’t just die and go straight to heaven or straight to hell. That happens at the Last Judgment. I think. Maybe it varies by person, because how else could the saints hear our prayers? Anyway, you pray for the dead because after you die things are in a weird flux and only God knows where you go. Except that Chrysostom said your prayers could convince God to change His mind about where someone ends up (it’s God’s kingdom and He can let in Whomever He likes). Ultimately, it’s best to not think too much about heaven and hell, or at least focus more on living a righteous life here and now. If you don’t like God in this world, you wouldn’t like heaven anyway, so hell is probably where you’ll be most satisfied.

You choose between heaven and hell every day. This isn’t something that happens at the end of your life or even in the Final Judgment. It happens here and now with every choice you make about anything.

The difference between heaven and hell is often described as the same Fire emanating from God. To those who are saved (though I don’t mean that word in the evangelical protestant sense), it is warm and nurturing. To those who are damned, it is painful and destructive. Though there’s no soul annihilation. And all of this is more of a place in the soul than an actual physical place.

What about baptism? Well yes, baptism is salvific and you must be baptized to be saved. Except if you aren’t baptized, God can work around that. God can do whatever He likes. He prefers using baptism because He likes to take ordinary things and make them extra-ordinary, but He is perfectly capable of crediting you a baptism. I realize that sounds like a total contradiction.

Nor does one necessarily have to be a Christian to be saved (though St Ignatius Brianchaninov seems to disagree, and he’s right about everything ever). Ultimately, only God knows who goes where and it’s none of your business. So do aborted babies go to heaven or hell? I don’t know. God only told us so much. I think it’s possible for an infant to have some level of consciousness of God. Psalm 8:2 (ESV) says, “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy of the avenger.” So perhaps babies and even the pre-born can have some level of love or disdain for God. There are saint stories (such as Bogolep the child schemamonk) about infants who refuse to nurse on fast days, but not everyone believes those.

Side note for those who clicked that last link: You’re probably thinking that was the craziest thing you’ve ever read and how could the Church allow that? Well saint stories are special because they are the exception, not the rule. It’s not like there’s a special central administration that has to approve every abberancy. If the local bishop in the  middle of nowhere believes God is telling him to bend some rules for what is already a weird semi-miraculous situation without doing anything immoral or sacrilegious, then so be it. Again, Orthodox theology and practice is expressed more in patterns than in definitions. Unlike Catholic bishops, Orthodox bishops have some measure of actual authority and weight, because they are more than just the pope’s messenger boy.

Back on topic. The same with confession. Yes, the priest has the ability to bind and loose sins and the Prayer of Absolution has a supernatural salvific element to it, and to refuse to confess a sin probably shows a lack of humility and repentance. But also, God can do what He wants and will work it all out.

If any of that sounds coherent, then you’re wrong. I’m far better than average at explaining things to outsiders, but I can assure you that somewhere in there is something some notable theological writer (because “theologian” has a different definition than how you use it) would strongly disagree with. I’ve learned to not over-think it (which is entirely counter to my personality) and just try to live a life of integrity.

Put it this way. A Presbyterian pastor I deeply respect told me that when he tried asking questions to an Orthodox priest, it was like asking about the paint on the walls and getting an answer about the engine in the car.

Basically, for the Catholic, the afterlife is primarily a place of pleasure or pain, even if on a very spiritual level. For the Orthodox Christian, the afterlife is a place where you become the most manifestation of your life choices. I think. I’ve never really understood Catholic theology, but I think that’s what Barnhardt is saying. And I don’t really understand Orthodox Christian theology either.

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Now for how Barnhardt gets to her conclusion. This is another thing that really jumps out at me. Like the Baptists I grew up around, she reads a lot into verses that they might not be saying. And I realize this isn’t unique to her at all – she’s just repeating what she’s read elsewhere. None of us are original thinkers.

Mark 16:16 “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.” (I’m assuming she’s using the DR translation.)

As I understand this, she constructs a kind of grid based on two categories: believing and baptism. If you both believe and are baptized, then you go to heaven. If you dis-believe and are not baptized, then you go to hell and are condemned. But what if you believe – or are too young to understand belief – and are not baptized? Then you go to the Limbo of the Innocents, where you get the maximum happiness but do not experience God.

That’s a lot to read into one verse. And she claims this is totally clear from it (though admits it requires some thought) and it can’t possibly mean something else. This is equivalent to how the Baptists take Romans 10:13, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” and use it to create their entire theology of “getting saved” at the altar call in one defined moment of time.

A lot of this goes back to defining things differently. In Orthodox Christianity, salvation is not merely going to heaven but the process in this life of becoming righteous and culling off your sinful nature (hence why there is no purgatory – because purging is for this life and anything you lack, God is able to resolve). And since baptism is a supernatural event, baptism is a part of participating in God’s work of sanctifying you (ie, grace and mercy). In Catholicism, to my understanding, salvation is just like that in Protestantism – going to heaven. So it makes sense that baptism is only an admission ticket to heaven and that prayers for the dead are just to avoid purgatory.

To explain her concept of heaven and the beatific vision, she uses John 17:21, “That they all may be one…that they also may be one in Us.”

I mean, yeah, Christianity is about knowing God on a relational level. But that is perhaps more important to happen down here than up there (but don’t quote me on that, because I realize that’s a very strong statement to make and I’m not totally comfortable with it). The verse could very well be about culling away your narcissism and being totally divested of your own desires so that you can do the will of God here on earth. It’s not specific. It’s a general principal about sanctification, and it seems to equally apply to this life as to the next. Especially because the next phrase is “that the world may believe that Thou has sent Me.”

Then she has a really interesting point that religion isn’t about man reaching to God but about God reaching to man. Very Calvinist, which I suppose comes from Augustine (I’ve never read “Grace and Freewill”, but I know that it wasn’t the norm during his time and that he later expressed some uncertainty about what he had written). But, you know, it can be both. Orthodox Christianity teaches synergy – that salvation requires the cooperation of man in what God is doing. Does it have to be an either-or?

But I definitely agree with her that this modernist idea of man finding God makes man into God and God into just a philosophical proposition. “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44) But also, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) So you do the knocking. But God also does the knocking. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20) So both man and God do the knocking. God reaches out to man and man has the responsibility to respond with an inquiry, which God will answer if it’s given with a sincere heart, and that is why the hypothetical “good man on the Ganges River who has never heard the name of Jesus” may be saved.

Then Barnhardt defends the notion of Limbo as Abraham’s Bosom (Luke 16). And of course 1 Peter 3:19 talks about Christ entering the underworld to free the souls. But that’s not necessarily hell. In fact, Luke 16:22, which she quotes, says “And it came to pass, that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. And the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell.” Which seems to say that Abraham’s’ bosom is a separate place from hell, and therefore Christ did not “harrow hell” but just broke open the amorphous waiting place. (Though where did Enoch and Elijah ascend to? I don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t hell.)

Again, this is all a mystery. Especially when we are dealing with Jesus’s parables, which were usually cryptic to some degree. Catholics take a phrase, isolate it, and then read a lot of theology into it. Protestants do the same, because they are just Catholics minus the church. Protestant theology is Catholic theology with high fructose corn syrup instead of refined sugar. And both are terrible for your health.

All of this is rooted in the medieval Catholic hubris to figure out the world in its every detail. The Catholics brag about inventing modern science? Yeah of course; Dawkins atheism is a by-product of Thomistic rationalism. The Catholics can’t stand the thought of not knowing something. That’s why they have an 800 page catechism.

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Because the Bible says some very hardline things about baptism, Catholics assumed that baptism was absolutely necessary. And that seems to imply the thief on the cross goes to hell while the lukewarm Catholic can just repent at the end of his life and go to heaven (that’s what Karl Keating seemed to say, though he said it wasn’t worth the gamble). I realize that may not be what all Catholics actually believe, but that is a logical extension of it. And so the protestants burned it all down and said baptism is irrelevant. What matters is faith, which is manifested in good works, and so if you don’t have good works then you don’t have faith. And so the protestants gained the merit-mentality of works-based Catholicism, while all along Catholics had a faith-only apathy.

In reality, faith and works are the same thing. You have faith in God, which implies a certain ideology. This ideology manifests itself in works. If you don’t have works, then you don’t have faith. If you truly believe something, then you act on it. Catholic and protestant screeching about this for 500 years is just autistically obsessing over defining words different ways.

Except the Catholics kind of do believe in merit salvation, because of indulgences. Today they don’t sell indulgences anymore, but they still exist. If you do such-and-such, you get a credit from the merit bank of the saints. The saints did extra good works, and so they have too much stored up. They’ll give it to you! And the treasury is infinite.

But it’s the Church who decides how indulgences are distributed. Does that mean the pope gets to control God? If purgatory is about purifying yourself in preparation for heaven, then why does someone else’s merit accelerate that process? Doesn’t God judge your heart and demand personal responsibility?

I’ll accept that the bishopric of Rome in the first several centuries had a lot more influence than we often give the position credit for, but in no way did it ever have the power to unilaterally change how sacred things are handled or how God gets to choose who gets what afterlife. And it certainly couldn’t declare a doctrine that had previously not been agreed on by the whole Church.

Today the rough equivalent of the ancient Roman patriarch would be the Moscow patriarch, mainly because they have 85% of the world’s Orthodox Christians. If Moscow doesn’t sign off on your council, it didn’t happen. Without Moscow’s approval, you don’t have the Church’s approval. But of course, Moscow alone cannot “develop doctrine” or determine the liturgics of other jurisdictions. I’ll never understand why the pope gets to serve communion in plastic cups and dispense it to open homosexuals like it’s a public water fountain, but Catholicism never made sense to me anyway.

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Anyway, that seems to highlight a key difference between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. Catholics have very clear definitions of doctrines and very specific interpretations of Bible verses. We are more comfortable saying that we don’t know and can’t know and that ultimately it’s our responsibility to just live a righteous life and encourage others to do the same.

The same could apply to Barnhardt’s post on how the Eucharist is a kind of sexual union between the priest and God. And she makes a good case for it, but she seems to say that it requires a celibate priesthood even though the Western Church had a married priesthood for the first millennium. The Orthodox ordination sacrament resembles that of a wedding and that because he is in a sense “marrying God,” a priest can only be married before his ordination. And while the Eucharist is certainly an initiator-receptor ritual, that seems to be only a small part of it and not something immediately apparent. But if sexual union is two flesh becoming one, then I suppose it makes sense in how God incarnates in the bread and wine. I’m not sure it makes sense that God and the priest become one.

I really like Ann Barnhardt. Even if I don’t always agree with her, she always makes me think. She presents Catholicism in the best light possible with the most integrity possible, and that’s the kind of Catholicism I want to debate. It’s too easy to dismiss generic supermom “Kathy” Catholicism as being silly, lazy, and vapid. If I’m going to dismiss an ideology altogether, I want to be able to dismiss the best form of it possible.

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