Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World

Archbishop Seraphim : Article
Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World
[Published in the "Canadian Orthodox Messenger", Summer 2007]

The theme of this summer’s Archdiocesan Assembly 2007 will be “Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World”. The main theme speaker will be Father Luke Veronis, who spent many years in Albania as a missionary, during the renewal of the Orthodox Church there. Together with Archbishop Anastasios and the faithful, and together with many living Confessors, Father Veronis participated actively in the rebuilding of a Church that had been outlawed and crushed by communism, yet not completely extinguished even so. Some will have seen the reports given by Father Veronis in various periodicals while he was active there. I think we will all benefit greatly from hearing him, and from talking with him.

One may argue that the world has always been pluralistic, and this might be right. However, this pluralism, as it is expressed in our “culture”, has not always pretended that there are all sorts of equally valid (yet competing) truths, all subject to personal preference. This is our own contemporary, special brand of incoherence. Nevertheless, it does present its own parallels with the experience of Albanians and many others under communism. Some have said that communism and capitalism are just different faces of the same coin. Others say that in communism Man oppresses Man, whereas in capitalism it is the opposite.

The beginning of the Gospel of John, recently read at Pascha, addresses the shining of Christ’s light in the world, and the darkness’ inability to overcome it. We participate in that light, and we face the same opposition, just as our Saviour said it would be. We need the words of an experienced missionary to help us to do our work here in Canada, and we need the example of one who also suffered for Christ to encourage us to persevere in our own Christian walk. We need his words and his example, and we also need each other. Let us not miss the opportunity the Lord gives, only every three years, to refresh each other, to support each other, to encourage each other in our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

I cannot miss an opportunity here, as we are thinking of this theme of “Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World”, to draw attention to an important matter of words in translation. In the recent past, many peoples the world over have been converted to Christianity partially by the missionaries’ emphasis on the “fear of hell”. This is most unfortunate, because it distorts the Gospel, suggesting, as it does, a vengeful and punishing God. Such a concept, whatever its origins, was supported by scriptural mistranslations, primarily in English.

Often in scriptural translations, and often in liturgical texts in English, we see the word “hell” used to describe both the place of the departed, and the place of the fire of torment. This is not correct, even if the word “hell” may technically have such flexibility. In the various texts, there are two different words used to express two different concepts, and it helps us to refer in particular to the footnotes of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Greek word “Hades” is the approximate equivalent of the Hebrew word “Sheol”. This concept (Hades, Sheol) refers generally to the place of the departed, and it is to there that the Saviour descended on the Blessed Sabbath, as described in the Symbol of Faith of the Apostles (Apostles’ Creed). It is from there that Adam and Eve, and others, are lifted by the Hand of the Risen Christ, as described in the icon of Pascha. On the other hand, “Gehenna” is the Hebrew word used to describe the place where fire is never quenched, and which is equivalent to the more usual actual understanding of the meaning of the English word “hell”.

The flames, however, are not flames as we usually understand them, but rather the flames express how God’s love is received by those absolutely determined to reject it. The threat of a burning hell of eternal punishment is so distorting because there is no time, no place, no state of being, where God’s love does not penetrate. Whether we accept it or reject it, everything that exists in any way, any time, any place, has being only because of God’s love. If we reject Him, His love is perceived as torment. If we respond to His love by trying to love and serve Him, then His love is experienced as ineffable joy and peace. This in itself challenges us to be faithful to Christ’s exhortation that we bring His love to the whole universe. Our responsibility in Christ is very great indeed. Let us pray for each other that we may live up to this challenge.