ON FAITH AND THE ROOTS OF UNBELIEF32 min read
By Dr. Vladimir Moss
Faith is a gift of God. As the Apostle Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2.9). And again: “To another – faith by the same Spirit” (I Corinthians 12.9).
When the Apostle Peter made his famous declaration of faith in the Divinity of Christ, the Lord made it clear that this was a gift from God: “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father Who is in the heavens” (Matthew 16.17). For, as He said to the Jews: “No man can come unto Me unless the Father Who hath sent Me draw him… Every man, therefore, that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto Me” (John 6.44, 45). Indeed, as St. John Cassian writes, “so much did the apostles realize that everything which pertains to salvation was bestowed on them by the Lord that they asked for faith itself to be given them by the Lord when they said: ‘Increase our faith,’ for they did not presume that its fullness would come from free will but believed that it would be conferred on them by a gift of God. The Author of human salvation teaches us how even our faith is unstable and weak and by no means sufficient unto itself, unless it has been strengthened by the Lord’s help, when He says to Peter: ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan has sought to sift you like wheat, but I have asked My Father that your faith might not fail.’”
The Naturalness of Faith
Although faith is a gift of God, it is nevertheless true that faith is natural to man. This is the result of man being made in the image of God, so that there is, as it were, an interface between God and man. Thus St. Augustine says that in the heart of man is a hole in the shape of God Himself. And St. Jerome says: “Ours and every other race of man knows God naturally. There are no people who do not recognize their Creator naturally.” Again, St. Gregory of Nyssa says: “The soul preserves within itself the image of the divine grace. For our reason surmises that divinity itself, whatever it may be in its inmost nature, is manifested in… universal supervision and the critical discernment between good and evil.”
What is meant by “universal supervision” and “the critical discernment between good and evil”?
The mind of man in its natural, inbuilt searching for its Archetype, the Word and Wisdom of God, looks in two directions: inward and outward. Looking inward, it finds conscience, that faculty in himself which discerns the Law of God and “critically discerns between good and evil”. Looking outwards, it finds creation, that witness to the omnipotence of God and His “universal supervision” of all things. In the one case the mind of man compels him to recognize that one God created all things, and in the other – that he is a sinner, a transgressor of a moral law that emanates from the same Creator God. This dual vision gives him a firm conviction, not only of the existence of God, but also of His power and goodness.
St. John Chrysostom says: “One way of coming to a knowledge of God is that which is provided by the whole of creation; and another, no less significant, is that which is offered by conscience, the whole of which we have expounded upon at greater length, showing you how you have a self-taught knowledge of what is good and of what is not so good, and how conscience urges all this upon you from within. Two teachers, then, are given you from the beginning: creation and conscience. Neither of them has a voice to speak out; they teach men in silence…”
That creation is a guide to faith is witnessed by David: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaimeth the work of His hands” (Psalm 18.1). For, as the Apostle Paul says, “His invisible properties are clearly seen by the things that are made from the creation of the world, both His everlasting power and His Divinity” (Romans 1.20). Therefore those who do not believe the witness of creation “are without excuse” (1.20). As St. John Chrysostom says, “From the beginning God placed the knowledge of Himself in men, but the pagans awarded this knowledge to sticks and stones, doing wrong the truth to such an extent as they were able. For really, the truth remained unharmed, its own glory being immutable. And how, O Paul, is it plain that God put this knowledge in them? ‘Because,’ he says, ‘what can be known of Him is manifested in them’ (Romans 1.19). But this is assertion, not proof. Only reason it out for me, and show me that the knowledge of God was evident to them, and that they wilfully turned aside from it. Whence, then, was it plain? Did He send them a voice from above? Of course not! But He did something that was better able to draw them to Him than a voice: He put creation in front of them so that the wise and the simple, the Scythian and the barbarian, having learned by vision the beauty of what they saw, might mount up to God.”
The second guide to faith, conscience, is called by St. Paul the natural law, which he contrasts with the written, Mosaic law. “For when the Gentiles who do not have the [written] law do by nature the things of the law they are a law unto themselves, showing the work of the law written in their hearts. And their conscience also beareth witness, while their thoughts accuse of even excuse each other” (Romans 2.15, 16).
St. Dorotheus of Gaza takes up this theme: “When God created man, He breathed into him something divine, as it were a hot and bright spark added to reason, which lit up the mind and showed him the difference between right and wrong. This is called the conscience, which is the law of his nature. This is compared to the well which Jacob dug, as the Fathers say, and which the Philistines filled up (Genesis 26.15). That is, to this law of conscience adhered the patriarchs and all the holy men of old before the written law, and they were pleasing to God. But when this law was buried and trodden underfoot by men through the onset of sin, we needed a written law, we needed the holy prophets, we needed the instruction of our Master, Jesus Christ, to reveal it and raise it up and bring to life through the observance of the commandments that buried spark. It is in our power either to bury it again, or, if we obey it, to allow it to shine and illuminate us. When our conscience says to us, ‘Do this!’ and we despise it, and it speaks again and we do not do it but continue to despise it, at last we bury it and it is no longer able to speak clearly to us from the depths where we have laid it. But like a lamp shining on a damaged mirror, it reflects things dimly and darkly, just as you cannot see the reflection of your face in muddy water. We are found unable to perceive what our conscience says to us so that we think we have hardly any conscience. No one is without a conscience since it is something divinely implanted in us, as we have already said, and it can never be destroyed. It always patiently reminds us of our duties, but sometimes we do not perceive that we are despising it and treading it underfoot.”
Many have abandoned the darkness of idolatry by following the voices of creation and conscience alone. Such, for example, was St. Barbara, who even before she had heard of Christ rejected her father’s idols and believed in the One Creator of heaven and earth. For she heeded both the voice of creation and the voice of her conscience, which recoiled from those “most odious works of witchcrafts, and wicked sacrifices; and also those merciless murderers of children and devourers of man’s flesh, and the feasts of blood, with their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help” (Wisdom of Solomon 12.4-6). But her father, who had the same witnesses to the truth as she, rejected it – to the extent of killing his own daughter.
Although the conscience cannot be destroyed, since it is part of the image of God in man, in idolaters and unbelievers like St. Barbara’s father it is “defiled” (Titus 1.15); they “have their conscience seared with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4.2). Men with seared consciences cannot believe. That is why St. Paul often links faith and a good conscience (cf. I Timothy 1.5, 1.19).
St. Theophan the Recluse does the same: “’ He that believeth not in the Son of God is condemned already’ (John 3.18). For what? For the fact that when light is all around, he remains in darkness, due to his love for it. Love of darkness and hatred of the light make him entirely to blame, even without his determining where the truth lies; for he who has sincere love for the truth will be led by this love from the darkness of deception to the light of truth. One example is the Holy Apostle Paul. He was a sincere lover of truth; devoted with all his soul to what he considered to be true, without any self-interest. Therefore, as soon as he was shown that the truth lay not in what he considered to be true, at that very moment he cast aside the old – which proved to be untrue – and cleaved with all his heart to the new which was tangibly proven to be the truth. The same occurs with every sincere lover of the truth. The truth of Christ is clear as day: seek and ye shall find. Help from above is always ready for the sincere seeker. Therefore, if someone remains in the darkness of unbelief, it is only due to his love for that darkness and for that he is already condemned.”
Atheism, like idolatry, is the product of evil works and a seared conscience. St. John Maximovich says: “The Prophet David, long before the Incarnation of Christ, clearly showed the reason why men strive to convince themselves that there is no God: ‘They are corrupt and abominable in iniquities’ (Psalm 52.2). Moral corruption forces men to tremble before the future judgement; the conscience accuses them of sins. But men wish to soothe themselves, to stifle the conscience. They convince themselves that ‘there is no God’.”
Men with seared consciences have for centuries tried to demonstrate that faith is a chance product of special circumstances and therefore not natural at all. However, it is interesting to note that recently scientists have come to the conclusion that faith in God is natural. Ruth Gledhill writes: “Human beings are predisposed to believe in God and afterlife, according to a study by academics at the University of Oxford.
“The findings of a three-year, £1.9 million research project suggest that there is an inbuilt bias in the mind towards seeing the world in religious or spiritual terms. This means that public life will always have a strong religious dimension and that religion will always have an impact on public life, the project leaders say.
“’ It means you cannot separate religion and public life,’ said Roger Trigg, a philosophy professor and co-director of the project. Professor Trigg, from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford, said: ‘The mind is open to supernatural agency. There are lots of explanations. It is certainly linked to basic cognitive architecture, in other words, the way we think.’”
Of course, cognitive scientists do not see this evidence for the innateness or naturalness of faith as evidence that the object of faith exists. On the contrary, they see it is as proof that belief in God is a product of subjective bias – a similar bias to that which Freud saw when he linked belief in God the Father to the existence of a subjective need for a father-figure. And yet there is an inconsistency in the scientists’ thought here. For when, for example, they find cells in the visual cortex specifically designed to detect certain colours, or shapes, or movement, they interpret this as a functional adaptation to the colours, shapes and movements that objectively exist in the environment. When, however, research reveals a propensity to believe in God in the “basic cognitive architecture” of man, they interpret this, not as adapted to the objective existence of God, but as “bias”, a kind of harmful mutation…
Faith is natural because there is a light “that enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1.9). This light can be identified in a general sense with the love of the truth – truth in all spheres, dogmatic, scientific, moral, aesthetic. Faith is kindled in us when the Light of Christ the Truth unites with the light of the love of the truth that is implanted in our minds by God at our creation, which is made in the image of His Truth. We who have faith “have the Mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2.6), because our minds, given wings by our love of the truth, have been united with the Mind of Christ, “in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2.4). As for those, writes St. John Chrysostom, “who choose to close the eyes of their mind and do not want to receive the rays of that light, their darkness comes not from the nature of the light, but from their own darkness in voluntarily depriving themselves of that gift.” And so they “receive not the love of the truth that they might be saved” (II Thessalonians 2.10).
This mystery of the voluntary rejection of the light by those who do not love the truth was revealed in a vision to a nun, the sister of the famous novelist Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who rejected the teaching of the Orthodox Church and died excommunicate: “When I returned from the burial of my brother Sergius to my home in the monastery, I had some kind of dream or vision which shook me to the depths of my soul. After I had completed my usual cell rule, I began to doze off, or fell into some kind of special condition between sleep and waking, which we monastics call a light sleep. I dropped off, and beheld… It was night. There was the study of Lev Nikolayevich. On the writing desk stood a lamp with a dark lampshade. Behind the desk, and leaning with his elbows on it, sat Lev Nikolayevich, and on his face there was the mark of such serious thought, and such despair, as I had never seen in him before… The room was filled with a thick, impenetrable darkness; the only illumination was of that place on the table and on the face of Lev Nikolayevich on which the light of the lamp was falling. The darkness in the room was so thick, so impenetrable, that it even seemed as if it were filled, saturated with some materialisation… And suddenly I saw the ceiling of the study open, and from somewhere in the heights there began to pour such a blindingly wonderful light, the like of which cannot be seen on earth; and in this light there appeared the Lord Jesus Christ, in that form in which He is portrayed in Rome, in the picture of the holy Martyr and Archdeacon Laurence: the all-pure hands of the Saviour were spread out in the air above Lev Nikolayevich, as if removing from invisible executioners the instruments of torture. It looks just like that in the picture. And this ineffable light poured and poured onto Lev Nikolayevich. But it was as if he didn’t see it… And I wanted to shout to my brother: Levushka, look, look up!… And suddenly, behind Lev Nikolayevich, – I saw it with terror, – from the very thickness of the darkness I began to make out another figure, a terrifying, cruel figure that made me tremble: and this figure, placing both its hands from behind over the eyes of Lev Nikolayevich, shut out that wonderful light from him. And I saw that my Levushka was making despairing efforts to push away those cruel, merciless hands…
“At this point I came to, and, as I came to, I heard a voice speaking as it were inside me: ‘The Light of Christ enlightens everyone!’”
A modern example is provided by Daniel Everett, an American missionary to the Pirahã Indians of the Amazonian rain-forest. “One day,” he says, “a group of the men came to the house and said we know why you’re here. You want to tell us about Jesus. He said that other missionaries before me had tried to tell them about Jesus. He said we don’t want to be Americans. We are Pirahã. We don’t want Jesus. We want to drink and we want to have many women, and we don’t want to live like you. But we like you, so if you want to stay here, you can stay here. But just don’t talk to us about Jesus.”
“After this,” writes William Leith, “something strange happened. Everett began to think that perhaps the Pirahã were ‘morally superior’ to Westerners like himself. They were happy, fatalistic, at one with nature. He began to lose his faith in Jesus…”
What happened to Everett was sad, but it was not strange. The Pirahã rejected the Gospel because they did not want to change their lifestyle; they wanted “to drink and… have many women”. Their language had no words for the past, only for the present; and this was reflected in their philosophy, which contained no account of the creation of the world, nor of the future judgement, but was “happy and fatalistic” – “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die”.
Everett, tragically, was attracted to this pagan morality, for it appealed to his fallen nature. He even came to believe that this amorality was “morally superior”. And so he lost his faith…
“This is the condemnation,” says the Lord, “that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God” (John 3.19-21).
The Preconditions of Faith
Let us say a little more about the preconditions of faith, why it is given to some and not to others.
Clearly, as we know, faith is not given to everyone; and those who do receive it do so to different degrees, with different degrees of purity and constancy. The parable of the Sower teaches that some to whom faith is given have it snatched away by demons, while others lose their faith in the time of persecution, while still others lose it through preoccupation with the cares and riches of this life (Matthew 13.18-23). As Blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria writes: “The Father draws those who have the capacity, in accordance with their free will, while those who have made themselves incapable He does not draw to the faith. Just as a magnet does not attract everything that draws near to it, but only iron, so God draws near to all, but attracts only those who are capable and display a certain kinship with Him.”
We have seen already that conscience is a natural, inborn guide to faith, and that those who follow their conscience in departing from evil and doing good thereby attract the gift of grace to themselves. A clear example of this is the first Gentile convert, the centurion Cornelius, “a devout man who feared God with all his house, who gave many alms to the people, and always prayed to God” (Acts 10.2). The Angel who appeared to Cornelius and led him to the Apostle Peter pointed out that his good works had attracted the favour of God: “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God” (10.4).
On the other hand, the “good” thief was saved through a sudden infusion of faith although he had lived an evil life until literally his very last hours. Tradition records that he had done a good deed to Christ when the Holy Family fled to Egypt. But still: his election seems paradoxical if good works were really a precondition of the gift of faith…
The truth is that good deeds are valuable only if they are the expression of a good heart. Faith “worketh through love”, according to St. Paul (Galatians 5.6), and love is found in the heart. The good heart is that “good soil” in which the seed of faith takes root and grows. Not all deeds that are considered good come from a good heart – that is, are the works of true love. Thus “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” (I Corinthians 13.3).
It is a good heart that attracts the grace of faith, even if, as in the case of the good thief, circumstances sometimes hinder the goodness of the heart from being manifest in good works. That is why, when the Lord upbraided the Apostles for not believing in Him after His resurrection, He reproached them for their “unbelief and hardness of heart” (Mark 16.14), linking faithlessness with heartlessness. Again, He said to Luke and Cleophas: “O fools and slow of heart, to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24.25). And yet, on recovering their faith, these same disciples said: “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24.32).
St. Gregory Palamas confirms that faith is located in the heart rather than in the head: “I hold that our holy faith is… a vision of our heart which passes beyond all sensation and all understanding, for it transcends all the intellectual faculties of our soul. Faith is a firm assurance of the things for which we hope (Hebrews 11.1), an intellection of the heart.”
A good heart naturally produces good works. So those who produce truly good works out of a good heart will eventually receive the gift of faith. For “it is not possible,” says Chrysostom, “that one who is living rightly and freed from the passions should ever be overlooked. But even if he happens to be in error, God will quickly draw him over to the truth.” Again, as Chrysostom’s disciple, St. John Cassian, says: “When God sees in us some beginnings of good will, He at once enlightens it, urging it on towards salvation.”
Conversely, evil works darken the heart, making it difficult to receive faith, while lack of faith disposes the heart to evil works. Thus the Apostle says that the love of money has led some to “err from the faith” (I Timothy 6.10). Again, there are evil men who, “just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so they oppose the truth: men of corrupt mind, reprobate concerning the faith” (II Timothy 3.8). They “creep into houses, and lead captive silly women, laden with sins, who are led away with divers lusts, ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3.6-7).
It is not only the cruder and more obvious kinds of sin that harden the heart against faith. In St. John’s Gospel we find a fascinating analysis of why His opponents, the Pharisees, could not believe in Him. The Pharisees were respectable people, zealots for the law, but they did not believe in Christ because they secretly envied Him, because He did not share their revolutionary ideals, and because He rebuked their hidden sins.
A still deeper cause of their unbelief was their pride in their collective infallibility, their sheep-like refusal to step beyond the party line: “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in Him?” (John 7.48). The Apostle Thomas, on the other hand, showed a commendable individualism when he refused to believe in the testimony of his fellow apostles until he had himself seen the evidence for their faith. For initially faith is always a personal matter: we do not believe simply because others believe, but because, the truth having been revealed to us personally, we can say with conviction: “I believe…” Later, when we have become convinced that our fellow men have received the same faith as we have, we can believe on their authority. And this is still more commendable; for as the Lord said of those who believe in the physical resurrection, not on the basis of their own experience, but on the authority of the Apostle Thomas: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20.29).
The example of the Apostle Thomas shows that while faith is, as St. Gregory Palamas says, a vision of the heart that goes beyond all intellection, it does not exclude the workings of logic and the senses, but rather includes them within its own super-logical and super-sensory vision. Thus the Lord “showed Himself alive after His passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days” (Acts 1.3). And in Thomas’ case physical sight was supplemented by a still more primitive and direct form of physical proof – touch. At first, it may seem as if this kind of faith is surprisingly akin to the research of a private detective or scientist in its use of physical evidence and logic. And indeed, the analogies are obvious. When a forensic scientist, for example, looks down a microscope and sees a certain DNA sequence in a blood sample, and from there infers (or a jury infers on the basis of his evidence) that a certain person is guilty of a certain crime, he is going from what is visible to the naked eye (the blood sample) to what is not visible to the naked eye (DNA) to a certain historical event (the crime). Similarly, Thomas went from what was visible to his naked eye and accessible to his touch (the hands and the side of Christ) to a certain historical event (His Crucifixion) to a conclusion concerning what was not visible to his naked eye (Christ’s Resurrection and Divinity). And yet there is a vital difference. Whereas the scientist never goes beyond what is in principle visible and material, Thomas, in inferring that Christ was “my Lord and my God” took “the leap of faith” into that which is in principle invisible and immaterial.
The secular scientist – out of the hardness of his heart and pride in the collective infallibility of the unbelieving scientific establishment – is incapable of taking the leap of faith that his evidence appears to demand: he refuses to infer the existence of God (or souls or angels) from his data. But the believer, without in any way abandoning logic or the evidence of the senses, but rather pursuing them to their true end, comes to believe in God, in the soul and in angels. For “we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5.7) – not by ignoring the evidence of our senses but by transcending them through the supra-ocular vision of faith. For “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1).
If pride, and sheep-like obedience to the collective party-line, is the chief obstacle to faith in the intellectuals and leaders of the people, among the people themselves it is more likely to be fear of falling out with the leaders. Thus the parents of the man born blind, whom Christ healed, refused to recognize the miracle “because they feared the Jews; for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that He was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue” (John 9.22). Of all these unbelievers, both rulers and ruled, the Lord said: “How can ye believe, who receive honour from each other, and seek not the honour that cometh from God alone?” (John 5.44).
This leads us to the conclusion that the real precondition of faith is love of the truth above all else. Good works out of a good heart predispose a man to receive faith, but even an immoral man can receive faith if the love of the truth is greater in him than the deception of his passions. That is why the publicans and the prostitutes believed in Christ before the Pharisees. And that is why the Samaritan woman, on being rebuked for her immorality by Christ, did not say: “How dare you!” or “How do you know?”, but “Sir, I perceive that Thou are a prophet” (John 4.19) and then: “Come and see a Man Who told me everything that ever I did: is this not the Christ?” (John 4.29).
If the Light of Christ enlightens everyone, then there is no one who cannot come to the True Faith. If a man follows the teachers given to everyone, creation and conscience, then the Providence of God, with Whom “all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26), will lead him to “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Timothy 3.15). For “it is not possible,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “that one who is living rightly and freed from the passions should ever be overlooked. But even if he happens to be in error, God will quickly draw him over to the truth.” Again, St. John Cassian says: “When God sees in us some beginnings of good will, He at once enlightens it, urging it on towards salvation.” For God wishes that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. So there is no reason for him not to give the gift of faith to every man who does not block his mind to it.
Faith, Ignorance and the Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
Against this the modern ecumenists argue: “Most men have never had the Gospel preached to them, and so belong to other faiths simply out of ignorance, because they were born into non-Christian societies or families. Their lack of true faith is therefore not their fault, and the All-loving and All-just God will certainly not condemn them for it. Indeed (continues the argument in some of its forms), all that is necessary for salvation is good faith, by which we do not mean the one true faith (for there is no such thing), but sincerity, even if that sincerity is manifested in non-Christian beliefs and actions: blessed are the sincere, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.”
However, God attaches little value to sincerity per se: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 12.15), and: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is the ways of death” (Proverbs 14.12). In any case, if true faith in Christ were not absolutely necessary for salvation, and one could be saved without knowing Him, then it would not have been necessary for the Martyrs to confess Him, for the Apostles to preach Him, or for Christ Himself to become incarnate for our sakes.
“Are you saying, then,” retort the ecumenists, “that all the Hindus and Buddhists will be damned?!”
We neither assert this nor deny it, preferring to “judge nothing before the time” (I Corinthians 4.5). We know with complete certainly about the perdition of only a few men (Judas, Arius, etc.), just as we have complete certainty about the salvation of only a few men (those whom the Church has glorified as saints). As Archbishop Theophan of Poltava wrote, when asked about the salvation of the Jews: “When St. Anthony the Great was thinking about questions of this kind, nothing concerning the essence of these questions was revealed to him, but it was only told him from on high: ‘Anthony, pay attention to yourself!’, that is, worry about your own salvation, but leave the salvation of others to the Providence of God, for it is not useful for you to know this at the present time. We must restrict ourselves to this revelation in the limits of our earthly life.”
Nevertheless, when compassion for unbelievers is taken as a cloak from under which to overthrow the foundations of the Christian Faith, it is necessary to say something more, not as if we could say anything about the salvation or otherwise of specific people (for that, as Archbishop Theophan says, has been hidden from us), but in order to re-establish those basic principles of the Faith, ignorance of which will undoubtedly place us in danger of damnation.
The first principle is that God is omnipotent and able to bring anyone to the Church however unpromising the circumstances in which they live. The ways in which He brings people to the faith are very varied. Thus the fifth-century Gallic Saint Prosper of Aquitaine writes: “The very armies that exhaust the world help on the work of Christian grace. How many indeed who in the quiet of peacetime delayed to receive the sacrament of baptism, were compelled by fear of close danger to hasten to the water of regeneration, and were suddenly forced by threatening terror to fulfil a duty which a peaceful exhortation failed to bring home to their slow and tepid souls? Some sons of the Church, made prisoners by the enemy, changed their masters into servants of the Gospel, and by teaching them the faith they became the superiors of their own wartime lords. Again, some foreign pagans, whilst serving in the Roman armies, were able to learn the faith in our country, when in their own lands they could not have known it; they returned to their homes instructed in the Christian religion. Thus nothing can prevent God’s grace from accomplishing His will… For all who at any time will be called and will enter into the Kingdom of God, have been marked out in the adoption which preceded all times. And just as none of the infidels is counted among the elect, so none of the God-fearing is excluded from the blessed. For in fact God’s prescience, which is infallible, cannot lose any of the members that make up the fullness of the Body of Christ.”
However, there are few today who have a living faith in God’s ability to bring anyone to the faith, whatever his situation. It may therefore be useful to cite the famous example of God’s favour to the Aleuts of Alaska, to whom He sent angels to teach them the Orthodox Faith in the absence of any human instructor. Fr. John Veniaminov (later St. Innocent, metropolitan of Moscow (+1879)) relates how, on his first missionary journey to Akun island, he found all the islanders lined up on the shore waiting for him. It turned out that they had been warned by their former shaman, John Smirennikov, who in turn had been warned by two “white men”, who looked like the angels on icons.
Smirennikov told his story to Fr. John, who wrote: “Soon after he was baptised by Hieromonk Macarius, first one and later two spirits appeared to him but were visible to no one else… They told him that they were sent by God to edify, teach and guard him. For the next thirty years they appeared to him almost every day, either during daylight hours or early in the evening – but never at night. On these occasions: (1) They taught him in its totality Christian theology and the mysteries of the faith… (2) In time of sickness and famine they brought help to him and – though more rarely – to others at his request. (When agreeing to his requests that they help others, they always responded by saying that they would first have to ask God, and if it was His will, then they would do it.) (3) Occasionally they told him of thing occurring in another place or (very rarely) at some time in the future – but then only if God willed such a revelation; in such cases they would persuade him that they did so not by their own power, but by the power of Almighty God.
“Their doctrine is that of the Orthodox Church. I, however, knowing that even demons believe – and tremble with fear [James 3.19], wondered whether or not this might be the crafty and subtle snare of him who from time immemorial has been Evil. ‘How do they teach you to pray, to themselves or to God? And how do they teach you to live with others?’ He answered that they taught him to pray not to them but to the Creator of all, and to pray in spirit, with the heart; occasionally they would even pray along with him for long periods of time.
“They taught him to exercise all pure Christian virtues (which he related to me in detail), and recommended, furthermore, that he remain faithful and pure, both within and outside of marriage (this perhaps because the locals are quite given to such impurity). Furthermore, they taught him all the outward virtues…”
Very apt was the comment of one who read this story: “It is comforting to read about such miraculous Divine Providence towards savages, sons of Adam who, though forgotten by the world, were not forgotten by Providence.“
In spite of this and many other examples, it remains true that ignorance – real, involuntary ignorance – constitutes grounds for clemency according to God’s justice, as it is according to man’s. The Lord cried out on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.24); and one of those who were forgiven declared: “I obtained mercy because I acted in ignorance” (I Timothy 1.13; cf. Acts 3.17, 17.30). For our Great High Priest is truly One “Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way” (Hebrews 5.2).
However, there is also such a thing as wilful, voluntary ignorance. It was wilful ignorance of which the Lord accused the Pharisees when He said: “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9.41). And St. Paul was speaking of this kind of ignorance when he said that men may be alienated from God “through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4.18), and not simply through the ignorance that is caused by external circumstances. Pagans and evolutionists “have no excuse”, according to the Apostle, because they deny the evidence of the existence of God that is accessible to everyone from creation. Again, St. Peter says of those who deny the Flood: “This they are willingly ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished…” (II Peter 3.5-7).
Wilful ignorance is very close to conscious resistance to the truth, which receives the greatest condemnation according to the Word of God. Thus those who accept the Antichrist will do so “because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thessalonians 2.10-12). And if it seems improbable that God should send anyone a strong delusion, let us remember the lying spirits who, with God’s permission, deceived the prophets of King Ahab because they only prophesied what he wanted to hear (I Kings 22.19-24).
Conscious, willing resistance to the truth is the same as that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which, in the words of the Lord, “shall not be forgiven unto men” (Matthew 12.31). As Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) explains: “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or ‘sin unto death’, according to the explanation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (VIII, 75), is a conscious, hardened opposition to the truth, ‘because the Spirit is truth’ (I John 5.6).” It is not that God does not want to forgive all sins, even the most heinous: it is simply that he who bars the way to the Spirit of truth is thereby blocking the way to the truth about himself and God, and therefore to the forgiveness of his sins. As St. Augustine says: “The first gift is that which is concerned with the remission of sins… Against this gratuitous gift, against this grace of God, does the impenitent heart speaks. This impenitence, then, is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”
Wilful ignorance can be of various degrees. There is the wilful ignorance that refuses to believe even when the truth is staring you in the face – this is the most serious kind, the kind practised by the Pharisees and the heresiarchs. But a man can also be said to be wilfully ignorant if he does not take the steps that are necessary in order to discover the truth – this is less serious, but still blameworthy, and is characteristic of many of those who followed the Pharisees and the heresiarchs out of fear of falling out with them.
Thus we read: “That servant who knew his master’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and he to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12.47-48). To which the words of St. Theophylact of Bulgaria are a fitting commentary: “Here some will object, saying: ‘He who knows the will of his Lord, but does not do it, is deservedly punished. But why is the ignorant punished?’ Because when he might have known he did not wish to do so, but was the cause of his own ignorance through sloth.” Or, as St. Cyril of Alexandria puts it: “How can he who did not know it be guilty? The reason is, because he did not want to know it, although it was in his power to learn.” To whom does this distinction apply? St. Cyril applies it to false teachers and parents, on the one hand, and those who follow them, on the other. In other words, the blind leaders will receive a greater condemnation than the blind followers – which is not to say, however, that they will not both fall into the pit (Matthew 15.14).
For, as Bishop Nicholai Velimirovich writes: “Are the people at fault if godless elders and false prophets lead them onto foreign paths? The people are not at fault to as great an extent as their elders and the false prophets, but they are at fault to some extent. For God gave to the people also to know the right path, both through their conscience and through the preaching of the word of God, so that people should not blindly have followed their blind guides, who led them by false paths that alienated them from God and His Laws.”
Faith is a gift of God to all those who love the truth from a good heart. Although it is a gift, it is natural for man to have faith insofar as he is made in the image of God – his love of the truth is made in the image of the Truth Himself. The reception of faith is aided by the mute teachers of creation and conscience, and completed by the vocal teacher that is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. There are no external circumstances that can prevent a man from coming to the true faith if he loves the truth and follows the teachers that are given to all men: creation and conscience. Only hardness and blindness of heart, leading to wilful, voluntary ignorance, can blind a man to the light that enlightens every man that comes into the world. So it is left to us only to cry: “Lord, I believe! Help Thou mine unbelief!” (Mark 9.24).
May 2/15, 2011; revised May 8/21, 2012, and April 28 / May 11, 2021.
 St. John Cassian, Conferences.
 St. Jerome, Treatise on Psalm 95.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Hannah, 3; translated in W.A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, volume 1, Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1979.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Romans, 2; translated in Jurgens, op. cit.
 St. Dorotheus, Discourses and Sayings; translated by E.P. Wheeler, Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1977, pp. 104-105.
 The Lives of the Women Martyrs, Buena Vista: Holy Apostles Convent, 1991, pp. 528-542.
 St. Theophan, Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, Platina: St. Herman Brotherhood, 2010, p. 90.
 St. John Maximovich, in St. Herman Calendar 1980, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman Press.
 Gledhill, “Are we programmed to believe in God? Not quite, but He really is in the mind, say scientists”, The Times, Friday, May 13, 2011, p. 21.
 Here is another example of science appearing to confirm faith. Boston University psychologist George Stavros, Ph.D., wanted to find out whether repeating the Jesus Prayer for ten minutes each day over the 30 days would affect these people’s relationship with God, their relationships with others, their faith maturity, and their “self-cohesion” (levels of depression, anxiety, hostility, and interpersonal sensitivity). In short, Stavros was asking whether the Jesus Prayer can play a special role in a person’s “journey to the heart.” The answer—at least on all the scales that showed any significant effect compared to the control group— turned out to be a resounding yes (http://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2011/05/science-studies-jesus-prayer.html).
 St. John Chrysostom, Homily 8 on John; in Jurgens, op. cit.
 I.M. Kontzevich, Optina Pustyn’ i ee Vremia, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1970, pp. 372-73 .
 Leith, “Lost in Translation”, Seven magazine, April 18, 2012.
 Blessed Theophylact, quoted by Archbishop Averky in his commentary on John 6.
 St Gregory Palamas, Triads, II, 3. 40; in J. Meyendorff, A Study of St. Gregory Palamas, London: The Faith Press, 1964, p. 155.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on Matthew, 1.
 St. Cassian, Conferences, XIII, 8.
 St. Chrysostom, Homily 24 on Matthew, 1.
 St. Cassian, Conferences, XIII, 8.
 Archbishop Theophan, Pis’ma Arkhiepiskopa Feofana Poltavskogo, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1976, p. 31 .
 Prosper, The Call of the Nations, II, 33.
 Paul Garrett, St. Innocent, Apostle to America, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979, pp. 80-81.
 Garrett, op. cit., p. 85, footnote.
 Metropolitan Anthony, “The Church’s Teaching about the Holy Spirit”, Orthodox Life, vol. 27, no. 3, May-June, 1977, p. 23.
 St. Augustine, Homily 21 on the New Testament, 19, 20. See also St. Symeon the New Theologian, Discourse XXIII, 1. There are other interpretations of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which complement and follow from this one. Thus St. Ambrose (On Repentance, II, 24), followed by St. Augustine (Homily 21 on the New Testament, 28), regards heretics and schismatics as blasphemers against the Holy Spirit insofar as they deny the Spirit and Truth that is in the True Church.
 St. Theophylact, Explanation of the Gospel according to St. Luke 12.47-48.
 St. Cyril, Homily 93 on Luke. Translated by Payne Smith, Studion Publishers, 1983, p. 376.
 Bishop Nicholas, The Prologue from Ochrid, Birmingham: Lazarica Press, 1986, vol. II, p. 149.