Jesus Christ is the Messiah. He rose from the dead. Humanity can therefore be saved.
Those three sentences constitute the core narrative of the Gospel, the good news according to the Orthodox Christian faith. Orthodox Christians have affirmed this story as a sacred history for twenty centuries, and entering into this story is what constitutes the spiritual life for us. The following is a basic outline of this sacred history.
In the beginning, God created the universe, including mankind, whom He placed at the center of the creation. He created us to live forever, without sickness, suffering and death and in perfect, ever-deepening communion with Him. But because Adam and Eve, the first parents of mankind, chose to sin—to miss the mark of God’s design for them—corruption and death entered into man. And because mankind was chosen by God to act as the priest of this world—offering up the creation to God and then receiving it back as a means of blessing—the creation itself fell away from the harmonious peace that God had designed for it. This happened because God is the Giver of life and the Creator of order, so when humanity cut itself off from God, death and chaos were introduced into humanity and through us into the rest of the world.
Over time, as corruption and death touched everything that mankind did, the world came to be ruled by violence and oppression. God began a process of revealing to humanity the way out of this corruption, to reconnection with the life of God, first through a man chosen especially for this task, Abraham, and then by giving a way of life to Abraham’s descendants, who were first called Hebrews and then later Jews. God spoke to these chosen people first through the Prophet Moses and then through other prophets.
To Moses God revealed that He was to be known to them as Yahweh, which means “I am,” showing that the way of life He was revealing was for knowing Who God is, not just intellectually, but in a true and personal way. This way of life revealed through Moses had only one purpose: to teach the Jews and the nations around them how to get back in connection with God so that they could truly know Him. And He showed Himself to Israel not only as their deity, but as their Father, which spoke of His desire for an intimate and close connection. Over the centuries that followed Abraham and Moses, the nation of the Jews, called Israel, was sometimes faithful to God but often lost its way.
About 2,000 years ago, a young virgin named Mary, a descendant of the greatest of the kings of the Jews, David, was betrothed to an old, pious man named Joseph, also a descendant of David. Because of her purity of heart and her willingness to do as God asked her to do, she was chosen by God to give birth to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. She willingly assented to this pregnancy, announced to her by the Archangel Gabriel, and the One born of her was called Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves.”
Jesus was not only the Son of the Father, but was also God Himself, and He revealed that God is the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three divine Persons Who share one essence, one God in three Persons. And when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb miraculously without any earthly father, He was not only fully God but also fully human, taking His humanity from her. Because of Who Jesus was (and is), both God and man, humanity has the possibility of having full communion with God restored. Through His humanity, we can access His divinity. The gap opened by Adam and Eve has been bridged.
During His ministry on Earth, Jesus taught the way God wants people to live, healed them of their physical and spiritual sicknesses and forgave them of their sins, especially focusing His ministry on twelve disciples, who were not members of the religious or intellectual classes, but mostly fishermen. When His mission drew to a close, He was betrayed by Judas, one of the twelve, and arrested by the Roman authorities who were acting on behalf of the religious leadership of the Jews, who saw Jesus as a threat to their established order. Although He had done nothing wrong, He was convicted as a blasphemer and crucified—nailed to a large wooden cross to suffocate to death—by the Roman imperial government on behalf of the Jewish leaders.
Jesus died on a Friday, the day before the Jews’ greatest annual holy day, the Passover, a day which commemorated the freedom of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. He rose from the dead on the third day, Sunday, and was seen alive by many after that, including the eleven disciples (Judas, in his remorse for betraying Christ, had meanwhile committed suicide) and many others. He spent another forty days on Earth, further instructing His eleven disciples to help them become Apostles, a word which means “one sent out on a mission.” After those forty days, He physically ascended into Heaven while the Apostles watched.
The Apostles, following the instructions Jesus gave them, began to travel throughout the known world, preaching the Gospel everywhere, telling anyone who would listen the good news and baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This good news is that, by repenting of sins (turning away from all the ways we miss the perfection God created us for) and being baptized into membership in the Church—which Jesus Himself called His “Body”—it is possible for humanity to conquer death just as Jesus did, to make the passage into death a passage into resurrection, because incorporation into the ongoing life of the Church is participation in Christ. This is what it means to be “saved.”
Someday, Jesus will return again, and time as we know it will end. Everyone will be resurrected at the end of time, but only those who are “in Christ” will be raised to a resurrection of life, but those who reject Christ and do not partake of what He offered will be raised to a resurrection of judgment. This judgment is essentially a continuation of existence cut off from the life that God gives—dying eternally instead of living eternally.
Jesus therefore is the fulfillment, the full revelation of all that God began through Abraham and Moses, showing a way of life that made possible direct communion with God. The Church is therefore also the fulfillment of the chosen community that was ancient Israel, a real community of people called to live in harmony together, communing with God and each other through the primary means God provided for His presence to be among His people, the holy mysteries, also called sacraments.
The Apostles were the first to administer these mysteries in the Church, and part of their ministry was to ordain the next generation of Christian leaders as bishops, who in turn ordained presbyters (priests) and deacons to help them with the work. As the Gospel spread throughout the world, new bishops were ordained by the Apostles and their successors to lead the Church, which will continue its work until its fulfillment when Jesus returns at the end of time.
Jesus founded only one Church to be His Body, not the multitude of competing Christian denominations we see in our own day. Only one Church has maintained that continuous existence through all the centuries since the Resurrection of Christ, teaching and believing and living the same Christian life throughout history. That Church is the Orthodox Church.
Orthodox Christians do not know what the fate is of those who believe in Christ yet belong to groups that have broken away from the historic Orthodox Church. We only know that we must be faithful to what we have received so that we may pass it on to the next generation, to anyone who will hear and believe.
Excerpted from An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity, by the Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick