Salvation is the goal of Christianity, and the purpose of the Church. The theology of salvation is called soteriology. Orthodox Christianity strongly believes that God became man, so that man may become like God. This concept of theosis, rejects that salvation is a positive result to a legalistic dilemma, but is instead a healing process. Orthodoxy views our inclination to sin as a symptom of a malady that needs treatment, not just a transgression that requires retribution. One of the distinctive characteristics of Orthodox Christian thinking is that it sees the Gospel message not as law, but as relationship. It speaks of the mystery of the Holy Trinity in terms of the relationship of love that exists among them. To join in that love is the work that will lead to salvation.
God created man in his own image and likeness
Man, according to the scriptures, is created in the "likeness" and "image" of God (Gen 1:26-27).
To be like God, through the gift of God, is the essence of man's being and life. In the scriptures it says that God breathed into man, the "breath (or spirit) of life" (Gen 2:7). This teaching has given rise to the understanding in the Orthodox Church that man cannot be truly human, truly himself, without the Spirit of God.
The image of God signifies man's free will, his reason, his sense of moral responsibility, everything, which marks man out from the animal creation and makes him a person. But the image means more than that. It means that we are God's 'offspring' (Acts 17:28), his kin; it means that between us and him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity. The gulf between creature and Creator is not impassable, for because we are in God's image we can know God and have communion with him.
Fall of man
The story of creation, and specifically of Adam and Eve, tells of the goodness of all things that exist, and the superiority of man over other beings. It shows how the origin of evil does not lie in God but in his most perfect creature whose free act of sin brought wickedness and death to the world, how man lost the "likeness" of God, his response to God's love.
The Church teaches that when we do not respond to God's love, we are diminished as human beings. The act of faith that he asks of us is not so very different from the faith and trust we place in those people who surround us. When we do not respond to the love given us by the people who love us, we become shallow and hardened individuals.
Since man still was of God's image, the search for meaning was as critical for human existence as are air and water. Creation itself, as the handiwork of God pointed to him. Yet, before the coming of Christ, the meaning of the world and our place in it remained difficult to understand. People created stories to help themselves explain the great mystery of their own existence, the world around them, and the one who was responsible for bringing them into being. Yet, knowledge of the true God eluded them. The Holy Scriptures speak of this lack of knowledge as darkness. So God sent messengers to speak for him, holy men and women through whom he worked wonders, prophets to announce the coming salvation. Finally, God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ. When he came, the very one who had created the world was now clearly made known to the world, giving light to those who had been sitting in darkness.
But because man fell, the Incarnation is not only an act of love but an act of salvation. Jesus Christ, by uniting man and God in his own person, reopened for man the path to union with God. In his own person Christ showed what the true 'likeness of God' is, and through his redeeming and victorious sacrifice he set that likeness once again within man's reach. Christ, the Second Adam, came to earth and reversed the effects of the first Adam's disobedience.
Salvation means that the world is not an end in and of itself. It is a reality that points to the larger reality of God's love for us and all that surrounds us. The world, time, history, our very lives are "an epiphany of God, a means of his revelation, presence and power."
Christ will judge all people exclusively on the basis of how they have served him by serving each other, the least of the brethren. This will show how each person loved God and each other. The love for God and the love for man, becoming one and the same love. It is accomplished in Christ and is Christ. To love with this love is to love with the love of Christ and to fulfill his "new commandment" to "love one another even as I have loved you." (John 13:34-35, 15:12) In this is the whole of spiritual life. In this, and this alone, man will be finally judged. It is the crown of all virtue and prayer, the ultimate and most perfect fruit of God's Spirit in man.
The final coming of Christ will be the judgment of all men. His very presence will be the judgment. For those who love the Lord, his presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death.
May they all be one
'May they all be one,' Christ prayed at the Last Supper; "As Thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee, so also may they be in us" (John 17:21). Just as the three persons of the Trinity 'dwell' in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so man, made in the image of the Trinity, is called to 'dwell' in the Trinitarian God.
Outside the Church there is no salvation
Saint Cyprian of Carthage wrote, 'A man cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother'. God is salvation, and God's saving power is mediated to man in His Body, the Church. This stated the other way around by Georges Florovsky: 'Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church'.
The Church is the unity of those united with the Trinity. The One Church united as the three persons of Trinity are united. If one in the Church makes proper use of this Church, for communion with God, then he will become 'like' God, he will acquire the divine likeness; in the words of John Damascene, he will be 'assimilated to God through virtue.' To acquire the likeness is to be deified, it is to become a 'god by grace,' [not by nature or essence].
- A Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Third Christian Millennium (PDF) The Hierarchs of the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA)
- The Orthodox Faith Written by the V. Rev. Thomas Hopko
- Excerpts from The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware Part II: Faith and Worship
- Carlton, Clark. The Life: The Orthodox Doctrine of Salvation (Faith Series). (ISBN 1928653022)
- Ware, Kallistos. How Are We Saved?: The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition. (ISBN 1880971224)