Recent ruminations of the Pope on the theme of salvation for non- and “wrong”-believers highlighted a presence of the conceptual chasm between Orthodox Churches on one side and radical, Calvinist and Evangelical Churches on the other side, in treating the topic of possibility and even nature of the salvation and soul posthumous existence.
As we discussed in previous post, the very founding of the Orthodox Church as we know it was a result of Emperor Constantine’s efforts to replace the failing social safety net of the Empire with some other mechanism. Traditional Greco-Roman culture and religion was shaken by the crisis of the previous century. Zoroastrianism was already taken as a state religion of the rival Persian Sasanid Empire. Judaism was too alien for Romans. Mystery religions (like cults of Isis, Adonis, Attis, etc.) and Gnosticism were too far detached from the needs of the real world. It was only Christian Church, which inherited traditions of the religious charity from Judaism, and partially Hellenised by Apostle Paul’s syncretism, was promising from the practical point of view, and could be modified in a such way so it would not insult aesthetical and philosophical believes of the Greco-Roman elites.
Judaism, and, then, early Palestinian Christianity had a very skeptical view on the post-existence of the soul. The soul, at best, was supposed to follow the destiny of the body. According to the common idea of the Middle Eastern religions those souls degraded in the Underworld (Sheol in Judaism) into a thirst, hungry and generally malevolent entities dangerous for the living people, as we, for example, read in the Sumerian Descent of Innana to the Underworld. A beatific, noble survival of the soul was related to the body preservation, what, for example, happened with Enoh taken alive and bodily intact to Heavens.
For the first Jewish Christians of Palestine Jesus was a Prophet (as usual) not understood by the people. Even if he had special relations with God, his resurrection was his personal business having no consequences for his followers. Apostle Paul, who had very strained relationships with other Apostles and even was expelled from the Palestinian community, borrowed heavily from the ideas of the Hellenised Mystery religions of Asia Minor. The main idea of these Dying and Rising God religions was that their adepts could get their soul salvation through the sacraments of the rituals, through which their could attach to the salvation of their favored gods.
Initially, European and Asian thought on the soul post-existence was not different from the Middle eastern one. For example in Homer’s Odyssey description of the Hades’ Underworld is not much different from the Sumerian/Babylonian one, how Ajax told Odyssey he would rather be the last slave in the world of the leaving than remaining in the Hades’ kingdom. The stories of the underground enclosure built by one of the divine twin to provide a place for the soul post-existence of his unfortunate mortal brother we find in Indian and Persian tradition, which echoes Greco-Roman stories about Dioscuri (castor and Pollux) brothers. The very funeral rites of the Indo-European Curgan culture witness the same line of thinking.
However, something unusual happens in the Indo-Iranian thought about 5-4 thousand years ago, just before these peoples chose different paths of migration. The idea of the soul primacy over the body develops, along with the idea of the possibility of the soul’s beatific post-existence in Heavens. Now, it’s the soul which follows the body and its destiny of decay, but the body followы the soul in its eternal imperishable path to Heaven. New funeral rites develop of burning or exposing corps to elements, to insure its fastest disappearance from this world (and its upward rise). Greek theology and philosophy accept these ideas later, may be through the contact with Persians. Xenophanes, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, then Neo-Platonists and Stoics shaped the Greco-Roman culture in a way of understanding the one, non-anthropomorphical, ideal God as a source of all the good in our world, and connectedness of the human souls to the God through their pre- and post-existence.
Jewish and early Christian religious thinking was too crude, or rather heathen or pagan for Greco-Roman world, as we can read in the Celsus’ rebuff of the Christian thinking. It took a lot of work, initially by Origen (Neo-Platonic philosopher and Christian at the same time), and then by Eastern Cappadocian Fathers, and Western Jerome and Augustine to make the early Christianity compliant with Greco-Roman thought.
Catholicism still inherits this Hellenistic spirit, while radical Protestants threw it away, “returning” to the supposedly original roots of Judaism (rather imagined than the real one). Pope Francis’ thinking, mentioned at the beginning of the article, is one of the stark reminders about the huge divide between mentalities and cultural heritage of these two flavors of the Christian religion. Or, rather we say, two different religions.