The Orthodox Pages
INSTRUCTIONS FOR JOINING
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
GOD AND MAN
WHAT IS CHRISTIANITY?
The Founder of the Christian religion is our Lord Jesus Christ. It teaches and demands of its followers faith in the one true God, the Holy Trinity. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary and was made man. Thus Jesus Christ is both God and man. He is one Person with two natures, the Divine and the human. But how by becoming man does God save mankind? Why in the first place did mankind need saving? To answer these and other similar questions one must first understand how God created man, for in the beginning, Adam’s nature was different from the nature he past down to his descendants.
When God created Adam, He made him according to His image and likeness. We understand by this that the image is man’s spirit, the soul, which is endowed with intelligence, with thought, wisdom and prudence, so as to be able to discern good from evil. It is man’s sovereign state and free will to choose his own destination: to choose between knowing and having communion with God, or to separate himself from God. To be in the likeness of God is the ability to acquire the grace of God: to be deified by the Holy Spirit and become a god. In other words, to be united to God through our own free will by accepting God’s will and making it ours. We acquire this likeness through God’s help and by our own efforts. If we make proper use of our free will, we can reach the ultimate aim for which man was created, to be a god by grace.
Adam was created immortal, that is to say, as long as he lived in God’s will and likeness, he would live forever. He was as yet innocent and sinless, one can say almost perfect, except for his knowledge, which was only theoretical. We say theoretical because by nature, Adam possessed theoretical knowledge of good and evil, i.e. it was innate and natural to him. This knowledge was included in the “according to the image”, which was his wisdom and prudence, his gift of discernment. “Adam could discern both these things [good and evil]”, says St. John Chrysostom, and “it was impossible for him not to know what was good and what was bad”, for “God from the very beginning in creating man placed within him natural law”. Thus man knew from the moment of his creation what was good and what was evil; what was beneficial and salutary and what was harmful and destructive. But this knowledge was theoretical. He possessed knowledge but not experience. He knew that his aim was to reach perfection and union with God, but perfection could only be achieved through practical and experiential knowledge.
God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden and gave him Eve, whom He created from Adam’s rib, to be a companion for him. God gave them a commandment that they may eat of all the fruit of the trees except of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and on the day they eat of it they would surely die. Many people speculate on what this forbidden fruit might have been. In truth it doesn’t matter what the fruit was. The reason for the commandment was not to deprive them of the fruits of paradise, but to give them the opportunity to exercise their free will, either to follow God’s will or to reject it. It was a simple command, which gave them the opportunity to practice and advance in obedience, virtue and sanctity, an opportunity to gain the much-desired experiential knowledge. The Devil, appearing in the guise of a serpent told Eve that if they eat of the tree “ye shall not surely die. For God knew that in whatever day ye should eat of it your eyes would be opened, and ye would be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3: 4-5). Eve was guileless and innocent, and did not immediately recognize that the serpent, the most cunning of all the beasts on the earth, was evil. She struck up conversation with the serpent and with great trust she listened to the Evil one slander God and allowed herself to be led to the precipice of evil. Indeed Eve was as St. John Chrysostom says, “puffed up with the hope of becoming equal to God and imagined great things for herself”. Thus the tree, which she had seen many times before and only identified it with God’s command, suddenly looked different. She looked upon it as for the first time and saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes to look upon and beautiful to contemplate. Believing therefore the serpent, she ate of the fruit and gave to Adam also with her, and they ate. At first glance one might say that their intention was good because their one desire was to reach perfection, but they sinned because they disobeyed God’s commandment [not to eat of the fruit]. They freely chose not to follow God’s will and this destroyed or distorted in them the likeness of God.
The significance of their action has a much deeper meaning for by doing what the seducer suggested, man appeared to be saying to God: I have no need of you. I shall live by myself, self-sufficient and independent. I don’t need your guidance and protection. I’m able by myself to live and to achieve great things. Indeed man’s original sin revealed his unbelief in God, his egoistic rebellion against the Divine Majesty, his thanklessness and ingratitude toward the beneficent Creator and Father, his contempt, insult and blasphemy against the Holy and Heavenly King.
Because Adam did not conceive and discover evil by himself, but was tempted from without by the devil and thus led into sin, God gave them the opportunity to repent and ask for forgiveness. He first approached and asked him what he had done, and Adam replied: “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat” (Gen. 3: 12). Adam did not accept that he had made a mistake, but passed on the blame to God for giving him the woman. God then approached Eve and she replied: “The serpent beguiled me and I did eat” (Gen. 3: 13). Like Adam, Eve was too proud to accept her mistake and ask for forgiveness and passed on the blame onto someone else, in this case the serpent. The first sin therefore was disobedience to God’s will and this immediately produced an offspring in pride, and subsequently a long chain of other sins.
The fact that God gave them the opportunity to repent does not necessarily mean that if they had taken this path, they would have regained the likeness of God. God never lies; He said that on the day they eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. This did not mean that they would undergo an immediate physical death. Eternal life can only be lived as long as it is lived in the likeness of God. They freely chose to separate themselves from God’s likeness by following their own free will. This separation was therefore death as opposed to immortal life. (SEE BELOW “WHAT IS DEATH?”)
Separated from God and eternal life, man freely accepted communion with the devil and so fell under his jurisdiction and became a slave to sin and death. Man abandoned God, but God did not abandon man. He made it possible for man to recreate and regenerate life by having children, therefore, although a man dies, he passes on his human nature to another person. If man did not die, sin and death would have become immortal and reigned forever and so union with God would have been impossible. But this process of regeneration, made it possible that man’s nature did not die completely: it delayed the inevitable and final moment of man’s final destruction, until God could put into motion His plan to save him from death, man’s last enemy.
We inherit the consequences of Adam’s original sin because he is our father and so he passes on to all his children, the fallen state of his human nature. All of Adam’s descendants, until the coming of Christ, had lost the likeness of God and therefore lost the ability to achieve union with God. The only way to save man from death and to unite him with God and eternal life, was to have someone break the chain of inheritance. To do this God, had to create a new Adam that would not inherit the consequences of the fall, but at the same time, he would have to have a common link with the rest of humanity. Man is conceived through the seed of man and fallen nature is passed on through this process, so how did God solve this problem. God willed that He would himself become a man and live as one of us. This He did by taking flesh from the Virgin Mary. Mary was born from a line of ancestors who were prepared by God until the right person was found who could give Him birth. Whatever preparation was needed, this in no way affected their free will: they could accept or reject God’s will at any time.
Mary, born of the seed of man, became the common link with the rest of humanity, right back to Adam. She lived without sin, choosing from her birth to be guided by the Holy Spirit, until God chose the right time for His incarnation. Living without sin does not exempt someone from the consequences of the original sin. (SEE “THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION”)
Christ is therefore the New Adam, He is God become man, but He was not subject to original sin. He was not created like the rest of mankind, but in a miraculous and mysterious way as we are told in the annunciation story where the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. From His birth to His Crucifixion, death and Resurrection, we learn all we need to know of His life as a man, in the Holy Gospels.
Death can only have a hold on someone if that person inherits of falls into sin, because death is the consequence of sin. Christ was free from all sin and so when he was crucified and laid dead in the tomb, death had no legal claim over Him, and so His body was resurrected and ascended into heaven. Christ’s human nature, free from sin, had broken the barrier that separated us from God. The New Adam had pulled down the middle wall of partition that had been erected by the fall of the Old Adam. In the same that we are all one and share in the fallen human nature of the Old Adam, we can now become one with the renewed and deified human nature of Christ, the New Adam.
But what does Christ’s ascension into heaven actually mean for mankind?
The ascension of Christ is his final physical departure from this world after the Resurrection. It is the formal completion of his mission in this world as the Messianic Saviour. It is his glorious return to the Father after having accomplished the work the Father had sent him to do (John 17:4-5). What was this work? It was to sanctify mankind and to unite him with God. The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of this work. The Son of God came “down from heaven” and now having accomplished all things, he returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which he had assumed. (John 17). The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity. This is what it is means when it says that he sat on the right hand of God. Man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation.
Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature”. This participation in divinity is what we Orthodox call “theosis” or “deification” and this is what is understood by the “sitting on the right hand”. It is a symbolic expression of man’s theosis and is not to be understood in the literal sense that Christ sat on his Father’s hand or that somewhere in heaven the body of Jesus is sitting on a material throne next to the Father’s.
The meaning of the Ascension and the sitting on the right hand is the realization of man’s foreordained destination, in other words his deification. For the first time man is received into the heavens, not just as a man, but as God-man, participating in the divinity of the Father, or we can even dare to say – man becomes a God by grace. The Church celebrates the Lord’s Ascension as an event where not only Christ is glorified, but humanity itself. Let us not forget that as God, the Son came to earth and became a man without ever leaving the bosom of the Father. The ascension into heaven is humanity which God glorified with himself. Christ left this world in order to “prepare a place for us” and to take us into the blessedness of God s presence. He opened the way for all flesh into the “heavenly sanctuary … the Holy Place not made by hands” (Hebrews 9-11).
This is how St. Paul speaks of the Ascension in his Epistle to the Hebrews. He likens it to the Jerusalem temple where the high priests of Israel entered the “holy of holies” to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of themselves and the people. In comparison Christ is the one, eternal and perfect High Priest who offered himself on the Cross to God as the one eternal, and perfect, Sacrifice, not for himself, but for all sinful men. His Ascension into heaven is his entry into the true Sanctuary not made by men’s hand, the one eternal and perfect Holy of Holies: in the very “Presence of God in the heavens.” (Hebrews 9-24).
Man was created for union with God and the purpose of this life is to attain this union. But what does this actually mean? The Orthodox Church believes that man, by using his free will in cooperation with God’s will can attain this goal of union with God and become a god by grace. This belief is not something invented by the Church: it is a solid doctrine based on scriptural testimony found in the New Testament. The quotes from scripture are many, but there is also an event in the Life of Christ which clearly tells us that man can receive deification.
The event is the Lord’s Transfiguration. From the Gospel of St. Matthew we read that Christ took with Him Peter, James and John his brother and went up into a high mountain [Mount Tabor], “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light” [St. Matth. 17:2]. St. Mark, in his Gospel, says of the same event, “And his raiment became shining exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them” [St. Mark 9:3]. St. Mark tries to describe this light, but can only say that, “no fuller on earth can white them”. As created beings, we can only explain what we see, hear or understand, by other things in our life. We cannot begin to describe this light of the Transfiguration because it is not created, as is the light of the sun. St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century and the defender of the Hesychast movement which defended the belief of man’s deification, asserted that when the Apostles Peter, James and John witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor, they were in fact seeing the uncreated light of God; and that it is possible for others to be granted to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer.
The event of the Transfiguration in the life of Christ has never really been understood by the Western Churches in the same way the Orthodox Church understands the event. Christ appeared to His disciples as God, the light that they saw was the uncreated light of God. But it was the human body of Christ that shone with this light: in other words it was man’s nature that appeared in the divine glory. Thus not only can the uncreated light of God be seen by human eyes, it can also be received by the human body. It brings us to that renowned statement by St. Athanasius and repeated by so many fathers: “God became man so that man may become God.”
We find in the writings of the fathers and from the lives of some of the saints, that through inner peace, prayer and contemplation, they received while still in this life, this same uncreated light whereby man is transfigured and is united to God. They pursued perfection fulfilling Christ commandment: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. (Matthew 5:48) To be perfect as God means to be united to God and become one with him. The Gospel of St. John is much clearer on the subject of our deification. Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane said to the Father: “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one: I in them and thou in me that they may be made perfect in one”. (John 17:21-23)
Man was created in the image and likeness of God. By this we usually understand man’s free will and his ability to become one with God. This is what man was created for – to reach perfection and union with the Trinitarian God. We are thus called to dwell with God and become one with him, but we must be careful how we interpret this oneness.
The Church recognizes that many of her members have obtained through righteous living or martyrdom this oneness with God. It is these that the Church has promoted to the ranks of saints. By nature, these saints are still men, but they have been deified through the grace of God. To be deified by the grace of God means to be exalted and made as a god. The Holy Trinity is God by nature; when a man is deified, he receives deification as a gift from God. It is not something that belongs to him by nature because by nature he is a human being. God bestows upon man the greatest gift of His love and raises him to Himself by making him a god by grace. It is the final end for which man was created: to be united in oneness with God. This does not mean that man becomes an additional hypostasis [person] to the Three Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity. The divine nature is always inaccessible to all creatures that have their nature in something else. The mystical union between God and man is a true union, but the Creator and the creature do not become fused into a single being. Man partakes not in the nature of God, but in the divine energies that proceed from the divine nature. This is what the Apostle Peter meant in his 2nd Epistle when he said “that ye might be partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4)
Man becomes one with God, but still retains his free will and his personal characteristics. He continues to remain a created human being and is not absorbed into the divine nature just as Christ still remained God after he took upon himself the nature of man and his humanity was not absorbed by his divinity. The two natures were united without confusion or change, and the peculiar property of each nature was preserved and united in one Person, one hypostasis – the God-man Jesus Christ, as defined by the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon in AD 451. The difference we have with Christ is that he was God and remained God even when he took the nature of man; we on the other hand are created beings and always remain created beings even when we are deified. Also our full deification must wait until the day of Resurrection when our bodies are reunited to our souls because man is a unity of both body and soul. Salvation belongs to the complete man and not just to his soul.
The divine energies that sanctify and deify man can in part be experienced by man in this life. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church which can be found in the works of the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th Century and supported by St. Gregory Palamas and the Hesychast movement in the 14th century. But what was the Hesychast movement? Hesychasm is a spiritual practice which was and still is practice mainly by Orthodox monks. Hesychast comes from the Greek word “Ησυχία” meaning silence or peace. The Hesychastic practice has often been compared to the mystical prayer or meditation of Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism and yoga, although this similarity is often over-emphasized in popular accounts it is generally rejected by actual Orthodox practitioners of Hesychasm. The practice may involve specific bodily postures, and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns, however, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary by both modern Athonite practitioners of Hesychasm and by the more ancient texts from the Fathers. Today we know this practice as the “Jesus Prayer” that is practiced by both monks and lay people alike.
The Hesychast begins in solitude and retirement by repeating the Jesus Prayer – Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner. It should be noted that the Hesychast never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables without meaning, which would then just be repetitious and worthless. His pays extreme attention to each word of the prayer and collects his mind, not letting it wander, which is what usually happens when we start praying. In time the prayer is said continually 24 hours a day and the Hesychast’s aim is to bring his mind (his nous) into his heart. There are various stages to the prayer but eventually the goal is for the prayer to continue in the heart with the grace of God. At this stage, the Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God which is seen as light. It is this light that caused a controversy in the 14th Century between the Athonite monks who practiced the Hesychast spirituality and a Greek monk named Barlaam from Calabria Italy, who had come to Constantinople in 1330. What was this light? Was it just a physical light or was it a contemplation of God? Did the Athonite monks, as they claimed, have an experiential knowledge of God?
When Barlaam of Calabria encountered Hesychasts and heard descriptions of their practices, he was scandalized by Hesychasm and began to combat it both orally and in his writings. He had been trained in Western Scholastic Theology which is based on rational thought. He was therefore unfamiliar with Orthodox spiritually and could not comprehend the possibility of material eyes physically beholding the immaterial God. How can a man see God’s essence with his bodily eyes? The light which the Hesychasts beheld, in his view, was not the eternal light of the Divinity, but a temporary and created light. He also believed that philosophers had better knowledge of God than did the prophets, and he valued education and learning more than contemplative prayer. As such, he believed the monks on Mount Athos were wasting their time in contemplative prayer when they should instead be studying to gain intellectual knowledge.
Hesychasm was defended theologically by St. Gregory Palamas, who was asked by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend Hesychasm from the attacks of Barlaam. Contrary to Barlaam, Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. St. Gregory defended Hesychasm at several Synods in Constantinople in the 1340s and he also wrote a number of works in its defence. In these works, St. Gregory Palamas uses a distinction, between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God. St Gregory taught that the energies or operations of God were uncreated. He taught that the essence of God can never be known by his creature even in the next life, but that his uncreated energies or operations can be known both in this life and the next, and convey to the Hesychast in this life and to the righteous in the next life a true spiritual knowledge of God. It is the uncreated energies of God that illuminate the Hesychast who has been vouchsafed an experience of the Uncreated Light.
The doctrine of Hesychasm was eventually upheld as the doctrine of the Orthodox Church at a Synod in Constantinople. Barlaam returned to Italy where he became a Roman Catholic bishop. Up to this day, the Roman Catholic Church has never fully accepted Hesychasm, especially the distinction between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God, and the notion that these energies or operations of God are uncreated. In Roman Catholic theology, as it has developed since the Scholastic period, the essence of God can be known, but only in the next life; the grace of God is always created; and the essence of God is pure act, so that there can be no similarity between the energies or operations and the essence of God.
As mentioned earlier the divine energies that proceed from the divine nature of God can be experienced by man in this life. Everyone has the ability to experience God at some level and it is not something reserved only for monks. Deification must be the goal of every Christian and the process to theosis begins from this our present life. Although deification is a gift from God, it does not mean that we are entitled to it without our own efforts. Union with God involves a synergy or cooperation of two wills – the divine and the human for as St Paul says “We are labourers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). But our labour or contribution in the common effort is by far much less than God’s contribution and of far less importance. We cannot attain union with God without God’s help, but neither can God force this union upon us without the consent of our free will. The greatest example of synergy is the Mother of God. It was through the Mother of God that the incarnation became possible. God became a man voluntarily to save mankind, but to do this, He needed the free consent of His mother; thus the incarnation was the work of the will of God and the free will of man, a synergy [cooperation] of two wills: God’s and the Virgin’s. Without the one or the other, the salvation of man could not become possible and we would still live in the shadow of death.
God wishes for all men to be saved but forces no one to come to him. God is always there knocking at our door, waiting for us to open and let him in. He is always searching for the lost sheep, all that is needed is for the sheep to hear his voice and run to him. Our initial contribution to the common effort is to have faith in God and to allow his grace to guide us to salvation. God will then give us the strength to fight our passions which keep us earthbound. Fasting for example can seem difficult for someone who has not yet allowed Christ into his heart. He will see it as an obligation that the church imposes upon him, but for the Christian with faith, fasting is a means that he joyfully participates in, because he understands that fasting will liberate him from his dependence on food and other worldly things and will help him open the door and participate in Christ himself. His strength is not the result of his own doing, but the grace of God within him, which slowly teaches him the virtuous life. This is something that Christians practicing the ascetic way of life should never forget. They do not obtain the gifts of virtue by their own struggles and efforts: the will and the desire is theirs, but everything else comes from God.
Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians said: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) What Paul said comprises one of the basic truths of our faith, that our salvation is not the result of our good works or our virtues; it is not the fruit of our own efforts, but a gift and grace from God. Of course it also demands from our side that we believe. Faith is compulsory as the expression and response of our free will. If we do not want it, God does not save us by infringing on our independence, which is one of the greatest gifts with which he has endowed us with. Two verses earlier Paul says: “And God hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” What Paul is telling us is that the salvation of man has already come about, all that remains is for each of us to embrace it on a personal level, for each to became partakers of the divine gift. Christ’s human nature has been raised and because Christ is the head and we, the church, the body, we also have been raised with him. And as Christ sat on the right hand of God we also sit together with Christ who comprise his body. For as St. John Chrysostom said: “For where the head sits, there also sits the body.”
The honour which God’s goodness has reserved for us is beyond imagination – to be made co-reigners with his only-begotten Son. To sit on the right side is a show of honour which surpasses every other kind of honour and after this there is no other.
Everything we believe in and everything we do in Church, everything we preach, concerns death and what happens to man’s soul after death and what our expectation is of the future life after the Second Coming of Christ. The subject of death is central in all religious discussions and all religions teach of life after death and what happens to the soul in the after-world, although we are not all in agreement on these teachings. The only thing we agree on is that death is something we cannot escape; it is part of our life’s cycle and we are born so that one day we will die. It is the only certain thing that we can be sure will happen to us and yet, in spite of this, the majority of people shy away from talking about death hoping that by not talking about it it will somehow pass them by. This is like the ostrich burying its head in the sand. The subject will not go away, so it is far better to learn and understand what death is rather than living in fear of the inescapable moment.
To understand what death is and where it came from we need to go back to the very beginnings and understand the creation of Adam and the fall that followed. Firstly we must understand that God did not create death, death is evil and there is no possible way for evil to proceed from God since God is only good. Neither does God take pleasure in destroying the living things he has created. God created man to live forever, but simultaneously he gave him a choice with the gift of free will to remain in this immortality or to become mortal. This choice was the commandment he gave to Adam and Eve not to eat of the forbidden fruit and he warned them that on the day they eat of it they would surely die. They chose to eat and sure enough they lost immortality. But why by eating a fruit did they die? The fruit, as mentioned earlier, is not important, what is important is that God gave them a commandment which was to help them grow spiritually and they chose to disobey God’s word. Thus of their own free will they chose to separate themselves from God and eternal life, because eternal life can only be in God: separation from God means death.
So what then is death? Death is the consequence of being separated from God. This is what God meant when he gave them the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Orthodox Church understands death as the consequence of sin, but Western Churches regard death as God’s way of punishing man because of his sin and sees the inheritance of death on the whole human race as a heritage of guilt. Thus for western theology God created death to punish mankind. They paint a picture of an unloving God punishing and seeking revenge because his creatures disobeyed his commandment. For us Orthodox this goes totally against the grain and we cannot fathom a God so unloving that he can be the cause of death.
Death then entered human nature as a result of being separated from God, but it was not an immediate death as we usually understand death. There was first a spiritual death, which was the separation from God and then a slow deterioration of Adam and Eve’s bodies which had undergone a transformation. In Genesis 3:21, we read: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them”. It is easy to come to the presumption that these skins were animal skins in which God clothed them to hide their nakedness, but the Church understands this as something completely different. The skins in question are the skins of our bodies. It was the transformation from the immortal bodies into mortal bodies. This drastic change was necessary for man’s salvation, otherwise sin would have reigned in Adam’s immortal body and union with God would have been eternally impossible. This change was in fact their death, because they had lost immortality. They were in a state of death and subject to cold, hunger, illness, diseases, pain, suffering and ageing bodies, which eventually would bring about their bodily death by the separation of the soul from the body.
All these negative sufferings are nothing more than human nature going through the slow process of death. This will answer also those many questions like, “why was that person born with an illness or a handicap and why did that person get cancer at such a young age? God did not create these illnesses, God did not create anything evil. These are just the fruits of death; they are ways in which death acts on the human body. Human nature deteriorates, and as it does so, this deterioration is expressed with various illnesses and diseases. Thus we shouldn’t blame God for these evils: they do not come from God. If we are to blame anyone it must be man himself because they are the results and consequences of the fall.
Evil is the state of the free will that is opposed to God’s will, and death is the consequence of this evil state. A free will choosing not to follow God’s will, follows its own destination and destruction. God could not force Adam not to sin because that would have put a restriction on Adam’s free will and therefore he would no longer be in the image of God: he would become a form of mechanical robot or android, programmed in what to do and say.
I think enough has been said for you to understand what death is and where it came from. Death in man’s life is not what God intended and because he did not create death, death is unnatural to human nature according to how God originally created man. This is probably why most people fear death: it is against our nature to die. If it was part of the natural course of man’s life then we would not have any fear, but God create man as a union of both a body and soul. This union comes into being from the conception of every man in his mother’s womb. Man is what we call a psychosomatic being, which means that his soul does not constitute the whole man, but neither does his body. Both the body and the soul were created at the same moment, the soul was not, like some like to believe, living before the body and then at some moment entered into it. When this union is broken at death it is done again nature and by force: the soul doesn’t what to live without the body and is frightened by this separation.
What happens to the soul after its departure from the body depends entirely on its spiritual state while it was still in this life. Angels or demons receive and lead it to a place of rest which we call Paradise or Hades. We should not think of these as physical places but rather as a state of the soul. We use the terms Paradise and Hades to indicate a particular way of life, since the righteous partake of the glory of God, while the sinners receive the caustic energy of God. In the patristic tradition it is clear that there are not two ways, but God Himself is Paradise for the saints and God Himself is Hades for the sinners. God sends His grace to all men, since “He makes His sun rise on the just and the unjust and sends His rain on the evil and the good”. If God gives us a command to love all people, even our enemies, He does the same Himself. It is impossible for him not to love sinners as well. But each person feels God's love differently, according to his spiritual condition. God is light and light has two properties, illuminating and caustic. If one person has good vision, he benefits from the illuminating property of the sun, and he enjoys the whole creation. But if another person is deprived of his eye, if he is without sight, then he feels the caustic property of light. This is how it will be also for the life of the soul after it leaves the body. God will also love the sinners, but they will be unable to perceive this love as light. They will perceive it as fire, since they will not have a spiritual eye and spiritual vision. Therefore the same love of God, the same energy will fall upon all men, but it will work differently. Therefore Paradise and Hell exist not in the form of a threat and a punishment on the part of God, but in the form of an illness and a cure. Those who are cured and those who are purified experience the illuminating energy of divine grace, while the uncured and ill experience the caustic energy of God.
But all this concerns the soul, but man is not just a soul, he is half soul and half body: without the one or the other he is incomplete. The whole story of salvation is to restore complete man once again to God; this is why God took upon himself the nature of man, so that he could raise us up again to himself and this is where all our hopes lie, that in the General resurrection we will once again be united to our resurrected bodies. This was made possible by our Lord’s Resurrection. He took the human body and because he was sinless his human body could not be held captive by death because as mentioned earlier death in humans is the consequence of sin. If there is no sin there can be no death. Yes, Christ died on the Cross but his body did not belong to death and received life once again. We participate in the Lord’s Death and Resurrection through the Mysteries of Baptism and Holy Communion. It is through these Mysteries that our salvation is complete and in general we preach that whosoever is not Baptized cannot be saved, which leads us to a question many people ask “What happens to babies who die before they are Baptized – are they doomed to spend internal life in Hades?”
The Western Churches teach that unbaptized babies who die cannot be saved because as we saw earlier they believe that we are all born with the guilt of Adam’s original sin. The Orthodox on the other hand believe that only Adam is guilty of his sin and we do not inherit his sin or guilt but only the consequences of his sin which is mortality and death.
Concerning infant deaths St. Gregory of Nyssa living in the fourth century wrote a treatise where he put forth the Orthodox understanding on the subject. He said that if nothing in this world happens without God and if everything is linked to the divine will then of necessity if follows that everything happens within some plan bearing the mark of his wisdom and at the same time of his providential care. Nothing happens by chance because as scripture says “He made all things in wisdom”. If this is so then what wisdom can there be if a human being enters on the scene of life, draws in the air, beginning the process of living with a cry of pain, pays the tribute of a tear to Nature, just tastes the beginning of life’s sorrows, before any of its sweets have been his, before his feelings have gained any strength; still loose in all his joints, tender as he is and so short lived suddenly dies, perhaps because he was left exposed or because he suffocated or because of some illness or weakness of the body? How are we to feel about such deaths? Will a soul such as the soul of an infant behold its Judge? Will it stand with the rest before the tribunal? Will it undergo its trial for deeds done in life? Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire, or be refreshed with the dew of blessing? He asks all these questions because so much uncertainty arises from the fact that the child has done nothing in his life, neither bad nor good. Thus having put forth these many questions he then sets out to answer them; he says “I cannot see how we can imagine these things for the souls of such infants.
If they have done nothing bad then there is nothing for them to repay. One is either good or bad and there is no middle category, but the infant has done neither good nor bad in his short life; it has made no actions or choices thus there is no reason for them to earn what we are hoping for. They do not have to fear the judgement because they have nothing to be judged for. The Lord said that the Kingdom comes to them that are deemed worthy of it as a kind of reward or exchange for the good things they have done in this life. By following the commandments and the Lord’s teaching we expect to receive as our reward the Kingdom of heaven. But in the case of infants who die there is no act of doing so what reason is there for saying that they will receive from God any expected recompense.
Gregory gives a very long and exhaustive answer explaining how all life comes from God and gives the differences between the spiritual bodies of angels and the spiritual and sensible bodies of man. He explains that just as food nourishes and gives life to the body so too does the soul receive life by participation in God’s light. The purpose for which man was created is to be united with God. Thus the fulfilment of this purpose, which we call deification or theosis, is not actually a reward from God but a natural condition and not to participate in God is not a punishment, but rather an illness of man’s soul and of his whole being. This he explains by using our eyes as an example. The capacity of our eyes to see is not a reward, but a natural condition of healthy eyes. And the inability to see is not a punishment but an illness of the human body. This is the same for the spiritual eyes of the soul: those who have purified their senses participate in seeing God’s light while those who have spiritually unclean eyes cannot participate in God and do not know him. This is not a punishment, but a natural state of illness of the soul. Thus our participation in God or non-participation depends entirely on the state of the soul whether it is in a clean and healthy state or whether it is diseased. In babies the state of their souls can only be in a state of purity because they have done nothing to make it impure. From his birth man experiences illumination of the nous. The nous is what the fathers call the place where the spiritual heart and mind come together. When a person is created his nous is in a state of illumination. It has been noticed many times that there are infants who pray, even in their sleep. A monk of the Holy Mountain says that when small children turn their attention in some direction and laugh for no reason, it is because they see their angel. Here then we see that Orthodox theology does not agree with Western theology which says that man inherits the guilt of original sin. We believe that at birth a person has a pure and illuminated nous, which is the natural state. As the child grows and passions develop then the noetic part of his soul begins to darken. This then brings us to the question: “If infants have a pure nous which is in a state of illumination, if they have noetic prayer then why do we baptize them?
This is answered by how we understand what baptism is. Holy Baptism is not the getting rid of original sin as the West believes, but our participation in the death and Resurrection of our Lord. By Baptism we are grafted on to the Body of Christ and we acquire the power to conquer death. This is how we understand the baptism of babies. We baptize them so that they may become members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, so that they may pass over death and overcome the garment of decay and mortality. In other words, as children grow and the nous becomes darkened by the passions and evil in the world, through baptism they have the ability to conquer death in Christ, they have the ability through the Church to overcome the passions and cleanse and purify the noetic part of their souls once more. This ability remains with them into adulthood and with the help of the sacraments and ascetic struggles ordained by the Church as tools to help in the purification process, they can acquire the power to defeat death and attain deification. For deification is the purpose of baptism and it can only be achieved in Christ and in the Church. But a child that dies before it is baptized does not mean that it too cannot receive deification. It is born pure and when it dies it continues to exist in pureness. Its soul has not become infected with darkness caused by sin, thus its soul remains healthy and in its natural state and is not prevented in any way from partaking of the divine light. This understanding will also explain why we do not perform funeral services for unbaptized babies. The services performed by the church are exclusively for her members, but also so that we may beseech God to forgive and save the person because he has been tainted with sin. A baby has not had time to sin, it is still in its natural and pure state so in reality it doesn’t need to have prayers offered on his behalf.
Let’s now take the question of baby deaths a little further. If everything is done according to the will of God, why does he allow a baby to die before he can even experience what it means to live? Here we must look for the answer in God’s providence. God knows the future and it is possible that if he allowed the child to live that he would live such an evil life that he would not find salvation and come to a bad end. By allowing the child to die God prevents him from reaching this bad end. With human logic we see the death of a child as a tragic event, but in the light of God’s providence it is an act of love and charity. It doesn’t matter if someone lives a day or a hundred years. This life is temporary and death will come to all of us at some point. What is important is the state of our soul at the time of death. The infant who is taken from this life is not deprived of any of the future blessings and is spared the possibility of eternal hell. But now we may ask “Why does God make a distinction in his choice? Why does he take the one and leave the other? Why is one automatically saved while the other grows and becomes so bad that people would wish he had never been born? Why does he take a baby and leave the father who lives in a drunken and sinful state? These are questions we cannot answer because they are mysteries beyond man’s understanding and reasoning. But however God arranges things it is not without reason or purpose. In his wisdom he permits things differently for each of us because he has a better end in view.
What has been said so far for babies can also be applied to the question of whether or not non-Orthodox will be saved. Many say that everyone outside of the Church will be condemned to spend eternity in Hell and that there is no salvation outside of the Church. Can we really believe that God as the loving Father we continually portray and praise will allow the great majority of his children to suffer the fires of hell for all eternity. This is a very western image of God who is often portrayed as a punishing God. It is true that salvation can only be found in the Orthodox Church, but when we talk of salvation we always mean perfect salvation which is deification. Only Baptism in the Orthodox Church gives us the ability to become deified.
If we interpret this with the example of eyesight mentioned earlier then this will help us to understand how other people can participate in the divine light although not as fully as an Orthodox person. I said earlier that every man is born with an illuminated nous which as the child grows becomes darkened through the passions and sin. If someone lives a sinless spiritual life fighting the passions then it follows that the darkness of his eyes will slowly fade and allow him sight of the divine light. He may not be able to see as bright as someone Orthodox following a similar life, but he can still see the light even if this is dimly. Thus salvation relies on the health of one’s spiritual eyes. If they are darkened through many sins he will not be able to see the divine light and so will not be able to participate in God, but if he has struggled to cleanse himself from the passions and his spiritual eyes allow him to see even a little glow of the divine light then that means he participates in God to the level that his eyes allow him. Of course non-Orthodox always have the opportunity while still in this life to search for the ultimate truth and if they are sincere in their search, God will lead them to the Orthodox Church. Many have done this and embraced the Church while others having searched and found that the Orthodox church was indeed the only true church, but chose to remain in the church they were born into out of loyalty or some other reason.
Another question people ask concerning death is “When we die will we be with our loved ones?” We do not know enough about life after death to give definite answers. Death is a mystery and what we know of the afterlife is only what Christ has told us in Holy Scripture and certain accounts given us by the saints who had visions or after death experiences. Certainly we want to believe that we will continue our afterlife with the people we love and in some ways this is possible, but depends again on our spiritual eyesight. We have the example of Christ himself and his most holy Mother. Christ did not forget his earthly mother when he ascended to heaven, but when she died he raised her up to be by his side. He honoured his mother above all men and angels and even in our prayers we call upon the Mother of God to be our mediator before Christ because we believe that he listens to the voice of his mother and honours her every wish. But the Mother of God does not sit as the queen of heaven only because she gave birth to Christ, but also because she herself was sinless and could partake of Christ to the level she was raised.
We will certainly be able to see our loved ones but for us to be with them it means that our spiritual eyes see the divine light at the same level as them. To understand this better we need to see the example of the eyesight theory with the parable of “Lazarus and the rich man”. When both died the beggar Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man went to a place of torment. In other words Lazarus’s spiritual eyes were healthy and this allowed him to participate in the divine light. The rich man on the other hand lived a wicked life and his spiritual eyes were so darkened that he couldn’t participate in that light. He could see Abraham and Lazarus and recognized him as the beggar who was at his door every day, but that was all. He couldn’t go over to where Lazarus was and Lazarus also couldn’t cross over to where the rich man was. The parable therefore tells us that when we die we will recognize and see others we knew in this life, but the spiritual state of each of us determines where we will be.
But let us for arguments sake assume that our loved ones and ourselves are all saved and see the divine light, can we also assume that we will be together. We will be together as far as we will all be in God, but Christ told us something about heaven which we must take into account; he said that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” (John 14:2) This we can interpret as meaning many levels of salvation. We can therefore imagine heaven as a pyramid with God at the very top followed by the saints and all those who found deification and as we come down the pyramid there are different levels with people. Each person is assigned to a level according to his spiritual ability to see God. The better eyesight one has the closer to God he is. Thus my parents might be near the top of the pyramid and I might be near the bottom. We all participate in God, but our spiritual health determines how close to God we stand.
This then brings us to another question; “Will we still remember our loved ones on earth?” The answer is again found in the parable of “Lazarus and the rich man”. After Abraham had told the rich man that nothing could be done to help him in his torment, he showed great concern for his five brothers who where still alive and wanted them to be warned to change their way of life lest when they die they also should find themselves in the same place of torment as himself. Here therefore we see that even though the soul has gone to another place there is still knowledge of this world and we continue to have a social concern and love for the living.
The Parable does not reveal every aspect of life in the after world, but if we read it carefully we can discover many truths. One of these truths is that wherever we are placed it is not a reward or punishment by God, but the outcome of how we lived our lives here on earth. The rich man found himself in a place of torment, but he didn’t blame God for placing him there, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness and neither did he ask Abraham to deliver him from that place. This tells us that he fully accepted his place in Hades because it was the result of his free choice to live without God in his life. By his own free will he chose to live a particular way of life without love and without God and this was carried over to the other life. This then is a warning to all of us still living. If we want to be with God when we die then we must want to be with God in this life and if we want to participate in God more fully in the other life then we must cleanse ourselves from the impurities of sins that darken our spiritual sight in this life.