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Question 107.


Hi Fr Christopher,
Christ the Saviour called Himself the "light of the world" (John 8:12). He enlightens every man who comes into the world. I hear this towards the end of every liturgy (Christ, the true light, who lights and sanctifies every man who comes into the world). What exactly is this lighting/sanctification that Christ bestows on all His creation? Is it perhaps wisdom, a logical soul, the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, etc? Does this even mean that the people/souls that have departed or have been condemned to hell/Gehenna, once had this enlightenment and sanctification from Christ, when they came into existence in this world? Is everyone enlightened/sanctified in the same way or according to the measures that Christ wishes to enlighten every single person?

Regards, John

Answer to Question 107.

 

Dear John
Throughout the Bible God is described as being Light. Light is used synonymously for righteousness, holy and good while darkness is used for everything evil and sin. God can have no part with evil for "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1John 1:5) and "for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14) If God is only light then where did Hades come from and if as we say in a prayer that "God is in all places and fillest all things" then is God also in Hades? The answer to this will become clear further down, but before this we must ask "if God is life and light where did death come from?"
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 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. By rejecting God’s word they were rejecting God himself. But it goes even deeper because through their action they were saying to God “we don’t believe you, we have no need of you, we can live by ourselves, self-sufficient and independent. Thus of their own free will they chose to separate themselves from God and eternal life, because eternal life can only be in God's light and 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.
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.
With the death of the body the soul lived in an existence without God's light which was called Hades. We should not think of this as a physical place but rather as a state of the soul which cannot perceive God. Before the coming of Christ people were spiritually blind because they were bound by the consequences of Adam's fall. The door of Paradise was shut to all men even the Prophets because everyone was a partaker of sin and sin is a barrier that separates man from God, because as already said, God can have no part with sin.
Ever since then man had sat in darkness and lived in the shadow of death (Luke 1:79). Death has two meanings, the first a bodily death and the second a spiritual death. The soul is immortal, but as life means to be with God then any existence distant from God is not life but death.
St. John the Theologian begins his Gospel by telling us in very clear terms that Christ is God and the creator of the universe and the life of every living thing. He gives us two descriptions of God: God is life and God is light. Christ came into the world to give life and light to the world, in other words to give hope of eternal life with God and to enlighten the world by freeing them from ignorance of God and his Kingdom and teaching them the way of salvation.
Christ said: "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12) What Christ is saying is that if we follow his way of life we will no longer live a life distant from God, we will attain knowledge of God and be freed from the darkness of ignorance: we will be enlightened to see that there is a way of life that gives hope of salvation and which will lead us to a blessed and eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
Thus for the first part of your question God's light is wisdom because it enlightens people to see that there is a way of life that leads to a place of eternal light. But light is also synonymous with sanctification, deification and life itself because without these we cannot partake of God's kingdom. God is light but we also can become light by becoming one with Christ and partaking of his Divine Light. Christ showed us that we can do this when he was transfigured on Mount Tabor "and his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light." Christ appeared to his disciples as God in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, he revealed to them the glory of his divine nature. This event in the life of Christ not only tells us that He appeared to His disciples as God, but also that man’s nature appeared in the divine glory. God became man so that man may become God.
For the second part of your question – whether people condemned to hell were enlightened and sanctified by Christ when they come into this world and whether everyone is enlightened/sanctified in the same way, I will give you the church's teaching on Paradise and Hades and the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa concerning infant deaths.
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 Hell exists not in the form of a threat and a punishment on the part of God, but in the form of an illness and Paradise as 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.
St, Gregory of Nyssa writing on the death of unbaptized babies gives us an almost identical teaching. Gregory 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 again 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 or 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. 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 is where the Mystery of Baptism comes in. 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.
Thus 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. Salvation therefore 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.
In your question you write "condemned to hell/Gehenna". People often talk about God condemning sinners to hell, but that would make God an unloving God who punishes people because they didn't love him. This is the Western image of God but for the Orthodox Church God is always love and love cannot think of revenge and punishment. In the Parable of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-46) Christ places the righteous to his right saying "Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Then placing the unjust to his left he says "Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."
In this sentence we should take note of two important differences with what he said to the righteous. Firstly we should notice that with the righteous he said “blessed of my father,” now with the unrighteous he doesn’t say cursed of my father, but only cursed. God doesn’t curse anyone: they are cursed by their own works. The condemnation and curse of the sinner is a result of his bad actions, but the salvation of the righteous is an act of grace and therefore the word blessed is followed with “of my Father.” Secondly, that the everlasting fire is not for us, but for the devil and his angels. To the blessed he said “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” but he doesn’t say this of the everlasting fire, but only that it has been prepared for the devil and his angels. He is thus saying: "For man I have prepared the Kingdom, the fire is not meant for man, but only for the devil and his angels: But you have taken on the likeness of his demon angels, you no longer resemble the man I created in my image and of your own free will you have put on the image of demons. Therefore you will share the same reward as the demons you resemble."

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher