The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON QUESTIONS PEOPLE
ASK CONCERNING DEATH
29th APRIL 2010
At our last meeting we talked on the meaning of the Resurrection and we saw various customs associated with the Resurrection service. I mentioned that Christ’s Resurrection is the celebration of our return to Paradise. From the midnight Resurrection service we sing for the next forty days “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he hath overcome death and to them in the graves hath he given life.” With this hymn we are proclaiming that Christ’s Resurrection is the victory over death; his victory over man’s last enemy which entered into the world and held man captive and did not allow him to pass over into Paradise and communion with God. 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.
Today then our talk will be on the subject of death with the hope that it will help many of you to better understand the Orthodox Church’s teaching on the subject. When we began our weekly talks back in January of 2007 our third and fourth talks were on the subject of death and what was said then is available on the website; but we by no means exhausted the subject. We touched only on some main points and many questions that people often asked about death were left unanswered. In those early talks we looked at the documented accounts of “Near Death Experiences”, we saw what Holy Scripture tells us about life after death by analysing the “Parable of the beggar Lazarus and the Rich man”, we saw the Orthodox teaching of the “Toll Houses”, and the symbolic meanings of the third, ninth and fortieth day memorials according to the revelation given to St. Macarius of Alexandria by an angel. Today I want to concentrate on questions we priests are often asked – questions like - What happens to an unbaptized baby if it dies? Will non-Orthodox be saved? When we die will we be with our loved ones? Will we still remember our loved one on earth? And other such questions that have a social character. But before I answer these questions, we need to understand what death is and where it came from. As always 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 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: 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.
I think I have said enough 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 I 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 the first question 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 leaves 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 we heard 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.
Let’s now take a quick look at the other questioned I mentioned in the beginning - 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 the last question for tonight; “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.