Some Scriptural Thoughts on Death (B)

This is the 3rd Blog in this series reflecting on death.  The 1st Blog is Death: The Last Enemy of God.  The previous blog is Some Scriptural Thoughts on Death (A).

When God warned Adam that should he sin and eat the forbidden fruit that he would die, God the Father knew also that it would mean the death of His unbegotten and eternal Son.  This might give us the clearest picture that death was not God’s intention for humanity, but rather something which humans brought into creation through their own rebellious sinfulness.

“Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.” [Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-16 (NRSV)]

That death is the final enemy of God and that God worked to destroy death is the Gospel.  We can see God’s own attitude toward death in the New Testament.  One need only read John 11, the raising of Lazarus, to see Christ’s own reaction to death – both weeping because of it, and then overcoming it.  Ultimately it is Christ, not only in His own death and resurrection, who destroys the power of death, but also in His very person, for being the incarnate Son of God, He is life giving and thus the very enemy of death.  Here are three passages from St. Paul on this topic:

“… our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”   (2 Timothy 1:10)

“For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”   (Romans 6:9)

 “Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’  ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”   [1 Corinthians 15:51-57 (RSV)]

Christ came to destroy and abolish death.  Death is the enemy of humanity and of God.  In the book of Revelation, it is Christ, not Satan who ultimately holds the keys of death and Hades.  “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades”   (Revelation 1:17-18).  And when God’s Kingdom is established, death is completely overthrown and is shown to be a temporary condition.  It’s powers were limited by space and time and thus get swallowed up in God’s eternal victory.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.  And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. … Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. …  and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” [Revelation 20:12-14, 21:1-4 (RSV)]

This power over death Christ offers to His followers in this world through the Church. 

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”    (Matthew 16:18)

All of these words against death are the witness of the Gospel regarding God’s own attitude about mortality.  Edna St. Vinent Millay’s poem CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR brought all of this to mind.  Being pro-life is in line with the Gospel, and thus on one level is easy for Christians to embrace.  Millay’s poem suggest that we should never willingly betray any human to death – not through murder, war, capital punishment, abortion, neglect, greed, hatred or any intention.   Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus, confronted by death, weeps for His friend, weeps for humanity.  Then calls His friend to life, showing His power over death, revealing the temporary nature of death itself.  We are back to the first day of creation, when all things were new and life unending.

Next:  Three Patristic Saints on Death

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11 Responses to Some Scriptural Thoughts on Death (B)

  1. Michael Bauman says:

    In a recent essay on evolution a Russian deacon posited that there were two types of death–one for us and one for the rest of the natural world–human death being the only ‘real’ death. Such a concept seems, to me, to be at odds with Scripture in which our sin brought death into the world with creation groaning in travail until the coming of our Lord.

    Would you help me clarify my thinking on this Father?

    • Fr. Ted says:

      According to Elizabeth Theokritoff:

      “From the silence on the subject from Fathers such as Irenaeus, we might guess that they see death in the non-human creation as ‘natural’- at least in the sense that it existed from the beginning of time. … The original mortality of animals would be an obvious conclusion to draw from the Fathers’ consensus that even Adam was not immortal by nature: he was created for immortality, which is a different matter. Adam, as a creature of earth, would have returned to earth according to his own nature; he was offered the chance of a different destiny through keeping God’s commandment. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the animals who had not been given that option were mortal. A few writers, Gregory of Nyssa notable among them, are quite explicit that death did already exist among animals: what happened at man’s fall was that he lapsed into an animal state. On this view, the moment of the fall … would have made little immediate difference to the condition of earth’s other inhabitants.”

      She mentions Chrysostom, Nyssa and Ephrem the Syrian as believing animals were mortal by nature and thus mortality was natural to all creatures except humans. At the fall, humans become like all creatures in dying.
      Theodoret of Cyrus commenting on Romans 8:20 says:

      “He teaches that all visible creation shared a mortal nature, especially since the maker of all foresaw the Fall of Adam and the sentence of death imposed on him; it was not right or just, after all, that the things made on his account should share incorruption while he, for whose benefit they were made, should be subject to death and suffering.”
      I am wondering if what Theodoret is claiming is this: God knew Adam would sin and that death would be imposed upon him. Thus God made all visible creation to have a mortal nature so that when man sinned, man would not end up lower than the rest of visible creation but equal to it. Theodoret’s logic is that the rest of visible creation was after all made for the benefit of man – including the fact that the rest of creation was mortal.

      If this is the meaning of his comment, then it would imply that not all mortality was caused by human sin, but rather the rest of creation was created mortal – “to benefit humans” – and thus when we became mortal creation was still of benefit to us and not somehow beyond us.
      Florovsky seemed to hold to an idea that what happens to animals – life ends – is not strictly speaking “death” but just part of the cycle of nature which animals are in. Thus only humans really die – we have through sin been reduced to being part of this cyclical nature and are now ruled by the animal in us. This is a creative way of dealing with how death and extinction could have existed before the sin of Adam and Eve.

      Florovsky writes:

      “Strictly speaking it is only man that dies. Death indeed is a law of nature, a law of organic life. But man’s death means just his fall or entanglement into this cyclical motion of nature, just what ought not to have happened at all. As St. Gregory says, ‘from the nature of dumb animals mortality is transferred to a nature created for immortality.’ Only for man is death contrary to nature and mortality is evil. Only man is wounded and mutilated by death. In the generic life of dumb animals, death is rather a natural moment in the development of the species; it is the expression rather of the generating power of life than of infirmity. However, with the fall of man, mortality, even in nature, assumes an evil and tragic significance. Nature itself, as it were, is poisoned by the fatal venom of human decomposition. With dumb animals, death is but the discontinuation of individual existence. In the human world, death strikes at personality, and personality is much greater than mere individuality.” (CREATION AND REDEMPTION, p 106)

      Interesting, St. Gregory sees death as being a natural part of animal existence – from before the Fall. Death from the Fall is only introduced to humanity, not to the rest of creation – we become dust again – losing the divine breath.

  2. Michael Bauman says:

    Thank you Father. I have another question: the vocation of man to dress and keep the earth and offer it up to God in thanksgiving and worship, does that not transform and transfigure it in harmony with us?

    Romans 1 also tells us that the rest of creation suffered because of our disobedience.

    Where do you see this fitting in?

    • Fr. Ted says:

      If I understand your question correctly, the original vocation of humans was to be the mediator between God and the rest of creation. Had we accepted our role, creation would have been in harmony with God’s will. However, the sin of Eve and Adam as such is they rejected their role as humans and desired instead to be as God. In abandoning their God given role, the humans not only did not become God, they even lost their place as humans (mediators) – they did not ascend to heaven but fell to mere creaturely status. Sadly, God’s intention had been to share the divine life with us all along, but we rapaciously grasped for a role we thought God was denying us. In Philippians 2:4-11, we see the Son of God behaving in the opposite pattern of us – humbling Himself, not grasping onto divinity, but emptying Himself to be fully human. So now indeed, Christ, the true human transfigures the creation. Yes, we were supposed to lift up (anaphora) all things to heaven, instead we ourselves became just like the rest of creation taking on mortality. When in the liturgy we offer up to God the bread and wine (created things – grapes and wheat – transformed by humans into bread and wine) of this earth to be transfigured by God into the eternal life giving things which God intended for them to become through our faithful union with Him. Now we briefly in the Liturgy get a glimpse of what it is to be human, what creation was supposed to become through our stewardship, and what God intended for us all along – to be the mediators of His grace and the ones who transfigrued creation into full communion with God.

      • Michael Bauman says:

        Yes, you express my understanding. It seems to imply that the rest of creation was to also transcend its mortality as we did. Am I wrong?

        I think it is all too easy to make too great a separation between us and the rest of creation in a way that leads to dualism.

      • Fr. Ted says:

        I think humanity’s original role was to help creation transcend its mortality, instead we descended into mortality ourselves.

        I agree with you that dualism is not what the scripture presents, and I think in general the Patristic writers opposed dualism.

  3. Marc Trolinger says:

    Thank you Fr. Ted and Michael for a very illuminating discussion.

    I wonder if the predatory condition that now prevails in nature is somehow reflective of
    the fall. Perhaps the carnivores consumed only carion instead of preying on the living before the fall. The end of life of all creatures may have previously occurred without pain and suffering.

    Just a thought.

    • Fr. Ted says:

      A literal reading of Genesis would have it that there were no carnivores until after the flood – Genesis 9:3 is the first time God tells the humans that they can eat animals. Prior to that only green plants and plants bearing seed were given for food (Gen 1:29-30). One can only guess if scavengers were even envisioned in the early chapters of Genesis as they are not mentioned. Scavengers are all unclean according to the Torah, so perhaps they imagined in the Garden of Delights that there was no carrion to be eaten. Sort of an anomaly is the fact that Abel offers animal sacrifice in Genesis 4, whereas none had yet been commanded by God. Noah too offers animal sacrifice after saving the pairs of animals from the flood.
      There probably is some notion of the vegan paradise in our fasting rules for Great Lent. Whereas so many look forward to Pascha and its roasted lamb and ham, Lenten foods are of paradise. There is no mention of animal products for food in the early chapters of Genesis, and no mention of “processed foods” – cheese, wine, oil.

      • cindy says:

        Once again, I am making educational gains. Thanks for the explanation of the fasting tradition. It makes perfect sense.

  4. Pingback: Three Patristic Saints on Death | Fr. Ted's Blog

  5. Pingback: Some Scriptural Thoughts on Death (A) | Fr. Ted's Blog

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