Three Patristic Saints on Death

This is the final blog in this series which began with Death: The Last Enemy of God. The previous blog is Some Scriptural Thoughts on Death (B).

It is clear in Scripture that death is God’s enemy.  The Scriptures witness that God finds no pleasure in the death of anyone, and that in fact death was invited into human life through human sin.   What is this “death” which humans dread, yet readily visit on their enemies real and imagined?  St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) describes death in these terms:

“As the separation of the soul from the body is the death of the body, so the separation of God from the soul is the death of the soul.  And this death of the soul is the true death.  This is made clear by the commandment given in paradise, when God said to Adam, ‘On whatever day you eat from the forbidden tree you will certainly die’ (cf. Gen. 2:17).  And it was indeed Adam’s soul that died by becoming through his transgression separated from God; for bodily he continued to live after that time, even for nine hundred and thirty years (cf. Gen. 5:5).  The death, however, that befell the soul because of the transgression not only crippled the soul and made man accursed; it also rendered the body itself subject to fatigue, suffering and corruptibility, and finally handed it over to death.  For it was after the dying of his inner self brought about by the transgression that the earthly Adam heard the words, ‘Earth will be cursed because of what you do, it will produce thorns and thistles for you; through the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you return to the earth from which you were taken: for you are earth, and to earth you will return’ (Gen. 3:17-19, LXX).  …  Thus the violation of God’s commandment is the cause of all types of death, both of soul and body, whether in the present life or in that endless chastisement.  And death, properly speaking, is this: for the soul to be unharnessed from divine grace and to be yoked to sin.  This death, for those who have their wits, is truly dreadful and something to be avoided.  This, for those who think aright, is more terrible than the chastisement of Gehenna.  From this let us also flee with all our might.  Let us cast away, let us reject all things, bid farewell to all things: to all relationships, actions and intentions that drag us downward, separate us from God and produce such death.  He who is frightened of this death and has preserved himself from it will not be alarmed by the oncoming death of the body, for in him the true life dwells, and bodily death, so far from taking true life away, renders it inalienable.  As the death of the soul is authentic death, so the life of the souls is authentic life.  Life of the soul is union with God, as life of the body is its union with the soul.”  (St. Gregory Palamas in THE PHILOKALIA  v. 4, pp 296-297).

The death of the soul, according to Palamas is worse than going to the everlasting punishment of hell!  The death of the soul is what every believing person should strive to avoid.  Death is not God’s plan for humanity.  It is to be destroyed by God, and that destruction began in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

One thousand years before St. Gregory Palamas wrote his description of death, St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384 AD) also commented on the entrance of death into the human condition.

“And so man separated himself from the fruit of all good things, and by his disobedience he was filled with the fruit that brings destruction.  And the name of that fruit was mortal sin.  Straightway he died to the more perfect life: he passed from a divine life to one on the level with irrational beasts.  Once death was mingled with his nature, mortality was passed on to all generations of his children.  Hence we are born into a life of death, for, in a certain sense, our very life has died.  Our life is indeed dead because we have been deprived of immortality.  But the man who is aware that he lives in the midst of two lives can cross the barrier between them, such that by destroying the one he can give the victory to the other.  Man by his death to the true life entered into this life of death.  So too, when he dies to this irrational life of death, he is restored to life eternal.  And so there is no doubt but that we cannot enter into this life of blessedness unless we die to sin.”  (St. Gregory of Nyssa, FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 259)

St. Gregory of Nyssa comments on what he believes to be a transformation of physical death.  In his thinking it is necessary for humans to pass through death in order to rid ourselves of the mortality that has become part of the human condition.  We cannot enter into the blessed eternal life until we have died to sin – which is not possible until we have left this world.  Thus death in his thinking has become a purifying process – it rids us of our life of sin.  St. Basil the Great (d. 379AD), Gregory of Nyssa’s older brother, also writes about death in this more positive light.  Referring to the death of a fellow Christian, he says:

“’The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’ (Job 1:21).  As the Lord thought good so it came to pass. Let us adopt those marvelous words.  At the hands of the righteous Judge, they who show like good deeds shall receive a like reward.  We have not lost a fellow Christian; we have restored him to the Lender.  His life is not destroyed; it is changed for the better.  He whom we love is not hidden in the ground; he is received into heaven.  Let us wait a little while, and we shall be once more with him.  The time of our separation is not long, for in this life we are all like travelers on a journey, hastening on to the same shelter.  While one has reached his rest another arrives, another hurries on but one and the same end awaits them all.”  (St. Basil the Great quoted in THROUGH THE YEAR WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 166)

Death for these saints is a temporary state, like sleep, from which we shall be awakened by the sweet voice of the Savior.

(of possible interest – a blog series on Hell

This entire blog series on death is available as one document in PDF format at Death: The Last Enemy of God (PDF)

6 thoughts on “Three Patristic Saints on Death

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

  2. Marc Trolinger

    The explanation that humans are composed of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23) is sometimes more helpful in understanding these matters. Because we were created to live in the spiritual creation as well as the material creation, we were created with a tripartite nature.

    The tragedy of our inherited mortality becomes a blessing through the resurrection according to St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:35-57). As mankind died spiritually before dying physically, we are resurrected spiritually before being resurrected physically. This is why our faith and baptism is considered the first resurrection (Rev. 20:6).

    A person who physically dies in the Faith, is spiritually alive with Christ and the angels in Heaven. A person who physically dies and is still spiritually dead at that time, finds themselves in the same condition as Satan and the demons.

    1. Fr. Ted

      The tripartite understanding of humans – body, spirit and soul – certainly helps prevent someone from falling into dualistic thinking about creation. The divine comes into full contact with the human in the soul.

  3. Michael Bauman

    There is a stream of thought within the Church that makes the possibility of passing into life seem next to impossible (unless one is heroically ascetic, salvation may not be possible). I have always found this approach to be just a mirror image of the Protestant approach of once saved, always saved. Each seems problematic.

    Certainly we need the grace of God as the Orthodox funeral service clearly demonstrates, but I’ve always wondered if it really is that hard? I’m not looking for the minimum or anything, but if a relatively ordinary Chrisitan life focused as much as possible on prayer, worship and almsgiving is not enough, then most of us are in trouble and death will win.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I agree with your assessment, and wonder the same kind of thing. But then I look at something like the Last Judgment Parable in Matthew 25:31-46, where there is no mention of sin or asceticism. The judgement is based upon one’s willingness to love. The parable is even more significant in that it occurs in Matthew’s Gospel, and Matthew is the most “Jewish” of all the Evangelists in advocating strict adherence to fulfilling the Law. The Law however gets summed up several times in Scripture as involving love.

      1. Marc Trolinger

        I think the problems arise when Christians with an over developed weakness for judging others forget that we are all saved by the loving sacrifice of our Lord. How we actualize this reality in this life and the next, depends on our efforts to reflect this love toward Him and our fellow human beings. Ascetic efforts are only of value if they aid us in cultivating our hearts to love each other, and in so doing, loving God. Holy Apostolic Tradition (Matt. 25:31-46 included) makes it clear that the only ones who are truly lost are those who fail to love, and judging others can be an indicator of this tragic condition.

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