As we saw in the previous blog, sin led to the death for all humans, but now Christ overcomes death for all humans through His resurrection (Romans 5:12-18). St. Paul’s focus in Romans 5 is not on how sin spread through the human race, but rather he focuses on the spread of death to all humans and then on salvation for humanity, which ultimately means the defeat of death. In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul reiterates the same idea he writes about in Romans with the emphasis on death being the final enemy to be overcome:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. . . . The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (15:20-26)
The problem for humanity and all creation, according to St. Paul, as well as the cure/salvation for all focuses on overcoming death. St. Paul says in Romans 6 (which we Orthodox read at Baptisms) –
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (6:5-9)
Death was the result of sin for humans. Christ comes into the world to destroy death and does so by His own death (“trampling down death by death“) and by His resurrection (“and upon those in the tombs bestowing life“). We each participate in this salvation when we put on Christ through baptism. We become one with Christ, dying with Him and experiencing His death. We are raised from the baptismal waters with and in the Risen Lord. This salvation which we experience in baptism, we celebrate at Pascha.
“Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Our Paschal hymn celebrates the defeat and destruction of death, but makes no mention of sin. It is not that overcoming sin is unimportant, for St. Paul treats sin as a deadly power at work in our lives. Death however is that true enemy of humanity separating us from the life-giving God. It is death which God warned the first humans about in Genesis 2. Both sin and death are shown in the resurrection of Christ to be temporary things possessing no infinite power and of no eternal value. God triumphs over both, emptying hell of all the dead. We see in the homily of St. John Chrysostom at Pascha that he declares “not one dead remains in the grave…” No longer is death needed to limit the power of sin, for death too has been exposed as an enemy of both God and humanity. God triumphs over both giving life to the world and leading humanity from earth to heaven.
This same theology we celebrate in the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. It is worthy quoting extensively from St. Basil’s anaphora here to see how the theology ties together. In the next blog we will do a bit more analysis on the text of the prayer. So we pray at the Liturgy of St. Basil:
With these blessed powers, O loving Master, we sinners also cry aloud and say: You are holy, most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. When You created man by taking dust from the earth, honoring him with Your own image, O God, You set him in a paradise of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of eternal blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when man disobeyed You, the true God Who had created him, and was misled by the deception of the serpent, he became subject to death through his own transgressions. In Your righteous judgment, O God, You expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ Himself.
For You, O good One, did not desert forever Your creature whom You had made. Nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but through the tender compassion of Your mercy, You visited him in various ways: You sent prophets. You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation were well-pleasing to You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants, the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the law as a help. You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us by Your Son Himself, through Whom You also made the ages. He, being the Radiance of Your glory and the Image of Your person, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal to You, the God and Father. He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men. Becoming incarnate from a holy virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory.
For since through a man sin entered the world, and through sin death, so it pleased Your only-begotten Son Who was in the bosom of You, the God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, born under the law, to condemn sin in His own flesh, so that those who were dead in Adam might be made alive in Himself – Your Christ. He lived in this world and gave us commandments of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption. So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the First-born of the dead, that He, Himself, might truly be the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Your majesty on high, and He will come to render to each man according to his works.
Death is overthrown for Christ our God is risen from the dead. God continues to act according to His nature: in love for His creation. God overcomes all that separates us from Himself. According to St. Basil’s prayer humans chose to subject themselves to death; this was our doing, not God’s who tried in love to warn us away from death. Despite humanity subjected itself to death, God continued to work for our life and salvation from death. This is the history recorded in the Bible. It is not an exact history of everything that transpired in the world, but it is the history of the relationship of both God and humanity to life and death. In the end, God shows death to be evil, and a temporary force in the world, which He through His love overcomes so that we might share in the divine life which is eternal.