Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes eloquently about what Orthodox believe about death and human mortality, and how the Christian vision of the human being and of death is so totally different from the non-Christian understanding.
“As for our own ultimate fate and destiny after death, this has gradually ceased being understood in the light of Christ’s resurrection and in relation to it. When we speak of Christ we say that He is risen, but about ourselves we profess the immortality of the soul, a belief which existed among Jews and Greeks long before the advent of Christ, and which to this day is the common belief of all religions without exception. As strange as this may sound, this is also a belief in which the resurrection of Christ is simply unnecessary. What has caused this peculiar divorce? The cause lies in our understanding of death, or rather, in our understanding of death as the separation of soul and body.
All pre- and non-Christian religions view the separation of soul and body not only as something ‘natural’, but as something decidedly positive, the soul’s liberation from the body, which interferes with its heavenly, pure and blessed spirituality. And insofar as human beings experience the body as the source of evil, sickness, suffering, and passions, so it naturally becomes the meaning and purpose of religion and religious life to liberate the soul from the ‘prison’ of the body, a liberation which reaches its climax in death. However, it must be emphasized as strongly as possible that this understanding of death is not Christian; indeed, it is incompatible with Christianity and directly contradicts it. Christianity proclaims, affirms and teaches that the separation of soul and body – which is our definition of death – is evil. This is what God did not create. This is what entered the world and enslaved it in opposition to God, in defiance of His plan, His will for the world, for man and for life. This is what Christ came to destroy.
But in order to understand, or rather, fully to sense and feel this Christian awareness of death, at least a few words must first be said about this divine plan, which is partially disclosed in the Holy Scriptures and fully revealed in Christ – in His teaching, His death, His resurrection. Briefly and very simply, this plan may be sketched as follows: God created man with a soul and a body, or in other words, both spiritual and material. Man in the Bible is precisely this union of body, soul, and spirit. Man, as created by God, is spirit-filled body and incarnate spirit, and therefore any separation of soul and body (and not only their final separation in death), every rupture of their unity, is evil, a spiritual catastrophe.
This is also why we believe that the world’s salvation is God’s incarnation, His putting on flesh, a body – not ‘as if He had a body’, but a body in the full sense of this word: a body that gets hungry, gets tired, that suffers. Thus, separation of soul and body in death puts an end to life as the Scriptures define it, the body filled with the spirit, and the spirit incarnate within a body. No, in death man does not disappear, for created beings have no power to annihilate what God has called from non-existence into being. Yet in death man is buried into the darkness of lifelessness and powerlessness, he is given over to corruption and decay, as the apostle Paul says (cf. Rom. 8:21).
Let me repeat and emphasize that God did not create the world for separation, death, disintegration and decay. This is why the Christian Gospel proclaims that ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26). The resurrection is the world’s recreation in its original beauty and wholeness, in which material creation is fully permeated by spirit, and spirit is fully incarnate in God’s creation. The world is given to man as his life, and therefore, according to our Christian, Orthodox teaching, God does not destroy it, but transforms it into a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev.21:1), into the spiritual body of man, into the temple of God’s presence and glory in all that is created. ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death…’
The destruction, this annihilation of death begins the very moment the Son of God, in His undying love for us, Himself freely descended to death and fills its darkness, its despair, its horror with the light of His love. This is why on Easter we not only sing that ‘Christ has risen from the dead…’, but that He is also ‘trampling down death by death.’”(Celebration of Faith: Sermons Vol. 1, pp 94-96)
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