Mortality as Mercy 


For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. (Philippians 1:21-24)

4263451771_bd9643df8d_wThe epistles of St Paul are written over a number of years, responding to different questions at different points in his own life as a disciple of Christ as he ages. There are moments at which he seems to believe Christ’s second coming in imminent and other moments at which Paul accepts that the return of Christ may not happen in his lifetime. In the above Philippians passage, St Paul is wrestling with his own death, which he interprets to mean he will then be with Christ and thus a preferred outcome, or, alternatively, carrying on in this world to continue to build up (edify) the fledgling Christian movement. Because he is dealing with his own aging as well as the changes occurring in the Christian communities due to the growth of the Church, it is not always possible to make a consistent dogmatic interpretation of Paul on some issues. Paul’s thoughts about his own death vary between believing Christ will return before he dies or Christ will not return soon and so he has to prepare for his own death, yet realizing he may still have work to do in this world.

The wonderful Roman Catholic scripture scholar Jean Danielou comments on the biblical claim that mortality resulted from sin, noting that numerous Church Fathers actually thought death was a form of God’s mercy to limit the effect of sin on humans, rather than a punishment from God.

8292671260_cb77e5facd_wEven the consequences of sin seem to Irenaeus to have been inspired more by the compassion than by the wrath of God –as, for example, when he explains why God deprived Man of the Tree of Life: ‘For this reason also he casts him out of Paradise, and set him far away from the Tree of Life –not in order to deprive him of that tree through jealousy, but in pity toward him, so that he should not continue forever as a transgressor, and that the sin which surrounded him should not be immortal, an interminable and incurable evil. Instead he checked his transgression by interposing death and causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh’ (Adv. haer. III, 23, 6). The Tree of Life would have made Man immortal; hence death is an act of divine grace, which sets a limit to the life of sin, and allows God to recreate Man in the resurrection. This idea later became a major theme in Athanasius, and was also adopted by Gregory of Nyssa.”


[Numerous Eastern Church Fathers interpreted the events of the fall and its consequences in a more positive light than Western Fathers who saw sin dominating humans, almost taking away free will from us. The Eastern Fathers saw free will as a positive gift from God – we would not be human without it. Free will means we choose between good and evil but they are often equally attractive to us – there is a real choice. God did not intend us to be automatons obeying Him because we could do nothing else. God created us capable of love, which means capable of choice. God did not create us to be robots doing His will automatically. His love for us is that we choose what we want to do and our choices make a difference. God is not angry with us for choosing since He gifted us with this ability. God even understood we might at times choose badly, that is the risk of giving creatures freewill. Freewill is not a curse, nor an excuse for God to judge us.]


But Irenaeus goes even further farther than this. Not only is original sin excusable, it is bound up with the very exercise of freedom. For what God desires is that Man should freely choose the good. Human freedom is another essential element in Irenaeus’ thought, and one which he was led to define in response to the position of the Gnostics, who held that men are good or bad by nature. Irenaeus sets out to prove that such an arrangement would be unworthy of God: ‘If some are by nature good and others by nature bad, neither are the good worthy of praise nor the bad of blame’ (Adv. haer. IV, 37, 2). What then of the obvious objection that God ought not to have created men who would immediately behave so ill toward him (Adv. haer. IV, 37, 6)? Irenaeus replies that if God had made men such that they could not behave in this way, then they would also have lacked all the highest and best attributes of human nature:


For they (sc. men) were made capable of reason and deliberation and judgment, and not –like irrational or inanimate things, which can do nothing of their own will, but are drawn to the good by force and necessity, having but one idea, and one pattern of behavior –inflexible and without judgment, able to be nothing except what they were made. In such circumstances neither would what is good be pleasant to them, nor would the gift of God be precious, nor would the good be something to be greatly sought after, if it came about without any effort or care or zeal of their own, but innately of its own accord and without effort.  . . .   In that case they would neither understand that the good is beautiful, nor would they enjoy it. For what enjoyment of the good can there be in those who are ignorant of the good? Or what glory can there be for those who have not sought it with zeal? (Adv. haer. IV, 37, 6)  (GOSPEL MESSAGE AND HELLENISTIC CULTURE, p 406)


Irenaeus rejects any notion that humans are predestined to good or evil. We are created with free will and we choose our destiny. God is not interested in mere obedience as God wants us to choose and live a life of love. God created us capable of knowing the difference between good and evil, and gives glory to those who choose the good. If God had predestined our behavior, or made us automatons incapable of choice, then we would not know what is good nor would we be able to love. God was willing to risk everything by giving us freewill as God, including the incarnation and the crucifixion.