The Universality of Death vs. the Inevitability of Sin

Every year at the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  This ancestral sin affected the course of the human race.

Adam and Eve, whether or not historical figures, symbolize all of humanity in its relationship to God.  Their story is our story, and each of our lives is their story.  Sin has become part of human life, and sin has corrupted human nature such that even an act of repentance cannot heal the wound to humanity.  None of this implies that humans have lost free will or responsibility for their own sins.  We are not destined to sin, for sin comes from each human will, not from human nature.  Human nature has only been corrupted by the consequences of sin – mortality has become part of our existence.  So we can note how did the early Church Fathers understand the role of sin in our lives?  Church historian  Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

“Despite all the strong language about sin, however, the fundamental problem of man was not sin, but his corruptibility.  The reason the incarnation was necessary was that man had not merely done wrong–for this, repentance would have sufficed– but had fallen into a corruption, a transiency that threatened him with annihilation.  As the agent of creation who had called man out of nothing, the Logos was also the one to rescue him from annihilation.  This the Logos did by taking flesh.

For this theology, it was the universality of death, not the inevitability of sin, that was fundamental.  The statement of Romans 5:14 that ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,’ was taken  to prove that there were many who had been ‘pure of every sin,’ such as Jeremiah and John the Baptist.  It was death and corruption that stood in the way of man’s participation in the divine nature, and these had to be overcome in the incarnation of the Logos.”

That various people in the Old and New Testaments are considered righteous gets forgotten in the tsunami which Augustine’s idea of original sin came to represent especially in Western Christianity.  So the texts of St. Paul in Romans 3:10, 23 seem to erase the claims of the rest of Scripture: “ it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…” and “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”   But human sinning did not mean that God no longer saw goodness in His creatures.  For even David is considered a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14).  Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Job, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Simeon the Elder just to name a few are righteous people in the Scriptures.  Instead of taking St. Paul’s words as the lens through which one must see all of humanity, we need to view St. Paul’s claims about all being sinners within the context of the entire Scriptures in which some people are identified as being righteous.  St. Paul himself acknowledges this in Romans 11:2-5 where he says:  “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” 

In 2 Chronicles 33 of the Septuagint, Manasseh prays:   “Surely, Lord, God of the heavenly Powers, You have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against You; but You have appointed repentance for me a sinner.”

Since there are righteous people specifically named in the Scriptures, and some who may even be considered sinless, sinning is not the problem.  It is the fact that human nature has fallen under corruption, separated from God, we have become mortal beings.  It is from this that Christ comes to save us.  Focusing narrowly on “orginal sin” gives us an incomplete idea as to the salvation brought about by Jesus Christ.  Pelikan continues:

“… it is clear some fragments that have survived of a treatise AGAINST THE DEFENDERS OF ORIGINAL SIN by Theodore Mopsuestia that he ‘reiterates in effect that it is only nature which can be inherited, not sin, which is the disobedience of the free and unconstrained will.’ Despite their fundamental differences, the theory of the hypostatic union and the theory of the indwelling of the Logos both concentrated on death rather than on sin.”


Pelikan’s last point is that in the Christian East, the two main competing schools of thought in interpreting the Scriptures, the Alexandrians and the Antiochians, though their teachings conflicted were still in agreement that death and not sin was the human problem.  And though the Church East and West agreed on the theology of the hypostatic union against the indwelling of the Logos, all those disputants (Orthodox and heretic, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian) still thought the greater human problems was death rather than sin.  The Eastern tradition as a whole, and much of the West in accepting the decision of the 4th Ecumenical Council all embrace this same idea which in some ways is a rejection of the implications of “original sin” that Christ came mostly to pay the price for sin rather than to destroy death.


The Sanctity of Human Life (2018)

A number of Church Fathers thought that the main human problem is not that we sin, for if sin had been our main problem, God had already appointed repentance for sin.   The Law of the Old Covenant would have been good enough for dealing with sin.  Humans could repent, perhaps offer the appropriate sacrifice and be done with the problem.  For many Fathers, the real human problem was corruption – death, we had become mortal beings as a result of sin. This was something that repentance could not undo or fix. Repentance itself was not enough to overcome the corruption – the fact that we died as a result of sin.  And they understood that it was not sin that we inherited, for sin was something committed by the will and not by our nature.  Corruption, mortality had entered into human nature and now was passed on from one generation to the next.

2nd Temple

It was that our nature had been corrupted which required salvation.  That humanity had become corrupt, mortal, made God’s own incarnation necessary.  God took on human flesh in order to heal it.  And God took on death in the flesh in order to overcome death/corruption/mortality.  The death of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, meant the defeat of death and the salvation of the human race.

In baptism, we humans die and rise with Christ, thus baptism was our way to participate in the salvation which Christ offered humanity.  We “put on Christ” as St. Paul says – we put on Christ’s resurrected humanity so that we too can defeat death and rise from the dead.


This is also why we baptize infants. Baptism is not only for the remission of sins. We die with Christ in baptism in order to rise with Christ in the resurrection. Baptism is to overcome death and corruption.   St. John Chrysostom said those who think baptism is just for the remission of sins misunderstand baptism.  As we read in Acts 19:3-6, baptism only for the remission of sins was what John the Forerunner offered, but Jesus offered something more in baptism:

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.  

The baptism in Christ gives us salvation from corruption, it offers us eternal life.  As Chrysostom notes, Infants have not sinned, they are sinless. We baptize them not because they have sinned but because they are subject to death and corruption. We baptize them so they too can rise to life after death.  Even if they haven’t sinned, they will die, for they have inherited human corruption.


Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:14-17)

It is our understanding of death, corruption, as being the real enemy of humanity that causes us to oppose abortion. Abortion is inflicting death and corruption on a human being who has not sinned – an innocent, sinless human whom we by abortion condemn to an unrighteous death.

Again, we can think about Chrysostom’s comment in which he says, our warfare doesn’t make the living dead, but makes the dead to live.

A human is a composite being consisting of soul, body and spirit. The body is also part of who I am, or who you are.  The corruption of the body, death, is destroying “me” – you and I.  God brought us from non-existence into being and death wants to return a human to non-existence by destroying the human body.

It is this thinking that leads us to oppose abortion, but also tells us why we should not use our body for sin.  The body is part of who you are. If you sin, you unite yourself, your body to that which is ungodly, to death itself.  We should never do that because our bodies were meant to be temples of the Holy Spirit.

If we Christians over focus on “sin” as being the main or only human problem, we can easily miss why we consider human life to be sacred.  God is at work in us to save us from death and to give us life in abundance.

St. Isaac on the Merciful Heart

Isaac loved solitude and stillness, but any kind of closing in upon himself, any thought of his own salvation apart from his brethren, was entirely alien to him. He possessed that ‘merciful heart’ which is characterized by having compassion on all creatures, not only Christians, but also apostates, animals, and demons. His personal prayer, like liturgical prayer, grew to a cosmic scale embracing not only neighbors and strangers, but the whole of humanity and the entire universe.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p. 202)

The Incarnation of God is Our Salvation

“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:

‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’  (AH 5.1.1)

Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.

‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”

(John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 62 & 63)

The Incarnation: A Second Communion

Creation of Adam

St. John of Damascus writes:

“Formerly, in a unified show of his own graciousness, God established humanity: he breathed the breath of life into the one newly formed of the earth, gave him a share in a better existence, honored him with his own image and likeness, and make him a citizen of Eden, a tablemate of angels. But since we darkened and destroyed the likeness of the divine image by the filth of passions, he who is compassionate has shared with us a second communion, more secure and still more wonderful than the first.

For he remains in the exalted height of his own divinity, but takes on a share of what is less, divinely forming humanity in himself; he mingles the archetype with its image, and reveals in it today his own proper beauty. (“Oration on the Transfiguration,” Light on the Mountain, p. 210)

Through the Prayers of the Theotokos

“‘She is the leaven of our new creation, the root of the true vine whose branches we have become, by virtue of the germination proper to baptism. She is the point of arrival of the reconciliation of God with men, on which occasion the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven; peace on earth and good will toward men” (Lk 2:14).

For this reason the recollection of the Virgin wakes up our souls, making them consider how, by his intervention, we have been called from such a great irreconcilable enmity, from a situation of war, so to speak, to such a great peace, to divine familiarity, to a marvelous association.’ (Severus of Antioch)

This role of Mary continues even in the time of the Church, seeing that she intercedes before God on our behalf. Our author is certainly convinced of this, since he exhorts his audience to take advantage of her intercession:

‘We implore her who is the birthgiver of God and pray her to intercede for us, she who is honored by all the saints.'” 

(Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 315)

Adam, Moses and Christ: Denying Salvation Alone

Exodus 32:9 (NRSV)
The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”   . . . On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”
(Exodus 32:30)

Holy Moses!  There are many great events in the life of Moses which are wonderful to contemplate.  Exodus 32 describes one such stunning moment.  God is fed up with Israel and tells Moses to stand aside as God intends to destroy Israel.  Moses puts his own life on the line in defense of Israel – a people who have done nothing but rebel against Moses and blame him for all their troubles.  Yet, Moses tells God, he won’t separate himself from Israel – whatever Israel’s fate is to be, Moses demands that he should share their same judgment.  Even though Moses did not sin against God on this occasion and God tells Moses that he alone is to be made into a great nation, Moses tells God: “If you won’t save Israel, then don’t bother to save me either.”  God is not willing to destroy His faithful servant, so chooses to spare Israel rather than lose Moses.  The notion of salvation being a social construct is an idea revealed in Scripture.  No one is saved alone.  In Christianity all  are saved as part of the Body of Christ – and thus together with all of God’s redeemed people.  Moses shows us to choose that communal way of thinking – even if I’m the only one not sinning, still I choose to be identified with all of the people of God, to share with them whatever judgment they deserve.  Moses tells God: Do not look at me and see me as the lone righteous person.  I’m either part of the people, or I am nothing.

The idea that we are saved in, through, with and because of community is not one that meshes well with the extreme individualistic thinking of the modern West.  It does, however, remind us of what it is to be truly and fully human – to share in a common human nature, to be part of social history, to be lovingly united to one’s fellow humans.

We encounter this same thinking in a rather rare, yet beautiful interpretation of Scripture found in the writings of Johannes Duns Scotus, a prominent Franciscan theologian of the 13th century.  Going against the Augustinian tradition which dominated Western Christianity, Scotus has the first human, Adam,  choosing to eat the fruit God forbade them to eat, not in rebellion against God but rather choosing to be united with his wife Eve, who had already fallen in sin and become mortal.  For Scotus, Adam commits not the original sin, but rather chooses self-denial, kenotic love.  Instead of being separated from the woman whom God gave him because of her sin, Adam decides to share Eve’s fate, showing his true humanity.  Adam may think the whole mess is God’s fault (“the woman YOU gave me...” – Genesis 3:12), but he denies himself in order to remain united to God’s gift to him – united to “the bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh” (Genesis 2:23).  All humans share the same life, a life which God in the incarnation chooses also to share with us.   Scotus says:

“Adam saw perfectly clearly that his wife had been deceived and that the serpent had lured her into a trap from which she could not now escape. She will have to die, he thought, and God will offer to create a new companion for me, either from another one of my ribs or from some other source. But I do not want a new companion. I want this one and only this one. There is but a single way in which I can remain with her, and that is by conjoining my fate to hers. We will live — and, when the time comes, we will rot together.”   [quoted in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, p 308]

Scotus has Adam thinking like Moses – I do not want to be considered by God apart from the people God gave to me.  It is a tradition not of salvation alone, but salvation as a member of God’s chosen people.

Both Exodus 32 and Scotus’s quote also reveal to us the Lord Jesus, who chose to deny His exalted, heavenly position, and to become a human, in order to completely identify with us, including choosing to die for us and with us and because of us, rather than to be a transcendent God separated from us His creatures.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:1-11)

Jesus Christ becomes incarnate, takes on Himself human nature and the human condition in order to redeem us and be eternally united to us.  Salvation alone is no salvation at all for it denies our humanity which Christ embraced.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.   (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

NOW is the Time for Salvation, Not in the Hereafter

Apostles (Byzantine ca 1000AD)

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.   (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)

St. Gregory Palamas exhorts us:

“Where did true death – the death that produces and induces in soul and body both temporal and eternal death – have its origin? Was it not in the realm of life? Thus was man, alas, at once banished from God’s paradise, for he had imbued his life with death and made it unfit for paradise. Consequently true life – the life that confers immortality and true life on both soul and body – will have its origin here, in this place of death. If you do not strive here to gain this life in your soul, do not deceive yourself with vain hopes about receiving it hereafter, or about God then being compassionate towards you. For then is the time of requital and retribution, not of sympathy and compassion: the time for the revealing of God’s wrath and anger and just judgement, for the manifestation of the mighty and sublime power that brings chastisement upon unbelievers. Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God (cf. Heb. 10:31)! Woe to him who hereafter experiences the Lord’s wrath, who has not acquired in this life the fear of God and so come to know the might of His anger, who has not through his actions gained a foretaste of God’s compassion!

For the time to do all this is the present life. That is the reason why God has accorded us this present life, giving us a place for repentance. Were this not the case a person who sinned would at once be deprived of this life. For otherwise of what use would it be to him?”  (“To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia”, The Philokalia, pp.298-299)


Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.


“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.


This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

St. Paul’s Understanding of Faith

“I want to suggest that for Paul there is one soteriological model: justification is by crucifixion, specifically co-crucifixion, understood as participation in Christ’s act of covenant fulfillment….

A close reading of Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 6:1-7:6, is connection with other passages in Paul (especially Rom 5:1-11; 2 Cor 5:14-21; and, once again, Phil 2:6-11), reveals that the apostle understands faith as co-crucifixion with the Messiah Jesus, or “justification by co-crucifixion,” and therefore as inherently participatory.” (Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p. 43-44).