A Christian End to Our Life

Then, I come to our faith. What is our faith concerning death? It can again be described in simple sentences, but behind each one lies a wealth of experience and vision. In Christian doctrine, death is first of all called the “sting of sin.” It is not just an elementary answer about biological or physical death. In Christian vocabulary death means separation from God as a result of sin – a kind of ontological catastrophe that has made creation, or rather man’s life, into what it was not when God created it. Thus death carries the sting of sin. As separation from God, death – not physical, not physiological death, but death as sin and separation – has been abolished by Christ’s death. Therefore the dead – those who sleep – are alive in Christ.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, p. 145)

For the human, separation from God is the definition of death.  Christ’s death has changed everything – for even in death we are not separated from Christ our God. There is no place we can go where we will be separated from Christ. As it says in Psalm 139:8 –

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

 He descended to the place of the dead, filling all things with Himself.  In death we are with Christ who triumphed over death and its separation from God.  Christ is Lord of the dead as well as the living for all are alive in Him.

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.   (Romans 14:8-9)

Death: Sojourn to Life

St. Ephrem the Syrian in one of his poems takes us on a tour from Paradise to earth.  Paradise is superlatively better than earth, and yet humans cling to the earth and don’t want to leave it.   He compares our attitude to death to that of the infant in the mother’s womb – both the dying person  and the unborn infant are reluctant to leave the world they know, even if they are entering into an even greater experience or life.  

I was in wonder as I crossed

the borders of Paradise

at how well-being, as though a companion

turned round and remained behind.

And when I reached the shore of earth,

the mother of thorns,

I encountered all kinds

of pain and suffering.

I learned how, compared to Paradise,

our abode is but a dungeon;

yet the prisoners within it

weep when they leave it!

I was amazed at how even infants

weep as they leave the womb–

weeping because they come out

from darkness into light

and from suffocation they issue forth

into this world!

Likewise death, too,

is for the world

a symbol of birth,

and yet people weep because they are born

out of this world, the mother of suffering,

into the garden of splendors.

Have pity on me,

O Lord of Paradise,

and if it is not possible for me

to enter your Paradise,

grant that I may graze

outside, by its enclosure;

within, let there be spread

the table for the “diligent,”

but may the fruits within its enclosure

drop outside like the “crumbs”

for sinners, so that, through Your grace,

they may live!

(Hymns on Paradise, pp. 106-108)

Conquering the Fear of Death

“How can the Christian overcome the fear of death? The faith that is central to the hope of Christians is the recognition of Christ’s conquest of death and that his resurrection is the first fruits, the guarantee of the universal resurrection of all human beings at the end of time. ‘In order to be able to face death one must be anchored in the certainty, an experiential and not only theoretical certainty, of eternal life. . .   there is in this possession of eternal life a certainty that reduces to naught the fear of death–not the pain of separation, not the regret that death exists, but the fear.’”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, M.D., Suffering and the Nature of Healing, pp. 253-254)

When Death Wept

At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion.  They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades.  Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God.  These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God.  Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades.  In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.

In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God.  Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like.  He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either.    Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God.  Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures.  By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven!  So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:

“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.

Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)

The Crucifixion of Death

In one of the Lenten hymns from the 4th week of Great Lent, there is an interesting exchange in which the nailing of Christ to the cross and piercing His side with the spear is actually bringing about the death of Death.  In the hymn, Hell/Death is personified and is at first puzzled by what it is experiencing  during Christ’s crucifixion.  The confusion turns to panic as Death realizes its own effort to kill the Christ has resulted in its own destruction.

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the
thieves, and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, Hell cried to
those below: My ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a
nail in my heart?

Crucified heel bone pierced by a nail. (1st Century)

A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am
torn apart! I suffer inwardly; anguish has seized my belly and my
senses. My spirit trembles and I am forced to cast out Adam and his
posterity! A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the
Cross cries out to them: Enter again into Paradise!

The hymn is perhaps an Orthodox version of the “substitutionary” theory of atonement.  In the Orthodox hymn, however, the emphasis is not on the innocent Christ dying on the cross in the place of sinful humanity.  Rather, Christ’s torment, suffering and death is actually crucifying Death.  Christ’s own death turns out to be the annihilation of death.

Death: The Unnatural Enemy

“Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problems.” (Joseph Stalin)

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:26)

“But for Christians, death is not natural or normal, it is not the way things are meant to be. ‘Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life, is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give is a ‘status’, a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.’” (Alexander Schmemann in Suffering and the Nature of Healing by Daniel B. Hinshaw, p 231)

The Sting of Death

“According to Fr. Sophrony, physical death and, especially, the accompanying fear of physical death corrupts human agency and fuels our willful tendency for selfishness, individualism, and sin. In a telling passage he writes, ‘Until man attains his resurrection in Christ everything in him is disfigured by fear of death and consequently by servitude to sin, also’. Fr. Sophrony here suggests that the tragedy of physical death fuels the further tragedy of sinful action; the condition of mortality lies at the core of humanity’s ethical predicament because fear of physical death is a basis for enslavement to sin. Fr. Sophrony cites a passage from the Letter to Hebrews (2:14-15) to support his view of the fall, which comports with several other voices within the Orthodox tradition. For example John Romanides states: 

The power of [physical] death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the life… Man does not die because he is guilty for the sin of Adam. He becomes a sinner because he is yoked to the power of the devil through death and its consequences.

For Romanides, Fr Sophrony, and other recent Orthodox thinkers, the two primary consequences of the fall are death and the fear of death; the disaster of sin in the world stems from the principal catastrophe of mortality. …  Death is the enemy because it violates the human identity as a creature made in God’s image, made for eternal existence. In addition, Fr. Sophrony affirms the biblical promise that the resurrected life will be an embodied life, although he refrains from making specific claims about the nature of resurrected bodies, other than those present in the New Testament record. Thus, the resurrected life satisfies the fundamental human yearning: it removes death’s finality, adding a new chapter after the tragic denouement of physical death and entailing the salvation of the entire human being – both the physical and the non-physical dimensions.” (Perry T. Hamalis in Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pp 208-209 & 210-211)

Facing Death With Detachment and Peace

“Everything in life is vain and futile, and life itself is like a dream, like a fleeting shadow!  We mortals toil and sweat, for nothing, striving against all odds to gain even the smallest possession.  And if they do attain any of their desires here on earth, yet must they lie in stillness in the tomb, stripped of everything, be they king or pauper.  Therefore, O Christ our God, grant Your departed servants eternal rest, in Your love for mankind.”  (Saturday Hymn from Matins)

The above hymn is a sober reflection on life and its terminal limit, and calls to mind the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”    (John 6:27)

Even when we remember death, we do not always think about eternity.  Sometimes we work even harder to accumulate the things of this earth while still on earth to enjoy them.

I do appreciate reading articles from non-Orthodox sources when they make a point that is consistent with or supportive of Orthodox ideas.  Jeffrey Klugger wrote in the February 22 2016 issue of TIME  an interesting short article titled, “Why Are Old People Less Scared of Dying.”  For some people the fear of dying declines as they age and get closer to death.  Their attitude toward death changes, and some even look forward to the rest they believe will be given them at death.  Klugger offers an explanation for why aging people become more accepting of death.

“Studies show there can be a powerful perspective shift later in life when we come to understand that what we’ve always thought of as ownership is really just a long-term lease.  ‘A lot of our fear of death is about losing the things we’ve built up,’ says Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England…  ‘But  elderly people let go of their attachment to these things, and in the process they let go of some of their fear.'”

Aging perhaps makes us more realistic about our temporary sojourn on earth.  We are God’s guests here, not the permanent residents.  All that we accumulate in life is lent to us for our use while we sojourn on earth.  But we can’t take it with us when we die.   That peace comes with faith and hope.  It is available not just to the aged, but to anyone who is willing to do as Christ taught:  “Deny yourself.  Take up you cross and follow me.”   It is what enables some Christians to tithe and practice generous charity.  We understand wealth is a gift from God to be shared with others.  We understand we owe God for everything and so are willing to be generous in charity in this lifetime.

Thinking about death is not morbidity.   It is thinking about reality – we are mortal beings after all.  As Orthodox we think about death frequently.  Every year we celebrate the death of Jesus Christ as the death of death!   We do memorials throughout the year, reminding ourselves of deceased loved ones.   We prepare ourselves consciously for death as a passage from this world to the world which is to come.

Klugger in his article concludes:

“The certainty of  a journey’s end might make better travelers of us all.”

Certainly, this should be true of those of us who follow Christ and who sing every year:

“Christ is risen from the dead,

trampling down death by death,

and upon those in the tombs

bestowing life!”

Learning to let go of things is a spiritual lesson for us, not just something learned through aging.  C.S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape analyze humans in this way:

“They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong – certainly not to them, whatever happens.”  (THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, Letter XXI)

The World May or May Not End September 5

RasputinSpoiler Alert:    Grigori Rasputin (d. 1916AD), the Russian self-proclaimed savant and mystic charlatan who predicted his own death and the downfall of the Russian imperial family also predicted that the world would end on 23 August 2013.

While some were relieved that the world didn’t end with the Mayan calendar on 21 December 2012, yet another prophecy of the end time may still loom ahead.   Less ballyhooed than the Mayan calender’s end,  Rasputin, the Russian rascal, apparently predicted the world would end on August 23, 2013.  And while some may be breathing a sigh of relief that the date has past, the Pacific Standard magazine reminds us there may be some confusion with the date since he may have meant August 23 OLD CALENDAR, which corresponds with September 5 on our calendar.    Ryan O’Hanlon wrote some days ago in the magazine:

“Today is August 23, 2013, which means that today is also the day that Grigory Rasputin said the world would come to an end.
If you doubt Rasputin, here is why you are a fool:

• It is said that, as a 10-year-old, he had the ability to read minds and heal sick animals.
• He cured the son of Czar Nicholas II of hemophilia.
• He said that if he was killed by government officials, then the whole imperial family would be killed by the Russian people.
• He was killed by government officials, then the whole imperial family was killed by the Russian people.
• Russia is currently experiencing what some are calling a “pigeon apocalypse.”

If you believe Rasputin, here is why you are a fool:

• The historical success rate for apocalypse predictions is currently zero percent.
• There is some doubt over the Julian/Gregorian calendar conversion, so he may have actually predicted that September 5, 2013, will be the world’s final day.

So, if you are unsure of whether or not you are currently experiencing the apocalypse, look around. If everything you see is being engulfed in what could accurately be described as an “eternal flame,” the world is ending.  Actually, no. If you are unable to perceive anything around you because you, yourself, are being engulfed in what seems like what one would consider an “eternal flame,” then most likely, yes, this is the end of the world. If not, then you have until at least September 5. Have a good weekend.”

Rasputin apparently thought he knew what even Jesus Christ said he didn’t know – when the end of the world would take place (Matthew 24:36).  Predictions of apocalyptic conflagrations ending the world garnish attention (at least for 15 minutes) and fervent reactions among certain people.   There are other images of the end not to be forgotten.  In Revelation 20:13 both Death and Hades will give up all the dead in them as neither Death or Hades are eternal.  In Revelations 20:14 Death and Hades themselves are thrown into the lake of fire and destroyed forever.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

  (Revelation 21:3-4)


Images of Salvation (X)

“The entire history of humanity, and therefore of salvation, is a long descent of God into Hell, into the desert, into the barrenness of the human heart.  This descent into the abyss befits the magnitude of the love of God.”  (Boris Bobrinskoy, THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER,  p 57)

This is the tenth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (IX).

Salvation is God rescuing humanity from death and sin.  Salvation is God liberating men and women from slavery to death in Hades or Hell.  Each time God has reached down to earth to help humans, it is God descending to whatever point, however low, humans have fallen.  St. Augustine (d. 430AD)  writes:

“We firmly believe, brethren, that the Lord has died for our sins, the just for the unjust, the master for the slaves, the shepherd for the sheep and, still more astonishingly, the Creator for the creatures.

He has preserved what he was from eternity; what he was in time he has sacrificed.

God hidden in the guise of the visible man, giving life with his strength and dying in his weakness ‘was put to death for our sins and raised for our justification.’ [Rom 4:25]”   (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 339)

God enters into His creation in Jesus Christ, the God incarnate.  God subjects Himself to space and time and then even to death itself.  All in order to save His human creatures from death and destruction and corruption.  Two hundred years before St. Augustine wrote, St. Melito of Sardis (d. ca 180AD) in one of his own writings has Christ proclaim:

“I have freed those condemned and given life to the dead.

I awoke those who were buried,

vanquished death and triumphed over the enemy.

I descended into hell, where I bound the mighty one

and raised men up to heaven.”

(in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, pg. 75)

The basic understanding of God in Christianity is that God descends to earth, even to hell to save us.  He descends into our hearts to transfigure us, and into our graves to resurrect us.

“Christianity proclaims that the immortal God died on the cross and then was raised from the dead, restoring thereby the gift of everlasting life to all men.  So, with the event of Golgotha, ‘death destroyed by death’ becomes a focal point of Christian kerygma, so much so that Jaroslav Pelikan calls the New Testament ‘the gospel of death.’  In contrast to the faith of Judaism, which concentrated on the life of this world, the early church brings the victory over death to the forefront of its creed, shifting its principal aspirations beyond the confines of the visible world—into the everlasting kingdom ‘which is not of this world’ (Jn 18:36).  For Christians, the very idea of salvation came to signify the attainment of life without death, which Christ promised to all who believe in him (Jn 6:47).  Death was seen as ‘the ultimate enemy’ (eschatos echthros) of mankind (cf 1 Cor 15:26), so powerful that is made God himself come down from heaven to vanquish it.”   (Nicholas Sakharov, I LOVE THEREFORE I AM, p 223)

We do not live for this world alone, but also for the life in the world to come.  The evil of this world, its injustices and its suffering and sorrow, do not triumph over humans.  Rather God triumphs over the world and over death itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sign of this victory of God’s love.  The resurrection of Christ is thus the key to understanding this world.  Life in this world remains but a part of the cosmic picture of what God is doing for the salvation  of us all.  God who entered space and time in Jesus Christ is not limited by either space or time, or by beginning or end, or by death and hell.

Salvation is not merely an historical event, for salvation brings eternity into history and transforms history into an experience of the divine.

Next:  Images of Salvation (XI)