We need to be liberated and saved, but who can save us? God can not just say ‘be saved’, because if He could He would, but He can’t. He has got to destroy death itself, and the only way that death could be destroyed is by life. The only way that darkness can be destroyed is by light. The only way that evil can be destroyed is by good, and the only way that hatred can be destroyed is by love. So you have to have the One who is Love, Truth, Light, Goodness, Beauty, and Perfection who literally has to actualise this in this life. However, if you actualise this in life the way it is you get crucified. If you live completely and totally according to God in this world you can be sure of one thing you will get crucified. Jesus came in order to be crucified.
It is beyond any doubt that we Christians are convinced that we are created for life; it is not God’s will that we die. God doesn’t want death; He wants life. In the Scripture, death is the enemy. The Apostle Paul even calls death, “the last enemy”. Death is not natural, not a natural part of our life and not willed by God. The Wisdom of Solomon, which for us is part of the Bible, says very clearly, “God did not create death”. Death comes into the world as a rebellion against God. Death comes into the world because people do not choose life, but choose death, darkness, and themselves over God.
It is our teaching that death results from human rebellion against God from the beginning and with the help of the demons (who are lovers of death, darkness and evil). The Bible teaches actually teaches kind of a ‘package plan’, you have God, truth, life and glory, or you have the demons, darkness, death, satan, sin, corruption, ugliness and rot. This is the basic reality, and there is no middle path.
In the eight chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says, “working in our members is always a heterosnomos (another law)”. Human beings think that they are economists, in other words, they are ‘a law unto themselves’, but according to the Scriptures we are not. Either there is the law (nomos) of Christ, which the Apostle Paul calls the law of the Holy Spirit and Life in his Epistle to the Romans, or there is the law of sin and death. There is either one law or the other that works, if it isn’t the one it is the other. Here we interpret the Genesis story as the choice of death. Furthermore, it is even not strictly Orthodox to think of sin as a corrupted choice or making the wrong choice. I believe that our teaching is that the problem is not whether it is right or wrong but choice itself (as taught by St. Maximos the Confessor), because if you are a creature you have no choice.
If there is God and God is God and God is the living God and God is Who He is, our only choice is to give up our choice and listen to and obey Him. This is very important to understand, because the modern people think that the more choices they have and the more they deliberate the more the freer they are, however this is not Biblical. What we say is that if there is God, at any given moment the only choice we have is to give up choice and obey Him, listen to Him, trust Him, to love Him and to believe Him. The primordial sin is exactly saying “no, I will not obey, trust or love God. I will do it my way”. You know what takes place when you do it your way; you perish and die. That is where death comes from. Where there is obedience, love and trust in God, there can not be death. If one was to obey God totally, live in communion with God, trust and love God in everything, that person will not be able to die.
It is interesting in the Genesis story, God did not say to Adam and Eve, “eat of the tree and I will kill you”. He said, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, meaning choice rather than obedience, “for when you eat of it you will surely die”, for it is sin that kills you. God doesn’t kill anybody, in that sense; we kill ourselves. So the minute we take our life in our own hands to do what we want to do, and do not obey God, basically we commit suicide. Furthermore, we put that death over to our children who are born in the same condition of death when born into the world. That is what the ‘ancestral sin’ is all about. A second point is that we would say that the human task is to overcome and destroy death, and to make death to die so that life can then live.
The whole Old Testament, which includes the Law, Psalms and Prophets, is really about teaching people the will of God to reconstruct a rebellious humanity in order that ultimately death can be destroyed. For example, in the Law of Moses you have two very interesting things, one is God says, through Moses, ‘I present to you only two ways: the blessing and the curse’ (i.e. life or death). Then it says, ‘choose life and don’t choose death’. The Law, Psalms and Prophets say Obey God, give up your choice, obey God and you will live. For example, Psalm 118 (119) that is read in our funeral service and on the night of Holy Saturday before Pascha says, “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!” Then the Psalm continues “If I keep I Your law, I find life in it and I can not die”. That is way it is read over the body of the dead Jesus, because He is the only One who kept the Law of God completely, and therefore could not die.
What we believe is that Jesus Christ our Saviour came into the world in order to die. He is the only One who came in order to die so that He can transform death itself into a victory through His death. He is the only One, the only Person, and the only Human who has ever been born in order to die. He is also the only Human who is the Son of God, Who is divine as the same divinity as the Father, Who is born of a virgin, Who is begotten of the Father, Who comes exactly into the world for one purpose; to destroy the work of the devil and death, and to give us life.
Before the coming of Christ, according to the Bible, everyone is caught by death, no matter how good or bad they were. We can even say to this day that is the truth. Biologically, we are all dead; we are a room of dead people. It is a good idea once in a while to remember that. In fact, many of our monastics would even put a coffin and cross in their room to remember that. There is an American church story about some southern Protestants who heard about a Roman Catholic monk who used to write “remember death” and that he had a coffin prepared for his death. One of them says to the other, “You know that they used to do that, and sometimes they’d even sleep in that coffin?” Then the other character said, “Yep, they weren’t as advance as we is”. However, the question is who is really advanced?
The problem, however, is that in our time death has been so naturalised nobody will even think of it as an enemy. In much literature it is considered the last stage of life, normal, or you go into some sort of light somewhere, and if you are tired of this life or this world you call some doctor to end your life. However for Biblical Christians, that is absolutely not the teaching.
Let us compare the death of Socrates to the death of Jesus. Socrates the philosophic man, corrupting the youth of Athens because of his teaching of philosophia, says that the real philosopher is the one who can face death. When they finally catch him to put him to death and his friends want to rescue him, he says no. When they bring him the hemlock he drinks it and dies. By the way, the euthanasia society in the state of Massachusetts in the United States is called the Hemlock Society.
Then look at how Jesus dies. He is in the garden and begs His Father to let ‘this cup pass’ and sweating blood. For Him it is an outrage to die or that any person would die; it is the total victory of the devil. We were created to sing halleluiah to God, not to be corrupted and rot in the tomb. In the Old Testament, there was a big debate about death. Some thought that death is natural and you just died and went to your fathers. They also believed that God continues to live in the people and the dry bones of Israel (or the people of Israel) are resurrected, but the individual person is lost. These people, at the time of Jesus, were called the Sadducees. The Sadducees, if you read the Bible, did not believe in the spirit, soul or the resurrection of the dead. However, the Pharisees believed in them all. They interpreted from the Scripture that there will be a resurrection from the dead and the dead will rise. They also believed that when the God Messianic age will come, when God’s glory will fill creation, when God’s kingdom will finally be established through the Messiah the main thing that will happen is that the graves will be open. Then all the dead will rise and God will judge every single person that has lived.
In the Old Testament, however, whatever the position was about resurrection everyone was dead. In the Bible, the place of the dead or the condition of being dead was called Sheol in the Hebrew or Hades in the Greek. One problem is that sometimes Sheol or Hades is translated into English as hell, and people speak of God descending into hell, but it should never be called hell, because there is no hell until the end of time.
In the Bible, specifically in the Wisdom of Solomon, it says that if you were a righteous, just person and died, you were still somehow in the hands of God who cares for you. People think that it is a tragedy, but it is not because God is still there. This was kind of a blissful state of death and was called the bosom of Abraham. So the righteous dead were in the bosom of Abraham, and those who believed in the Resurrection believed that they were blissfully dead until the Messianic King would come to raise the dead and then they would enter into glory. David, Solomon, the Prophets and even John the Baptist was in this state of bliss in the bosom of Abraham. In our Orthodox tradition, John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus even into Sheol. As expressed in his troparion, he dies before Jesus to announce that the Son of God is coming into the realm of the dead to smash it open, to raise up everyone from the dead, to usher in the kingdom of God, and to grant us the great mercy of everlasting life with God.
There is also the teaching that this realm of the dead, or Sheol, had what is called the ‘pit’ where the evil people were. When the Messianic King comes, those in the pit were also raised for just condemnation and judgement. It should be pointed out that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel is exactly about this. It has nothing to do with heaven and hell. In the parable is about the rich man in the pit talking to Abraham and not to God. The whole point of the parable is if you do not listen to Moses and the law of the Prophets and really love, choose and obey God you will not be saved even if a poor man rises from the dead. In other words, if you do not love God and do not find life before you die then you will not find it after death, even if Jesus the Son of God comes in order to be crucified and die to descent into Sheol and raise the dead. For us, that is the very center of the Gospel.
The Gospel is that we now have the new, final and last Adam named Jesus. St. Paul says that the first Adam was a ‘tipos’ of the one Who was to come. Jesus is the real Adam, because He is the One who really obeys God His own Father. He obeys God from all eternity as the Son of God begotten of the Father and became human born of the Virgin Mary to be the Man who literally could not die and to be the Man who was literally, totally and completely dedicated to God, His Father. His word was the word of the Father, His will was the will of the Father, His work was the work of the Father, everything that He did was the Father, and when you saw Him you saw the Father.
Everything that is attributed to God in the Old Testament is now attributed to Jesus, this Man who is a real man but not mere man. He is the Man that the Son of God, Who is the source and author of life, comes down on earth and takes on Himself the sin, the curse, and everything of our human falling’s including the last enemy (death itself), in order to destroy death by death. It is our teaching that that is the only way death can be destroyed, because God desires all people to live, all sin to be forgiven, and that His is loved with all our soul, mind and love. Furthermore, if we were to keep His word and love Him, we would live forever, but nobody does this. We are all non-righteous and we can not save ourselves. The Psalm asks, ‘who can bring themselves up from Sheol… who can raise themselves up from the dead?’ Even the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, could not keep herself from dying, because everyone is under the curse of death and in the hands of the power of the evil one.
Jesus is the only One to can in order to die, because He came in order to love, obey and trust God His Father no matter what. And how do you show that you love God? By loving your neighbor and your worst enemy, and by taking their sin and evil upon yourself and even by dying their death for them so that you can liberate them from death, because they have no power over it. That is exactly what Jesus does and that is what our faith is. So Jesus comes into the world in order to die, and He destroys death by death. In our Orthodox faith, this is the only way this can happen. That is why the center of our Church is “Xristos anesti ek nekron,” (Christ has risen from among the dead,) “phanato phanaton patisas…”(by death trampling upon Death…). God became human and had become a curse, sin and die and for us, because that is the act of ultimate obedience, trust and love. This is a perfect act of love, which destroys death from the inside and raises up all the dead whether they want it or not. In fact everyone with be raised from the dead, irrespective of his or her wishes, during the Universal Resurrection of the dead, as taught by the Orthodox Church. This is way our Paschal icon shows Jesus even pulling Adam and Eve, with all the righteous and unrighteous from the dead.
If you have even been to an Orthodox funeral, you hear the fifth chapter of St. John’s gospel. It says, “… the hour is coming in which all who are in the grave will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgement is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me”. This part of the gospel is extremely important, which says all and everyone will be raised. Not just the good people, but everyone. This Universal Resurrection is our teaching, because death is destroyed…