By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Freedom from death
It can be seen clearly in the whole Biblico-patristic tradition that death is a fruit and result of man’s withdrawal from God and that the life in Christ is a transcending of death. Death came about through man’s freedom and self-will, and through life in the Church he can attain freedom from death. I should like to develop the subject of death in the light of two great Fathers of the Church, St. John of Damaskos and St. Gregory Palamas, who wrote down and systematised the whole teaching of the earlier saints.
a) Independence and death, according to St. John of Damaskos
According to St. John of Damaskos, man’s freedom, with which he was endowed by God, gave him the ability to commit sin or not. He writes that God made man “by nature sinless and endowed with freedom of will”. When he says that God made man sinless, he does not mean that he was not open to sin, because only the divine is not open to sin, but that “it is not in his nature to sin, but rather in his power of choice”. This means that man had the power to persevere and progress in the good, with the help of divine grace, as well as having the power to turn from virtue and fall into vice, “God permitting it because of man’s free will.”
Thus man’s nature was sinless immediately after his creation, but his will was free, he had the power to remain good and the power to withdraw from God. This is why death came as a result of the misuse of freedom, because man disobeyed God’s will. So man was created with the possibility of remaining immortal or of dying. And this depended on the right or wrong use of his freedom.
This freedom was related to reason. St. John of Damaskos, explaining why he was created with free will, says: “The freedom of the will is directly connected with the reason”. And everything that is created is also changeable. Being brought from nonbeing to being is a change, and so is being made into something else from an existing material. Now, inanimate things and brute beasts are changed by corporeal alterations, whereas rational beings are changed by deliberate choice. Thus choice, will, selection, which is connected with reason, is necessarily a mark of the created being, which was created out of non-being. Everyone who thinks and elaborates his thought has the possibility of making a choice. Since free will is connected with reason, therefore “a being may be irrational or rational; but if it is rational, it will be the master of its actions and free”. Irrational beings are not free, since, instead of leading nature, they are led by it. This is clear from the fact that they do not deny their natural appetite, but just as soon as they feel an appetite for something, they move to act. However, since man is rational, “he leads his nature rather than is led by it”. And this is clear from the fact that he has freedom to resist the appetite or to obey it.”
Thus man has free will, since he is created and changeable, and this free will is connected with reason. Man committed sin and died, first spiritually and later physically; he became mortal and passible. This is connected with his freedom. God did not create man to die, but man died because he misused his freedom.
I would like next to look at the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas about death and the way in which it came into the world.
b) The entrance of death according to St. Gregory Palamas
Citing the scriptural passage: “God did not make death, nor does He take pleasure in destroying the living” (Wisdom 1,13), St. Gregory Palamas writes that God not only did not create death, but neither is He the cause of the terrible things which followed death: diseases, illnesses and all the other evils. All the terrible things from which man suffers came from the sin which he committed by his free choice. He says: “It was through sin that we were clothed in garments of skin, this sickly and mortal and distressed body, and we have been deported to this temporary and destructible world and condemned to live a life of much suffering, full of disasters.” The garments of skin which we have been wearing, which are mortal and passible, are a result of sin, which came about through our own choice and freedom.
God not only did not create death, but he hindered its coming into the world. Since man had free will and God did not want to abolish his free will — this would mean a disaster — therefore as soon as He had created him and given him life, He gave him an immortalising piece of advice. The advice not to eat of the forbidden fruit is called a life-giving commandment, because it would lead man to life and would keep him from going towards death. He did not give this commandment imperatively, “but forewarned him of what would happen if it was not obeyed”. And He gave the commandment that on the day when they should eat they would die, so that they might take care not to transgress and thus avoid “meeting with death.”
In speaking about the death which man would meet if he transgressed His commandment, God meant both spiritual and physical death. But on the day of man’s sin, spiritual death would come, and then physical death, because on the day when he tasted the forbidden fruit he did not die physically, but spiritually. Spiritual death is forsaking God, precisely as the absence of light creates darkness. When God is present, it is impossible for man to experience death. St. Gregory Palamas writes: “When God, Who is life itself and the life of all the living, especially of those living a godly life, is present to our soul, it is impossible for death to be there as well”. Thus, death comes to our soul “not from God, but because of our abandonment of God, which is sin.” It is clear from this teaching that the cause of death is sin and, naturally, sin is linked with free will, with man’s ability to sin or to keep God’s commandment, to remain in God or to abandon God, where the true enhypostatic life is.
c) Sin and death
From all that we have said so far we can see that death came from sin, but it has to be added that sin also reigns in death. That is to say, sin and death are mutually interdependent. The Apostle Paul writes: “so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5, 21). And in another place the same Apostle advises: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (Rom. 6, 12). And again the same Apostle says characteristically: “the sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15, 56).
In these apostolic passages sin is linked with death and it is said that sin is the sting of death, just as sin also reigns in death and in the mortal body. Thus the whole world of the senses, of mortality and the imagination is a prison which tyrannises man. Man cries out for freedom and for individual rights, but in reality he is a prisoner of decay and death. The Apostle Paul expresses this fact in all its tragic character: “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my nous, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7, 23-24).
I think it would be interesting to look a little more broadly at how sin reigns in death, how sin and man’s wretchedness come from mortality and corruptibility through his way of living death. For the sense of death and the certainty of it lead man to commit sins. And we can say with certainty that the way of living and the sense of death are a source of many troubles, both personal and social.
Because of death and the uncertainty of it, but also because of the variety of its consequences, which are illnesses and all the other sufferings, man is possessed of fear and anguish and in general of the instinct of self-preservation. The effort of self-preservation develops selfishness,
whereby man breaks the bonds of love, in fact abandons unselfish love and takes on love of self. He does all these things in the climate of self-love and vanity. Thus many passions develop, such as self-protection, egoism, hatred, jealousy and so many other things.
Therefore riches, private property, injustices, the lack of true love, murder and so many other evils, which are also a source of many other troubles, come from the experience of death.
Because death reigns in him and he sees his mortality in all its “majesty” and sees the sin that is bound up with this mortality and considers his life to be meaningless, therefore he tries in every way to persuade others that he is worthy. Many evils come from this. “He loves adulation and fears insults. He seeks his own and is jealous of others’ successes. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He looks for safety and prosperity in wealth, praise, and bodily pleasures, or perhaps he imagines that he is destined for a personally blessed and placid enjoyment of the presence of God, unrelated to any expression of genuine and active love for others. Because of his anguish and fear, man becomes an individualist. And when he also identifies himself with some ideology of common ownership (not monastic-ascetic) he is again moved by individualistic selfishness, because he mistakenly sees his desire for self-satisfaction and happiness as his true destination. It may even be that some general ideological principles about love for mankind fire him with enthusiasm in some undefined way, in spite of the fact that a deadly hatred for his neighbour is lurking in his heart. These are the works of the ‘flesh’ which is under the power of death and satan.”
Interpreting the apostolic passage: “and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2,15), St. John Chrysostom says “he who fears death is a slave, and submits to all things rather than die”30. A man who is under the influence of death is a slave of sin, of the devil, and of death itself. He is also a slave of the passions and does everything in order to avoid dying, to prolong his life on earth. Referring to the people before Christ’s resurrection, Chrysostom writes characteristically: “ever expecting that they should die, and being afraid of death, could have no sense of pleasure while this fear was present with them.”
The life of the man who is under the threat of death and the law of sin becomes unbearable and tiresome, it becomes a life without meaning and purpose. Man was formed with the possibility of remaining immortal and of living eternally with God. But through sin he lost this calling, with the result that he suffered a terrible experience, that of being sheathed in mortality and corruptibility. Because he knows that the purpose of his creation was different, he becomes unbearable, unsatisfied, hard to manage. He is not satisfied with anything, not pleased by anything, not content with anything good whatsoever. He can enjoy all the material goods, yet without overcoming death he is a tragic man. This is the explanation of why he is constantly possessed by a grievance. The man who is a slave of death has no freedom at all, he is a tragic being, a continually unsatisfied man. The theatre, literature, philosophy and other such things are a small respite in the tragedy of his life. So education, psychology, philosophy, the human activities in general, cannot effectively help him or develop him fully.
In the tragedy of this situation man tries to forget death. This too is a way of escape from the reality and tragic nature of death. But it increases the problem and the tragedy. By repressing and forgetting death man is led to a sensual life, to consumption and a way of living which consists only of material enjoyment. “Autonomised consumption as a basic content of life, corresponds opportunely with man’s need to possess, to have sensual pleasure and to forget his death.” This way of life, which is called the culture of consumption, “this vague and illusory ‘science’ (which certainly has no connection with study and research) solves all the metaphysical problems of the average man, it answers all his questions, and presents death either as a physiological end to biological existence and a plunge into non-existence, or, finally, as the last obstacle to the advance of science, which also cannot but be conquered some day.”
d) Transcending death
The dreadful results of death and its tragic nature arc transcended by Christ’s resurrection and the ecclesiastical life in general Church. As long as sin is the sting of death, it means that when sin is abolished, death too is abolished within the personal life, and so a man in this life enjoyi immortality. For immortality is not simply the natural I “” dition of the soul, it is not the life beyond the tomb, bill il” transcending of death through the life in Christ.
The Apostle Paul, who speaks of sin as the sting of death, writes: “when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin’ (1 Cor. 15, 54-56).
The interpretation given by St. John Chrysostom is characteristic. He says that not only has death been abolished by Christ’s Resurrection, but the power of the devil has been destroyed. “Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, he also overthrew the strength of the devil?.” After Christ’s Resurrection death “is no longer terrible, but has been trodden under foot, has been utterly despised; it is vile and of no account.” Therefore anyone who lives the life in Christ “fears no one, he is in terror of no one, he is higher than all, and more free than all.” Therefore true freedom is the transcending of death, it is freedom from death and sin.
The person who lives in the Church by the sacramental and ascetic life is rejecting the sting of death, which is sin. If we think of how in the whole patristic tradition it seems that sin is darkening of the nous, and from this darkening the passions are created, then freedom from death and from sin is the illumination of the nous. This means that man first goes through the stage of purification, casts out of his heart all evil thoughts, rids himself of pleasure and pain, then experiences illumination of his nous. And then he lives a truly free life which transcends death. The Christian’s whole ascetic effort consists in this, and this is the aim of the sacraments and asceticism.
The Christian in the Church first experiences mindfulness of death. Not only does he not seek to forget death and to thrust it into the unconscious, not only does he deny the reality and tragic character of death, but he has it constantly in his mind and in this way acquires a naturalness, because the sense of mortality and decay is truthfulness.
Mindfulness of death, which is the beginning of man’s freedom from its tragic character, is meant in two senses.
The first is mindfulness of mortality and the certainty of the end of biological life. This mindfulness, combined with the existence of the soul after death, the partial crisis after the soul’s departure, and the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Christ for the whole man to be judged, creates terror and fear. Man reflects upon the sin and passions which possess his soul, he recalls what Christ and the Apostles taught about the life of sinners, of the unrepentant, and he is possessed with fear and terror. It is the fear and terror of the entry into the spiritual life. This fear, increased by and connected with hope in the love of God and the sense of the Church as a Hospital leads him to a cure and to love, which “casts out fear” (1 John 4, 18). Thus there is the fear of the entry, aroused by the Judgement to come and the reality of Hell, and the fear of the perfect, which is connected with the sense of God’s love. In this second category man fears sin because he realises that it leads him far from God and creates in him the sense of Gehenna/eternal torment.
A second interpretation of the recollection of dotttl I the charismatic state of remembering death. Through the removal of divine grace, man falls into despair and godly hopelessness. Just as Adam’s sin had consequences whole of creation, so also man’s sin, that is to say the darkness of the nous, has cosmological consequences. He himself feels that he is dead to God and, indeed, he sees the whole world as dead, dying. Nothing offers him joy, peace and happiness. Everything is dead. In this way he understands existentially that he is a microcosm within the macrocosm, a summing up of the whole creation. Since the grace of God comes to the heart and is conveyed through it to the body and to the whole cosmos, and the loss of the grace of God has disastrous effects on the whole world, this means that man is the summing up of creation.
It can be said that the sin which we commit is worse than Adam’s sin. St. Gregory Palamas says that many people blame Adam because by following the advice of the devil he disobeyed the advice of God “and thereby brought about our death”. But, he says, it is not the same to want to taste a deadly plant before knowing its destructive effects, as it is to taste this deadly poison when we know its dreadful consequences from experience. It is the same with our own sin in relation to Adam’s sin. Adam sinned without knowing through experience exactly what sin was and what were its dreadful results, whereas each of us commits sin, having this experience. Therefore St. Gregory Palamas says: “Each of us is more worthy of blame and criticism than Adam.”
Mindfulness of death, either as an experience of mortality or as a sense of the loss of the divine life, is a spiritual gift, and therefore an experience of transcending death and of our freedom from its tyranny. For this experience even with the two forms is not independent of the grace of God. It is only through the inspiration of the grace of God
that man can experience such states and only in this way that he can free himself from the tragedy of death. This is why ways of life which embrace mindfulness of death, lives which are “death-centred” are natural and true, they mark the natural boundaries of man’s life. Through the sense of mortality a man becomes more social and transforms his personal relationships.
St. Philotheos of Sinai writes that mindfulness of death embraces many virtues. “Mindfulness of death begets grief; it promotes the exercise of self-control in all things; it is a reminder of hell; it is the mother of prayer and tears; it induces guarding of the heart and detachment from material things; it is a source of attentiveness and discretion. These in their turn produce the twofold fear of God. In addition, the purging of impassioned thoughts from the heart embraces many of the Lord’s commandments.”
Liberation from death is brought about by life in Christ, when the person feels an inalienable peace in his heart, a love for all men, and even for his enemies, release from every tyranny which created things wish to impose, uninterrupted mindfulness of God.
I should like for us to look next at some particular characteristic signs which manifest the transcendence of death, man’s liberation from its dreadful tyranny.
The first is that the person is not afraid of death and the time of death. Not only is he not possessed by the fear of death, but he is also looking forward to it. Of course this anticipation is not from the point of view that he is waiting for his soul’s release and freedom from his body, as the Platonic philosophers taught, but for the possibility of meeting Christ and being liberated from the change and deterioration which constitute the biological life. I may add that he rejoices as the hour approaches. This is expressed by the Apostle Paul: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labour; 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” (Phil. 1,21-24).
The second is foreknowledge of death. There are many saints, old and new, who have been granted by God to see the hour of their death and to prepare themselves for it. They have seen it and waited for it in joy.
The third is the confronting of death when it comes. Athanasios the Great describes the blissful end of St. Antony the Great. After talking with those present, and kissing them, “he lifted up his feet; and with a look as though friends had come to him and he was overjoyed at the sight of them — for, as he lay there, his face had a cheerful look — he passed away and was gathered to his fathers.”
The fourth is the glory of the man who has overcome sin and death by the time of his departure from this life. A characteristic example is that of Sisoes the Great. When he was at the point of death, while many fathers were with him, “his face shone like the sun”. Then he said: “Look, Abba Anthony is coming”. A little later he said, “Look, the choir of prophets is coming. “And again his face shone more brightly… A little later he said: “Look, the choir of apostles is coming”, and the brightness in his face redoubled. Then those present, seeing that he was speaking with someone, asked him to tell them with whom he was speaking. He replied: “The angels have come to fetch me, and I
am begging them to let me do a little penance”. And when the fathers told him that he had no need for penance, he replied: “Truly, I do not think that I have even made a beginning yet”. With that the Fathers understood “that he was perfect”. Then at once his face became like the sun. And he said to those present: “Look, the Lord is coming and He is saying: “Bring me the vessel from the desert”. And at once he gave up his spirit. “Then there was a flash of lightning and all the house was filled with a sweet odour.”
The fifth characteristic sign of the gift of a blessed death is the martyrdom of a saint. Death through martyrdom is really a gift of grace, because it is not a matter of will power, but an experience of deification, which is a clear indication of the transcendence of death. In fact martyrdom is a fruit of seeing God, an indication that the Christian has been united with Christ and received a martyr’s grace. This means that the experience of deification transforms the soul and body. But martyrdom is a gift of a blessed death and a sign of transcendence of death, according to a theological explanation given by St. Gregory Palamas.
Speaking of the Worthy Forerunner, and especially of his beheading, he writes that the Baptist of Christ “did not need to undergo natural death”. It was not necessary to undergo a natural death, because death is a result of Adam’s transgression. But the Worthy Forerunner is not a debtor, because he is a servant of the commandment and subject to God from his mother’s womb. The saints generally give their lives for virtue and devotion “and for this reason a violent death is more suitable for them than a good death”. That is why Christ died in this way. As long as the sting
of death, which is sin, is set aside in the saints, the most natural way of departure from this life is through martyrdom, a violent death.
The saints inspired by the grace of God were freed from the reign of death. This is not an imaginary thing, but a reality, for it is related to man’s freedom from sin and the liberation of the nous from reasoning, the senses and the imagination.
3. The freedom of the nous
Freedom from death and from sin is very closely connected with the freedom of the nous from sin. Freedom is used in this sense in the New Testament, especially in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. Let us look at two characteristic passages.
a) Freedom and nous
The first passage is: “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6,18-22).
Here for the Apostle Paul slavery is linked with slavery to the passions and to the deeds of the flesh, the end of which is death, while freedom is linked with man’s purity from the passions, with holiness, and the end of this freedom is eternal life. In the teaching of the Apostle Paul freedom is in reality the freedom of the nous from attack by the passions, and this brings about illumination of the nous.
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, interpreting this passage, says: “There are three freedoms according to Koresios: Freedom of nature, the freedom of grace and the freedom of glory and beatitude. Freedom of nature is contrary to force and to the tendency toward a single good and makes one independent. Freedom of grace is opposed to sin and the passions and makes one righteous and holy. And the freedom of glory is opposed to death and to the temptations of the present life and makes one blessed; this is the Apostle’s word concerning freedom and grace.” So it concerns freedom of the nous.
Taken from The book "The person in the Orthodox Tradition" by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos