The Resurrection: Orthodox Teaching

1848-543395In our previous post on this topic, we first explored the Seventh-day Adventist (and similar annihilationist denominations), and second we explored the ancient Hebrew understanding of the state of the dead. While its easy to see how the SDAs could arrive at their view by reading Ecclesiastes with a modern worldview, the ancient Jewish view does not seem to follow the same path. In fact, it seems to be in line with the Orthodox view that, “Death is the common lot of men. But for man it is not an annihilation, but only the separation of the soul from the body. The truth of the immortality of the human soul is one of the fundamental truths of Christianity.”1

In the icon of the resurrection above, the entire narrative of human life and death up until this point is depicted, as discussed previously. Hades is depicted at the bottom of the image as a place of subterranean darkness filled with broken chains, manacles, and various forms of torture, along with death and/or the devil, who has been bound hand and foot and who no longer has any power over humankind.

This icon depicts Christ’s descent into Hades on Holy Saturday after His burial (cf. 1 Peter 3:19–20). The troparion of the feast represented by this icon explains in more depth what is happening in this image:

When You did descend to death, O Life Immortal, You did slay hell with the splendor of Your Godhead, and when from the depths You did raise the dead, all the Powers of Heaven cried out, O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You!

In the image, we also see a number of other interesting features that help to illuminate the reality depicted herein. Christ is standing on the doors of Hades, which are broken. Just to the left of Christ, we see the Forerunner and Baptist John stretching forth his hand to point to Christ. This represents the fact that Saint John descended into Hades before Christ in order to act as His forerunner there as well as in the world of the living. From the two tombs on both the right and left, Christ raises the first-fallen, Adam and Eve. The fundamental meaning behind this depiction of Adam and Even is confirmed by The Holy Evangelist Matthew’s Gospel:

…and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:52–53).

This story is explained in a unique way by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. His explanation is not necessarily the consensus opinion of the fathers, but serves to illustrate the fundamental change in the state of the dead initiated by the resurrection. Having sold himself into bondage to the devil, mankind was imprisoned by the devil in hades. In order to break mankind out of the prison, the Son of God descended, through death, into hades. The devil, failing to perceive the danger, admitted the Deity into hell, securing his own downfall:

As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook.2

(On this topic see also my recent posts: Purity of Heart and Descent into Hell)

Up until this point, interaction with the dead has been condemned because it required interaction with hades. Now that the dead are no longer imprisoned in hades, this situation has changed. For as Christ told Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Saint Athanasius the Great, in one of my favorite passages of all time, stunningly reveals the radical change in both the power of death over humanity, and the mind boggling transformation in Christian attitude toward death.

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?3

In my next post I will explore how the Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints testifies to the power of the resurrection.

1 Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, ch. 10.

2 Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Homily on the Three-Day Period, quoted from “Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on the Descent of Christ into Hades.”

3 Saint Athanasius the Great, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, 5:27.

How the Resurrection Changes Everything

For the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing; and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, hatred, and envy have now perished; And they have no portion forever in all that is done under the sun (Eccl 9:5–6 OSB).

image1Growing up Seventh-day Adventist (SDA), I knew this passage well as a proof text demonstrating the “state of the dead.” I believed that when I died, even if I died “in Christ,” I would in essence cease to exist until the general resurrection of the dead on the “last” day. Only my “breath” would return to God. For an extreme biblicist, it is challenging to read the above passage from Ecclesiastes and come to any other conclusion but that the dead are in stasis, lacking all sensibility. In essence they are no more than the molecules remaining from the decomposition of their bodies; cosmic dust. What Seventh-day Adventists and a handful of other protestant denominations fail to understand is the magnitude and immediacy of the resurrection. The resurrection for them and for many other protestants is some distant event that will happen in the future. Yet even many people from denominations that believe that the spirits of the just take up their abode in heaven after death, believe that they have “no portion forever in all that is done under the sun.” I have listened to at least one sermon by a Southern Baptist preacher who assured us that those who have passed from this life cannot see what goes on upon the earth, because, of course, “it’s not in the Bible.”

I posit that at the resurrection, there was a very clear and drastic change in how the people of God understood what the SDAs call “the state of the dead.” The pre-resurrection Jewish understanding of the state of the dead is drastically different than the post-resurrection Christian understanding. This is not to say that one is correct and the other is incorrect, but that this change in understanding was brought about by an ontological change in the state of the dead.

In this brief series, I would like to depict a very basic picture of the Jewish understanding of the state of the dead. I would then like to provide a brief sketch of the Christian teaching on the resurrection, and finally to discuss how this drastic change brought about by the resurrection is testified to by Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints. In this first post I will address the Old Testament (and SDA) understanding.

Judaic Teaching on the State of the Dead

In a sense, ancestors were attributed with great honor and a form of veneration. For instance, God is often referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” honoring these three patriarchs. But this veneration is very different from The Church’s living veneration of our saints. The patriarchs are remembered, but never directly invoked. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, there are very few references to communication with the dead. Furthermore, communication with the dead is condemned by the Law of Moses:

There shall not be found among you anyone who … conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord your God, and because of these abominations the Lord your God will destroy them before you (Dt 18:10–12).

Near the time of Christ, the common understanding of life after death resembled the views held by the Greeks (notwithstanding SDA teaching). The Old Testament Sheol is analogous to the Greek Hades, and Hades was considered to be a place where the souls of the dead were collected.

The following is an example of how the two concepts are similar. Between the Biblical concept of Sheol and the Greek concept of Hades, there is a similar division of the souls of those who were evil during earthly life from those who were good. In Greek mythology, Hades contains a place called the Elysian Fields, where the souls of those who were heroic and virtuous abode. Likewise, in the Judaic view held near the time of Christ, the righteous dead abode in The Bosom of Abraham (cf. Luke 16:23), which was separate from the place where the unrighteous stayed.1 This view is upheld by Christ’s parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” in which the rich man, who lived a very sinful life, was separated by a vast chasm from the righteous Lazarus, who abode in the bosom of Abraham.

This concept has been understood, and translated in accordance with this understanding, since ancient times. The Septuagint, the primary version of the Bible used by the Orthodox Church, translates the word sheol as hades. The Septuagint has been demonstrated to be the text of the Scriptures that Christ and his Apostles quoted from in the New Testament Scriptures. It predates the New Testament. Likewise, the Vulgate, the primary version of the Bible used by the Catholic Church up until recently, translates sheol into various forms of the word inferno. The Vulgate was compiled only a few hundred years after Christ. It was not until the 1500s and the protestant reformation that Bible translators began replacing the word hades or sheol with grave or death.2

In the next post in this series, we will discuss the post-resurrection Christian view on the state of the dead.

1 F. Gigot, The Bosom of Abraham, In The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company 1907).

2 Gary Amirault, The Hell Words of the Bible.