Michael Haldas is the author of Sacramental Living: Understanding Christianity as a Way of Life. Michael’s focus is on understanding and applying our faith to everyday living, which supports OCN’s mission to provide material “to provoke discussion and contemplation about the issues we face in daily life.” His work has been featured in Theosis Magazine, The National Herald, Pravmir, and other publications. He is a member of the Orientale Lumen Foundation, the Orthodox Speakers Bureau and is on the board of the Washington Theological Consortium. He teaches adult religious education and high school Sunday school at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda, Maryland, and has worked with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Religious Education Department to create educational lessons and materials.
“We must understand that the human person, in reality, does not die. Death is simply a transfer from one life to another.” (St. Paisios of Mt. Athos)
“Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and to those in the tombs, He grants life.”
Whether it is Greek, English, or another language, all of us among the Orthodox faithful are singing these words, or some variation of them, as we rejoice in Christ’s resurrection. Yet people are still dying. So how can we sing these words with such joy, faith, and confidence? How can we convince our young people and others among the faithful about the truth of Christ’s victory over death when their eyes and experience tells them different?
Modernity teaches that death is a biological event, a scientific certainty, and a natural part of life. The saying, “the circle of life” has become a common expression in our vocabulary. This is hard to argue when we see death all around us despite what the Church teaches. But what does the Church really teach about death?
It teaches it is more than just a biological event; it is a spiritual separation from God to those who reject Christ, replete with physical and psychological consequences, as well. It teaches that death is more than a scientific certainty, it is an enemy. It is not a natural part of life and there is nothing circular about life and death.
The Church teaches there is a beginning but should be no end because death is unnatural, and aberrant separation of body and soul. There is an end now of biological life, but because of Christ, death is now a gateway to a new beginning and eternal life. We believe this because Christ clearly teaches these truths about death and life through His words and actions. But we get confused in modernity and many reject Christ and His Church in this confusion.
Christ’s Teachings on Death and Life
When talking to Lazarus’s sister Martha, Christ tells her that He Himself is the resurrection and life. He says that whoever believes in Him, though they will die, they will live, and whoever lives and believes in Him will never die (John 11:25-26).
Jesus is communicating that physical death is not death for those who believe. The fact that He says they shall never die shows that He defeats death and exposes it for the lie that it is. Despite this, a few verses later, in the shortest verse of the Bible, John 11:35, he cries. The passage reads, “Jesus wept.” Though He knows what death truly is, He weeps for us and with us in His humanity because of the grief we experience due to the lie of death and His tremendous compassion.
We also understand that the Greek language used here is akin to Jesus being outraged and upset that death was even occurring because it is the result of sin and thus not natural. He understands what we feel and experience. Further, since Christ is life, and life is not death. This is counter to true reality. It is false, and Jesus weeps for us that we experience this aberration of reality due to sin. When He resurrects Lazarus, the young man comes out of the tomb still in his grave clothes (John 11:44) reminding us Lazarus will still need them because he will die biological again at some point.
In another example, when asked by the Rich Young Ruler about what is needed for eternal life, Christ says, “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
I find it interesting that He said to the young man “if you want to enter into life.” The young man clearly was born at one point, so he did indeed enter into life at the time of his birth. He is also walking, talking, and breathing in his encounter with Christ and is therefore clearly alive, so why would Jesus use the phraseology that He did. Why would someone already alive still need to enter into life?
The key to understanding what Jesus means is to understand the Greek words used for life in the New Testament. Whereas we use one word in English for life in the Bible there are actually a few words used for life in the New Testament, the most prevalent being “bios” and “zoë.”
Bios, the word from which we get biology (i.e., the study of life), means physical life or finite life. Zoë means spiritual life or eternal life. When Jesus tells the rich young ruler what he needs to do to enter into life, He is instructing him how to transcend mere physical life, or bios, and begin walking the path toward eternal life, or zoë. Those who ignore this priority are spiritually dead.
Death and the Power of Death
What Christ destroyed through His crucifixion and resurrection is the power of death not death itself, at least not yet. That is why we still die physically. We must be aware of this ourselves and teach it to others, so we never grow cynical in our faith because we still experience physical death. If we do not react so strongly to physical death because we understand this, it is good because it means our faith is strong. If we are overcome with grief because of physical death, then it is good as well. It means we see death for the unnatural enemy that it is and cannot stand this atrocity.
St. Paul tells us that the last enemy that will be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Orthodox Study Bible notes remind us that, “The power of death has been destroyed and we now ‘live in the state of tension between the victory won and that yet to be won’ when Christ comes again and restores all as it was meant to be.”
We see this eventuality in Revelation when death is defeated in its entirety and the promise of eternal life is fulfilled. This is Christ’s promise to us. It is a promise we need to accept in our minds but know it in our hearts.
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”—(John 11:25-26)
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