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In the Face of Death, God Cultivates Hope


One more indication of God's love for us, who have so imprudently given ourselves over to sin and into the arms of death, is also the fact that in His compassion, aside from converting death's punishment into something beneficial, our compassionate God has also given us—right from the outset—hopes of resurrection. Without these hopes our existence would be unbearable; our life would be filled with hopelessness and terror, a continuous and painful ordeal.

People have always attempted to struggle with death. Sometimes, they have attempted to forget death's horror and terror. At other times, they have turned to idealism and to other philosophic systems. But their despair, instead of diminishing, has continuously grown and increased to the point of asphyxiation. Man has found no medicine to cure his agony and terror of death. Ordinary social life provides or rather knows only one therapy that overcomes death: childbirth, the propagation of the human race. Through procreation, life appears to be victorious over death. But this victory, which recognises only the life of the species, that is, natural life, is an imaginary and vainly conceived victory. For he who procreates is already condemned or destined to die. And he brings into the world descendents who are mortal; men and women whom "he condemns" to death! Thus, man in this manner does not essentially conquer death. [1] He himself and his descendents continue to be under the authority and the power of death.

Only the Christian Faith, which holds fast to the word of the resurrection, offers a certain, a secure and a sure hope for victory over death. And this hope is a gift of God. Dealing with us in a pedagogical manner, God did not give us the resurrection from the beginning. Instead, He gave us hopes for a resurrection. When God said that Adam and Eve were, henceforth, to eat their bread In the sweat of their brow, He added: "Till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken" (Gen. 3,19). This word of the Creator is commented upon by St. John Chrysostom in the following manner: "What a decision! What fear!" filled with love for man! "What a decision filled with hope of revocation". They had not yet been exiled from Paradise and God was recalling His creatures. He had not yet banished man from Paradise and was now already recalling him. God was already receiving man again to be near Him. God did not say "till you disappear, till you become weakened and decomposed into nothingness", but rather, He said, "till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken", so that you may have in your mind as granted the "hope of resurrection". I send you there (to the ground) from where I have taken you. For, as when I created you I took you from there, so also am I able to take you again. For "dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return" (Gen. 3,19). Your body is dust and after your physical death it will again become dust, You will not disappear; you will return to be dissolved into dust. The term apeleuse (return), notes the holy Father, is interpreted by some, as "epaneleuse" [2] which means "to return again", intimating resurrection.

From the beginning, divine love for man gave him, who had sinned, hopes for a resurrection, "faintly and enigmatically". When the fear of sin "was sufficiently increased and had troubled man's mind, and when man had become aware of how terrible death is, God introduced a vague and unclear" hope of resurrection, which was nonetheless, a hope. [3]

After what God said to Adam, "till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken", God proves His decision about death with the death of the righteous Abel. For the metastasis of Enoch indicates that this decision is temporary and that death will eventually be abolished (cf. Gen. 5,21-24. Heb. 11,5). By taking Enoch, God notifies His creatures that the foundation of death is weak. He affirms: As sin is nourishment for death, so also is righteousness a "refutation" and a "disappearance" of death. As his first spoil, death received a righteous man, Abel. But behold how another righteous man, Enoch, abolishes death; he overcomes death and proves It to be impotent! As the years pass on, the images of the resurrection become clearer, as reflected in the rescue of the prophet Jonah from the belly of the whale. That the rescue of that prophet was a foreshadowing of the Resurrection of Christ and of our own resurrection, was verified by the Lord who said: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt. 12,40). Moreover, does not the ascension of the prophet Elijah (cf. II Kings 2,11-12) cultivate in people the hope of resurrection? [4]

The hope for resurrection was cultivated also by other events: The resurrection of the son of the widow of Zarephath by the prophet Elijah (I Kings 17,17-24); the resurrection of the son of the Shunammite woman by the prophet Elisha (II Kings 4,32-37); the resurrection of the dead man, whom the Israelites buried hurriedly, out of fear of the thieves, in the tomb of the prophet Elisha. Indeed, as the dead man came in contact with the bones of prophet Elisha, he was revived and stood upon his feet, an event that spread fear and terror to the Moabites (II Kings 13,21).

Moreover, the prophet Ezekiel clearly indicates a resurrection of the dead and a judgment when he says: "The soul that sins shall die ... the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (Ezek. 18,4;20). He speaks about the resurrection very clearly, however, with the magnificent image of the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). The Prophet, directed by God, speaks to the bones that were very dry. Upon hearing the "word of the Lord"), they directly rise to their feet and march all together full of life and heavenly vigor! This image, first of all, indicates the restoration of Israel, but also symbolizes the resurrection of the dead. It is for this reason that this chapter from Ezekiel is read in our churches on the evening of Holy Friday, when the procession of the Epitaphios has returned into the church. Isaiah again, more clearly than Ezekiel, prophesies: "Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise" (Is. 26,19). [The LXX text is much more explicit: "The dead shall be resurrected and those who are in the graves shall be raised up"]. Daniel multiplies the hopes of the resurrection with the following: "And many of those who sleep In the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12,2). Also, the wise Solomon will confirm: "But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them ... their hope is full of immortality" (Wis. Sol. 3,1;4). The souls of the righteous are in the hand of the eternal and omnipotent God; they are under His protection and no torment or hurt can ever harm them. Their hope is full of the resurrection. They die with the immovable certainty of a new, eternal and blessed life.

During the period of the Maccabees, the horizon of the hopes for resurrection are widened and clarified even more. The third Maccabee responds to his executioner who was preparing to cut off his tongue and his hands: "I got these from Heaven, and because of His laws I disdain them, and from Him I hope to get them back again" (II Macc. 7,11). A similar answer was given to his executioners by one of the pious Jewish elders named Razis. When he stood upon a steep rock, severely wounded, with his blood now completely drained from him, he tore out his entrails, took them with both hands and hurled them at the crowd that had gathered there, "calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to give them back to him again" (II Macc. 14,37-46). The day when he would receive them again is none other than the day of the resurrection of the dead.

Thus, long before Christ came, God gave us hopes for overcoming death. Prompted by the personal or national misfortunes of His people, God raises and guides His creature, little by little, to the idea of resurrection. God teaches man to understand that behind temporary discords are heavenly harmonies. The earth in which the dead are buried is not the sure ground where the righteous shall find their restitution. Thus, divine love offers to her creation optimistic revelations that are full of good hope, and which, like bright torrents, saturate the mind of rational man and alleviate the pain that comes from the punishment of death and Hades.

Endnotes

1. Cf. N. BERDIAEV, Peri tou Proorismou tou anthropou (On the Destiny of Man), Athens 1950, p. 350.

2. SEVERIANOS OF GAVALA, On the Sixth Day of Creation 10, PG 56, 499. In a number of manuscripts these Homilies are attributed to St. John Chrysostom, and for this reason they are included in Migne's volume which contains works of the holy Father.

3. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, "On the Next Day ..." 2, PG 63,475.

4. Ibid., 475-476.

From The Mystery of Death, by  Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, trans. Fr. Peter A. Chamberas (Athens: The Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians, 1997), pp. 113-117.