For He created all things that they
And the generations of the world so
they might be preserved
For there was no poison of death in them,
Nor was the reign of Hades on the earth.
For God created man for immortality
And made him an image of His
But death entered the world by the
envy of the devil,
And those of his portion tempt it”
(Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24).
This is a most edifying oracle, offering truth about the nature and destiny of mankind. How wonderful that we are meant for “immortality,” for eternal life! But what characterizes this mysterious state of existence, which philosophers and sages have so long pondered? The Logos Himself reveals: “And this is life eternal, that they might know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
We notice right away that eternal life is qualitative rather than quantitative. It is a relationship. To have eternal life is to have knowledge of God, and knowledge in the Biblical worldview is not mere mental comprehension, but rather intimate communion. Thus eternal life is highly personal: loving fellowship with the infinite and thrice-holy Godhead.
Death, then, is rupture in the relationship between God and man. Man’s existence is sustained by spiritual proximity to the Deity, the Fountain of Being. The creature’s existence diminishes the further he moves from the nourishing presence of the Creator, the Living One, who alone can say, “I AM.”
Scripture makes clear that we were not, and are not, intended to live apart from God. Our first parents—though creatures of flesh summoned from dust—enjoyed eternal life by virtue of their fellowship with God. When they succumbed to temptation, they forfeited this gift, this heavenly blessing, this unique estate that had been theirs to treasure. Though the Divine Image still flickered in their hearts, they were evermore consumed by sin and death, by corruption and base carnality, and they descended to the level of irrational beasts. Instead of peaceable life on earth followed by perfect bliss in heaven, man’s existence became a bitter struggle that led only to the terrible abyss of death.
As St. Athanasius explains with powerful clarity:
“Upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise … He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven …
But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it” (On the Incarnation, 1:3, 4).
If immortality comes through fellowship with the Divine, death comes through collaboration with the Diabolical. That word, “diabolical,” comes from the Greek dia ballein, literally “to throw apart.” Estrangement from God and one another is death, and death is estrangement from God and one another. Bishop Sheen used to remark that fallen man is estranged even from himself, as symbolized by the Gadarene demoniac, who speaks in both the singular and plural (cf. Mark 5:1-20).
So estrangement equals death. On the other hand, communion yields life. Whereas estrangement comes from pride and hate, communion comes from humility and love. Thus we read in Scripture:
“And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted Him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:25-27).
John Zizioulas, an Orthodox metropolitan, wrote a book called Being as Communion. The title alone could be pondered for a lifetime. It gets to the heart of reality, both human and Divine. Zizioulas writes, “The life of God is eternal because it is personal, that is to say, it is realized as an expression of free communion, as love. Life and love are identified in the person: the person does not die only because it is loved and loves; outside the communion of love the person loses its uniqueness, and becomes a being like other beings, a “thing” without absolute “identity” and “name,” without a face” (pg. 49).
Existence is the measure of one’s fellowship-in-charity with God and, through God, with one’s neighbor. As Christians, we are united in the Body of Christ, and Christ is united with the Godhead. “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (I Corinthians 11:3).
Personhood, born only of communion, is perfected only in communion. In the end, the entire cosmos, recreated in glory, will be united in the infinite splendor of the Living God, so that “God may be all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28). “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). Then every creature which God has saved, linked to all the others in the Spirit of Peace, will truly flourish.
(As for the specter of damnation, we can only hope with Hans Urs von Balthasar that all are saved. Indeed, St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us, “For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body” Catechetical Orations, 26.)
As the Word created us in the first place, it is right that He should heal the spiritual disease that we have acquired through wickedness and ignorance. The “presence and love” of the Logos called us into being, and even now He brings abundant life, that we might be raised into glory and become “partakers of the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1:4).