The Abolition of Death by Christ

by J. Mark Barna & Elizabeth J. Barna

Saint John of Damascus teaches that “since the enemy snares man by the hope of Godhead, he himself is snared in turn by the screen of flesh.” God accomplishes this, moved with great compassion for man, that in His goodness and justice, He would not, by His might, simply snatch man from death, not give the victory to another.

No, in His great wisdom He delivers a “most fitting solution to the difficulty.” He bends the heavens to descend to earth, to take on flesh, not instantly or magically, but completely; receiving His flesh in His pure but human mother’s virgin womb, with all the cares and travail that come along with it. God, Who is perfect, becomes perfect Man, the new Adam, that through the flesh of man and the power of God, the power of death may finally and utterly be destroyed. He made him who “had become through his sins the slave of death, himself once more conqueror and rescued like by like, most difficult though it seemed…” (St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book III).

When God the Son, the Creator of all things, chose to enter His own creation, He made all things new. The uncontainable One, who holds the whole universe in His hand, chose to lower Himself, to be contained. What greater thing is there than that God should become man? He chose first to be contained in the womb of a virgin mother and then, wrapping Himself in the garment of our own flesh, He chose to be contained within a body of flesh just like our own.

His incarnation makes it possible that, “in Him,” all men may live and become truly human, and once again become by grace what God is by nature. The promise of Paradise is restored.

St. John Chrysostom teaches us that the symbols of our defeat in Paradise were the virgin, the tree and death. Eve was the virgin, for she had not yet known Adam. The tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Death was the result of Adam’s disobedience. Now again we have a virgin, a tree and death; the symbols of defeat now become the symbols of victory! For instead of Eve, we now have the Virgin Mary. Instead of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have the tree of the Cross. Instead of the death of Adam (separation from God), we have the death of Christ, the God-Man. Death was defeated using the same means by which it had prevailed: the Virgin, The tree and death! Thus, the circular nature of all creation focused on a single point, the Cross of Christ.

Through His ministry, Christ shows God’s continuing love for mankind. He illustrates the kingdom of heaven to those who would see, and He gives instructions as to how God expects men to treat each other. Through His transfiguration He shows His divinity and illustrates definitely that the soul and body continue on after death, as He is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah. He Himself is raised in the body, bearing the marks of His passion.

Christ and the prophets preached repentance and a return to God… However, man did not only sin, but through his sin, he chose death. Saint Gregory of Nyssa teaches that, “As the beginning of death came through one man and was then transmitted to human nature, in a similar way the beginning of the Resurrection came through one, the God-Man, and then was extended to the whole of humanity” (Catechetical Homily 16).

Satan, through death, held captive the souls of all those who lived since Adam. He held them as “treasures in darkness and hoards in secret places” (Is. 45:3). But Christ came to save all mankind. The only way to reach them was to descend to them. The only way to do that was through death. Satan saw to it that Christ’s death was perhaps the most… torturous death yet invented: death on the cross. Evil presumed it had triumphed over the King of Glory when, in reality, it had only played a part in the glorious plan of salvation.

St. John Chrysostom teaches that the only digestible food for death is sin. Through Christ suffered all the temptations of the flesh and spirit that Satan could throw at Him, He triumphed over sin and died a sinless death, without spot or stain…

In His godliness, He submitted to the hate, scourging, humiliation and finally the most hideous death on the cross, outside the gates of the city, with thieves and murderers. We see in this God’s ultimate sacrificial love for mankind. In His humanity, He sinlessly submitted to the same de-gradation. In this we see mankind’s perfected love for God. Here the two are joined and revealed in victory. Here is revealed the same all-encompassing, overflowing love that created the universe. Here is the revelation that this is the moment of creation. This is the ultimate victory from which all of salvation, both Old and New Testament, flows.

Mankind was never created to be a slave of death. Christ, by being raised bodily, establishes how unnatural death really is to man. In all of human history, only one man, Jesus Christ, was created to die. Human nature, which, from Adam to Christ, was defeated again and again by sin, through Christ, received a unique, universal victory. This new man, free of spot or stain…, sacrificed in love for God and Man, restored God’s image and likeness, and could not be held captive as His ancestors were.

Hell took a man and encountered God. Christ died and descended into Hell first that “He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” and to destroy and annihilate completely the authority of death and Hades. He preached the Gospel of salvation to those who, since the beginning, were captives of sin, in this way liberating and redeeming as many of them as would receive His Gospel (1 Pet. 3:19-4:6). As sin is the only food suitable for death, Hell convulsed violently, much as creation had at the fall; and as Christ destroyed its power, it vomited out all those who had received His Gospel (Hos. 13:14).

All the while, Christ also remained in the tomb. His divinity and humanity were never divided, nor were His soul and body. All this was accomplished in an ineffable manner by Christ our God. When He rose bodily, His Resurrection was the confirmation and fulfillment of His Incarnation as the restoration of true life to human nature and the final revelation of Christ as the Logos, the Word and Power of the Holy Trinity.

Editor’s Note: The preceding essay was taken from A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition by J. Mark and Elizabeth Barna. Copyright (c) 2011, Divine Ascent Press.