This past week, many people were shocked to learn of the suicide of the popular movie star and comedian Robin Williams. In the Orthodox Church, we have been preparing ourselves for tomorrow’s feast day: the Dormition of the Theotokos (that is, her falling asleep in the Lord). Death surrounds us every day; to the vast majority of it we remain ignorant. It is also the one certainty in each one of our lives: we will die.
These things can bring up questions: What is death? Why do we die? What is the purpose of death if we have a resurrection to come? All of these questions I will attempt to answer, but I will start at the beginning…
In the beginning, God created man in His own image for communion with Himself. For God is life, and to commune with Him is to experientially know life and goodness. We fell away from this communion through disobedience in a Garden long ago.
I do not think there was anything particularly special about the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil.” In order for love to exist purely, free will must be given. In order for free will to exist, there must be opportunity for the created ones to make choices; otherwise, freedom is illusory.
God wanted to experience pure love with His creatures, and so He gave the early humans a command: “Do not eat from this tree, for the day that you do so you will surely die.” The tree was a fruit tree, and again, I don’t believe there was anything special about it other than that one tree had a command attached to it, which consequently bestowed free will upon those in the Garden. Conversely, the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was Christ Himself.
The knowledge of good and evil was an experiential knowledge, for Adam and Eve were already good, but they had not known evil. By disobeying the command of God, they experientially gained knowledge of evil and, by contrast, understood good. Therefore, it was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
I believe Adam and Eve were familiar with death, otherwise the warning given by God would have been in vain. Animals, while God’s creation and without sin, were not made in the image of God and were not made for the type of deep, experiential communion with Him that humanity was granted. Therefore, Adam and Eve likely saw animals die and understood the concept of death.
According to St Athanasius, death is a part of fleshly nature; corruption is natural for fleshly creatures. Had Adam and Eve not transgressed the command and broken communion with God, they would have lived eternally because they would be in constant communion with the Tree of Life Himself, the Source of the image within them.
However, as we are well aware, they transgressed the command and broke communion with God and life. Therefore, death and corruption entered into their bodies that day, and we have inherited from our ancestors a body subject to corruption and death.
…to be continued…