Death and the Prospect of Eternity

Reading Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, I was intrigued by the way he relates death to our understanding of natural revelation, which for Staniloae consists primarily of our innate awareness of an eternal purpose for which all humans exist. Consider these two somewhat antithetical quotes:

No matter how self-evident it appears, natural faith, which has as its source in God’s revelation through nature, is subject to doubt…because the inevitable reality of death is opposed objectively to our thirsting after the fulfillment of the meaning of our existence in an eternal perfection.

By means of the words of supernatural revelation, man has also learned what he can understand from natural revelation when this is enlightened by supernatural revelation…Even death – and our inability to get used to death – teaches us not to be attached to this world, and shows that we are created for eternal existence.

I found it interesting that death should be both the cause obscuring the content of natural revelation and, in light of God’s more direct self-revelation, an evidence which attests to the basic content of natural revelation. On the one hand, the very fact that we experience death with an sense of finality – however illusory – tends to focus human existence on the finite and the temporal, the tangible here and the now. Death, after all, marks the period on the very short sentence of human life. To squander life on projecting ourselves theoretically beyond its inevitable end appears the greatest possible foolishness. Still, the very fact that in each person is an insatiable enmity with death testifies to its unnaturalness. Death looms always as the unconquerable enemy precisely because there is something within us which cries out to have it conquered nonetheless. There is some not-so-quiet voice within us that cries out to transcend death and temporality and here and now. In this sense, God truly has set eternity in the hearts of men, though we cannot fathom the contents of that eternity (Ecc. 3:11).

Death is the great enemy, but through our longing for its defeat we are drawn forcefully to Jesus Christ who has conquered it. Just another beautiful paradox of faith.

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