Eternal Life for Orthodox Christians
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou
“Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…” (Matt. 25:34)
While sinners (the unrepentant) listening to today’s passage are occupied by fear and terror, the righteous (the repentant) feel jubilation because they hear the Gospel of their heavenly and eternal marriage. The saints here on earth have become engaged with the Bridegroom Christ, but then in the Second Coming they will enjoy their marriage. This means that for the saints the Kingdom of Heaven, Paradise, eternal life is not only a state of the future age, it is not beyond time, but a present reality. This great and fundamental truth about Christianity we will seek to present right now as much as we can.
Eternal life is not an abstract state, an exit from time limits, but life in Christ. The Lord Himself proclaimed the great truth: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3). That is, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of Christ is eternal life. And when we say knowledge we mean the union of man with Christ and this union is theosis.
With the incarnation of Christ the whole of history was contained by eternity and the earth became Paradise. This is why the womb of the Theotokos, who accepted Christ, is called Paradise. “Her womb is like Paradise itself, bearing the fruit divine, and if we eat of it, we shall never die like Adam.” That is why Christ is not only the center of humanity and history, but is the transformation of humanity and history.
The Orthodox experience it and know it well, that the eternal is not beyond time and history, but intersects history and time. In the Church there is not the linear formulation of time, but the cruciform. This means that we do not expect to enjoy the eternal at the end of history and time, but we enjoy it at every moment of time and history.
Experiences of eternal life
The life of Christ, this very eternity, exists richly within the Church, since this is His blessed Body. As in the human body, where the life of the head is not one thing and the life of the body another, so in the case we are looking at the life of Christ is not one thing and the life of the Church another. Within the Church there are powerful waves of eternity, since eternity is the way of life of divine existence, which is Her head. In Christ the Father “was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him” (Col. 1:19), and the fullness of Life, Justice, Love, Eternity also exists within His Body, that is to say in the Church. Thus with the Grace of Christ we enjoy experiences of eternity as members of the Church of Christ.
With Holy Baptism, the Church renews created man and introduces him, according to the Fathers, “to the life beyond the senses and comprehension of the new age.” Indeed, just as the incarnation of Christ is the beginning of the theosis of human nature, so our incorporation into the Body of Christ with Holy Baptism is the beginning of our theosis. That’s why Holy Baptism is called illumination and birth. “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal” (Clement of Alexandria).
With the Divine Eucharist, the Church instills life in man. The Divine Eucharist, which is the deepest expression of the Church, begins with the glorification of the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Especially when the believer partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ he becomes according to Grace the son of God and “all my members become light-bearing” (St. Symeon the New Theologian). They are illuminated and glorified, since man accepts Christ, who is Light and Life. After the Christian receives the immaculate and incorruptible Body of Christ, he partakes of incorruptibility, unites with Christ and is deified. At the end of the Divine Eucharist of Basil the Great, the Priest confesses: “We have been filled by unending life.”
The partaking in eternal life, the acquisition of the experience of eternity is enjoyed by man also at the time of prayer. There are times when the one praying receives the visit of uncreated Grace, in which case time ceases to exist, for then the praying one “has a vision of” God and experiences eternity, like the disciples upon Tabor. Then, according to the testimony of the saints, the world is forgotten and the praying one lives the presence of God. The Holy Fathers, interpreting the event of the Transfiguration of Christ, said that the vision of the uncreated Light is the Kingdom of God, “the beauty of the future age”, “the substance of future goods”, “the solid food of heaven” (St. Gregory Palamas). Of course, all this is incomprehensible to the secularized man of our time, but it is a reality for those who live it still today.
Therefore our life within the Church is the first resurrection, which gives us the certainty that we will also enjoy the second resurrection, after the Second Coming of Christ. In this way Saint Symeon the New Theologian must be interpreted when he says that if man does not see from this life the uncreated Light he should not expect to see it in the other life.
All that we have mentioned are not abstract theological concepts, but have great sociological significance. For the saints living from now this eternity see things clearly, they treat man and the world properly. The saints do not treat others as a mortal man who must increase his salary, etc., as all materialistic human systems do, but as an immortal man, a brother of Christ, Christ himself. In the face of their fellow man they see Christ, as the present Gospel says.
The Church is not only interested in the eternal, but experiencing the eternal solves the present properly. That is why the opium of the people are the atheistic systems, which deal one-dimensionally with human problems. Society would be different if it accepted the influence of the Church, which is the real society. Let us seek to live the first resurrection within the Church, so that we may be the blessed of the Father.
Source: From the book Όσοι Πιστοί. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.