Fire and Brimstone – Taking the Sting out of Death

By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.

(Talk given at a Youth Meeting, March 2019)

I think we can all agree, that we don’t really think of death all that often. Actually some people can go years without ever thinking of death. It’s only when we experience the death of a loved one, or sometimes a beloved pet, that we wake up to the reality that one day, all that we know in this life will come to an end.

One day we will experience a separation from our family, friends, hobbies, comforts and enjoyments, and will enter another sphere of existence, which we have absolutely no experience of whatsoever, and that we may have only read about in the Scriptures or other peoples accounts of their experiences.

To add to that, we as Christians know that there are two very different places in this new sphere of existence, that we will face in the next life. One is known as paradise or heaven, and we have read that it’s truly beautiful, filled with peace, joy, love and every other celestial blessing. The other place, hades or hell, is terrifying, full of deep sorrow, pain, and endless suffering.

To a certain degree, it can be almost considered irrational for any person to look forward to dying, when they have never experienced physical death, and when they aren’t sure of where they will end up. It seems like a game of Russian roulette with a 50/50 chance of either eternal bliss or eternal torment. So perhaps we are justly afraid? Or can we somehow reduce this fear of the unknown and face death with a little more courage and possibly anticipation?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, I’d like to discuss with you all, what we know about death from our tradition and from the Scriptures as Orthodox Christians.

Firstly we know that as soon as we physically die, a separation takes place. Our soul separates from the body. The soul, which we can call the spiritual part of our nature, the deep part of who we are, separates from our physical nature. There won’t be a moment of nonexistence, just a rapid change of our nature and mode of existence.

In the Gospel of St. Luke 16:22 we read: “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”

Here we see as soon as they died physically, they continued in a new mode of existence, the souls of each went either to Abraham’s boson, known in the Father’s as Paradise, or to Hades.

There are many modern day accounts, titled NDE’s or near death experiences, that have been documented that also give us some insight into what happens when someone dies.

One account of interest is as follows:

“I was lying in a room in the intensive care unit of a Seattle children’s hospital, suddenly, I was standing upright and moving very quickly through dark space. I could not see any walls, but I thought that I was in a kind of tunnel. Although there was no wind, I felt that I was travelling with great speed. I did not understand where I was flying to or why, but I could feel that at the end of my flight something very important was waiting for me and I wanted to arrive at my destination as quickly as possible. At last I arrived at a place filled with light. It was here that I noticed someone next to me. He was tall with long golden hair dressed in white vestments girded with a belt in the middle. Even though He did not say anything, I was not afraid, because of the feelings of love and peace flowing from him. If it was not Christ, then it must have been one of His angels.”

This is the account of a sixteen year-old boy called Dean, whose kidneys had stopped working. After this, Dean felt himself return to his body and then he awoke. This experience changed Dean’s life forever, leading him to lead a pious religious life.

This account is from the book Closer to the Light, by an American doctor-pediatrician Melvin Morse who has documented many such experiences.

This account is similar to the Biblical narrative, the child continued to another sphere of existence very quickly, there was no cessation of existence, just a rapid transition to this new state of being and this new place. This is a very basic tenet of our faith so I won’t dwell on it much longer.

We also know that we will still have the same emotions, personality and desires; we will still be the same person, except without our physical body. Who we are, is deeply engrafted in our soul and personality, and this doesn’t cease at death, if anything it is magnified as we are no longer bound by the limitations of our physical bodies, which can be tired, weak, hungry and sick.

At the moment of Death, we read in the Biblical narrative above that: “the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.”

In the life of St Paul the Hermit, by St Jerome, we read a description St Anthony’s vision, where he saw St Paul’s soul ascending to heaven. The passage states:

“He saw Paul in robes of snowy white ascending on high among the bands of angels, and the choirs of prophets and apostles… On entering the cave he saw the lifeless body in a kneeling attitude, with head erect and hands uplifted.”

In both these accounts we read that Angels and/or Saints come and take the soul of the righteous and accompany it to its heavenly habitation. This would be of great help and comfort to the soul who is in this new world, seeing its brothers and sisters, the Saints and angels, leading it to its new heavenly habitation.

What about the soul of the unrighteous and sinners, what happens to them? We have many accounts from our own times and our tradition that give a glimpse into this mystery.

There’s a well know case which occurred in the late 19th century to a man called K. Uekskuell. He was raised in a devout Orthodox Christian home but didn’t take his faith seriously as an adult.

According to his account, he died while in the hospital after being admitted with a serious bout of pneumonia. This is how he explains his experience:

“I felt heavy within and weary… I however, only felt an insurmountable striving towards somewhere, an attraction towards something… I felt more clearly that I, as a whole, could not unite, that something had to separate within me… I almost screamed out loud, and made an attempt to free myself, to tear myself from that force which was attracting me, and suddenly I felt a calm within myself… I opened my eyes, and everything that I saw in the course of that minute, down to the slightest details, registered in my memory with complete clarity.

I saw that I was standing in the middle of a room; to the right of me, standing around a bed in a semi-circle, was the whole medical staff… I was surprised at what they were doing there, since I was not there but here. I moved forward to see. There on the bed lay I… I do not have any recollection of experiencing anything like fear when seeing my double; I was only perplexed: how can this be? I wanted to touch myself — my hand went right through as through a void. I also could not reach the others. I could not feel the floor… I called the doctor, but he did not react. I understood that I was alone and a feeling of panic came over me.”

Once again in the above account we see a rapid transition to a new mode of existence.

After this he saw two angels at his side. They took him by the arms and escorted him upward rapidly. Then he heard the cries and ugly laughter of evil spirits approaching. He was horrified, and described the encounter as follows:

“Evil spirits! O, how much irony, how much of the most sincere kind of laughter this would have aroused in me but a few days ago [he was an atheist prior to his near death experience]….Having surrounded us on all sides, with shrieks and rowdy sounds the evil spirits demanded that I be given over to them; they tried somehow to seize and tear me away from the angels, but evidently did not dare to do this.”

Uekskuell began calling on the saints for help, and especially for the aid of the Theotokos St Mary.

“A sad, ignorant Christian only in name, I now, it seems, almost for the first time in my life remembered Her Who is called the Intercessor for Christians. And evidently my appeal to Her was [so] intense… that hardly had I remembered and pronounced Her name when about us there suddenly appeared a kind of white mist which soon began to enfold within itself the ugly throng of evil spirits. It concealed them from my eyes before they could withdraw from us. Their bellowing and cackling was still heard for a long while, but according to how it gradually weakened in intensity… I was able to judge the terrible pursuit was gradually being left behind.”

Uekskuell perceived a bright light above him. The angels carried him toward and into the light. He said the light “blinded” him. Terrified, he heard a majestic voice say, “Not ready!” Uekskuell then was carried back toward earth.

Before leaving him, one of the angels said to Uekskuell, “Have you heard the decision of God?” The angel then pointed to the man’s body and said, “Enter, and prepare yourself.” Both angels then disappeared, and Uekskuell re-entered his body and returned to life, to the surprise of his physicians.

This account is in perfect accord with our Orthodox tradition. In the 11th Hour of the Agpeya we read to St Mary:

“Come to my rescue, when my soul departs from my body, defeat the conspiracies  of  the  enemy,  shut  the  gates  of  hell  lest  they swallow my soul. O’ blameless bride of the true Lord.”

We ask St Mary to come and help us at the hour of death, as we know as Orthodox that our enemies, the demons, will also try to come and take our souls.

St John Chrysostom says the following:

“If, in setting out for any foreign country or city we are in need of guides, then how much shall we need helpers and guides in order to pass unhindered past the elders, the powers, the governors of the air, the persecutors, the chief collectors! [these are all titles for different types of demons] For this reason, the soul, flying away from the body, often ascends and descends, fears and trembles. The awareness of sins always torments us, all the more at that hour when we shall have to be conducted to those trials and that frightful judgement place.”

In this account we see that at the hour of death the soul needs to pass through ranks of demons that try and take the soul, and accuse it of its sins.

He continues further on when speaking about how a Christian experiences death, speaking in the first person plural:

“The holy angels peacefully separated us from our bodies, and having good guides, we went without harm past the powers of the air. The evil spirits did not find in us what they were seeking; they did not notice what they wished to put to shame; seeing an immaculate soul, they were ashamed; seeing an undefiled tongue, they were silent. We passed by and put them to shame. The net was rent, and we were delivered. Blessed is God Who did not give us as a prey to them.”

In this account we read that the demons could not touch the soul of the righteous. Instead the angels carried them to their new heavenly home.

St Basil the Great says:

“A strict angel will come, he will forcibly lead out your soul, bound by sins. Occupy yourself therefore with reflection on the last day… Imagine to yourself the confusion, the shortness of breath, and the hour of death, the sentence of God drawing near, the angels hastening towards you, the dreadful confusion of the soul tormented by its conscience, with its pitiful gaze upon what is happening, and finally, the unavoidable translation into a distant place.”

We see then that depending on who we are when we die, either righteous before the Lord, or wicked and sinful, we will have two very different types of guides leading us to our eternal habitations. Angels or Demons.

Now that we have covered very briefly the elementary teaching of the Church on what happens when we die, we will talk about how we can possibly overcome the fear of death.

First and foremost we need to actually take our faith seriously. I can’t stand here and tell you all not to fear death, when some of you may not actually even have a relationship with our beautiful Saviour, our Lord Jesus, and may be delighting in living in sin, without any repentance, without a desire to be healed from sin and grow closer to the Lord.

If someone is in this state then they should fear death, and fear it very much. And hopefully through this rational and healthy fear of what they will face at death, they may be moved to repentance and a living faith in our beloved Jesus.

But my great hope is that no one here fits that description, my hope that everyone here is striving daily to be the best person they can be, through a living, heartfelt relationship of love, with our all merciful saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.

My dear brothers and sisters, what we all need to acquire is a right understanding of who God is. Many Christians have a very distorted understanding of who God is, and this distorted understanding of God, leads to a distorted relationship.

What do I mean by this? If I view God as a wrathful Judge; one that loves me sometimes, but when I sin, changes and gets angry toward me and wants to punish me, then how in the world will I ever grow to love this scary God, and enjoy my relationship with Him? I won’t be able to. I’ll always be running away from His wrath and live a life of self-judgement, guilt and sorrow.

This vision of God is grossly incorrect. God does not change from loving us to being angry toward us. God is love, he cannot stop loving; love is who He is. He always loves us. He loves us when we sin, He loves us when we’re broken; He loves us when we’re saints, He loves us when we are evil; He loves the angels, He loves the demons. God is love and only can love.

We serve a God who absolutely and unconditionally loves us, and desires nothing more than to embrace us, and for us to know this love, enjoy this love, and as a consequence desire nothing more but to offer Him our weak love in return for this amazing outpouring of love for us weak and sinful beings.

I’d like to read to you an amazing passage from our great Coptic Father St Anthony the Great who explained this nicely. Pay attention as it’s quite deep.

“God is good, dispassionate, and immutable [meaning unchangeable]. Now someone who believes and affirms that God does not change, may well ask, how it’s possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, while turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right to imagine that God feels pleasure or displeasure in a human way. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him; but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our sins that prevent God from shining within us, and expose us to the demons who punish us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but that through our actions and our turning to God we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.” (Saint Anthony the Great , On the Character of Men 150; Philokalia 1:352)

St Anthony explains that God never changes in his position toward us. He says: “He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same”

I’d like to repeat parts of this passage one more time: “if we remain good through resembling God, [we] are united to Him; but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him… [God does not] grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our sins that prevent God from shining within us, and expose us to the demons who punish us. If through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but that through our actions and our turning to God we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. To say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”

This gives me allot of hope and I’ll explain why.

The God whom I believe in, has purchased me through His precious blood, as one of His children. He never, ever changes in His love toward me. Even when I stuff up, and trust me when I say I stuff up allot, all I need to do it turn the eyes of my heart to Him and I see an all loving, all merciful Father, smiling down upon me, blessing me, forgiving me, cherishing me as his son, and saving me.

I may suffer through my sins, but that is my fault, not God’s. His love never, ever changes toward us. He is love and will never cease being love.

This is the God whom we serve brothers and sisters, a beautiful, merciful God, who loves us more than we can ever imagine; a God who desires nothing more than for us to spend all eternity with Him and with each other, bathing in His love, filled with joy and deep peace for all eternity.

It’s is absolutely essential that our understanding of God is correct and true. If this is the God whom I serve, then my spiritual life won’t be a burden, I’ll enjoy it, as every time I pray, every time I read, every time I serve, every time I attend Liturgy, I’m having the opportunity to make contact and develop my relationship with this all beautiful, all loving and all merciful God, to enjoy Him with all my body, soul and spirit.

Someone may ask what in the world any of this has to do with death? Well it has so much to do with this topic, or I wouldn’t be speaking about it with such passion.

Brothers and sisters, St John the Evangelist teaches in his 1st Epistle 1:8 says: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

In other words we are all sinners, and always will be. We must not fall into despair if we sin repeatedly out of weakness; we must not think somehow God is now angry with us. No. If I sin, which I do daily, I turn to the all loving eyes of my beloved and merciful Saviour Jesus Christ and say: “Lord, you know me, I’m so weak, please help me overcome my weakness, please forgive me Oh Lord, as you are my joy, my strength and my hope. I have none other but you Oh Lord.”

And our beautiful God embraces us immediately, condescends to our brokenness and humility and says: “my son or daughter, do not despair, my love for you will not allow you to perish, as long as you come back to Me I will always heal you, I will always forgive you, I will never allow you to perish, just return to me. Please do not forget my love. Please do not allow Satan to blur your understanding of my love for you. Please come back to me. I have a home waiting for you, a mansion in the heavens, where you will no longer suffer through sin, weakness, sickness and death. Just come back to every time you fall, and I will be your healing, I will be your joy and I will be your salvation.”

We see the above description of God’s stance towards us, confirmed in the story of the prodigal son. After spending his whole inheritance in extreme sinful living, something he only should have received at his father’s death, meaning it was like his father was dead to him, he returns to his father.

What was the father’s response? Let’s read Luke 15:20-24 together:

“20 And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”

The father was waiting, he was watching the road from which his son had left, daily waiting anxiously for his sons return. We read: “when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” He didn’t wait for his son to come back, he ran to meet him.

In Jewish culture during Jesus’ time, it was shameful for an older man to run. The father didn’t care; his love made him run toward his lost son. He then proceeds to dress him immediately in his noble attire, not just a robe, but “the best robe” and “a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet”. It doesn’t stop there. He then kills the fatted calf, a juicy tasty calf and they have an awesome BBQ Feast.

Can we see how Jesus is trying to correct our understanding of God? If this is God’s love and mercy manifest in this story, how should my life respond to this all beautiful God?

Every time I sin I’m like the prodigal son. I return to the Father bruised and battered from my sins, and He receives me immediately, patiently, having eagerly waited for repentance.

Shouldn’t this lead my life as a Christian to be one of great joy and hope, one of great peace and zealous service for the Lord? What’s stopping us brothers and sisters? Our weaknesses? Jesus forgives them as soon as we turn to Him. Our sins? He’s paid the price, don’t worry, He loves us; we just need to turn to Him in repentance.

Can this world stop us? No way. How can a temporary world, with temporary pleasures, compare to an almighty, all loving God, who has purchased our salvation with His blood, who has called us as his sons and daughters; who is ready to pour every blessing into our lives and love us with all his glorious strength, and who has a mansion waiting for us in His kingdom?

A right understanding of God leads to a right relationship with God. And a right relationship with God leads to salvation.

1 John 4:18 we read “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”

My brothers and sisters, our beloved Jesus is perfect love incarnate. If we know him and love Him, His love casts our all fear.

How can I fear death when I have a Father like this, a brother like Jesus, who loves me so, so dearly, when I have the Holy Spirit pouring the love of God into my heart empowering and emboldening me to try out Abba, Father!

In Philippians 1:22-24, St Paul says to the Philippians: “if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”

When St Paul contemplated death or staying in this life to serve, he said he had “a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better”. No fear brothers and sisters? Why? Because He was holy? No, not because of His own holiness.

St Paul says in Romans 7:22-25 “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

St Paul knew that no man is without sin, no man, not even himself. His trust and hope was in the love of Christ. He never lost sight of God’s love and tender mercies. This caused Him to service with all His being, even as a weak sinner, as he knew God’s love and mercy and never became despondent, never wavered in hope, but kept up the good fight until his last breath.

We see then brothers and sisters that for us who know God’s love, for us who know His immeasurable mercies, there is no fear of death. Why? Because our natural response to His love is to give our whole lives to Him as an offering, with our weaknesses, with our sins, our repentant hearts, our whole self, trusting in His love, and enjoying His love, and being empowered by His love to truly love Him as best as we can, all the way to union with Him as His bride, the Church for all eternity in His heavenly Kingdom.

“There is no fear in love” brothers and sisters, “perfect love casts out fear”.

So this is our solution, to know God, to know Him correctly, to know His immense love, and to allow His love to be the driving force of our relationship with Him and our love for Him. If we do this, with time we will overcome our fear of death, and look forward to death as a friend that will allow us, to meet the One our souls long for every day with great desire.

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