Providing unique perspectives drawn from Russian Orthodox sources not easily found in the Western world, this book explores questions regarding the nature of God’s existence and the immortality of the human soul. It includes many examples of the awareness of life after death and argues that the expectation of a future life and faith in God form the foundation of a well-ordered life. This insightful look into the Orthodox Christian theology offers hope of something greater than a temporal existence and discusses questions relevant to every human being.
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Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave
Orthodox Teachings on the Existence of God, the Immortality of the Soul, and Life Beyond the Grave
By Archimandrite Panteleimon
Holy Trinity PublicationsCopyright © 2012 Holy Trinity Monastery
All rights reserved.
Orthodox Teachings on the Existence of God
The entire human race has always possessed a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being. He has endowed the universe with a motion which proceeds according to a strict order, a wise goal, and a plan. Every creature and every single object in the world He has destined to its particular purpose. The smallest insect testifies to the wisdom of its Creator; every flower petal is witness to His omnipotence.
According to the words of Holy Scripture, creation is but another witness to the existence of the Creator of the world: "The heavens have declared His righteousness" (Ps 96:6); "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" (Rom 1:20). The examination of the visible world must bring every man still closer to faith in God.
Finally, there is another witness to the existence of an omnipotent, all-wise, and infinitely good Creator. This reliable witness is our soul, which has an inborn necessity to long for the highest good.
Faith in God gives a man a firm, morally sound direction. It gives him a desire to live virtuously; it ennobles human nature, pointing to its divine origin and its moral likeness to God. It makes a man calm and comforts him in misfortunes by this thought, at least, that it is God who has allowed these misfortunes to come about because of His purposes, which are wise but not intelligible to us (e.g., in the cases of the patriarch Job and Joseph). Finally, faith in God endows each of us with the assurance that a man's life is not limited by the confines of this life but will continue beyond death into infinity.
Thus the truth of God's existence has equally firm proof in the history of mankind, in the data of experience, and in the testimony of our own soul. The more man penetrates into recognition of God in nature, the more he observes his own personal experience and is careful to preserve kindness in his heart and purity in his conscience, the clearer does the truth of God's existence become for him.
God's Being is beyond the comprehension, not only of men, but also of the angels. He is the "unapproachable Light." If our eye tires of the created light of the visible sun, how can the eye of our reason help weakening before the light of the eternal Spiritual Sun, before Whom even the highest of the angels cover their faces? The limited reason of man is too weak to comprehend God, as his hand is too weak to scoop out the sea; or, rather, his reason is weaker even than his hand. Can his hand scoop out the sea? Even if this were possible, since the sea has its limits and a measurable depth, it still would be impossible for the very limited vessel of man's mind to suffice for the comprehension of the abyss of God's wisdom, whose breadth is limitless and whose depth is immeasurable.
In recognizing God, we are hindered not only by the natural limitations of our reason but also because our reason has been darkened by sin. "I am surprised at those numerous people," says Symeon the New Theologian, "who do not tremble at occupying themselves with theology while they are full of sin. ... We, who do not know either ourselves or that which is before our very eyes, are fearless enough to dare to philosophize about that which is incomprehensible to us; and especially when we are empty of the grace of the Holy Spirit, Who enlightens and teaches all."
There will come a time when many mysteries will be fully revealed to us, but to achieve this state we must cover a long and very demanding journey of correct spiritual development.
The entire Gospel, this great foundation of Christianity, is a disproof of the monstrous idea that the meaning of man's life lies only in science and reason.
The divinely revealed teachings which are expressed in the Bible have endured centuries, although numerous enemies have struggled against them. The Bible was not composed by one author; it came into being gradually, over a period of approximately 1,400 years. It consists of 76 separate books. A great number of various authors have contributed to its growth: learned and unlearned, kings and workers, clergy and simple farmers, statesmen and shepherds.
For entrance into the kingdom of God and into the Church which has been founded by the Lord on earth, for the fulfillment of Christ's commandments, and for a recognition of the mysteries of His teaching — for all this, it is necessary to be blessedly reborn of the Holy Spirit. It is absolutely impossible to actuate Christ's law in our life with the help of nothing but our weak strength, which is prone to sin. Only with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, when our being has been renovated by the force of a new life, full of grace, does the law of Christ become comprehensible.
Christianity has not yet been understood and properly valued by the world. But Christianity is precisely that "unperishing treasure" for which people search so avidly. This treasure is a real, inner communion with Christ, which develops into the limitless joy of eternity.
Spiritual experience testifies to the closeness of our spirit to God's Spirit, to the influence of God on our soul when it comes into a vivid closeness with Him. In this feeling of God's presence or proximity lies the very essence of religious feeling or faith.
For us, faithful and believing sons of the Church, there can exist no doubt whatsoever about the divinity of Jesus Christ, our Savior. But let us talk to a skeptic, and he will declare that Christ was merely a man. This thought is not new. Many centuries ago, Arius, who was later punished by a revolting death, declared the same thing. Now, however, people have gone beyond his position. This heresy is not enough for Satan. He is intent on manifesting his evil power. Now his servants preach that Christ never existed at all, that He is merely a legend, a myth! We are pained, and fear for those who express thoughts of this kind; but let us speak calmly. The appearance of great men in history was by no means prepared for so that they should be known about in advance and expected. The coming of Christ, on the other hand, was predestined thousands of years before it happened, and with such clarity and in such detail that even the place, the time, almost the year of His appearance were pointed out. By the Savior's time, the entire Orient knew about and expected someone infinitely great Who would come from Judea and to Whom all the nations would subject themselves. Apart from Jesus Christ, there has been no person on earth in whom the entire sum of all these signs and prophecies proved itself.
The life of Jesus Christ was accompanied by events so great as have never occurred in the life of any great man; and actions so great as none of the founders of other religions accomplished, nor did other great men achieve so much. The Roman centurion, a pagan who stood at the cross and saw the signs that took place during the Lord's sufferings and death, recognized Him as the Son of God.
How many souls appear to strive diligently toward Christ and yet do not find full faith in Him? Unremittingly they are troubled by doubts; they cannot admit or recognize many things.
In vain do we think that our doubts are something new that never happened before. Such doubts existed even during our Lord's own time and then repeated themselves and still repeat themselves all the time, since the enemy of the human race never rests and perpetually works for our destruction. Alone, without Christ, we cannot overcome Satan's evil power. But if we are reborn in grace into a communion with our Savior, we receive the ability to struggle and to overcome our enemies.
From The Christian Orthodox Teachings on the True Faith and Its Application to Life, edited in Russian by Archimandrite Panteleimon (Holy Trinity Monastery: Jordanville, N.Y., 1954).CHAPTER 2
The Mystery of the Holy Trinity
The concept of God's oneness and of His immense greatness does not represent fully the Christian teachings about God. Christian faith reveals to us the deepest mystery of the Divinity's inner life. It represents God as One in Essence but existing in Three Persons.
The truth that God is One and yet Three distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Not only do the natural religions not know this truth, but also a clear, straightforward revelation of it is absent even in the divinely revealed teaching of the Old Testament. There we have some beginnings, some symbolic, veiled hints, which can be understood in their entire fullness only in the light of the New Testament, which reveals the teaching on the triune God with absolute clarity.
Thus, for instance, in the Old Testament there are some statements which testify to the plurality of Persons in the Divinity: "Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (Gen 1:26). "Behold, the man has become like one of Us" (Gen 3:22). "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language" (Gen 11:7).
There are also some events which hint at the Trinity of Persons in God. Among them are the appearance of God to Abraham in the guise of three wayfarers (Gen 18) and the song of the seraphim, heard by the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 6:3). Finally, we can see how the separate Persons are pointed to in the statements about the Angel of the Lord or the Angel of the Covenant, about the Word and the Wisdom of God, the Spirit of the Lord, and so on.
The dogma of the Trinity, while it is the distinguishing mark of Christianity, serves at the same time as the foundation on which the entire content of Christ's teachings rests. All the joyful, redeeming truths of Christianity — dealing with the redemption, sanctification, and beatitude of man — can be accepted only when we have come to believe in God as Three Persons, for all these great benefits have been granted to us by the common, combined action of the divine Persons.
"The totality of our teaching is simple and brief," states St Gregory the Theologian. "It is like the inscription on a column, obvious to everyone. These people are wholehearted worshippers of the Trinity!"
It is because of the great importance and the meaning, central to everything else, of the dogma of the Holy Trinity that the Church has always exhibited a pious zeal, a far-seeing watchfulness, a never-wearying care, and an intense effort of thought in keeping this dogma safe and defending it from various heretics. The Church has given the most precise definition of this dogma, based on John 15:26: "God, Single in Essence, is Triple in Persons: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, Trinity single and indivisible." In these few words is expressed the essence of the Christian teaching on the Holy Trinity. But despite this obvious brevity and lack of complexity, the dogma of the Trinity is, nonetheless, one of the very deepest, unfathomable, and inexhaustible mysteries of divine revelation. No matter how much we may strain our reason, we are completely incapable of clarifying to ourselves how three independent divine Persons (not three powers, qualities, or manifestations) of a totally equal Divinity can together form a single, indivisible Being.
The great fathers and teachers of the Church have on many occasions approached this immeasurably deep and elevated truth with their divinely illumined thought. In their attempts to clarify it, to bring it closer to the understanding of our limited reason, they took recourse to different comparisons, taking these now from the phenomena of nature that surround us, now from the spiritual life of man. Some of the comparisons employed are sun, light, warmth (hence the expression "Light of Light," in the Creed); spring, fountain, stream; root, stem, branch; and reason, heart, will.
The teacher of the Slavs, St Cyril, the Equal of the Apostles, in a conversation with Muslim Saracens, talked about the Holy Trinity as follows. He pointed to the sun and said, "Do you see the shining orb in the sky, and the light born of it and the warmth that proceeds from it? God the Father is like the orb of the sun; He has no beginning and is endless. From Him, outside of time, the Son is born, like the light that comes from the sun; and also from Him, the Father, there proceeds the Holy Spirit, as warmth issues from the sun, together with its light. Everyone distinguishes the disc of the sun, its light, and its warmth; but there is still only one sun in the sky. Such is the Holy Trinity: in It there are Three Persons, but God is One and indivisible."
All these and other comparisons facilitate, to some extent, grasping the mystery of the Trinity. Still, they are only very feeble indications of the Supreme Being's nature. They leave in us a sense of insufficiency, a lack of correspondence with the elevated subject, for the clarification of which they are employed. They are unable to remove from the teaching on the Trinity that veil of unattainability, of mystery, which envelops it and hides it from man's reason.
In connection with this, there is a very instructive tale about the great Western teacher of the Church, the blessed Augustine. When he was once deep in thought on the mystery of the Trinity and was considering a plan for a written discussion of this dogma, he went to the seashore. There he saw a boy playing in the sand and digging a hole in it. When Augustine asked him what he was doing, the boy replied, "I wish to pour the sea into this little hole." Then Augustine said to himself, "Am I not doing the same as this child when I attempt to exhaust with my thoughts the sea of God's infinity and to gather it into the finite limits of my spirit?"
Augustine — that great teacher to the whole world who, for his ability to penetrate with his thought the deepest mysteries of the faith, was honored by the Church with the name of the Theologian, and who wrote about himself that he used to speak about the Trinity more often than he used to breathe — also admitted the insufficiency of all comparisons that are directed toward understanding the dogma of the Trinity. "No matter what I contemplated with my reason, no matter what I was eager to know," he says, "no matter what I used for the enrichment of my mind, or where I searched for a likeness, I did not find anything on earth that could be used for a comparison with the essence of God."
Consequently, the dogma on the Holy Trinity is the deepest, the most unattainable mystery of the faith. Vain are all efforts to render it completely understandable by our limited reason, to bring it within the boundaries of our thought. "Here is the boundary," remarks St Athanasius the Great, "of that which the cherubim cover and shield with their wings."
Nonetheless, despite its remoteness and unattainability, despite its seeming dryness and abstractness, this dogma
1. gives the fullest satisfaction to the thought of the faithful;
2. brings peace and comfort to the heart; and
3. has great importance for our lives, for it can become a force which renews a man and makes him reborn.
The teachings on the Holy Trinity elevate and purify the very idea of monotheism, put it on a firm foundation, and remove those important yet insurmountable difficulties which of necessity arose in man's thoughts in earlier times.
Some thinkers of pre-Christian antiquity, while they rose to the concept of a single Supreme Being, still were unable to solve a question: in what ways are the life and activity of this Being manifested when He is considered by Himself, apart from His relation to the world? Consequently, the Deity was regarded by them as either the same as the world (pantheism); or appeared to be lifeless, locked in itself, a motionless, self-centered principle (deism); or, again, turned into a terrifying, inscrutable fate that ruled over all (fatalism). Christianity, through the dogma of the Trinity, revealed that in the tripersonal Being of God, apart from His relation to the world, there continues a timeless and endless fullness of internal, mysterious life. As an ancient teacher of the Church, Peter Chrysologos, puts it, God is "alone but not lonely." In Him there are several Persons that ceaselessly are in unbroken communion with one another: "God the Father is not born and does not proceed from another Person; the Son of God is eternally born from the Father; the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father." The inner, concealed life of the Divinity has ever consisted in this interrelationship of the divine Persons, but before the coming of Christ it was hidden by an impenetrable veil.
Through the mystery of the Trinity, Christianity has taught man not only to revere God and to be full of awe before Him, but also to love Him. Through nothing other than this mystery, it has brought into the world the elevated and meaningful idea, joyful to every soul, that God is the limitless and most perfect Love.
For this very reason, the severe, dry monotheism of other religious teachings, because it does not rise to the revealed idea of the divine Trinity, cannot give rise to a true concept of love as the predominant quality of the Divinity.
Excerpted from Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave by Archimandrite Panteleimon. Copyright © 2012 Holy Trinity Monastery. Excerpted by permission of Holy Trinity Publications.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to the Second Edition,
Part I: BELIEF IN GOD AND THE EXISTENCE OF AN AFTERLIFE,
1. Orthodox Teachings on the Existence of God,
2. The Mystery of the Holy Trinity,
3. The Immortality of Our Soul,
4. The Origin of Death,
5. The Actual Existence of the Devil,
6. The Fallen Angels,
7. St Anthony's Struggles Against Devils,
8. What Is Death?,
9. What Is the Soul, and What Is Its Origin?,
10. How Significant for Our Lives Is Belief in Immortality?,
Part II: TEACHING ON THE AFTERLIFE, HEAVEN, AND HELL,
11. Proofs of Immortality,
12. The Particular Judgment,
13. Church Teaching on the Trials of the Departed,
14. The Mystery of Death,
15. Teaching from the Holy Fathers on the Journey After Death,
16. The Mysteries of Life Beyond Death,
17. A General View on the Immortality of the Soul and on Life Beyond the Grave,
18. The Life of Departed Souls Before the Universal Judgment,
Part III: TALES FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE,
19. The Journey Beyond Death as Revealed to Gregory, a Disciple of St Basil the New,
20. Testimony of the Departed About the Immortality of the Soul and the Afterlife,
21. The Deaths of the Christian Boys,
22. Two Visions of the Heavenly Kingdom,
23. Two Marvelous Occurrences,
24. The Miraculous Dream of the Novice Thecla,
25. The Clairvoyant Girl,
26. The Experience of a Certain Ascetic,
27. An Ancient Tale,
28. The Soldier Taxiotes,
29. The Tale of Gabriel Ivanovich Gonchar,
30. A Tale from the Holy Mountain,
31. The Suffering Paralytic,
Part IV: PRAYING FOR THOSE IN ETERNITY,
32. How Important It Is to Remember the Dead,
33. The Departed Request the Living to Pray for Them and Are Grateful,
34. The Departed Appear to Their Relatives and Friends to Tell Them of Their Death,
35. The Departed Take an Interest in Their Survivors,
36. More Accounts of Appearances of the Departed,
Part V: PREPARING OURSELVES FOR DEATH,
37. A Moral Conclusion to Be Drawn from the Previous Accounts,
38. What the Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church Teach About the Location of Paradise,
39. What the Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church Tell Us About the Location of Hell,
40. The Future Punishment of Sinners,
41. An Answer to the Eternal Question: Shall We Live After Death? An Attack on Atheism and the Doctrine That Death Is Final,
Part VI: FINAL WORDS ON IMMORTALITY,
42. More About Proofs of Man's Immortality and of the Preservation of His Own Identity After Death,
43. After His Death, Man Preserves His Identity and Leads a Fully Spiritual Life,
Part VII: COMMENTS ON CHRISTIANITY, ENDTIMES, STRUGGLES, AND REWARDS,
44. On the Holiness of the Christian Religion,
45. A Last Word on the Divine Origin of the Christian Religion,
46. The End of the World, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Last Judgment,
47. The Blessed Condition of the Righteous in the Future Life,
48. About the Eternal Blessedness of the Saints,
Part VIII: CONCLUSION,
49. A Defense of Christian Faith Against Disbelief,
50. Final Exhortation — Stand Firm,
Appendix 1: A Prayer for Mercy,
Appendix 2: A Short Biography of Archimandrite Panteleimon,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although this book will not convert any skeptics, secularists, or dedicated atheists, it does provide a good explanation of Russian Orthodox beliefs and theology. I read much of it in one sitting. As one who majored in Russian History and a Defense Department diplomat who negotiated with the Soviets I found it to be good background reading to explain and put in light the current policies of Mr. Putin and his apparent popularity with th Russian people.