In the modern age, characterized by the rapid developments of science and technology, by the convergence of cultures and the crisis of values, even the very word death is avoided and everything that evokes it is repelled and rejected.
Death for modern man is only something negative, a loss – we “lost him”, it is often said about the deceased. The person who does not possess the correct epistemology of death tries to ignore it and thus essentially experiences a neurotic life, devoid of true meaning.
The cessation of heart function or the necrosis of the brain stem, i.e. biological, clinical death is not a natural state for humans, it is not the will of God. “God did not make death”; death intervened in human nature and acts as a parasite. Death entered the world through the sin of the first. It is not possible for evil to come from God, since God is good. When he created man he did not create him to die. After the sin was committed, however, death appeared: “and on that day eat of it [του καρπού της αμαρτίας] die die” (Gen. 2:17). And indeed the apostle Paul says “through one man sin entered the world and death through sin, and so death passed to all men” (Rom. 5:12). That is, death, as a result and fruit of the sin of the original, is intervening and entered into human nature and through it into all creation.
God, in His unspeakable providence, provided so that the time of death is unknown for each person. Because according to Orthodox Theology, if man knew when he would die, he would not stop sinning and be indifferent to virtue. The unknown of the hour of death keeps the believer in constant readiness and vigilance. “Make haste because you do not see what time your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42) either because of death or because of His Second Coming.
But this does not mean that God thrives on a sudden death. There is a wish that is said in our Church Services and in which we ask God to protect us from other evils and from sudden death. “That we may in his favor preserve the holy church and this city, and every city and country from pestilence, famine, earthquake, destruction, fire, sword, foreign invasion, civil war and sudden death.”
The Church prays not only for its active members, the faithful, but also for the whole world, who are potentially its members. So as a mother she has turned her interest and her affection to protect from all evil and to give every good and blessing to her children, all over the world. That is why he prays not only for the Orthodox but also “for the peace of the universe… for those who are floating, wayfarers, sick, burning, captives, etc.”
Sudden death for the atheist, the unbeliever, the unrepentant is a terrifying event with terrible consequences, because the time given by God to that particular person in this life was not used properly. This man did not define himself positively before God, himself and the world; and this is shown by the fact that he did not live in repentance, he did not live in awareness of God. So his communion with God, his participation in eternal divine bliss in the afterlife is at stake. This type of person mainly wants the aforementioned wish to protect from sudden death.
But for the believer, for the one who lives correctly and empirically the orthodox spiritual life, sudden death has no power, it cannot harm him spiritually. The greater spiritual condition a person has, the more he does not fear death, we would say that he rather desires it. Not because he hates this life or because he regards the body as a prison as the Platonic philosophers believed and saw release from it through death. The Christian loves life and longs for communion with real Life, which is Christ. That’s why he can confess with the apostle Paul: “For we, Christ, lived and died for gain… analyze the desire we have in it, and with Christ we are much more likely to grow” (Phil. 1,21-23).
So also the blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast said from this desire, the divine love for Christ, the desire for true life: “Death, while for many it is great and terrible, for me it is a rest, a sweetest thing” . That is why he recommended “blessed is he who remembers death at night and prepares to meet it. For he has the habit of coming cheerfully to those who expect him, but to those who do not expect him he arrives bitter and cruel [ως αιφνίδιος]»•.
Saint Siluanus the Athonite gives a very fine example of sudden death. Suppose, he says, that he is a king who lives in luxury, sinfulness, and possesses all the riches of the earth. At the moment when this king is at a banquet and entertaining himself with the princes and all his retinue, on his throne and in all his splendor, if someone told him that you are about to die, he would be troubled and tremble with fear . But if someone poor, but rich in God’s love, Saint Siluanus continues, were told that you are now dying, he would say in peace: “May the Lord’s will be done. Praise be to God, because he remembered me and wants to take me where the robber entered first”.
Of course, the best, the ideal, is for a person to know in advance the time of his death in order to pray, to surrender his soul in a state of prayer; something that happens to virtuous, holy Elders. Thus the blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast foretold, he had received “information” from the Virgin Mary herself that she would sleep on the day of her Assumption, i.e. August 15th. But also many earlier saints of our Church had foreseen their sleep, such as Daniel the Stylite, Gregory the Palamas, etc. The holy Theognostos says that no matter how high a virtue you reach, no matter how many gifts you acquire, “don’t let the breath be released from the flesh without the foreknowledge of death; but also be diligent about it.”
“But God’s punishments are an abyss” (see Psalm 35:7) and “what do I do to the Lord?” (Rom. 11:32). God, with His inscrutable wills and decisions, always aims at the salvation, the spiritual perfection of man, even if it seems – within the limits of finite human logic – that man is harmed, wronged. Thus God allowed many saints to die a sudden death, such as the apostle James the Brother of God, the abbot Moses the Ethiops, the holy Stephen the Younger, the 38 in Sinai and the 33 in Raith abbots who were deposed, but also the great reformer of saintly monasticism, Saint Athanasios the Athonite and many others. They as spiritual fathers accepted the sins of the people and sacrificed themselves like Christ for the sake of the salvation of the world. They also became a cause of alertness and awakening for the faithful. Because, as Saint Anastasios of Sinai says, believers should ask themselves after the sudden death of a saint: “If this happened to this righteous man, what will we sinners suffer?”.
Sometimes God allows a sudden death to wipe out a multitude of sins. In the Gerontikos we read that a certain monk fell into fornication and two of his fellow monks, who had already fallen asleep, asked God to devour him with a lion, so that with this painful death his sin would be erased and he could be included in the chorus of those who died with them . The proactive Blessed Elder Porphyrios used to say that research scientists are very close to finding the cure for cancer, but God forbids, because Heaven is full of cancer patients.
Pain is intertwined with our lives. Many times we are bent by intense sorrows, if the lack of faith goes hand in hand. For example, if we know that someone we know is going to die in a short time, because he has some terminal illness, and while we are psychologically preparing to accept it, we still cannot bear it, how much more could we face a sudden death with peace and serenity and even for a young person?
Death is something unnatural, perverted and hideous. It always remains the ultimate enemy for man. From ancient times until a few decades ago, man faced death with intense existential interest. But today’s man, who sees almost daily many mass or violent deaths from wars, crimes or accidents on television, has lost this existential approach to death and considers it as something natural.
When the Christian talks about death, he does not do so out of pessimism, he does not fatalistically compromise with it, he does not consider it natural; he sees it mainly as an enemy that must be defeated through Christ. “Death is the last enemy to be abolished” (I Cor. 15, 26) “The Word became flesh” (Jn. 1, 14) “to abolish the ruler of death, which is the devil” (Heb. 2, 14). God became human to abolish death, sin and defeat the devil. Christ took on a mortal and incorruptible body, to defeat death in His own body. Through His crucifixion and His resurrection, He defeated death and gave man the possibility, after being united with Him, to also defeat death in his personal life. Thus, after the incarnation of the Word of God, death changes its name and orientation for Christians; it is not called death, but sleep and becomes a bridge to eternal life. The believer passes “from death to life” (Jn. 5, 24).
Saint Nicodemus the Saint advises us not to forget that “death is such a sudden thief, in such a way that you do not know when it comes to your word. It may come on this day, at this time, at this moment, and since you have tamed well, you will not be able to see the evening and since you have reached the evening, you will not be able to be tamed… So conclude, my brother, from these , and say thus to yourself: “if I am to die, and perhaps by a sudden death, what have I to be the sufferer? what will it profit me then, if I enjoy all the pleasures of the world?…get behind me. Satan, and evil thought; I will not listen to you in sinning””.
According to the Fathers and the experience of our Church, our sleeping brothers and especially those who have died suddenly benefit greatly – the memorial services, the fortnights, prayers, almsgiving and our own Christian life which reflects as light in their own souls as well.
Concluding this brief introduction in which we briefly referred to certain aspects related to sudden death from a theological point of view – we would like to emphasize that death, the separation of the soul from the human body is a mystery, for which the main the Lord of life and death has his word. It is in God’s unfathomable mercies, whether we personally will finally die a sudden death; however, it must have become our conviction, must be assimilated by our whole being that through the risen Christ “death has no more dominion” (Rom. 6, 9 ), while “the gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. 6, 23).
of the Professor of the Holy Great Monastery of Vatopedi, Elder Ephraim