I’m starting to develop a bit of a pattern with my theology articles. I usually aim for one of two reactions: ‘what’ or ‘huh’. The ‘what’ articles focus on wacky nonsense from major theologians – as, for instance, when Aquinas very seriously discussed whether or not Adam pooped. The ‘huh’ articles are more in the mildly interesting vein. They showcase somebody with a different way of looking at the world. And it might not be something that we take on board for ourselves and our own personal beliefs – it’s usually not something I believe myself – but it’s nice to know that there’s someone out there who thinks like that. This week’s article falls more into the second category. Here’s Maximus with a fun little take on the meaning of death.
- The text: Ad Thalassium 61
- The author: Maximus the Confessor, 7th century monk and theologian
- Notes: Ad Thalassium is a series of letters delivered in reply to a Libyan monk, Thalassius, who’d written to Maximus with questions.
- Read it yourself: This text apparently doesn’t exist in English outside of this translation from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, which is what I’m using.
The basic idea at the core of Christianity is pretty broadly understood. Christ came to die in our place as penance for our sins so that we could enjoy eternity in heaven. When you dig in, though, the mechanics of that start to get a bit woozy. For example, it’s generally accepted that death is the consequence of sin (as in Romans 6:23). But, given that Jesus had never sinned, how is it that he was able to die? Theoretically, he should have been impervious to death. The Romans shouldn’t have been able to kill him. He should’ve been immortal. There are a few different answers here – for instance, you might say that Jesus took on our sins, suffering the punishment of death in our place. He was a sacrificial lamb – quite literally a scapegoat (as in Leviticus 16). Let’s assume that’s true for a second and keep digging into the mechanics. If Jesus became a sinner in our place, doesn’t that mean that God was sinful? That can’t be right. Maybe Jesus took on the consequences of our sin, rather than the actual sins themselves. But if that’s true, why do we still die? If we’re meant to die, but then Jesus already died in our place, how is it that death is still with us? Did Jesus just not do a very good job of it? Or was death never really a consequence of sin in the first place?
Well, Maximus has an answer that’s sort of close to that second point. He wasn’t trying to solve this problem or anything, by the way – he was just having his chat and I thought oh, that would fix the death thing. In Ad Thalassium 61, Maximus agrees that death is a consequence of sin, and that Jesus, as one who had never sinned, shouldn’t really be able to die. He then argues that Christ’s death essentially changed the function of death: “turning it into a condemnation of sin but not of human nature itself.” Death stops operating as a punishment when the person who died is innocent – it can’t be a punishment, because Jesus didn’t do anything wrong. So death is reconfigured. It doesn’t stop, but it also doesn’t work like it used to. It still has all the same functions of punishment and condemnation, but those functions only apply to your sins. They can’t apply to the good parts of your human nature. When Jesus moved through death, he was fully human, and perfectly good, and condemnation and punishment could not find any purchase on him. It’s essentially a sort of metaphysical loophole – there was no punishment for Jesus, who was good, and so every part of us that is good can also go through without punishment. “And so in Adam this very death is a condemnation of human nature because of sin, but in Christ it is a condemnation of sin because of his righteousness.”
Really the emphasis here is on how Jesus uplifts and redeems our human nature. Maximus talks a lot about how sin weighs down our nature, corrupting it so entirely that when we die, we basically just have to be thrown out entirely. But with Jesus, the idea is that he redeems our nature, such that our sinful parts can essentially be shorn off at death and the rest of us – intact, whole, and pure – can carry on its merry way. From that perspective, death, when it happens, is actually a good thing. “For good reason, then, those thus regenerated enjoy the effective use of death for purposes of condemning sin.” Death is not a debt that we need to escape:
“rather, the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin, which in turn mystically leads that person to divine and unending life. Such will ensue if the saints, for the sake of truth and righteousness, have virtuously finished the course of this life with its many sufferings, liberating their nature within themselves from death as a condemnation of sin and, like Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin.”
So you can see how this approach resolves many of our questions from the start. Jesus died because death is basically fine. It’s not some evil monster to be afraid of, some looming inevitable punishment – it’s something that’s normal and natural and that, you know, is ultimately just a phase that we pass through. That’s why Jesus died, and it’s why we continue to die. It’s okay to die. Death works for us now. And – oh, I guess I should address the other thing, too. Uhh, so Maximus starts off this letter talking about how Adam’s original sin involved taking too much pleasure in the material world. He then says that God put pain into the world to basically try and distract us from pleasure, as like a disruption, so that we’d stop getting so caught up in worldly pleasure and be like able to elevate our minds back to the good spiritual pleasure of contemplating God – so pain is apparently actually good for you – and then it becomes a sex thing – “But the Lord, when he became a man, did not have a birth in the flesh preceded by the unrighteous pleasure that caused death to be elicited as a punishment of our nature” – and then it really explicitly becomes a sex thing – “and [Christ] liberated from liability to those extremes all who are mystically reborn by his Spirit and who no longer retain the pLeAsUrE oF sExUaL cOnCePtIoN” – and I just – I do a lot of work trying to cut through the weird shit with these theologians, and I hope you fucking appreciate it.
Look, it’s pretty obvious that this first phase of the blog has focused on the big name theologians, who are kinda just a bunch of dudes. They get weird about sex and women, and I’ve mostly not talked about that, but it’s how they do. Part of it is the field – the biggest Christian theologians in history are all men. I mean, Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Aquinas – they’re kinda the big four. You could maybe chuck a couple others up there – Athanasius, wrote the Nicene Creed; Karl Barth, probably the most important theologian of the twentieth century – but they’re still lads. I dunno. It’s something I’m thinking about. Maybe that’s the third type of article – the ones where we zoom out and remind ourselves that despite all their cool shit, the big names can also kinda suck.