Sin and Death in Eastern Orthodox Theology

Sin and Death in Eastern Orthodox Theology December 9, 2013

I introduced a nice book about Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth. In the first post I was describing the Eastern tradition’s view of sin, death and destruction. The two most important elements of this perspective I want to highlight now.


First, Orthodox theology considers the question of Adam’s sin and its consequences from the perspective of the resurrection of Christ. It is almost as if the emphasis is placed on the resurrection over the cross. This is surely to put too fine a point on it. But in comparison to the western tradition, the Eastern tradition stresses the importance of the resurrection in a way that the western tradition doesn’t. Louth notes,

The icon, called “The Resurrection”, is not a picture of Christ rising from the tomb, that we are familiar with from Western art; rather, it is a depiction of Christ destroying the gates of hell and bringing out from hell . . . our forefather and foremother, Adam and Eve, as the first of a crowd of people . . . who are being brought out of hell by Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection (70).

Thus, the most significant consequence of the Fall in light of the resurrection is the presence of death. So, according to Louth, it is Christ’s conquest of death in his resurrection means that death rather than sin is central to the Orthodox understanding of the consequence of Adam’s disobedience (70). For the Fathers, the concern was what the coming under of the sway of death meant for humanity and creation, rather than the under the sway of sin. One example of this Louth provides is Athanasios in his On The Incarnation. For Athanasios,

the world under the sway of death is a world characterized by corruption, disintegration; it is a world in which it is impossible to achieve anything, where all human intentions are like building on sand—they are impermanent, fragile. In fact, it seems to me to be suggest that it is not so much sin that causes death, as death that causes sin, by sapping our determination, for nothing that we do has any permanence; it is all being carried away by the corruption that has been unleashed on the world (71).

So, by a focus on the resurrection as primary, even placing the cross in an important but subordinate position, the consequence of the fall is death and its attending disastrous implications.

Ancestral Sin

Second, Louth presents the story of Adam is more the story of “everyman” than a story of the “first man”. While not denying the latter, he says the Father’s were interested in the former. In this sense the story is mythical. It is a story of us all. Here’s a long quote:

It is a story that is true of each one of us: we have turned away from God, we all inhabit the world of corruption and death. But there is more to it than that, for it is not as if we have each created our own world of death. It is rather that we seem to have been born into such a world. To account for this the Fathers conceive of sin as being more than simply personal sin. What they mean by this is that if I were able to look at the consequences of my sin, it would seem all so much more than I could really be blamed for. It is as if the consequence of sin are amplified, in the course of nature, as it were, in an alarming way; the consequence of my sin mingle with the consequences of others’ sin and the whole combines to form a kind of deafening cacophony.

The Greek Fathers speak in this connection of ‘ancestral sin’, sin of our forefathers, inherited sin. We are born into a ruined cosmos, ruined at a moral, rather than a physical level (through therea re areas –disease, for instance -where it is difficult to draw a line); we add our bit to the devastation, but most of it was already laid waste long before we came along. The story of Adam speaks of the very beginning of this process, but just as we are implicated in a sin that is bigger than we are, so too, Adam has unleashed consequences of sin that are more than he could be regarded as personally responsible for.

In the West, Augustine and his followers, there develops a notion of original sin: a sin that has its origin in Adam and infects, like an inherited diseased, all humanity. This idea, in this very specific sense, never developed in the East, mostly, I suppose, because it seemed that the notion of ancestral sin explained well enough the way in which the effects of sin are more than merely personal. It also seems tot me that the notion of ancestral sin tends to see the story of Adam and Even as typical, rather than needing to be strictly historical, though, as I have said, for the fathers this distinction was not drawn very sharply (72-73)

I am intrigued by these twin perspectives. They were new to me when I first encountered them a few years ago, since I had been raised on the idea of Original Sin. The more I think about it, I’m beginning to find these to be a more satisfying explanation than my inherited tradition. It seems to better explain our relationship to sin, in contrast to the Augustinian view, and I find the emphasis on the resurrection to be reflective of the stress in the New Testament. Not to the expense of the cross, but recognizing the implicit priority of the resurrection in the direction of the concept of cross-to-resurrection. The cross is foundation, but the resurrection is the goal.

In any event, we need to read more widely as evangelicals. You know how there are those so-called Reformed Baptists of the Piper ilk? I wonder if we could create an Eastern Orthodox Baptist tradition. As soon as I write this however, I imagine as it is an uneasy connection between reformed and baptist, it will prove more so with the Orthodox tradition.

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