“Existence is relentlessly threatened by death,” writes Met John Zizioulas. “To say that the world is created, in other words that ‘there was a time when it was not,’ does not simply mean that it could just as well not exist. It equally means that the world could at any moment cease to exist. Absolute nothingness, ‘non-being,’ which is a principle of the existence of creation, is not automatically suppressed by the fact of existence: on the contrary, it ceaselessly permeates and penetrates it. What is created is, of its very nature, mortal” (Communion and Otherness, p. 257). We are brought into the heart of Zizioulas’s understanding of the created-uncreated dialectic. As we have seen, the suggestion that existence is under constant attack by nothingness is not original to Zizioulas. St Athanasius says very much the same thing. Apart from the grace of God, the universe is driven by what we might call “ontological entropy”: it is naturally drawn toward disorder and nihility, precisely because it enjoys a derived existence and is thus dependent upon the Word’s constant preservative and providential care.
Here is the soteriological crisis of humanity—we do not contain within ourselves the power of our survival and well-being; we do not have the freedom and power to transcend our created nature. We live under the threat of returning to the “state of pre-creation” (p. 257). At the very moment of our birth, we are dying. “The whole world—by the very fact that it is created—perishes while existing and exists while perishing: its life and ours are not ‘true life'” (p. 257). Hence created existence is essentially tragic: it is determined by two mutually exclusive elements—life and death, being and nothingness.
The opposite of death is life—not created life but the uncreated life of God. Life is communion. “Even for God himself,” Zizioulas states, “life is a matter of relationship, of the communion of the persons of the Holy Trinity. This is even truer in the case of what is created, which receives its existence from someone else. The world cannot live except in relation, in communion with God. Death is the severing of that relationship and, conversely, the severing of that relationship means the loss of life. This amounts to saying that death—as the opposite of life—means the severing of relationship with God” (p. 264). Where there is communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit there is life, reality, substance, being; and where there is rupture in this communion, there is death and perdition.
Historically, humanity has sought to avoid the threat of non-being by positing an immortal soul; but this solution is excluded in advance by the created-uncreated dialectic: “Whatever gives to the created the possibility of existing in a durable, ‘natural’ way breaks the dialectical relationship between the created and the uncreated, makes the created something ‘divine’ by nature, and leads to an obligatory immortality” (p. 258). The belief in the immortality of the soul may mitigate the fear of death, but it cannot conquer death. “The only thing conquered,” Zizioulas comments, “is the preoccupation with the problem of death” (p. 258). Christian life is characterized by hostility toward death. Death is the enemy. “The created-uncreated dialectic keeps this rage alive in human consciousness, because it considers existence as a gift evoking gratitude and consent, a gift which, precisely because it is grace and freedom, cannot of itself exist eternally. The world is so created that it cannot exist by itself, but it is so loved by God that it must live” (p. 259). The Christian sensibility regarding death is thus significantly different (or at least should be) than sensibilities governed by the immortality of the soul.
Zizioulas acknowledges that belief in the immortality of the soul became part of the faith of the Church but with three qualifications: First, the Church teaches that the soul is created and thus has an absolute beginning. The notion of the preexistence of souls was rejected by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553. Second, the Church teaches that the human being is not constituted by the soul. Human personhood also requires the body; but the body dissolves at death. Third, the Church teaches that the Christian faith properly expresses itself in the hope of the resurrection of the body. The gospel promises the immortality of the human person, body and soul. As Zizioulas remarks, there is indeed an immortality of grace, but why limit it just to the soul? The human person is a psycho-somatic unity, and it is this unity that is promised eternal life in Jesus Christ.
But there is another reason why the immortal soul cannot ground the Christian hope—it can only offer a natural, necessary immortality. “Even the damned exist for ever on the basis of the immortality of the soul,” Zizioulas explains, “but their existence, precisely because it is natural and necessary, is a kind of ‘death'” (p. 281). (When I read this sentence I thought of Odysseus’s visit to Hades in The Odyssey. The post-mortem existence lived by the shades of the departed is a sad, dreary, unending affair, made intolerable to human conscience by the loss of self.) Hell is a place in which personal identity has been forgotten, the condition of “I do not know you” (Mt 15:12). By rejecting communion with their God, the damned have lost their personhood and are thus forgotten by God. They devolve into the condition of a thing, into absolute anonymity. This is why the Orthodox Church remembers the departed in the Divine Liturgy and memorial services for the dead. “Memory Eternal” is more than a traditional Eastern acclamation:
For a person to be held in the memory of God is equivalent to his or her existing: if God forgets us, if he says “I do not know you,” we fall into oblivion and non-existence. It is the relationship and not nature itself which endows man with hypostatic reality (we should note how ontological, i.e., hypostatic, a thing is the relationship of personhood). It is this which makes human nature a concrete reality (“enhypostasizes” it) as it does also with the very nature of God himself, whose nature would have been without existence or hypostasis without the Trinitarian relationship. It is in this sense that “souls” are commemorated in the Church as names, that is to say, as identities which are bestowed within the context of a relationship (there are no names where there is not a relationship). Names are given not on the level of nature (at our biological birth) but at Baptism, in the filial relationship (adoption) which is created in freedom. (pp. 281-282)
In the risen Son, through the prayers of his body the Church, through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, the Father remembers the whole person; he remembers our name. The Father remembers by name our departed loved ones, he remembers by name our departed friends and relatives, he remembers by name every departed human being. That he does so is our salvation. Memory Eternal!