When Are Immortal Creatures Immortal?

“What is created is, of its nature, mortal.”

I quoted the above sentence in my previous article, “The Ontological Entropy of the Zizioulian Universe.” I hoped it might evoke a comment or two. Assuming the accuracy of the translation, there is something odd about the phrasing. One normally thinks of death as something that only living beings can experience. May we also speak of inanimate objects as mortal? But given the Athanasian belief that all all created beings tend toward nothingness, apart from the creative action of God, perhaps we may reasonably extend the meaning of the word to include the “mortality” of rocks and glass bottles—yet it’s an odd use of the word.

But Christians also traditionally speak of the human soul as immortal. St Athanasius certainly does so (see Contra Gentiles 33). So if everything that is created is mortal, then me must logically infer, and Zizioulas explicitly draws this inference, that the soul is not immortal by nature, “since it is not eternal but created. Consequently it too is subject to the destiny of creation if left to itself” (Being and Otherness, p. 265). Zizioulas then goes on to say, “We can certainly speak of an immortality that is not ‘natural’ but ‘by grace,’ but that is possible only by means of a logical contradiction. The fact that the soul can be immortal by grace does not logically permit us to say that it is immortal, since the fact that it is created means that it is not immortal in its nature” (p. 265). Why should this involve a contradiction? Given that all creatures have an absolute beginning, may we not infer that souls are immortal only in a qualified sense? But Zizioulas does not offer us a qualified interpretation of immortality of creatures—he denies it. What’s going on?

Properly speaking, the Metropolitan of Pergamon tells us, we may attribute immortality only of the divine Creator. Only the uncreated Trinity enjoys eternal existence; only God possesses self-existence and aseity, no beginning and no ending. His immortality is the true and authentic immortality. As Zizioulas writes, “Only God ‘has immortality’ (1 Tim. 6.15-16). If, therefore, a creature is by nature immortal, it is God” (p. 265, n. 16). I would go on to add that if a being is immortal by nature, then it is, by Zizioulian definition, not a creature.

I cannot help but feel that Zizioulas could have benefited from an editor or friend trained in analytic philosophy. His presentation would definitely have been strengthened by a clarification of terms. Specifically, he seems to be conflating two different senses of “nature”/”natural” and “mortality”/”mortal”; nor has he clearly distinguished between the eternity of God and the immortality of souls and angels. Some readers, including myself, have found Zizioulas confusing on this question of immortality. Philip Sherrard, for example, asked for further clarification from Zizioulas in a response to the original 1983 article:

Dr Zizioulas insists that the idea of the immortality of the soul is a mistaken idea because the soul is “not eternal but created,” and everything that is created is subject to death. This implies that God cannot create something which is immortal. But in that case, what can we say about the angels? The angels are certainly created. Are they therefore mortal? And if God can create an angel, which is immortal, why can he not create a human soul that is immortal? (p. 272)

It’s obvious that Sherrard has misunderstood Zizioulas about the derived immortality of creatures, no doubt misled by Zizioulas’s failure to adequately distinguish between divine immortality and creaturely immortality. Zizioulas was given an opportunity to respond to Sherrard’s critique, yet as we will see, his response generates even further confusion. What was needed from Zizioulas was a careful definition of terminology and an explication of how the immortality of the uncreated Deity differs from the conditional immortality of some of God’s creatures, such as human souls and angels. Alas, this is not what he offered.

Regarding the immortality of souls, Zizioulas acknowledges that the idea of the immortality of the soul has become a part of the tradition of the Church. “Nobody can deny it without finding himself alienated from the very worship of the Church” (pp. 279). (In other words, “I’m not a heretic.”) A couple of pages later he even speaks of the “natural immortality” of the soul (pp. 281-282), thus verbally contradicting what he had written in his article.

Turning to the immortality of angelic beings, he repeats the contradiction:

The angels are immortal by nature (even if they are not entirely incorporeal). Consequently, since they live for ever on account of their nature, one could perhaps have said that ontologically they do not need Christ. But apart from the fact that even they are not entirely incorporeal …, that which counts for their immortality is not their natural but their personal immortality. If they too do not desire freely, like human beings, to participate in the relationship which Christ as a person creates between created and uncreated, their natural immortality is of no benefit to them—they too will fall into the anonymity of the place of the dead. Christ is saviour of the whole of creation (including the angels) because for anything created to exist eternally is a matter concerning a relationship with God which is free and loving this is given—is enhypostasized—only by Christ not by means of a natural, necessary immortality but by means of a free relationship within the context of the relationships of the Church in which the angels also participate. Thus for the angels and for humankind and for all the worlds that exist (as the late Father Justin Popovich used to say) nature will have no reality (hypostasis), whatever forms of immortality it may have, unless it finds its reality (is enhypostasized) in the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (p. 282)

Zizioulas’s distinction between the natural and personal immortality of angels is helpful. On the one hand he acknowledges that angels, by nature, do not have to confront physical death in the way that human beings naturally do; on the other hand, he observes that if angels should reject God, they too face annihilation and oblivion. Their natural immortality does not guarantee their personal immortality. Compare the above passage with this passage from Lectures in Christian Dogmatics:

The doctrine of creation refers to two sorts of creature that are free, those with, and those without, a material body. Those who possess a material hypostasis are ourselves, while those without material hypostasis are those incorporeal beings we know as angels, who exist in blessedness that they receive through their relationship with God. They are creatures, and subject to the same conditions as material bodies. To be subject to death is not a consequence of materiality, for it is our createdness, not our materiality, which makes us subject to death. Just as it is not evil, materiality is not the cause of death. It is because they had a beginning, and came out of nothing, that death is always a possibility for creatures. (p. 94)

All creatures are subject to death (i.e., are “mortal”) because they have been created ex nihilo. But some, we might say, are more mortal than others. Animals are subject to death quite directly: when they die they cease to exist. Human beings are subject to death by the separation of body and soul: the body dissolves and the soul continues. They are also subject to spiritual death and descent into nothingness. Angels, though free from physical dissolution, are subject to death in a personal sense: if they reject God, they too become vulnerable to nihility and loss of being. May the human being or angel actually cease to exist? Zizioulas does not say.

(Go to “Victory Over Death”)

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10 Responses to When Are Immortal Creatures Immortal?

  1. Very interesting piece. Thank you for the enlightenment.

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  2. Lasseter says:

    Animals are subject to death quite directly: when they die they cease to exist.

    Do they?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Well … I’m hopeful that my dog Kayla and my cat Tuxedo will be with me in the Kingdom (assuming I get there–if I don’t, well, I’m confident they will be with my wife).

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      • When my beloved golden, Nellie, died, I called Vladyko Dmitri of Dallas, of blessed memory. He was very consoling. He told me that Professor Verhovskoy (one-time professor of Dogmatics at St. Vladimir’s whom Hopko quotes like he was the end of all arguments), held that animals go to heaven (at least pets). I agree, with a certain nuance I picked up from C.S. Lewis. As owners of pets, we participate in an Adamic activity of raising creation towards personhood. It seems to me that for this divine-like activity to have no meaning other than an exercise “til death us do part” makes its movement towards personhood into nothing more than a game. Only some permanence makes sense. I think, since creation was made “subject to futility” on our account, so it also participates in our freedom (liberty of the Sons of God). That freedom includes triumph over death, it would seem. But I’m out here on thin ice for an Orthodox priest…

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  3. Isaac says:

    The only commonality I see among these different “degrees” of immortality is that when a creature turns away from God things fall apart and some kind of disintegration sets in. Whatever the creature was made to be is lost even if something of the creature continues existence. A shade in Hades is no longer a human even if his existence continues. Perhaps it is a logical impossibility for a creature to “un-exist” even if the creature is contingent by nature and has no existence apart from God.

    Regardless, I think most Western Christians need to hear a whole lot more about “ontological entropy” rather than juridical clemency. The former stems from what we are and what God is. The latter seems to stem from a self-existent necessity that God is beholden to even if it means thinking of him in ways completely foreign to the life of Jesus.

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  4. Rhonda says:

    conflating two different senses of “nature”/”natural” and “mortality/”mortal”

    Ah, thank you, Fr. Aidan for putting into words the issue I have at times with Zizioulas. Mortality, as I was taught as a catechumen, is the consequence of Adam’s sin & is therefore “unnatural” so the sentence “What is created is, of its nature, mortal.” gives me pause to scratch my head. The word “eternal” also adds to my confusion as eternal is not the equivalent to immortal nor immortality. As created beings with a beginning to our existence, we cannot be eternal, but we can be immortal by God’s grace. Anyway, if nothing else, Zizioulas expands my thoughts, gives me much to contemplate which usually results in a multitude of questions to ask my priest 😉 But it was due to my penchant for questions that he that introduced me to Zizioulas’ works in the first place 😛 Now time to go contemplate…

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Mortality, as I was taught as a catechumen, is the consequence of Adam’s sin & is therefore ‘unnatural’ so the sentence “What is created is, of its nature, mortal.” gives me pause to scratch my head.”

      Yes, this way of speaking is unfamiliar to us and thus strikes us as odd … but one has to remember that Met John, following St Athanasius, is thinking of these matters from the perspective of the created/uncreated distinction and the threat of creation’s return to nothingness. Athanasius clearly taught that humanity is mortal by nature (review my postings on Athanasius and pay especial attention to the quotations from Anatolios on nature and grace).

      Zizioulas certainly believes that there was a fall (see his Lectures, chap. 3): if Adam had exercised his freedom differently and offered himself to God, then man would have achieved authentic personhood in God and fulfilled his priestly role of uniting creation to the uncreated. But he does not engage in a lot of speculation on humanity’s prelapsarian condition. All he really says is that if Adam had not fallen, creation would have transcended nature and have had “life without limit.”

      I’m probably not doing Zizioulas justice here, and it’s also possible that I have simply misunderstood him; but I do think that his presentation would have been stronger if he had clarified his terminology. Unfortunately, I don’t have the proper training to do so. (Where’s Mike Liccione when I need him!) 🙂

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  5. Hello Fr. Aidan. I’m here now! 🙂

    I too find Z’s language unfortunate. It is of course true that, were it not for God’s creating-and-sustaining activity–which is one act of his–any and every creature would instantly cease to exist. But it’s confusing to call that “mortality.” A clearer and more traditional understanding of that latter concept would be that some creatures are “mortal” inasmuch as they subject to a process of dissolution into non-existence just by virtue of the genera of creature they are. That applies to all bodily creatures. Spiritual creatures, such as souls and angels, are not thus subject because they are not composed of material parts, and are thus more like God. If they were ever cease to exist, which I doubt, that would be because God would choose to annihilate them. Short of such a divine choice, they continue to exist sempiternally as spiritual beings, even if remaining in sin would diminish the quality of that existence so much that calling it “nothingness” or “death” would be poetically appropriate.

    Now such an account prompts objections from people who argue that death is “unnatural” because, as per St. Paul, it “entered the world because of sin.” But I don’t think Paul should be interpreted that way.

    As I see it, he means that our first parents–i.e., the first couple called by God to intimate fellowship with himself, who may or may not have been the first couple with our genome–were immortal by grace, not by nature, so that their descendants would have been that too had it not been for their Fall. But the Fall did not make their and our bodies into anything by nature that they hadn’t already been; science shows that animal and hominid death is as old as animals and hominids. As far as death goes, the Fall simply caused the human body to revert to the natural state of bodies, without grace. Of course that reversion is not what God intended for our race; thus, how things are is not how they “should have” been. But it’s wrong-headed to call how things should have been “natural.” How things are is actually more natural than how things should have been.

    Best,
    Mike

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Michael, for offering your clarifications. Good to have you back.

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