Last week I had the blessing of speaking virtually to a wonderful group of Coptic youth in Pittsburgh. The servants there asked that I correlate the Afterlife and Christmas, which may seem like an unusual and difficult correlation to make, but in fact not only is there a direct connection between the two, Christmas is even more relevant now. A link to the video presentation / lecture I prepared is provided below.
Here is a summary of the presentation video:
First, I explain death, and briefly introduce a difficult yet absolutely supported feature of the afterlife experience, “The Crossover Realm,” which I go into much more detail to substantiate the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the Terrifying Ordeal experienced there in my book Orthodox Afterlife (OrthodoxAfterlife.com). We have to all confront our accusers, the envious evil spirits who seek our demise.
Before Christ, all people, including the “good” ones like David, Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, etc., were met with an inability to pass beyond “the prince of the power of the air” as St. Paul puts it in his epistle to the Ephesians (which is the same term St. Anthony the Great recalls to memory after his own afterlife experiences dealing with the Crossover Realm). Everyone before Christ went to Hades. The reason for that was simply: the fall of man caused by the sins of Adam and Eve led to the consequence which God forewarned of: “You will surely die.” “Surely” is believed to be an indication that not only will mankind suffer mortality, but eternally will live away from God in Hades after death.
Christ came, but His coming was bodily—in the flesh. Why? Why couldn’t He have visited us in His divine spiritual form? Or simply pronounce forgiveness? Why did He have to be BORN, why Christmas? Why not just waive His hand and make it all right again?
The full answer can be found in the MUST-READ book, “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius. But briefly, God found Himself facing a “Divine Dilemma”: He pronounced the consequence, and if He simply goes back on His word He would be a liar, which we know God isn’t. At the same time, if He were to leave mankind as it was, then how would that be worthy of God’s goodness?
So God became man because MANKIND was subject to the consequence of their transgression, the debt of death. Humans could not live sinlessly and were not powerful enough to overcome their passage through the evil spirits and onto Paradise, and even if they could make it that far, the doors of Paradise were closed.
But the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God in fullness, took flesh, was incarnate, born of the Virgin, and became man, without ever mingling or confusing His humanity with His divinity: fully-human and at the same time fully-divine.
Christ HAD TO BE BORN because He, as a man, could on behalf of all mankind overcome the debt that mankind was facing. He took a body capable of death and allowed Himself to be subject to death. He then showed Himself to be God and having power over death when He surprised even His most faithful followers by His resurrection. Christ passed through the “prince of the power of the air,” who could not overcome Him, and opened Paradise for us, allowing us to enter because He paid the debt owed by man on behalf of all mankind, as our representative (as St. Paul beautifully put it: “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all” [1 Timothy 2:5-6]). He did this out of His sheer love for us, making us His children, giving us by adoption what is rightfully His by nature, as the Fathers quaintly put it.
St. Athanasius described Christ’s birth and salvation as it relates to the afterlife in a similar fashion:
“The enemy of our race, the devil, having fallen from heaven, wanders around these lower airs and, lording it here over the demons with him … to prevent [us] from rising upwards … Yet Christ came that He might overthrow the devil, purify the air, and open up for us the way to heaven, as the Apostle said, “through the veil, that is, his flesh” (Heb 10:20)…”
In On the Incarnation St. Athanasius further elaborates:
“Death, … gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression…. Whence, by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent. For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death….. For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid. Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all.”
Let us thank God that He was willing to take flesh, live in poverty, suffer ridicule, rebuke, persecution, and death at the hands of His creation (breaking His mother’s heart when she lost her only son) in order to overcome the consequence of sin that mankind was indebted to pay. Let us thank Him for taking on the nature of man to allow us to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), carrying all of mankind on His shoulders as the firstfruits of all those who die (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20), “having loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling aroma” (Ephesians 5:2), so that the rest of mankind may be granted access to His kingdom.
Glory be to God in the Highest. Peace on earth, and good will towards men.