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Dining in the Dark: New Creatures, Part 1

Derek Caldwell

Man is earth suffering.

Epistle of Barnabas[1]

Falling Down

Soon after mankind declared itself God on the advice of a serpent, Cain embodied the thought by thinking himself the one who gives and takes away life. In the bewildering dark seconds after his murderous act, the Lord appeared to him in the thorny wilderness, seemingly beside Himself, asking, “Cain, what have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:8-10). The ancient Syriac poet and theologian Jacob of Serugh viscerally describes this inestimable loss:

A marriage feast had taken place for the earth so that it might find peace in Adam,
and when the wedding banquet thundered because of the childbirth, death snatched him away.
A festival of the world began to inhabit the face of the earth,
and a robber arose, cast a corpse in its midst, and it was destroyed.[2]

The new order of the world—lawlessness and paranoia—had reared its ugly head. It is Shakespeare who, through the words of Macduff in Macbeth, describes this fallen state so well.

Boundless intemperance
In nature is a tyranny; it hath been
Th’ untimely emptying of the happy throne.[3]

Macduff is referencing Macbeth who, in Cain-like fashion, thinks of killing King Duncan immediately after stepping outside of God’s moral design. We witness a sharp decline in Macbeth’s valuation of human life after this decision, influenced previously by three witches who sang the song that sanctioned the desires of his heart: “fair is foul, foul is fair….”[4] Macbeth is a perfect example of the human whose acquaintance with evil soon slips into a lifelong romance. Macbeth suffers from what Joseph Pearce calls a “sin-deceived ego.”[5] GK Chesterton wrote on this phenomenon of increasing lawlessness and paranoia, observing that

the lawless man never breaks out; he breaks in. He smashes a door and finds himself in another room, he smashes a wall and finds himself in a yet smaller one. The more he shatters the more his habitation shrinks. … Macbeth at the end of the play is not merely a wild beast; he is a caged wild beast.[6]

Macbeth, of course, is not a unique character in these flaws. Rather,  it is because he is such an amalgamation of humanity—which makes the depiction all the more tragic. CS Lewis looks upon history and sees it strewn with Macbeths and their legacies of death, writing that it is “very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.”[7]

Death, the Suffocator

Humankind suffers at the hands of the lawless ones. We are made of earth and spirit, and it is the spirit that cries out when our earth—the flesh—is made to suffer. In fact, they suffer together, both knowing and feeling that something has gone terribly wrong. The problem is a “boundless intemperance” in our nature, one not there by design, but by a subsequent willful choice. This concept is used to describe the ways in which we have weaponized our bodies, our talents, and our energy to make human beings—both spirit and earth—suffer. Maximus the Confessor believed that we were ineluctably scarred by Adam’s sin and suffered the consequences: “passibility, corruptibility, and mortality.”[8]

No wonder, then, that our modern social workers and trauma-informed therapists have seen this in how we cope with traumatic life experiences, for they tell us: “Trauma rewires the brain from connection to protection.” In the early centuries of Christianity we understood, better than we do today, that the problem with the fall is not just that we are infected with the disease of sin, but that before we even choose sin it is chosen for us and wrought upon our bodies, shaping us into its depraved image.[9] Humans bestow upon themselves a sovereignty over others that is not theirs, failing to see that self-divinization is really self-demonization. In consuming all we can for the preservation of our own lives, we consumed only dead and decaying things; and in the end, Feuerbach is in some sense correct: you are what you eat.[10]

Driven from the Garden, humanity entered a fearful reality separated from God, though God kept approaching them. There was uncertainty, want, limited resources, and a type of death that went beyond simply the cessation of life. Death became an ever-encroaching spectral presence, an object and source of our greatest fears (Hebrews 2:14-15). Take, for instance, Psalm 18:4-5:

The cords of death entangled me,
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me;
The cords of the grave [Sheol] coiled around me,
the snares of death confronted me.

We see from verses like this that “the term ‘death’ clearly does not refer to the end of a person’s life,” John Behr explains, “but to a metaphysical force opposing God, one which attempts to seize human beings, through sin, sickness, hostility, violence, exhaustion, and so on.”[11] Of course, we in some sense know this even before we understand it, for it is the felt human experience. The longer you are with others in vulnerability and transparency, you find out quickly that—to channel R.E.M. for a moment—everybody hurts.[12] Sergius Bulgakov gets to the heart of the desolation that death brings, writing, “The melancholy of life silently bears witness that it is poisoned by nonbeing, and life bears death in itself. Together with sin, death entered the world as a principle hostile to being, destroying it.”[13]

In the face of this deprivation of life, human beings meant for connection turned to self-protection. “The very fall of man consists in the fact that he desired life for himself and in himself, and not for God and in God,” Alexander Schmemann wisely diagnoses.[14] Sometimes this reality meant an abundance of caution, but too often it meant hoarding, grasping, and seizing. Human nature has been infected with a disease that is both genetic and airborne and has, in Basil the Great’s telling, “caused a shadow to pass over the soul’s own beauty.”[15] John of Damascus helps us to feel the tragedy of this fall, writing

I weep and wail when I think upon death, and behold our beauty, fashioned in the image of God, lying in the tomb, disfigured, dishonored, bereft of form. O marvel! What is this mystery which befalls us? Why have we been given over unto corruption, and why have we been wedded to death? Of a truth, as it is written by the command of God, who gives the departed rest.[16]

As John of Damascus alludes to in the previous passage, death as the end of life is both a tragedy and a mystery. It is a punishment and a mercy. By death, we are not tormented by Death eternally, which is why Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22). God, in removing their access to immortality in the Garden, did not allow them to live eternally fallen, afflicted, or destructive. But this death is only mercy if we are risen in the image of life Himself.

Perhaps I am telling you nothing new. Perhaps you already know because you’ve lived it. No one need tell you that life has become death, for you’ve tasted its devastation. But there is a Life that defeats that death and saves us from the calloused heart that the evil in this world wishes to impart to us. Death, that fiend of the macabre wants to remove all light, all joy, all love from us. But Christ has defeated death, darkness, joylessness, and hatred. He has vanquished them from His Kingdom, and they are wasting away as we speak. He is destroying the Destroyers. We wait only for the veil to be lifted, for the reality to be revealed, for what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no mind has conceived, to be seen, heard, conceived, felt, and lived. We wait but not, my friends, as those without hope.

This is part 1 of the Living in the New Creatures Series. You can read part 2 here.

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[1] See The Epistle of Barnabas, trans. JB Lightfoot, retrieved from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html. This is not the same writing as the pseudepigrahical Gospel of Barnabas, a sixteenth century apocryphal Islamic text written to bring depictions of Christ in line with Islamic orthodoxy.

[2] Jacob of Serugh, The Fourth Homily on Cain and Abel, in J. Edward Walters (ed.), Eastern Christianity: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), 60.

[3] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Ed. Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 4.3.66-70.

[4] Ibid., 1.1.10.

[5] Joseph Pearce, introduction to Macbeth, xxviii.

[6] GK Chesterton, The Soul of Wit: G. K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare, ed. Dale Ahlquist (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2012), 76. In Pearce, introduction, xxx.

[7] CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 66.

[8] Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (eds.), introduction to On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 31-32.

[9] Indeed, we are drawn into this web even before we are born. Thomas Hopko writes, “Ancestral, generational, and corporate sins draw people into all sorts of wickedness from before their birth.” Thomas Hopko, “On God and Evil,” in John Behr, Andrew Louth, and Dimitri Conomos (eds.), Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 154.  

[10] Cited in Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Classics Series, Vol. 1 (Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 2018), 17. The editor notes that Feuerbach first coined this phrase in an 1850 book review.  

[11] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), chap. 3, Kindle.

[12] R.E.M., “Everybody Hurts,” track 4 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1992.

[13] Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, trans. Thomas Allan Smith(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 268.

[14] Alexander Schmemann, O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?, trans. Alexis Vinogradov (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 73-74.

[15] St. Basil the Great, On the Human Condition, Popular Patristics Series, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 67.

[16] John of Damascus, Idiomelon hymn, in the funeral service; Sticheron from the Aposticha, Friday Vespers, Octoechos, tone 8. See Paraclitique ou Grand Octoéque, trans. P. Denis Guillaume, 2 vols. (Rome: Diaconie Apostolique, 1979), 2:544. Cited in John Behr, “Learning Through Experience: The Pedagogy of Suffering and Death in Irenaeus,” in Nonna Verna Harrison and David G. Hunter (eds.), Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 48.