Why Death and Not Sin is the Primary Human Problem

Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, Athanasius, and the Greek Fathers as a whole, according to John Romanides, look upon salvation as first and foremost redemption from death.[1] In the early church and Eastern tradition death, and not sin, is definitive and primary in the human predicament, while in the West the presumption has been that sin is primary and precedes death in terms of cause and effect. The biblical portrayal, that the reign of death is the cause of sin, has been rendered obscure if not inaccessible, by the presumption of Augustinian original sin (a mysterious and inherited guilt). Where this presumption can be set aside, it is clear that death and not sin is pictured as primary: it is death that is the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:24–25); death and Hades (the place of the dead) are the last thing to be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14); Paul’s primary thing from which he needs rescue is “this body that is subject to death” (Rom. 7:24); sin is the sting or result of death and not the other way round (that is death is not the sting of sin in I Cor. 15:56); the problem is not that sin reigns and then comes death but death accounts for the spread of sin because “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), “death reigned” (v. 14), “the many died” (v. 15), “death reigned through the one” (v. 17), “as sin reigned in death” (v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way round. In Paul’s explanation in Romans 5, it is not sin that is inherited from Adam (as in Augustine’s misreading) but it is death which Adam passed on. Now with death comes sin, but not inevitably or all inclusively, as Paul can speak of those who have not sinned in the manner of Adam (5:14).

Certainly, Adam sinned and introduced death, and with the spread of death sin becomes a contagion, but it is precisely this dynamism in which death is the cause and not the effect that accords with Paul’s parallel picture of Christ. Christ introduces righteousness and eternal life into the world, so that this introduction of life spreads righteousness to all of humanity (vv. 17-18). So, what was done in the first Adam is undone in the second Adam – sin introduced death to all (not because all sinned), so too righteousness introduces life to all (but even more abundantly as life and righteousness overflow to all (v. 17)).

But the question arises as to why death would cause sin? Part of the explanation is connected with the depiction of the devil, who exercises his power through fear of death. It is not that death or mortality, per se, can be equated with sin, but fear of death and deception are linked with the work of Satan. It is not that Satan is a generic or ambiguous tempter, but his temptation is specifically linked to how he misorients or enslaves through death. Hebrews pictures the devil enslaving humanity as he wields fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15) and Paul describes this same reign of fear and enslavement (Rom. 8:15). Hebrews explains, the death of Jesus was intended to “destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” John puts it succinctly, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). At the opening of Revelation Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Presumably the one who holds the keys to death has taken control of what was formerly under Satan’s power. He has the power to unlock the chains which bound human kind.

We can continue to specify in what fear of death consists by recognizing both how it is resolved and what this resolution allows for. John equates love and life as enabled through Christ: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I Jn. 4:9). The fear, that would obstruct love is cured through the love of Christ: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I Jn. 4:18). On the other hand, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (I Jn. 3:14).

Lest there is any confusion, John explains: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:15-16). Fear of death leaves one under the control of death and incapacitates love and gives rise to violence. Fear, death, hatred, and violence, pose one option and life, love, abiding in Christ, and laying down life for others constitutes the other option. But we still might ask why captivity to fear enslaves to lovelessness and death? What is it precisely in fear of death that leads to enslavement and violence?

The book of Wisdom goes some way in explaining cause and effect. It sets out to explain how Hades (the place of the dead), has come to rule in place of God’s intent for creation through the ungodly:

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.” As a result, death is invited into a person’s life as those who are captured by it say, “Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless. Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training” (Wis. 1:12–2:15).

As Richard Beck notes, the book of Wisdom may be an indicator that the tendency to read the Genesis 3 story as the origin of sin may have missed the point. It is death that comes to be shared by the race and death contains the impetus to sin. As Beck argues, “the main impulse of the story, given how the Orthodox follow the framing given in texts like those in Wisdom, is less about how the world became infected by sin than how it became infected by death.”[2] Further, “we see that the root cause of death isn’t sin, as the devil/serpent actually predates sin. It’s the “envy of the devil” that introduces sin and death into the world.”[3] In other words, the mortal condition is the situation in which the failed moral condition spreads to all. In this understanding sin is not mystified, as it is in Augustinian original sin. It can be understood how the disease and corruption of death give rise to sin.

In the generation following the first couple, it is not that Cain and Abel are equally depraved and immoral (totally depraved according to Augustine). Cain is evil and he attacks Abel because he is righteous (I Jn. 3:12). This explains how the murderous Cain and his type might come to out-populate and dominate the harmless Abels of the world. We understand how a righteous man like Noah might find himself alone amidst a murderous people. The world has been infected by death, and as Wisdom and presumably Genesis are explaining, this gives rise to murderous competition in which life is a zero sum game and one better grab all the life he can while the grabbing is good.

As Wisdom puts it, God did not intend for it to be this way: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal” (Wis. 1:14-15). This fits with Genesis but it also fits with what is obvious. People die and this creates a limit condition in which people are desperate.

This might show up, as Wisdom describes it, in a desperation to find pleasure when and where it is possible. Or it might show up in the sort of desperation on display in Cain, in which he is put into competition for God’s acknowledgement, as if there is only so much to go around. Or maybe, as with those in Babel, the attempt is to storm the heavens, make an enduring name, and leave a mark, so that people will not be undone and dispersed by death. The psychology of the fear of death may take any number of forms, but what is obvious is that God did not and does not intend it to be this way. As Beck describes it, “As mortal creatures, separated from God’s vivifying Spirit, humans are fearful and survival-driven animals, easily drawn into sinful and selfish practices.” This mortal drive to self-preservation, makes us “tragically vulnerable to death anxiety—the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs.”[4]

Mark Lilla’s description, relying upon Thomas Hobbes, describes how fear of death gives rise to the continual need for violence:

Natural man, according to Hobbes, is desiring man—which also means he is fearful man. If he finds himself alone in nature he will try to satisfy his desires, will only partially succeed, and will fear losing what he has. But if other human beings are present that fear will be heightened to an almost unbearable degree. Given his awareness of himself as a creature beset by desire—a stream of desire that ends, says Hobbes, only in death—he assumes others are similarly driven. “Whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth,” Hobbes writes, “he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts and passions of all other men.” That means he can think of them only as potential competitors, trying to satisfy desires that may come into conflict with his own . . . That is why the natural social condition of mankind is war—if not explicit, armed hostilities, then a perpetual state of anxious readiness in preparation for conflict.[5]

As Beck notes this fits with James depiction of why there is quarrelling and violence in the church: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2). This formulation closely follows Hobbes. “Why is there violence in the world? Because of a desire motivated by want, lack, and scarcity—whether it be real, potential, or simply perceived scarcity.”[6]

This clarifies why in overcoming the fear of death the very specific result will be the capacity to love. John describes this love as a self-sacrificial love which might be something as simple as the willingness to share worldly goods: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (I Jn. 3:17). To obtain, possess, and survive does not lend itself to even the simplest act of sharing, apart from which love is an impossibility. Christ breaks the grip of death in his passion as he succumbs to the worst human situation, and overcomes it.

In his defeat of death Christ opens a way beyond death to life. As Basil writes, “To the extent that [man] stood apart from life, in like amount he also drew closer to death.  For life is God, and the deprivation of life is death.” In Christ life and righteousness are opened up as a possibility. Athanasius the Great writes, “When, by the counsel of the devil, men turned away from things eternal, they returned to things of corruptibility and became themselves the cause of dissolution unto death.”[7] In the defeat of the devil Christ turns men back to life and not their dissolution in death but the dissolution or defeat of death. John Chrysostom writes:

He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying. . . . [But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed “man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,” [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him “who counteth not even his life dear,” says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?[8]

This defeat of the fear of death frees one from slavery – “he fears no one and is freer than everyone” – it defeats the devil and opens one to love. Here is a mode of life that gives life and shares life and does not horde it in fearful self-salvation (the sort in which he who would save life experiences only death). The slavery of self-salvation is driven by fear, lack, and the attempt to preserve what is rendered absent in the attempt. Only one willing to give up the death-dealing grab to save the self has access to life.

Isn’t this the point of Christ’s self-giving sacrifice which is the model to emulate so as to defeat captivity to death?

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,   but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php. 2:3–8).

The selfishness and empty conceit which enslaves to death is undone in the one who reversed the instinct behind the fear of death and became the means to life and the defeat of sin.

[1] John Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp 34-35.

[2] Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Kindle Locations 263-267). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition. Thank you, Tim, for the gift of this book.  

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 304.

[5] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (New York: Knopf, 2007) p. 81-82. Quoted in Beck, p. 14.

[6] Ibid. Beck, p. 422.

[7] Ibid., Romanides.

[8] The excerpt is from Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews. Quoted in Beck, p. 14.


Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.