After the death of Jesus, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and became its official religion in 381 AD. In the centuries that followed, two distinct traditions developed and coexisted within Christianity until the Great Schism of 1054. The Western tradition, drawing on the legal philosophies of Ancient Rome, emphasized the crucifixion of Jesus as restitution for humanity's sinfulness. In contrast, the Eastern strain, drawing on Semitic and Hellenistic influences, took a more mystical tone and emphasized Christ's resurrection and humanity's deification. The Greek Orthodox Church today refers to this concept as theosis.
The Deification of Humanity
For Greek Orthodox Christians, the purpose and destiny of humankind is to enjoy a perfect and everlasting unity with God. They refer to this state as a hypostatic union – an intimate, eternal communion of the human and divine natures in which each retains its distinct and essential characteristics. Early church father St. Irenaeus maintained that, even before the fall, humanity lacked this union with God and existed in an incomplete state which required salvation. Deification is not an instantaneous event, according to the Orthodox Church, but a process by which the individual gradually forms an ever-deepening unity with God and grows into a more perfect and Christ-like version of himself.
The Incarnation of Christ
In the fourth century, St. Athanasius the Great explained that “God became human so that human beings may become God”. Greek Orthodox Christians find in the incarnation of Christ a perfect example of the hypostatic union between humanity and divinity. In Christ, they believe, God lifted up human nature and joined it together with his own nature, endowing humanity with his grace and making it possible for humans to ascend to God. As Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff explains, “[I]n Christ, humanity has already participated in the uncreated life of God because the 'flesh' has truly become 'the flesh of god'”.
The Church and the Sacraments
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in the process of theosis by integrating the individual into communion with God. The believer cooperates with the work of the Holy Spirit through prayer, fasting, participating in the sacraments and celebrating the Eucharist. Reverend Thomas Fitzgerald explains that church involvement is integral to deification and that "the process of theosis takes place within the context of a believing community."
The Last Day
Orthodox Christians believe that deification begins after an individual's baptism and grows over time during the life of the believer. However, full deification does not occur until the Last Day, a day of judgement in which the bodies of believers will be transfigured just as Christ's body was after his resurrection. Additionally, the Orthodox believe that all of creation will be restored and renewed as well on the day of judgement. They draw this conclusion from Romans 8:21 which states "creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." Until that time however, the deification of believers remains incomplete.
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: The Orthodox Church: An Introduction
- Patheos Library: Christianity: Schisms and Sects
- Patheos Library: Christianity: Early Developments
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia: Theosis
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: Spirituality
- Patheos Library: Eastern Orthodoxy: Afterlife and Salvation
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