At several points in the Scriptures, human persons come in contact with the sacred in ways that result in extremely negative consequences. Chiefly, this takes the form of death. By entering sacred space or coming into contact with holy things incorrectly, these persons are immediately struck dead. This result, being instant, leaves no room for repentance or correction. The nature of these deaths and warnings issued regarding them, both before and after, has created a certain false sense of fear among many Christians. The seeming injustice of the death penalty for what seems to be minor transgression has likewise become a source of mockery for critics of the Scriptures and of Christianity.
Before looking at several individual instances of this type from the Scriptures, there is an important overarching distinction to be made. Despite a common interpretive intuition, none of these episodes represent a judgment upon the quality of a particular person. They are not brought about because a person is unworthy, or a sinner, or part of some other category of ‘wicked humans’ and despite this has approached God or come into contact with that which is holy. There are far more examples in the Scriptures of sinful and unworthy individuals coming into direct contact with God and being brought to repentance and otherwise purified. In fact, this latter description applies to every other contact with God in the Scriptures beyond those represented by the handful about to be discussed.
Rather than the persons involved in these episodes being particularly unworthy or sinful, resulting in their fates, it is that they come into contact with the sacred or come into the presence of God unworthily. It is a question of an adverb rather than an adjective. It is the way in which these persons do what they do that brings upon them the consequences that they receive. The core purpose of religious practice, from the Torah to contemporary Orthodox Christianity, is to describe the means through which, in prayer and repentance, human persons can approach the Holy God and come into contact with the sacred in a way which is purifying and salvific rather than dangerous and therefore fearsome.
Possibly the first notable instance of someone struck dead by the presence of God comes in Leviticus 10. In the preceding chapters, Aaron and his sons had been ordained as priests to serve in that capacity for the nascent nation of Israel. Following their ordination, Aaron had offered sacrifices according to the instructions given him from Yahweh through Moses and those offerings had been accepted. In the tenth chapter of Leviticus, however, something different occurs in the case of the first offerings, of incense, made by Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.
Nadab and Abihu came to the tabernacle and offered unauthorized incense before Yahweh that He had not commanded (v. 1). Fire came out from the presence of Yahweh and consumed them, killing them (v. 2). Based only on these first two verses, it is not entirely unclear as to what their specific sin was. There are two obvious possibilities. First, that they were offering the wrong kind of incense, in relation to the specific instructions of Exodus 30. Alternatively, they may have offered this incense at an incorrect time, based on the same instructions. It is also, of course, possible that they did both.
Further information, however, is given immediately after the deaths by Moses speaking for Yahweh to Aaron and his surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. This information includes a series of specific instructions with warnings that departing from these instructions will result in their deaths. The three specific instructions given to those serving as priests was that they could not have unkempt hair or clothing, they could not come and go from the tabernacle as they wished during their service, and they could not, when coming into the tabernacle, be drunk on wine or strong drink. Finally, they are instructed generally to distinguish between what is sacred and what is profane, what is clean and what is unclean, and know all of the commandments of Yahweh so that they could teach them to Israel (v. 6-11).
From all of these descriptions and instructions, the sin of Nadab and Abihu becomes clear. They failed to distinguish between the place into which they were entering, the presence of Yahweh, the God of Israel, from any other tent in the camp. Because they did so, they entered in a casual and impious way. Based on the hints here, they may have been disheveled, drunk, and otherwise careless. This may have extended to the kind of incense offered and what it was offered. Further, their deaths are described by Yahweh through Moses in passive terms. Fire comes out and consumes them. The warning is not that God will kill them, but that they will die. The holiness of God is itself dangerous and, therefore, must be approached with care and concern, in the fear of God with faith and love.
Another Old Testament episode brought up in this context is that of Uzzah (2 Sam 6:5-11). At the time when David, the prophet and king, brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in preparation for the building of the temple, Uzzah was one of the drivers of the cart which carried it. Famously, as the cart rolled toward Jerusalem, one of the oxen stumbled, jarring the cart. Uzzah reached out and steadied the ark on the cart and was instantly struck dead for his sin. David took this as a sign of Yahweh’s disfavor at his actions and ordered the cart to stop and for the ark to remain where it was, on the lands of one Obed-edom the Gittite. As part of Christian theology’s identification of the Theotokos as a new ark of the covenant, David’s expression of dismay here, “Who am I that the ark of my Lord should come to me?” is echoed in St. Luke’s Gospel by St. Elizabeth’s exclamation (Lk 1:43). The story regarding the priest Jephonias at the dormition of the Theotokos can therefore be seen to be parallel to that of Uzzah. God proceeded to bless Obed-edom due to the ark’s presence, leading David to finally bring it to Jerusalem, reassured that it was not the moving of the ark that had led to Uzzah’s fate.
The text, therefore, clarifies that the sin was not the transference of the ark, but rather Uzzah’s touching it in order to steady it. As already seen in the case of Nadab and Abihu, the issue here is Uzzah treating the ark as any other object which he might haul in his cart. The ark is not just another box or a valuable golden piece of art. The ark is the central location of Yahweh’s presence among the people of Israel. At a previous point in the ark’s history, the ark had been returned by the Philistines to the Israelites on an unmanned cart (1 Sam 6:7-12). When these two episodes are compared, the pointed contrast is obvious. The pagan Philistines had a greater degree of belief and trust in Yahweh than Uzzah. It was not, therefore, some unworthiness or sinfulness of Uzzah in particular, which brought about his demise. Rather, it was his casual treatment of the ark of God’s holiness and the manner with which he interacted with it.
In the New Testament, an episode in the Acts of the Apostles closely parallels that of Nadab and Abihu, and deliberately so. Ananias and Sapphira, two members of the church at Jerusalem at its earliest phase, sold a tract of land. They brought a portion of the proceeds to the apostles and gave it to the Christian community. When asked by St. Peter if the donation represented the entire sum of the sale, both Ananias and his wife separately lied and were each struck dead. In both cases, St. Peter states before their demise that they have lied to God, the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). The text is clear that it was the falsehood which was the sin, not the percentage of the money which they chose to donate.
In the same way, in which the story of Nadab and Abihu follows the consecration of the tabernacle, in which it was filled by the Presence of Yahweh, the story of Ananias and Sapphira follows the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost upon the members of the community in Jerusalem. Nadab and Abihu’s deaths served as a warning to the community as a whole and the priests in particular that they must carefully discern the way in which they approached the presence of God. In the same way, the death of Ananias and Sapphira give warning to the entire Christian community that the presence of the Spirit in the Church requires the same level of devotion and care required of the priests of the old covenant when an approach is made to the God of Israel.
St. Paul applies this theology in his instructions regarding the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:27-32). He speaks of the manner in which one approaches the Eucharist. To receive unworthily, in an unworthy manner, is to eat and drink judgment. This is, as before, not a prohibition of certain people whom St. Paul deems ‘unworthy’ from the Eucharist. Rather, it is a reminder of the dangerous nature of drawing close to God. It is a reaffirmation by St. Paul that to eat and drink of the Eucharist is to receive the body and blood of Christ, of God Himself, within one’s own body. There is no more intimate contact with God. Doing this in a casual or otherwise unworthy way, without repentance, had led to some in the community at Corinth becoming ill, and even to the death of some.
Our God is a fire, consuming unworthiness (Heb 12:28-29; cf. Ex 24:17; Deut 4:24; 9:3; Is 33:14). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31). God is holy, and the holy God dwelling in the midst of his people presents a potential danger. When a sacred object is treated as a common thing, that sacred thing is profaned. It becomes no longer sacred and holy but a thing of common use. Because God is his holiness, he cannot be profaned. Christ cannot be made common. The Holy Spirit can not become a spirit of some other kind. The profanation of God, then, does no injury to God but results in the destruction of the human person. Approaching our Lord Jesus Christ with repentance, reverence, and awe results in the burning away of all that is sinful and impure within us. Approaching him in any other manner will eventually lead to our destruction along with our sins (John 8:21-24).