Monday, July 31, 2006

The river of death

Reflection on eschatology in hymns
He will keep me till the river
Rolls its waters at my feet;
Then He'll bear me safely over
Where the loved ones I shall meet.

I realise the Styx is the river of death from way back. But where and when did the image of crossing the river (usually the Jordan) meaning death become popular amongst Christians? Pilgrim's Progress or earlier? It's quite common in hymns (e.g. Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah and I Will Sing the Wondrous Story (final verse above)). Once again though, it seems to conflate death with the Christian hope, such that one enters the promised land at the point of death. One implication is that sometimes it can seem like Christians have a death wish.

However, death is the great enemy, whose final defeat we (and the faithful departed) still await. The Christian hope, according to the Bible is not death as the doorway to a disembodied afterlife, but the resurrection of the dead.


jeltzz said...

I think the idea gets legs, so to speak, rather from the association between entering the Land, and thus into Rest, and entering into Heaven, and thus into the Rest that Remains.

as for when that connection got made, I'm at a loss.

D.W. Congdon said...

Your thoughts here are worth exploring at much greater length. I suspect we can connect both the old Greek myths and contemporary evangelical views on the afterlife (an interesting word in itself) to a kind of Gnosticism. As with Socrates, death is the great escape from this life into a better, spiritualized one.

nicole said...

hi byron...
i don't know much about rivers but i do know that i tried to send you an email but it bounced! could you drop me a quick line on and i'll send it again :)
thanks, nic

byron said...

DWC: yeah, I'd love to do further exploration of contemporary views on death, dying and after-death amongst evangelicals (and others). And thanks Seamus for that suggestion about death and rest.

Nic: done.

Martin Kemp said...

Make of this what you will. From Barth's "Evangelical Theology" (p59):
At the conclusion of his delivery of the fifth lecture on 'The Spirit' at Chicago and Princton, Karl Barth added the following: 'So much as an introduction to evangelical theology. But one thing remains to be added. Allow me to say it a little enigmatically and cryptically with the words of the Rebel General Stonewall Jackson, spoken at the hour of his death:"Let us cross the river" - nobody knows whether he meant the Potomac or the Jordan - "and have a rest in the shade of the trees"'


And, you may or may not be intetested to know, Hemmingway wrote a book about a dying WWII Colonel called "Across the river and into the trees." The title was lost on me until I read that bit from Barth. Not one of EH's best by the way.

Byron: You seem to be insisting that we take death only in a negative sense. Are you in danger of making an over correction to the problem of speaking about death in overtly positive way?

byron said...

Marty: thanks for the references. I'm curious: how is death a good thing?

Martin Kemp said...

i) When it’s the death of a saviour, then I guess it’s a good thing. Even though Christ’s sacrificial death and our physical death are not completely analogous, it does show that it’s a conceptual possibility to have an evil and a good aspect to the one event. We don’t have to be so dualist so as to think that evil and good don’t intersect at points. Perhaps this meeting of good and evil can be seen in the following verses.
ii) Phil 1.21-24
I take it from vs 20-22 Paul is talking about physical death when he says "I desire to depart and be with Christ which is better by far." If departing leads to something better, then there is an element of good to it, a bad thing used to a good end. I know that you exegete these verses differently, so I'd like to hear your thoughts.
iii) 2 Corinthians 5.6-8
verses 1-5 give a clear indication that death is to be trumped by life, however Paul does say that he would prefer to "be away from the body". The whole passage (5.1-10) is framed within an eschatological/end time context, but he does have this bit in the middle (vs 6-8) where he seems to say that being away from the fleshly body is a good thing. Kind of like it's better to be with God now and waiting for the final consummation than to remain in the body. If it's better, then surely that means that something good comes of death?

iv) By the way, if death is only bad, does this mean that we should only be literal 6 day creationists with no room for evolution? No place for death before the fall if can only be seen as an evil…