Thursday, December 28, 2006

Worse than death? I

A short new series
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

Psalm 63.3

Death is a Bad Thing. Death is the last enemy. It is not a comfort, a friend, a doorway to the world beyond, the river Styx before Hades or even the river Jordan on the threshold of the promised land.

However, it is an enemy that stands already defeated. The final silence of irrevocable parting has been broken by Easter laughter. For those who hope in the resurrected one, death has become sleep, with the secure promise of awakening at his return. This means that though its hostility is not diminished, there is no need for fear or despair in facing it daily (as we all do, to greater and lesser extents of consciousness and proximity).

Although we rage against the often pointless tragedy of death (particularly many deaths), and mourn all loss of life, it is nonetheless possible for this 'rage' to be expressed through a defiantly peaceful confidence as well as tears and anger. Christian A put it well in his comment on an earlier post where he pointed to the example of Simeon in the infancy narrative that so many of us have recently read:
"Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke 2:29-30)

Is it possible to “depart in peace” in a way that still shows the kind of disgust for death that Jesus showed outside Lazarus’s tomb? Perhaps we should rail against death not with despair but with assured anticipation.
In the light of the visible arrival of God's salvation in this little child, Simeon's imminent departure is now filled with hope. This salvation is not from death, as if he can now avoid walking this dark path altogether, but will be salvation from out of death - new life on the far side of sleep.

Thus, because God's salvation has begun in Christ (though is not yet complete), death takes its place as a secondary foe of humanity. While death will be the last enemy to finally submit to Christ's rule (1 Cor 15.26), it is not the Great Enemy, the Adversary.

There are things worse than death.
Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.
Fifteen points for correctly naming these pre-historic standing stones.


matheson said...

Well, having encouraged the picture competition perhaps it's time to take to the field for the first time...

Is it the Avebury Stone Circle? ;)

Brian Hamilton said...

Thanks for these reflections; they are well-said and spot on, it seems to me. But there's a bothersome question that threatens this theological treatment of death for me, one that I haven't thought adequately about and don't know how to overcome. Wendell Berry, if you've ever read him, embodies this other way of approaching death to me: death not as enemy but as friend, as the right end to a good and hard life, as a necessary part of ongoing human communities and a necessary part of the living world. A farmer does not lament the death of remaining crops come winter, because they know that their death makes possible the new life of spring. And though we must mourn, we do not hope against death for ourselves because we know it is part of the passing down and passing on that constitutes our life together. On the other hand, a theological note more easily reconciled with your statements here, there are serious criticisms against the West's dread of death, our denying death and ignoring its force. Christians can say we need not ignore death or dread it because Jesus has overcome it, but in some ways I think Berry's is a better retort to Western denial.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of this.

Anonymous said...

Jesus does refer to the necessity of (his own) death using the images of crops, but I don't think we can take death as a necessary part of the living world too far, given that it is a result of sin, and even the fact that not all will die.

The thing with death is that however we manage to think of it as a defeated enemy, it is the end of our mortal life, a sign that we will soon see God's salvation in a an even fuller way than Simeon did, and enter into rest. Is it wrong not to focus on the negative aspects of death at such a time? In itself, it cannot be good that the world insults and persecutes followers of Jesus, and yet he tells them to rejoice and be glad because of their reward in heaven. Both human opponents and death are defeated enemies which still must be faced with confidence and hope.

To me, it seems to be a matter of putting both our mortal life and our death in perseptective. Perhaps for this reason, I find the thoughts in the Fearless service posts more significant than questions of desiring life or death.

byron said...

Matheson - fifteen points! Well done for making it onto the scoreboard. If you had been a few metres further forward you might have also made it into the picture. :-)

byron said...

Brian - Yes, thanks for mentioning another perspective to add to our mix. I haven't read Wendell Berry, but the concerns he raises are also important and just as theological, since they have to do with correctly relating finitude and fallness. Even in the pre-fall good creation, life was finite (though abundant) and dependent. Eden was no static perfection. There was a goal of expansion and growth: to bring the order of the garden to the entire world, to fill the world with life and subdue it (1.28), to serve/work the soil/earth (2.15). The two enabling conditions for floral flourishing were divine rain AND human tending (Gen 2.5). So change is not itself a problem. This is a crucial theological point, about which I have a few brief thoughts here and a few longer thoughts here. There is much more to be said on this topic and I recommend James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation for an investigation of some implications for hermeneutics. I also offered some initial thoughts (here and here) in a series I've always intended to pick up again on God's eternity and time.

Anyway, in sum, I believe Christians do not share with existentialists the belief that things that pass away are thereby meaningless. There is not an ultimate opposition between the good and the best, the temporal and the eternal. I will attempt in the rest of this series to explain what it is I mean that is worse than death, and what it is that makes death 'deadly'.

Sorry for the long comment. Some of this might need to make it into another post.

byron said...

Jonathan - yes, I agree that the fearless service posts are at the heart of what I'm trying to wrestle with at the moment. This little series is an attempt to put the same thing from the other way round - to say that death is not the Great Enemy, that there are things worse than death (and so, in some sense, things "better than life", as the Psalmist says (63.3) - more on this later).

On a minor point - are the faithful dead any 'closer' to final salvation than those who continue to breathe and hope? We're all waiting for resurrection/transformation. Temporal proximity is difficult and may have to be dealt with in a promised future post on the intermediate state. Spatial proximity, however, I would argue goes to the living, who are presently aliens and strangers on the very earth we are one day to inherit. Perhaps to the dead goes relational proximity, since they are 'at home with the Lord' while we are 'away from the Lord' (2 Cor 5.6-8 - depending how you read this slightly tricky passage. I hope to post on it at some stage - once I work out what I think!).

Christian A said...

Byron, thanks for mentioning my comment, but your phrase "defiantly peaceful confidence" says it a lot better(!)

You make a great point about facing death daily whether we're highly conscious of it or not. I found Denial of Death by Ernest Becker a really helpful book on this issue. Without Christian hope, the fear of death causes you to shrink from life even when you're healthy:

"The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive".
(Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death )

Whereas with Christian hope, confidence in the face of death causes you to be alive to life even when you're crippled by sickness:

"Wilberforce kept his faculties, and (except when he was actually in fits), his spirits, to the very last. He was cheerful and full of anecdotes only last Saturday. He owned that he enjoyed life much and that he had a great desire to live longer. Strange in a man who had, I should have said, so little to attach him to this world, and so firm a belief in another: in a man with an impaired fortune [he'd given it away], a weak spine and a worn-out stomach".
(Thomas Macauley, close friend of Wilberforce, quoted in God's Politician by Garth Lean)

I guess in answer to the question you posted earlier, Wilberforce would have definitely opted to live till 100!

cyberpastor said...

nice work. May I add the reference to Ps.15 (LXX) from the Pentecost sermon as a description of Jesus' attitude towards death...

"I saw the Lord always before will not abandon me to the grave."

byron said...

Thanks Cyberpastor - I might steal that reference to open a future post in the series as it is just right.

anonymous thinker said...

Are your blogs only for Christians? Can other people from other religions have discourse here?

For example, have you ever read Thich Nhat Hanh's work "Jesus and Buddha as Brothers"

And while you have written about the subject of death -

Have you ever read the Tibetan Book of the Dead?

byron smith said...

Anonymous thinker: Everyone is welcome here. I write unashamedly as a Christian who believes that Jesus is the true and living path, but do not believe this means I have a monopoly on truth. I have not ready either of the books you mention. What do you like about them?

byron smith said...

"A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)"
- Athanasius, On the incarnation, §27. H/T Mike Wells.