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Against Death

Anymore I am just more and more convinced that there is one fundamental assertion that embodies the nature of biblical faith, hope, and action:

“The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26)

This the axis upon which everything turns and in light of which everything makes sense. Any theology that tries to elide the fact that death is the last enemy is sentimental nonsense in my book. Death is the great enemy. It is the ancient dragon, the adversary of all things, the bane of all goodness. There is nothing meaningful or beautiful about death. Too many attempts are made in theology to establish a theological understanding of death as somehow good, a way to find in death some thing “natural” that can be embraced. Dying is just a part of living as the old platitude goes.

Any such sentiments or inclinations must needs be rejected in the strongest possible terms. There is only one way for death to be rendered good and that is for death to be destroyed. Death must be deathed. This is the good news and nothing less, that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54).

And this is not to say that life after death is the nadir of the gospel. That is precisely not it. What is the nadir of the gospel is not life after death, but life. The infinitely excessive life of God which embraces, transfigures, and liberates all created things. Death is not simply the cessation of an organism, death is slavery, death is bondage. Life is freedom. The gospel of life is the gospel of freedom. The only freedom worth proclaiming is freedom from the powers of death. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. This is what’s real.

9 Comments

  1. Wes Ellis wrote:

    Wow! you’re echoing what N.T. Wright was saying (of course he was a bit more gentle) when I went and hear him speak last week. Bravo!

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  2. Brad E. wrote:

    Thank you for this post. I couldn’t agree more, and the way theologians or scholars or authors try to paint death in colors other than dark, evil, hostile, enemy is trying and non-gospel. Too many go along with the fact that “it’s just a part of life”; that may be true in the sense of the life we are given and know, but it is NOT the life that WAS given, nor is it GOD’s intentions FOR us.

    A good reminder.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  3. Well done Halden. This is true and I agree whole heartedly — divine laughter and flourishing is at the end.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  4. greats thoughts. But how do we deal with death now?
    I agree that we should not talk about death as “natural” or anything of the sort. It is nothing more than an imposition.

    But I am curious as to what your response is to our death-denying culture.

    Basically, what I am asking is what your response is to Hauerwas’ comment that Christians need to “reclaim their deaths from modern medicine.” What I see right now is three postures we can have toward death.

    1) Escapism which denies the importance of bodiliness (death is bad, but not all that bad)
    2) Accepts of death as the natural order of things (death is neutral)
    3) denial of death (what death?)

    What would a fourth option look like? One that doesn’t deny the reality of death, but one that names it for what it is (evil).

    Also, I wrote something related to this awhile back if anyone is interested. http://www.peaceablezealot.com/peaceablezealot/2008/04/peace-and-the-e.html

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  5. Sally D wrote:

    Perhaps I’m being too literal, but I struggle with this.

    Perhaps God had in mind, at one time, some world in which nothing died. But that world has no relationship with, or bearing on, this world we live in.

    Our Earth is billions of years old, and for several millions of years, creatures have been living, and dying on it, leaving their remains to form fossil layers, lakes of oil underground, sometimes even a pageant of how life might have been.

    Did God want things to be arranged so that I could meet our local heroine, Mrs Ples, or play with the Taung Child? And was this plan of God’s somehow frustrated, retrospectively, by the much later sin or Fall of those creatures that could be called Human/Homo? Would it were so, but I find it impossible to imagine physical life, without death. Unless we’re saying that only humans would be immortal, while all else including our beloved animal companions, must die at the due time.

    Here in Africa we’re very deeply aware of the cycles of life: of vegetation that is only replenished by fire, of beautiful predators who must kill to live. Yes, the lion may lie down with the lamb one day, but if he does, is he still truly a lion?

    To me, Death is not only a part of life, but also a Gift – the divine gift of release when we need to be released. All mature cultures and civilisations have understood this, and praised those who die well.

    Hauerwas’ comment seems, to me, to touch on the very important issue of palliative care which embraces “quality of life” and the idea of what can be hoped for in end-stage illness. Is he speaking about actual death, or about dying? To take back the process of our dying sometimes means having to stand up to doctors and nurses who have other ideas, and that is a great wrong.

    The fourth option: the one embraced by Tolkien, amongst others. Death is a gift, a grace which allows us to reach beyond this world and thereby dwell here more richly. Death is the door to “the glorious freedom of the children of God”. What we shall be, we do not know, but we reach beyond what we are; were we not to die, we would be more like Tolkien’s Elves, for whom the shadows always lengthen though the sun never sets.

    Friday, March 6, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  6. parishioner wrote:

    Dying well is one thing, romanticizing death another.

    Eutychus wasn’t left dead when he fell from the window, and Jesus didn’t weep for nothing when Lazarus died. Both were brought back. Death is not a gift. There’s a difference between having a nasty, rebellious attitude toward the one who allows us to die, and surrendering in love to the one who declares it is the wages of sin.

    Christ has died
    Christ has risen
    Christ will come again

    Hail the second Adam who conquered death for us.

    Friday, March 6, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  7. Theophilus wrote:

    Are you willing to apply your “death is bondage” statement to exegete 1 Peter 3:19 and that whole “spirits in prison” business?

    Friday, March 6, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I’m afraid I’m in agreement with my parishoner here, Sally. I think the way in which death appears “natural” in that it occurs in certain cycles that we have learned to live with are precisely what is insidious about death and the human condition. It is a part of the fabric of our existence, and Christ came precisely to tear that fabric asunder in the generation of a radically new creation.

    Many things occur “naturally” in cycles. Things like famine, dictatorial regimes, floods, whatever. That they are always and ordinarily occurring is precisely what makes them so horrifying and in need of total transformation.

    Friday, March 6, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  9. bruce hamill wrote:

    I’m afraid I can’t keep up with the rate at which you put these wonderful posts out. I have been thinking about death for a few days now. Here is my question: Is death per se the enemy. Or is it the colloquia of death and sin, namely our fear of death and thus death’s rule which is the enemy. Is finitude (an end to our organism) the problem? Perhaps it comes down to the semantic question of whether you use the term with the common reference of simply ‘cessation of organism’ or whether you include in the term death all that is involved in death in our fallen world dominated by death (you mention bondage etc). You opt for the second usage, but I fear common usage distinguishes between death on the one hand and ‘all his friends’ on the other or between death and ‘death’s dominion.’ Surely it is possible to have a different attitude to death as finitude than to death as ‘the dominion of that finitude’. Can we not distinguish between freedom from death and freedom from the powers of death?

    Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

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