Theological Reflections on Death and Dying
It has been said that all we have to do is live long enough as we will be bereaved by death, and ultimately we ourselves will die. In a fallen world this is part of the framework of our existence, and yet when death comes it is, for the most part unexpected. We are often unprepared.
More so, in the modern western world death is something we rarely square up and face. D.A. Carson argues that “death has become the last taboo” (How Long, O Lord?, 103). We usually dont see the deceased until they have been “prepared”. Only in rare circumstances is it ok to express ones grief transparently. Again, “we find it exceedingly difficult to look death squarely in the face and talk about it.” (How Long, O Lord?, 104) But I propose that it would be helpful to look at death as preventative medicine in trying to establish some firm biblical theological structures to help us, as Christians, think about death. This is true not only for Christian thinkers but even for the secular. In fact,
“From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death…is the key to thinking seriously about anything else – and, indeed, that it provides one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all. (Surprised by Hope, 6)”
A Theology of Death
The bible teaches that death, in a general sense, is ultimately the result of sin. (Gen. 2:17) The apostle Paul makes this explicitly clear in his letter to the Roman church by writing that “the wages of sin is death. (Rom. 6:23)” What does death entail? Traditionally theologians have viewed death in three categories.
Physical Death. In Genesis 3:19 the judgment for sin pronounced by God is physical death. God tells man that he will return to the dust of the ground from which he has come (Gen. 2:7) Paul also picks up on this connection in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56. Furthermore, several passages referring to Jesus physical death show that it was a direct consequence to human sin. (Rom. 4:25; 6:10; Gal. 3:13) To put it simply, post fall physical death is an inevitable reality for all of humanity. As Augustine argued, humanity moved from a state of being “able not to die” to “not able to not die.” (On Rebuke and Grace, 33) Furthermore, God’s common grace is seen in the sense that humanity continues to experience life, though fallen, is nonetheless still life.
Spiritual Death. The bible also talks about man being spiritually dead while physically living. The immediate consequence to the sin of Adam and Eve was spiritual death (Gen. 2:17). The language of this verse is often misunderstood. One might ask, why did Adam and Eve not drop dead at the moment their teeth broke the skin of the fruit? I believe the expression “in the day that you eat of it” is best understood as a Hebrew idiom meaning “as surly as you eat of it.” (See Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, pp. 48-49) No longer did Adam and Eve enjoy the life giving presence of God, they were banished from the garden. This is, in many ways, the deepest loss of death – since the deepest meaning of life is fellowship with God. Similarly, Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were once dead apart from Christ but now have been made alive (Eph. 2:1-3).
Eschatological Death. This final death is often seen as the extension or finalization of spiritual death. This final death is the culmination of the spiritual death in which the individual is banished from the presence of God forever (Rev. 20:14-15) Eschatological death is the permanent abode following physical death.
Implications from a Theology of Death
First, death must not be seen as a supreme instance of cosmic lack of fairness, but as God’s just sentence against our sin. We are responsible participants in our own death, in that it is not simply something that happens to us, but we cause death by our sinfulness.
Second, One may ask ‘why death?’ Death is God’s limit on creatures whose sin is that they want to be gods (Gen. 3:4-5; Rom. 1:18-23). We are not gods; and by death we are reminded that we are only human.
Lastly, with 1 and 2 in mind, there is also another sense in which we cry out against this limitation because we have been made in the image of God and we want to live. Often people will rage against God because of death, but this assumes that He was unfair in passing the sentence that our sin deserved. Our rage is better directed at the ugliness of death and the wretchedness of sin.
The Christian’s Hope in Death
The Bible does not encourage us to suppress our grief when loved ones die, but it does insist that we do not “grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13) Where is our hope then? This may be, perhaps, one of the most underdeveloped aspects of evangelical practical theology. Our hope rests in Christ, more specifically, in his own defeat of death and bodily resurrection from death (John 11:25) N.T. Wright makes an important observation on this point.
“God’s intention is not to let death have its way with us. If the promised final future is simply that immortal souls leave behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules – since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply death itself. (Surprised by Hope, 15)”
Christ’s bodily resurrection is the seal that sin and death have been defeated. Christ’s resurrection is also the first taste of what is to come, the physical reality, for those of us who are in Christ. In a very true sense, God is going to do for us what he had done for Christ at Easter.
Therefore, believing the resurrection must cease to be a matter of inquiring to an event in the first century, but is a matter of hope here and now. The resurrection is ‘the’ defining event of the new creation, the new world that is coming through Jesus Christ. See, Jesus comes out of the tomb and inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one, the world we occupy. This is our grounds for hope, and the down payment for our future lives.
We thank God that through the work of Christ we may also be delivered form this body of death and may look forward to receiving from Christ at the final resurrection a new body that will be conformed to “the body of his glory” (Phil. 3:21). And we, who are in Christ, also hope in the life to come, eating from the tree of life from which our first parents were driven away (Rev. 22:2). Our ultimate hope is found in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:3-4).
Ministering to the Grieving
D.A. Carson writes:
“Anyone who has suffered devastating grief or dehumanizing pain has at some point been comforted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters. They come with their cliches and tired, pious mouthings. They engender guilt when they should be administering balm. They utter solemn truths where compassion is needed. They exhibit strength and exhort to courage where they would be more comforting if they simply wept. (How Long, O Lord?, 221)”
First, we must recognize that grief normally passes through different stages and is expressed by a variety of emotions, which is all dependent on the person mourning and the circumstances of their loss. Be sensitive and wise with how you comfort.
Second, sometimes it takes longer for a person to heal than you might expect. There needs to be a balance of patience and encouragement. It might take months or even years until one has completely moved through the grieving process, perhaps before they are ready to move on or even talk about it.
Third, in the midst of suffering the most comforting thing is simply presence, help, silence, and tears. Intellectual answers do not readily satisfy. There is much wisdom in the word “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).
Fourth, keep in mind that once the initial shock lifts the questions will come. Sometimes questions simply reveal that the grieving is seeking comfort. Carson notes that sometimes the questions reveal that the grieving do want an answer, even if brief. Perhaps a brief answer is all they can bear.
Lastly, above all, our aim must be to help the grieving know God better. To this end we must aim and pray, that “God himself is the one who comforts the downcast; He is the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 7:6; 2 Cor. 1:3)
Bibliography of Resources
- Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image
- D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?
- N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope