Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Two Views of Mortality

Is Death an Enemy or a Friend?

Sometimes death strikes down the living abruptly through a heart attack, a suicide, a car accident, a drowning. Loved ones can be left feeling stranded, breathless, and unprepared. In contrast, many forms of cancer operate in slow motion. Dying is protracted. Even if the process takes only weeks, patients and their loved ones observe and anticipate each step along the way. My own cancer hollows the inside of my bones, so that they become “like Swiss cheese,” one doctor quipped with a slight smile. Vital organs become compromised, failing one by one. If this process of deterioration does not stop the heart and breathing, the side effects of the chemotherapy and ongoing treatment will do the job soon enough. Although I could be hit by a car tomorrow, terminal cancer patients like me tend to assume that we can foresee our upcoming demise, like the witches in Hamlet who prophesy his fate. We just don’t know when it will come. But when the cancer comes back to carry me down the road of death, the doctors will do what they can to fight this injury, this violation, this offense.

This way of talking about cancer simply intensifies the views I absorbed about death as a young person growing up in a Christian community. Death was a violation, a horror. It was supposed to happen only to a very old person. And even then death was an indignity, a foe. As a Christian, I reminded myself, the apostle Paul was on my side, referring to death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26)––although that obviously had not happened yet. As I learned more about the Bible, I found more evidence to bolster my case that death was fundamentally unnatural: the garden of Eden, framed in Genesis as a place where God dwells, appears to be free from the sting of human death. Indeed, Eden, with the tree of life and guarded by the cherubim, is a type of garden-temple (later reflected in the tree-shaped menorah and cherubim symbols in Israel’s temple). Furthermore, in the Holiness Code of the Old Testament (Lev. 17–26), those who touched a corpse were considered ritually unclean and could not enter the temple until they underwent purification. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul claims that “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, . . . death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Death occurred as a consequence of sin, so it obviously was not a good thing. In most of the Christian books that I read after my cancer diagnosis, death was portrayed as an enemy, a punishment, a departure from God’s intention. And I found this convincing, since I, for one, didn’t want to die.

And yet gradually I discovered a different Christian story about death as well. I discovered it not only as I read Scripture and books of theology, but also as I went to funerals and as I’ve come to know those who have lived many years and feel ready to embrace death. They have a sense of completion, like Job, who died “old and full of days” (Job 42:17). Some of these see dying as a challenge, the last lap in a race. Others embrace dying as a welcome release from wearisome burdens. For both groups, it is quite possible to live too long—to insist upon breath at all costs when the body is caving in on itself. Little by little, they have taught me that if our present earthly life were to simply go on forever, it would be a curse. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden after their cardinal disobedience, with a particular consequence: the man “must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22 NIV).

Over dinner one day, my wife, Rachel (an Old Testament scholar), suggested that this banishment from the tree of life and immortality could be a form of divine mercy. Perhaps such banishment has its own grace built within it. How? Because for sinful humans to live forever would be a terrible burden, not a gift. J. R. R. Tolkien, referring to characters in his book The Silmarillion, wrote that “the doom of the Elves is to be immortal.” They are gifted, yet also caught in a cycle: “to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning.” In contrast, humans are freed from bondage to the “circles of the world” through mortality. Human mortality is both a source of “grief” and “an envy to the immortal Elves.” In Christian terms, to live as a fallen creature without a terminus could, in fact, be a banishment to Sheol, a place of darkness cut off from the graces of creaturely limits.

In my book Rejoicing in Lament, I championed the view of death as an enemy as I reflected on my own exper-ience as someone diagnosed with incurable cancer. But as I discussed the book with a group of men and women in their eighties and nineties at a retirement center, I began to wonder whether I had missed something.

This group of forty had met weekly in smaller groups for a couple of months to read each chapter aloud and share their thoughts with one another. On the evening of our discussion, I addressed questions that the groups had written down. One question arose again and again, in various forms: Why did I speak about death as an enemy, when many of them were looking forward to death? In fact, wasn’t death a reward? They understood why death was an adversary for their kids or grandkids. Moreover, they didn’t want me to die, especially since I have young children. But for them? Their bodies were wearing out, deteriorating, falling apart. Their biggest fear was that they would live too long, debilitated by decay but kept afloat by medical technology. Most of their peers, their friends, had already died. Death would come as a welcome, even overdue, friend.

So which view is correct: death as an enemy, or death as a relief, a mercy? This has been a friendly debate between Rachel and me over the dinner table since the time that we started dating, and it has continued into our married days: Is death portrayed as “natural” in Scripture, or is it fundamentally “unnatural,” deeply contrary to God’s intention for creation? Is death always a foe, or is it sometimes a friend? Our discussion gets very complicated very quickly. Usually it ends with rolling eyes and some laughter.

We can’t fully assess these views from the outside––as if death didn’t apply to us––but only as mortals. Death lies before all of us, out of our immediate reach. We can speculate, but we cannot actually know whether it will be feared or welcomed in our final moments. In the meantime, we live expecting our death to be either “friend” or “foe,” and the process of dying to be one of edification or of injury.

Which view is truly authentic for frail human beings? Which view is faithful to the testimony of Scripture? I’ve come to think that a provisional answer to these questions may be “both.” Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, takes on death as a challenge, an opportunity for service and witness; yet he also enters into the depths of Sheol, wounded and abandoned, as he weeps in Gethsemane and dies on a cross outside the temple and outside Jerusalem’s walls. Somehow, both views about death are embodied and culminate in Jesus Christ. And I sense that both views will apply to those who find life in Christ as well.

Death as Pedagogy: Walter and Irenaeus

“What did she die of?” That was my boyhood question to adults when they mentioned they were going to a funeral. The usual response was spoken quietly but firmly to this and any follow-up questions: “She died of old age.” By the time I reached adolescent contrariety, I would protest, “Old age is not a disease! You can’t die of old age!” I started to press for specifics. “How did she die? What was her illness?” But after hearing one speculation after another about why a ninety-five-year-old patient’s heart stopped beating, I ended up thinking to myself, “She died of old age.” A natural end, not a puzzle to be solved. Death in old age is natural, with blessings of its own. This end seems a bit like that of Abraham, who “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years” (Gen. 25:8).

Walter, a friend from church, died of old age. Old age was not his disease, of course, but his life arc was ending––an arc of over ninety years, from birth to childhood to adolescence to marriage, parenting, and eventually grandparenting. He had skin in the game in each season of that arc. Even dying was something he did with a certain confidence, as if it were a calling.
I could quickly identify Walter in any crowd—whether he was at church, in a coffee shop, or slowly striding down the sidewalk near his retirement home. He walked with a shiny silver cane and a slight hunch, bringing him to just over five feet in height. His eyeglasses were supposedly “transitional”—changing from clear to dark, adjusting to the indoor or the outdoor light––but they always seemed to be as black as night. Yet Walter never hid behind them. He usually sported a light-colored jacket, a white shirt, slacks, and a wide, black tie. His attire lent a dignity to Walter that was reinforced by his dramatic, expressive voice, which sounded like that of an NPR announcer. Wherever I met him, he would greet me by name, give a firm handshake, and introduce himself to anyone else in the vicinity, whether he could see them clearly or not. When asked how he was, he would always speak about some blessing of the day and a grandchild providing cheer, as if his voice were singing a buoyant song. Then, in a low voice, he would report that he was saddened by his wife Edith’s progressing dementia. But he would rarely linger in his melancholy.

Walter would ask me about teaching, about the seminary where I work, about the ministry of young pastors today. Usually these questions were congenial, but sometimes I felt a sting. This man more than twice my age would find his way into any and every Sunday school class I taught, and he seemed to enjoy challenging my theological ideas in stark terms. Yet as I got to know Walter, I sensed that he offered these challenges affectionately. He tutored at-risk middle schoolers until the week before he died, and he mentored any seminary interns who were willing to meet with him. Walter had retired from his pastoral work decades before. He was going to die soon, and he knew it; he spoke of it in casual conversation. He didn’t speak of it with dread, but with an inevitability that he refused to fight. Until death took him, he was going to get out in the sun, care for his wife, love his grandchildren, mentor middle schoolers and seminary students, and occasionally put a burr under the saddle of young professors. He enjoyed all of those things.

By contrast, when I spent time with Edward, an older family friend, I would hear his complaints—anger at how people had treated him and about how foolish and corrupt teachers, leaders, and young people are today. Edward occasionally spoke about how he had “shown” those who thought he was just a parochial pastor’s kid. His own dad was long dead, and those whom he was “showing” were either dead or out of contact with him. Edward’s bitter drama continued only for him; the audience and the other actors had already left the theater.
Walter, on the other hand, seemed to radiate a sense of gratitude; he was “full of years,” like Abraham, and blessed by God. He felt the ache and burn of daily pain, he had lost much of his vision, and he was becoming less and less mobile. He helped feed, bathe, and care for the love of his life, Edith, who no longer recognized him most days. But he didn’t really expect or want to be young anymore. He would die soon, and he seemed to embrace that arc. And his response was gratitude.

Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner points out that it is increasingly difficult for us to embrace each stage of our life as a gift, as a testimony to God’s faithfulness. “One reason that adults [today] cannot stick with things ––marriages, their children, their jobs, the generations of their flesh and community, their ecclesial commitments––is because we have failed to learn the patience that comes with recognizing our lives as given, in an order, in time, in their places.” Perhaps that’s why a friend was both grieving and radiant after Walter’s funeral. “It’s sad, but it is also so encouraging,” she said through her tears. As little clumps of dust given the breath of life, we have the concrete, creaturely task of receiving the joys and griefs that we are given, loving our neighbor in our home and down the street and living in a way that leads not to resentment but to praise. When I embrace earthly mortality throughout life rather than living as if I had no limits, no terminus, I can “engage these realities of my life as a creature whose experiences turn me toward my creatureliness in God’s hands.”

The second-century bishop Irenaeus painted a portrait of Jesus, and secondarily of Adam, that fits in significant ways with this embrace of the creaturely stages of life. For Irenaeus, the embodied arc of growth, adulthood, and dying is a creaturely good. This was a crucial claim for the early church leader, for many in his day followed the teaching of Gnostics who insisted that the vulnerability of flesh being born, maturing, and decaying was an embarrassing scandal. The Gnostics declared that God must be distanced from that whole carnal process. The Gnostic God would never take on mortal flesh in an incarnation. Irenaeus, by contrast, celebrated the bodily, creaturely life as good, in all its stages of growth and decline. Indeed, he even spoke about Jesus as experiencing old age. Jesus “was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age.” Although Irenaeus seems to have given Jesus a couple of more decades than the historical record can countenance, his point about the embodied, creaturely life is salient. In childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and even old age, the human person lives a life that the Lord calls “good.” Walter would have agreed. He embraced life with limits––even the sharp-edged limit of dying and death.

As unnerving as it sounds to our culture, so vigilant to stave off death at all costs, Irenaeus claimed that dying itself can be part of a divine pedagogy for coming to know the mercy of the Lord. Irenaeus came to this conclusion while commenting on the story of creation. Adam and Eve were created as good and yet not fully refined and perfected creatures. They were inexperi-enced infants, not fully mature adults. This was not a mistake on God’s part but an act of mercy. A mother could try to feed an infant a three-course meal prepared for a hungry teenager, but that would not be appropriate for the infant. In the same way, “it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant.” God does not force-feed his children but nurtures them on the path of growth like a good parent. Part of God’s intention for creaturely growth is that one comes to love family and community, food and festivity, work and play––and yet, as a mortal, learns to let go of all those things for God’s sake.

Thus, for Irenaeus, dying presents us with an opportunity, a choice: either trust in God as the source of life, or try to have life on our own terms (similar to Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden). The act of dying becomes an opportunity for growth, a lesson taught by the divine parent. Embracing the mortal course of our lives is a step in our maturation as creatures who trust in the living God. Walter’s daily care for Edith, even as she seemed to become less like herself each day, was tender. Walter’s mentoring of at-risk children filled him with passion. And yet even these good deeds would need to slip out of his fingers. God was asking Walter to give up his life of service as the arc of his mortality took its course, coming to rest only in the One who is life’s source.

As Irenaeus would see it, Walter was not walking a self-congratulatory road. His path of growth displays the depth of human vulnerability––the utter human need for the incarnate Lord Jesus, who shows his loving strength through weakness. As the risen Christ proclaims to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Christ shows us that true humanity does not lord it over others but takes “the form of a slave,” as Paul’s letter to the Philippians testifies:

Being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

PHIL. 2:8

As Irenaeus expresses it, God’s power is displayed through the Word made flesh, who is “capable of being tempted, dishonoured, crucified, and of suffering death.” Jesus reveals the form of the fully matured human by loving when he is hated, choosing obedience when he is tempted, and enduring suffering and death as a creature before the face of God. Jesus is made completely and perfectly mature only through taking on mortal suffering and death. As Hebrews declares, “He learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8–9). Christ took on the pedagogy of dying and death, disclosing true humanity to us. And rising from the dead, he brought true humanity into the glory of heaven.

Irenaeus says that once we have come to taste the sweetness of trusting the Lord on the path of suffering and dying pioneered by Christ, we develop the taste buds and stomachs to feed “from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.” In Irenaeus’s vision, although death entered the world through sin, the biological fact of human mortality has been taken up into the mercy of God, giving us a path to trust in God’s Word even at our life’s end.

Walter sensed that mercy. More than once he smiled and quipped to me that he didn’t want to live forever. He embraced his dying as part of the arc of human life, each day an opportunity to walk on the path of fellowship with God that Christ pioneered and the Spirit upholds. The path of dying did not make him slip into Sheol but prepared him for the temple of the Lord.

As with Walter, sometimes the season of dying seems fitting for one who has lived a life “full of years.” Irena-eus’s theological reflection helps us to see how dying can be a gift, an instrument of the Triune God. But one might wonder: Did Irenaeus develop his view of dying because he enjoyed a long, privileged life of security?

When we look at his life, that is clearly not the case. Irenaeus was no stranger to suffering, early dying, and unseemly deaths. In his day, Christians were persecuted by the state. Irenaeus recalls that, as a child, he sat and listened to a bishop named Polycarp. He remembers vividly his experiences with this elder Christian. According to a letter Irenaeus wrote as an adult, “I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to the people.” Polycarp shared his faith as one who had received the message of Jesus from “the eyewitnesses of the Word of Life.” Polycarp’s presence and words touched Irenaeus deeply: “I listened eagerly even then to these things through the mercy of God which was given me, and made notes of them, not on paper, but in my heart, and ever by the grace of God do I truly ruminate on them.” At some point during Irenaeus’s growth from a boy into a man, however, Polycarp was bound, burned, and stabbed for his faith. Irenaeus later became the bishop of Lyon, an office made vacant by the martyrdom of the previous bishop. Irenaeus undertook this shepherding role amid the especially violent persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in 177. For Irenaeus, the martyrs died not in defeat but as athletes who were undergoing their final training. These martyrs freely chose to identify with Christ in suffering and death. They chose the path of weakness and lowliness as the true path of the Christian life. They chose courageous witness rather than fearful cowering in the face of death.

Although it first struck me as strange, I’ve come to embrace the Irenaean view of death as deeply illuminating. I’ve also come to see how it reflects biblical convictions about creaturehood, finitude, and the incarnation of Christ. The elderly residents of the retirement home I spoke at usually embraced a quite Irenaean perspective on their own mortality: they were content to welcome death as the final season of their mortal lives, dying “full of years” in gratitude to the Creator. But even as they embraced the limits of their mortality, they still knew that dying can be an indignity and death can be a terror. When talking about how death cut down their children or grandchildren by disease or violence, splintering a young family into pieces, they spoke of the raw wound of death. The Irenaean view, on its own, can seem incomplete, even offensive. For death can come as an enemy and can sting as an affliction.

Death as Irrational: Augustine and Melissa

If, in the second century, Irenaeus is the theologian of dying as a creaturely good, Augustine of Hippo, in the fourth century, is the theologian of death as an irrational horror. In his early writings Augustine described death as concordant with the natural order of things. “When things pass away and others succeed them,” he wrote, “there is a specific beauty in the temporal order, so that those things which die or cease to be what they were, do not defile the measure, form or order of the created universe.” Human beings die as creatures, fitting into the wondrous order that any biologist or ecologist would recognize. Sometimes this is how children’s stories approach death as well. As I snuggle beside my son on a couch with a children’s book, we encounter the character “Freddie the Leaf.” Freddie loves the sunshine and the wind in summer. But when the decay of autumn comes, Freddie learns that it’s his job to fall from the tree, enter the ground, and become fertilizer for new growth after the winter cold. Likewise, the book suggests, human creatures die as part of the ordered cycle of life.

Augustine’s theology, however, developed and changed from this “cycle of life” approach as he entered into debates with the British-born theologian and teacher Pelagius. These debates sharpened Augustine’s convic-tions about creation, God’s grace, and the staggering implications of human sin. Eventually, Augustine repudiated his earlier view in the strongest possible terms. Death is not a created good, Augustine says, for “God did not create any death for man in his nature, but it was imposed as a just punishment for sin.” For Augustine, death is not a step in the divine pedagogy by which humans grow. Death is not good for anyone. It tears apart soul and body, which are conjoined and interwoven in a living being. This is not the last lap in the training of an athlete. Death, in Augustine’s view, is a catastrophe, inherently violent and fundamentally unnatural.

Augustine’s view reminds me of the memorial service that was held for my friend Melissa. It was a warm Saturday afternoon as the sanctuary filled to overflowing for this mother of two young children. While the service claimed to be a celebration of her “homecoming,” the pastor’s opening greeting recognized our grief and confusion and anger. We had gathered for a “victory celebration” for Melissa, we were told. Yet we were right to be angry at her death, the pastor told us, for in our anger we acknowledged that something was wrong. We were angry because death is an enemy, an intruder, in this universe. Death was not part of God’s original plan. So be angry with Satan, the pastor told us; be angry with sin.

After a couple of songs, Melissa’s brother Ryan approached the front of the sanctuary. He spoke of how Melissa had loved to memorize Scripture and to hear the stories of the missionaries their family hosted. Ryan shared how his sister felt called to attend a Christian college and seminary and then to go overseas as a missionary. She married a classmate who shared her missionary calling to live sacrificially in witness and mercy. Over the course of a few years, they had two daughters. Then, after years of preparation and discernment about where they should serve, they moved to Mexico. But without warning, after just two years on the mission field, Melissa became ill and suddenly died. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined that she would get sick and pass so suddenly,” Ryan said. Ryan was not naive; he knew the mission field could be dangerous. There could be opposition, persecution, and even imprisonment, such as the apostle Paul faced. But for Ryan and for many of us in the crowded sanctuary, an underlying question animated our shock: How could Melissa’s heart just stop beating so abruptly? How could an unexpected disease cause oceans of hope to dry up so quickly? Persecution is one thing; a quick and senseless illness is another. Melissa’s life seemed to be gaining momentum, not slowing down. Five minutes in her presence would bring a smile to my face, generating hope for how God would use her in the future. Couldn’t God have found someone else to “take home” that day? Whose side is God on, anyway?
In that sanctuary, I heard how Melissa’s death would be for God’s glory. That seemed both right and terribly problematic. What could it possibly mean that Melissa’s death was for God’s glory? Job properly testifies that “in [the Lord’s] hand is the life of every living thing / and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:10). Every halting breath is a gift, and the Lord of life is necessarily the Lord of death. And yet Job gives this testimony in the midst of debates about suffering with his friends, teetering between thanksgiving and searing lament. Job also opines that the Lord “destroys both the blameless and the wicked. / When disaster brings sudden death, / he mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (Job 9:22–23). Shouldn’t we have hoped for something better than this “disaster” bringing “sudden death”? Why did Melissa’s death look more like a slip into the pit of Sheol than an ascent on the road to Zion?

For nearly an hour and a half, we both laughed and cried as Melissa’s friends and coworkers told stories about her. We stood up between the stories and tried to sing songs of praise. It was hard to sing, but we were right to do so. God is always worthy of praise. Early in the book of Job, after the sudden loss of his children and his wealth, Job declares,

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.

JOB 1:21 NIV

But even as I sensed that it was right to praise God, I also wondered if the band could play something other than upbeat, sunny songs. Did these cheery love songs to Jesus recognize our nakedness? Two young girls had just lost their mom. A young husband had lost his wife. All of us had lost a friend; we lost dreams that we didn’t know we had for her. But in the service we didn’t join the psalmist or Job in lament. We had not, as a community, learned how to sing praise in a minor key.

Years later, Melissa’s death still stung. Whether or not I would have used the pastor’s words about anger at death, they seemed to disclose something of the genuine horror of the moment at the memorial service. The pastor’s comments reflected the German theologian Helmut Thielicke’s stark claim that death is “the expression of a catastrophe which runs on a collision course with man’s original destination or, in other words, directly opposite of his intrinsic nature.” This is the Augustinian story about death, and it’s not sur-prising that Melissa’s funeral evoked this theme as well.

Perhaps, as Irenaeus claims, Melissa’s sudden death was part of her—or our—education in the glory of God. But Augustine offers us a needed word as well, a crucial reminder that death is both irrational and horrible. We can’t find a reason for a death like this; in fact, according to Augustine, we can’t even fully define what the catastrophe of death really is. “But as it is, death is a reality; and so troublesome a reality that it cannot be explained by any verbal formula, nor got rid of by any rational argument.” Death broke into Melissa’s family, into our friendships, into our unfolding story. It did so as an absence, a sundering, an enigma.

Indeed, for Augustine, death has no rational explanation, and hence it leaves us in silence—in a way that parallels the mystery of sin itself. For instance, in his classic example illustrating the nature of sin in his Confessions, Augustine recounts how he stole pears from his neighbors as a boy. Was there a logical justification for his action? No, Augustine says. “We took away an enormous quantity of pears,” Augustine recalls, “not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs.” Probing the question a bit more, Augustine says, “Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.” And just as Augustine’s theft was fundamentally irrational, so Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was fundamentally irrational and mysterious.

Likewise, Augustine suggests, death stalks creatures simply to tear them apart, not to help fertilize the soil and push the cycle of life into its next beautiful season. “The death of the body was not inflicted on us by the law of our nature, since God did not create any death for man in his nature, but it was imposed as a just punishment for sin.” Death is not a created good but a consequence of mistrust, of turning toward the self rather than God, of disobedience to the divine command.

And what good could we make of Melissa’s death? A young family torn apart. A mission of mercy and witness upended. A person with a joyful presence, gone from the world. Job’s lament seemed to unearth the nonsense of attempting to explain why this should happen. “Your hands fashioned and made me, / and now you turn and destroy me,” Job says, both testifying to the Lord’s work and questioning the Lord about it from the Pit. “Remember that you fashioned me like clay; / and will you turn me to dust again?” (Job 10:8–9). Melissa may be in a “better place,” but that’s not where we want her. We want her here. Her girls need her here. Death is a crushing blow to the here and now that we desire. “If he tears down, no one can rebuild; / if he shuts someone in, no one can open up” (Job 12:14). Why this tearing down, O Lord, when her body seemed so strong, with so much life and potential and future? Why would the hands that fashioned Melissa turn her into dust again right now, with a husband and young daughters and a vocation in global mission just underway?

Perhaps these unanswered questions point to our need for a pioneer, a priest who knows our weaknesses, a Savior who has been to Sheol. Precisely because death and many of the sufferings we face are not good in any intrinsic sense, we can have our hearts awakened by the innocent one who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7). Christ offered up prayers, and they were heard; though he died on a cross as one who was apparently cursed, he was actually entering into the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the temple. “He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Christ did not marry, have children or grandchildren, or enter into old age. He had no earthly inheritance as he faced death. His heart stopped beating and his breath stopped heaving outside of the temple, in Sheol. As he took on this disgraceful, untimely death, he bore the shame of our own deaths, which also appear to be outside of the temple, far from the Lord’s promise.

For Augustine, this astonishing mystery is precisely what God takes on in the incarnation and the cross of Christ. Christ does not simply live and then die a natural death. Christ, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3), freely chooses obedience that stoops to the point of death to show God’s love to helpless sinners. “He deigned to be crucified, became obedient even to the death of the cross. He who was about to take away all death, chose the lowest and worst kind of death. … It was indeed the worst of deaths, but it was chosen by the Lord.” Christ acts as both the priest whose sacrifice is perfect and the pioneer whose journey into Sheol proves the psalmist right in saying,

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. …
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

PS. 139:8, 11–12

The darkness, of course, is still dark to us. But since Christ embodied the temple in his person––and yet absorbed the black hole of Sheol in his dying and rising ––we know the darkness is not all there is.

I wonder, though, whether we sometimes miss this work of Christ by pitching our praise only in major keys rather than in minor ones as well. Christ, the light of the world, died in terrible darkness. In the words of Job, the Lord:

has walled up my way so that I cannot pass,
and he has set darkness upon my paths.
He has stripped my glory from me,
and taken the crown from my head.

JOB 19:8–9

I believe the speaker at Melissa’s memorial service was right to say that her death will serve God’s glory, but maybe that glory involves a stripping of earthly glory, a participation in Christ’s dark death. Indeed, Christians are marked by the sign of the cross, a doubly violent horror––both in the crucifixion itself and in the miscarriage of justice that led to it. In Augustine’s view, this leads to a transfiguration of glory as a mark of the Christian. “He was to have that very cross as His sign; that very cross, a trophy, as it were, over the vanquished devil, He was to put on the brow of believers, so that the apostle said, ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ [Gal. 6:14].”

We mortals do not just need some bodywork to fix the dings and dents caused by sin. We need a love that seeks us out in the Pit, even while we are hostile, while we are enemies of God and his purposes. We need the cross––a sign in the darkness of God’s radiant, friend-making love. In Augustine’s words, “he came into the world as a lover of his enemies,” and “he found absolutely all of us his enemies, he didn’t find anyone a friend. It was for enemies that he shed his blood, but by his blood that he converted his enemies. With his blood he wiped out his enemies’ sins; by wiping out their sins, he made friends out of enemies.”

Melissa’s life, and certainly her death, was marked by the sign of the cross. Maybe, just maybe, the darkness of Melissa’s death testifies to the astonishing brightness of Christ’s love, which makes friends with us in our darkness. I can’t figure out how Melissa’s death fits into any human plan for good. I can’t see how it was “for the best,” as we sometimes tell ourselves. But even though I don’t know the reasons why, or how her death could be for God’s glory, I do trust that Melissa belonged to Jesus in life and in death. Because Jesus died in darkness, Melissa’s death in darkness is mysteriously a death in the temple, in Christ as the dwelling place of God, in the one in whom “there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The crucified and risen Lord holds Melissa’s death in his hands; and this same Lord Jesus can use it, if he wishes, as a witness to his own friend-making love.

Which Death? Which Story?

You may be wondering, Which will be the story of my own death? Will it be more like the story of Walter or of Melissa? Will I die “full of years” at the end of a long life? Will my dying be the final stretch in the race of discipleship? Or will my death be a sudden and inscrutable horror to my friends and family?

Mortals can be certain of one thing on this point: we don’t know. Even patients with a terminal diagnosis like me don’t know. Death is always out before us, beyond our reach. As soon as we could know which story is ours, it will be too late. “You won’t be there when you’re dead,” in the words of my daughter. Our earthly life will be over. We can talk about what medical interventions we want if we end up in the hospital or hospice, but our heart could unexpectedly stop beating, and it all would come to nothing. When I asked my father about the death of his grandpa at the age of sixty, he said, “Probably a heart attack, but we don’t really know. He was just working on the farm, and he died one day.” The improved technologies utilized in postmortems today may give us more probable answers about why a sudden death occurs. But they can’t prevent the accident or the unforeseen malady that takes away our breath and stills our heart.

Given this uncertainty, it makes sense to pursue growth throughout each stage of life with Irenaeus, but also to recognize with Augustine that death itself is an enigma, a reality always beyond our grasp, a foe that cannot be fully domesticated or befriended. The Lord’s work is expansive enough to encompass both the Irenaean and the Augustinian sides of death. In Christ, God has taken on our mortal, creaturely life and pioneered a true humanity that displays mature power through humble obedience. And we also see that in Christ’s cross and resurrection, God plunges the darkness of the Pit into his vast universe of light, forgiving the enemy and giving new life to those whose feet are stuck in the miry bog.
In all likelihood, our own deaths will not fit exclusively into one theological view of death or the other. They will have a bit of both. Indeed, even in the stories of Walter and Melissa we see fragments of both views held together. Walter lived a long life, “full of years,” and his dying was an opportunity for service and witness. Yet he also experienced the irrational horror of death as dementia pulled his wife, Edith, more and more away from him, away from their shared past, away from the present moment. “Old age can be very frightening,” a character in a P. D. James novel confesses, revealing that he is losing his memory. “My son died young, and at the time, it seemed to be the most terrible thing that could happen to anyone in the world—to him, as well as to me. But perhaps he was one of the fortunate ones.” This may be part of Walter’s story with Edith as well.

Melissa’s death was a horror, and many at her funeral spoke of her unlived years and what could or should have been for her and her young family. Yet we also heard about how, weeks before her unexpected death, she had completed a writing project to share her faith with her daughters. Perhaps even as a young mother she had started to embrace her mortal limits and come to terms with her eventual death. Whether we face death at fifteen or fifty or ninety, we are likely to have both Irenaean and Augustinian elements woven into our dying.

In what ways can these two types and theologies of death be reconciled? As in the cases of Walter and Melissa, living and dying involve both joy and sorrow. And both Irenaeus and Augustine testify to the God of creation, who takes on death and its consequences in the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. Yet, held together, the two types of dying can seem like oil and water—like a strange recipe in which the two main ingredients just won’t mix. Yes, our living and dying will probably reflect aspects from both Walter’s and Melissa’s stories, both Irenaeus’s and Augustine’s visions. But the combi-nation won’t make for a bland soup. No, the contrasts will remain: sweet and sour together, soft and sharp. For us and our loved ones, our own dying will likely be both an offense and a gift, an affliction and a consolation, a catastrophe and a strange work of providence.

Thus, to be attentive to the tastes and smells of God’s gifts in living and dying, we need to embrace two apparently contrary realities. On the one hand, dying is a dimension of the gift of life, an opportunity for growth, for witness, for service. The dying should receive not just our sympathy and our prayers for healing but also our prayers for courage as they witness and serve, even as they depend on others. The dying are still athletes running the race. God works in his dying creatures, often showing his strength in and through creaturely weakness. Whether we are young or old, the reality of our mortality can goad us to cultivate faith, hope, and love; reminders of our mortality can lead us to seize the day for kindness, for faithfulness to family and friends, for courage in the face of adversity. If we deny and push away our mortality, we miss the gifts that our small and fragile creaturely status gives us, the opportunities that knowledge of our dying opens up for us in daily life.

On the other hand, we also need to embrace the icy truth that death itself is an enigma and a wound. We become slaves to fear when we refuse to speak the word “death” and give only euphemisms in its place: “passing on,” “promoted to heaven,” moved to “a better place.” Yes, these euphemisms testify to something true, but they also treat an open wound like a trophy. The dead are now corpses, deceased, taken from us––for no reason that we can understand. Without acknowledging this Augustinian view of death’s inherent violence, we ignore the ways in which the death of a loved one leaves us with branches withered on the vine.

When we honestly name the wounds, the withered branches, the ways in which we are undone, we vaccinate ourselves against the overpowering fear of death. We give death its space, let its wounds breathe without fabricating explanations about how it makes sense or works for the best. Otherwise, the fear of death actually enters our bloodstream. With the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we admit that “a living dog is better than a dead lion,” that the dead will “never again . . . have any share in all that happens under the sun.” Accepting this can help us to experience the creaturely joy and wonder of the next verse: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart” (Eccles. 9:4, 6–7).

Admit it: we cannot master death or understand its ways. But this Augustinian surrender can be a liberating victory. And this Augustinian insight can point, like the death of Melissa, to the most courageous and liberating death in the cosmos: the death of the one through whom all things were made, the death of Jesus in darkness, the one who is “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).

This Augustinian perspective on the fundamentally irrational character of death in darkness can point us to the absolute necessity of a mediator, a redeemer who tasted death on our behalf. If we don’t embrace this deeply, we can spend a great deal of anxious energy blaming one person or institution or another, as if they themselves thought up the idea of death. We may perform acrobatic feats of logic to get God off the hook for horrific deaths, to answer those “why” questions for Melissa and so many others. Ironically, such preoccupations tend to inject the fear of death into our lives, distracting us from the larger reality that we are mortal and that God’s promise does not nullify our mortality. We don’t have answers to all of our “why” questions, but the world is still full of wonder and beauty, and God’s promise testifies that death will not have the final word.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements––surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

JOB 38:4–7

As strange as it seems to say this, the Lord’s reply to Job out of the whirlwind is a liberating one: it does not answer Job’s questions or cure his fears, but nevertheless enables him to live again—to raise children, to run a farm, to live for many more years and eventually see “his children, and his children’s children” (Job 42:16). He does so as one who knew the Pit and the riddle of death, and knew that the riddle could not be solved. He does so as a creature with wounds and scars, but he also, as chapters 38 and 39 go on to emphasize, continues on as a mortal who knows the joy and wonder of the world of bears and lions and ravens and mountain goats and ostriches and eagles that the Lord governs in ways Job did not previously understand. Job trusts in the Lord, the Creator, whose ways he cannot fathom. And, like Abraham, like Walter, he dies not controlled by fear but, as the concluding verse of the book testifies, “old and full of days” (42:17).

Whether our own deaths look more like Walter’s or Melissa’s, we can trust that even in our dying and our death we’ve not slipped out of the hands of the Creator and Redeemer, the crucified and risen Lord, who entered into the darkness on our behalf. The darkness is still dark, but it’s not given the final word. For in the words of Paul, this Lord, Jesus Christ who was crucified, is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:15–16).

This essay is from The End of The Christian Life (2020). Used with permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

J. Todd Billings
J. Todd Billings
J. Todd Billings, Th.D. (Harvard University) is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.


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