The Problem With Death

“The worst is death, and death will have his day.”  (Shakespeare, “Richard II”)

We are living in a culture where random psychotic violence has become alarmingly endemic. Yet I would venture that most of us have experienced our own close brush with death at some point in our lives. I am not just talking about so-called ‘near death’ experiences where somebody appears to die only to be unexpectedly revived but something far more common, the ‘close call:’ a mislabeled toxic vial that you nearly mistook for medication, an emergency appendectomy that saved your life, the speeding vehicle that narrowly missed sending you to your eternal reward. At such moments one can almost feel the cold icy breath of death on the neck.

Close calls produce a particularly chilling release of adrenaline, yet they also serve as periodic reminders of the fragility of life. After recovering from a life threatening illness do we not see life in a very different way? We suddenly remember how each day is its own special gift; not to be taken for granted. Our fear of death is inversely proportional to the joy and beauty we experience in life. The more one values and savors life, the more one desires to cling to it. Love, friendship, marriage, and family all deepen our appreciation for the gift of life. The more enjoyment we find in it the more inclined we are to put aside any thought of death.

Nonetheless, we recognize instinctively that death is inevitable. But is death merely the termination of biological life as a doctor might see it, or is there another sense to death? Every human being is an embodied spirit and this union of an indestructible soul with a destructible physical body stands as one of the great mysteries in God’s creation. The soul, being an immaterial substance, cannot be weighed, measured, etc. in a scientific way. Yet we know that it exists from the effects it produces, primarily consciousness which, in turn, manifests passions, thoughts, even wonder. Without an animate soul the body would be dry lifeless matter. The soul is that vital ‘life force’ which empowers our material bodies to breathe, move about, think, and grow. When a soul departs from its body, for whatever reason, the body begins to die: our first definition of death.

Primary to the human soul is a rational mind (not to be confused with the brain, its physical counterpart). This mind can envision beauty, anticipate the future, or speculate on the meaning of life. Being spiritual, it can apprehend other spiritual things like God and yes, even the devil. Furthermore, once created, the soul will never cease to exist. This does not mean that it must remain in harmony with its Creator, however. Among the soul’s special powers is the freedom to ‘will’ its future course, or destiny. The word ‘destiny’ itself comes from the Latin destinare meaning “to stand.” Destiny means to choose one’s place, literally to take a stand. Forget any notion of some predetermined eternal fate imposed from on high. If freedom means anything, the soul’s ultimate destiny must be of its own doing.

Now suppose that some soul decides to ‘take a stand’ somewhere far away from its Creator, not unlike a disgruntled six year old who runs away from home? Such separation is tantamount to a second, spiritual death; far more devastating than any physical death. To separate oneself completely from God, the very source of life itself, is analogous to separating a physical body from its own life giving soul. Being immortal, the soul will continue to exist but in a deadened and very unhappy state, not unlike that six year old who will be miserable until he is reunited with his mother. A soul stranded on its own side of the street, alienated from God, experiences a perpetual death. Our word for such an alienated state of existence is hell, the second and eternal death. The sardonic complaint of one modern philosopher that, “hell is other people,” completely misses the mark. The true hallmark of hell is supreme isolation, primarily from God, but also from the company of others, except to share in their torments. So now we have two very distinct types of death, the one purely physical and the second spiritual. The first is unavoidable though temporary, the second is optional but permanent.

Death separates believers and non-believers into two diametrically opposed camps. For the latter death is proof of God’s utter indifference towards humanity. At the very least it manifests the futility of human existence. For the believer, however, death is part of God’s stratagem for every individual; a secret doorway which leads one to eternal life and happiness. The cup of death is either half empty or half full, depending on your perspective.

Is death God’s doing then, the kind of divine cosmic amputation to which C.S. Lewis likened it in his melancholic reflections after the death of his wife (A Grief Observed)? This cannot be so since death goes against the very nature of God who, as the author of life, would never actively will death to enter his world. Christ himself affirms this view, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) But Christ goes further to identify the real source of death who is none other than Satan, “he was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth.” (Jn. 8:44) Still, death entered the world through sin and it would have to be reckoned with. But instead of simply waving death away with some magic wand, God shrewdly found a way to turn it to man’s ultimate good. Long before man ever arrived on the scene God planted death in the very laws of nature, from the world’s very inception. You may ask, how that is possible if death is a consequence of sin, and man was not yet around to sin?

The first thing to recognize is that God dwells in eternal time, not the kind of linear time that we understand. Therefore, to his way of knowing, everything is in the present tense. In the beginning God looked out over the entire history of mankind and planned this world of ours accordingly. He provided for a world that would accommodate fallen people, not sainted ones. Part of that accommodation was in permitting death to stalk our little planet, not as a part of his original plan but as a consequence of sin. Certainly God could have created a world where death is unknown, and for all we know such other worlds may actually exist. But that is not the case here on earth. Death, it would seem, is woven into the very fabric of our fair planet, even among the lower creatures. St. Paul speaks of this mystery when he writes, “for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord, but because of the one who subjected it (the devil), in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption…(Rom. 8:20-21)

God, being both infinite and eternal, is not bounded by the limitations of time as we are. He was therefore able to ‘pre-program’ this particular world to accommodate death long before the arrival of the first human. For us history is looking back, over the shoulder so to speak. But God views history as the eternal now where past, present, and future blend seamlessly, side by side, just as we might view various figures in a painting. For us, the present moment will soon become a faded memory of the past. God is not so limited. He can therefore order one set of events according to what will happen at some other time just as a painter might re-arrange figures on his canvas.

Does this fact not then circumvent the free will of man? For if God already knows what choices we will someday make, have those choices not then been effectively pre-determined? The short answer is no, because ‘knowing’ is not ‘choosing’ any more than a parent, fully aware that his child is lying, actually causes the child to be untruthful. God knew full well from the beginning that man would sin, thus introducing death into the world. But the Scriptures assure us that sin and death were not part of God’s original plan. “For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.” (Wis. 2:23-24) The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel also alludes to the fact that death is something that God does not positively will, “For I take no pleasure in the death of him who dies, says the Lord God.” (Ez. 18:32) Yet knowing that sin would disfigure his creation in time, God integrated death into the DNA of our world from its very inception.

Before man even existed God had formulated a plan to rescue him from sin’s long term effects. St. Paul tells us, “For God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all.” (Rom. 11:32) He unfolded this larger plan of Redemption gradually, over the span of millennia (because God has all the time in the world, literally). The most amazing element in that plan is known as the Incarnation. “I came that they might have life, and have it to the fullest.” (Jn. 10:10) You might call it God’s nuclear option. In the person of Jesus Christ, the very Word of God became flesh to dwell among us. (Jn. 1:14) That is, in fact, the meaning of his name, Emanuel: literally, God has visited his people.

Only God could have conceived such an implausible yet dramatic solution to the problem of sin and death. God tamed the horrors of death by submitting himself to its ravages! By descending from heaven to assume human flesh, and thereby experiencing death firsthand, God put himself in a position to sanctify death. He imbued it with a positive value that it could never otherwise have had. By dying himself, the God-man imparts to death a substantive purpose as man’s gateway to immortality. And death is not to be just one pathway among several, but the only pathway to achieving eternal life.

There must be no attempt to romanticize death, however. It is not a pretty thing. Christ’s bitter passion and death must be endured and shared by all who anticipate their own bodily and spiritual resurrection. Death becomes the necessary conduit to resurrection. It cannot be avoided but, as the key which unlocks the ultimate treasure of heaven, it can be wisely employed. And so, by God’s own plan, death becomes our passport to heaven. God’s promise of redemption is thereby fulfilled even as the terror of death is tamed by the promise of resurrection.

This fact makes death no longer our enemy but a true friend in spite of its rather terrifying demeanor. But if God had not harnessed this useful expedient called death, sin would have had the final say ─ and death would reign as man’s final, permanent end. This is the very thing that the atheists and agnostics dread, and their fear is quite justified. It’s hard to be stoic in the face of some black curtain just waiting to fall over one with terrifying finality. But the Scriptures assure us that God would not consign his human creatures to such a cruel fate, “because God did not make death, nor does he delight in the destruction of the living.” (Wis. 1:13) Perhaps that is why he devised such a clever escape hatch for his people, mysteriously achieved through death itself.

God is the source and summit of all life while death is the very antithesis of life, and of God. We read in the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Death is intrinsically connected with separation from God. Death is both (at once) the destruction of the body and isolation of the soul.” The article goes on to explain, “Death is the ultimate achievement of the diabolic power. But God intervenes to change the very nature of death so that it leads to God and life, rather than away from Him to everlasting ruin.”

John Donne (1571-1631) explained, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death thou shalt die.” St. Benedict counseled his followers to keep death daily before one’s eyes. This does not mean that we should indulge in morbid fascinations with death for its own sake, or even as an escape from pain or unhappiness. A despairing sub-culture of death sadly exists among many young people today. Having been deprived of a healthy spiritual outlook on life in this secularized, materialistic culture, some look for meaning in the rejection of life. Suicide therefore becomes an enticing way to get even or to finally make one’s lone voice heard. But the Christian stays focused on death for exactly the opposite reason, because his attachment to this life is so strong that its many joys and attractions could lure him into forgetfulness of his true eternal end.

In an ironic sense, death serves as a light at the end of the tunnel, keeping one’s eyes focused on that world to come. Perhaps God made death an inescapable fact of this world as a reminder, knowing just how prone we are to forgetfulness. All the while a clinical med culture tries valiantly to hide death from our eyes even as video game culture trivializes and sensationalizes death for entertainment purposes. Such schizophrenic approaches to death (denial and exploitation) can only produce neurotic fear and conflicted anxieties. Christianity confronts death fearlessly but realistically by recognizing its spiritual dimension as the divinely ordained gateway to eternal life. Moments before his impending execution, King Charles I of England could affirm calmly, “I am going from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”

The reality is that we cannot share eternally in God’s divine life until we have first shared in his death. That first, bodily death is our singular opportunity to ‘take one’s stand’ alongside Christ who likewise died in order to be raised from the dead. There is no other way to reach our true destiny (i.e. standing) with God in heaven. Failing in that, one will be confronted by a second ‘spiritual’ death (in hell) which is both endless and irrevocable. Those simplistic souls who assume that everybody is automatically admitted to eternal life by default only delude themselves. Non-commitment leads only to dissolution, not to salvation. (Try to win the lottery by not buying a ticket.)  Death is integral to that great mystery of the cross, a mystery which must be fully embraced before death can begin its work toward one’s eternal salvation. But once embraced¸ we too can joyously proclaim with St. Paul, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)   Death, no longer a terror, becomes our true liberator.

Francis J.  Pierson    + a.m.d.g.

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