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Humans have an aversion to death, and rightfully so. Death is not our friend; it is the enemy. Unfortunately, death is also a familiar enemy, visiting every person sooner than later. Physically and biologically, we begin to decay relatively early in life. While 21st-century drugs and technology prolong life, the fight against death is ultimately a losing battle. This is not to suggest that death is something to which we must passively resign ourselves. Life is to be treasured. Thus, in this line of thought, death is something to be fought.
Evangelicalism’s emphasis on victorious living leaves little room for lament.
The reaction against death plays out in a variety of ways in the Christian community. From Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking” to Elizabeth Gilbert’s call to self-actualization by eating, praying and loving to Joel Osteen’s invitation to live your best life now, the modern Christian response to dying generally lacks nuance at best or denies death’s reality at worst. Evangelicalism’s emphasis on victorious living leaves little room for lament, even as its semi-Pelagianism leaves little room for assured hope. We are confused and bewildered, to the point where we would rather just not think about death at all.
CONFRONTING WITHOUT DESPAIR
So how might Christians confront the reality of death without succumbing to despair or denial? We must learn how to die. This learning might be summed up as “your worst life now” – quite the opposite of Joel Osteen’s credo. While learning how to die might sound gloomily pessimistic, it has a spectacularly positive function if viewed within a Christian paradigm that places hope in the promised restoration of all things, the glory that awaits all who are in Christ upon the resurrection of the dead.
The Christian gospel begins with life: Humans beings were created “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The bad news is that all humans are marred by sin. We bear in our DNA the rebellion of our first ancestors. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and we have been sinning ever since. The Apostle Paul reminds us, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We bear in our bodies the curse of that original sin: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Such is our sinfulness, painfully and unavoidably evidenced in our physical demise. What’s more, even as our biological and physical humanity is a trajectory from life to death, the spirit of humanity begins in death: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins …” (Eph. 2:1). We are fallen, with as much ability to make ourselves alive spiritually as we have to re-enter our mothers’ wombs and be born again.
The spectacularly good news of Christianity is that in Jesus Christ, we are made alive. So, while biologically we are moving on a trajectory from life to death, spiritually we are moving on a trajectory from death to life. These two trajectories intersect at the point of our physical death. Our physical life, then, is preparation for this physical death, which is, inversely, the realization of the fullness of life that will ultimately find its consummation in the resurrection of the dead.
Our physical life is necessarily engaged in becoming daily who we already are in Jesus Christ. It is practice for what is already true: our eternal destiny as those who are joined to Christ and with him forever. This involves a struggle against our sinful flesh, the putting to death of the old self: “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). This is the mighty struggle of the Christian life – your “worst life now” – as we are shaped by the Holy Spirit in the pattern of Christ and conformed to his glorious image, battling against the world, the flesh and the devil and prepared for the glorious future that awaits us in Christ.
CATECHESIS OF DEATH
We must learn how to die. In his “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism,” the great reformer Martin Luther wrote in 1519, “The life of a Christian, from baptism to the grave, is nothing less than the beginning of a holy death.” The patterns of our lives are a teaching tool, a catechism, for how to die. What are the features of this catechesis of death?
In Christian confession we admit our sinfulness, confronting also the immanence of death. It is the practice of existential honesty.
In self-denial we acknowledge our proclivity to sin and move away from selfish pride toward God in humility and faith.
In dependence, which is cultivated through worship and thanksgiving, we address God as the sovereign and gracious provider of all that we need for this life and the life to come, and we praise God in gratitude for all that he has given and all that he has promised in Christ.
In accepting suffering, we accept the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in killing the old self, forming in us a resilient faith in preparation for death and resurrection.
Look again at the italicized words above: This surely looks like your worst life now! But, in an enormously counterintuitive and even cosmic irony, this catechesis of death is the way to life, and not just the resurrected life that awaits us – pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die-by-and-by. It is the beginning of life today. The catechesis of death – learning how to die – is ultimately the catechesis of life: learning how to truly live. It is the cultivation of faith that ultimately compels us to give up the illusion of control and rest quietly in the mercy of a gracious, loving God.
Travis D. Else is senior pastor, First Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa.