Sunday Meditations: O Death

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

– “A Conversation with Death,” Lloyd Chandler

For as long as I can remember, I knew what would happen to me when I died.

When I was very young, I knew that, when I died, my spirit would go to Heaven where I would live forever in a paradise that was as varied as there were inhabitants.  One of my pastors talked about rooms full of banana pudding.

When I became older, Calvinistic, and more dour, I traded the rooms of banana pudding for the new heavens and earth.  With some help from N.T. Wright, I adjusted my focus to a bodily resurrection into a new earth, although my concept of what that would look like didn’t differ too much from Heaven.  What happens immediately after death became more of a mystery to me and, ultimately, not very relevant.

My senior year of college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy class on God and time where I argued that time was not an objective feature in the universe but a faculty of perception that helps us distinguish between events.  What set me on this path was the tension between the idea of an intermediate state and a final judgement.  Did God yank everyone out of Heaven and Hell only to send them back there?  I came to the conclusion that our death and the final judgement seem like two distinct events to us, but they do not to God.  I concluded that, after death, our next conscious experience would be the final judgement.

I’m still warm to that “time is a faculty of perception” idea, incidentally.

As you can see, these ideas changed over time, but at any given time, I felt very sure.  Death just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant thing that brought grief to those who remained, but was essentially a gateway into joy for believers.  Although I hated the grief that death brought to everyone around it, I did not fear death.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Although he may flourish among rushes,
the east wind shall come, a blast from the Lord,
rising from the wilderness;
and his fountain shall dry up,
his spring shall be parched.
It shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing.
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.

Hosea 13:14-16 (NRSV)

The beginning of that passage will be quoted in the New Testament and put to very different use.

Here, we see God through the prophet bringing  a message of destruction to Israel who has become corrupt, unjust, and very much like all the other nations – allying with them, worshiping their gods, and mimicking their power structures.

Hosea still holds out hope if Israel will repent, but here, we see that the outcome of Israel’s behavior is destruction by another nation.  There is no Hell in this passage.  Simply widespread death at the hands of another national power is plenty bad enough.  This is very common in the Old Testament.

A few different Psalms have the writer pleading with God to spare the psalmist’s life, because who can declare God’s praises after they are dead?

We see this in Hezekiah’s prayer for healing:

O Lord, by these things people live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh, restore me to health and make me live!
Surely it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, they thank you,
as I do this day;
fathers make known to children
your faithfulness.

Isaiah 38:16-19 (NRSV)

Yes, death is plenty bad all on its own, and this sentiment extends into the New Testament as well.  Due to translations and popular connotations, a rather lot of the passages where we assume Jesus is talking about Hell, he’s talking about dying.

A few years ago, I turned 40, but it took a year to two to hit me.  I was now in striking range of dying of natural causes.

One of my managers at a previous job died when he was 47, and while that’s not typical, it’s not unheard of, either.  Unlike the days of my youth when I had the luxury of contemplating death from the standpoint of belief in my own immortality, I was now beginning to discern its form as it began to rise on the horizon.

This also happened at a time when my own convictions about faith were undergoing a fairly intensive degree of criticism and restructuring.  I felt very uncertain about what, if anything, would happen to me after I died, and the contemplation of the loss of myself and my relationships began to hit me in powerful ways they had not, before.

It extended as well to things like my children growing up – the inevitability of time and the permanent loss of those little people I knew.

It was a time of a lot of grief and anxiety for me, and I would reach out to the Lord and not find Him.  I didn’t know what would happen to me when I died, and now I was facing its possibility with my theological and psychological shields down, and I was not ready for it.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (NRSV)

You see what Paul did there?  He took that thing from Hosea and turned it around.  In light of the resurrection of Jesus, that thing that was a manifestation of God’s wrath now has no force.  When Hosea asks those questions, he’s preparing for the onslaught of death.  When Paul asks those questions, he’s mocking the effectiveness of death.

At the risk of frustrating some of my friends who are more conservative theologically, I still don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die.  Nor do I know what’s going to happen when all this cosmic drama comes to an end.  I have doubts and fears about these things, sometimes, and I long sometimes for simpler days when I had an unshakable certainty in a very literal understanding of the Scriptures and knew exactly how all of this would pan out.

I don’t have those concrete understandings, anymore, and what I do think I understand, I’m never certain about it.  Always rethinking.  Always self-critiquing.  Always leaving behind things that no longer seem to serve and taking on new things that serve better or, in some cases, just coming to terms with not knowing.

But I do know that, if I allow the fear of death to be any kind of force in my life at all, it will cause me to sin.  I will seek self-preservation and immortality in all kinds of ways that will be empty and futile at best and harmful to others at worst.

So, what do we do then?  Denial?  Just pretend it isn’t out there?

Well, as Richard Beck helped me understand in his very, very good book The Slavery of Death, my identity – the inner being of Who-I-Am – my life, my psyche, my soul – it’s not mine.  I didn’t create it.  It was given to me.  It was thrust upon me, really.  It’s a gift.  I’m supposed to steward it, not grasp it for my own possession.

Because this me-ness was not really mine in the first place, I can give it away.  I can spend it for the benefit of others, and when my time is up, I can give it back to my Lord and say, “Here’s what I have done with your investment.”  I hope I do ok with it.

But the point is that I have given it back over to a trustworthy God – a master that Jesus says rewards good stewardship.  A master who does not leave His people to desolation but will carry them safely through all administrations of their enemies, and the last enemy is death.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:14 (NRSV)

You see, during that long, dark night of my soul, God was taking something away from me and replacing it with Himself.

I can’t place my trust in my theological understanding of death.  I can’t place my trust in my reading of Scripture.  I can’t place my trust in my ability to figure death out in palatable ways.  I used to trust in all those things, but those are not reliable and proper objects of trust.

My object of trust has to be God Himself – the original Conceiver of my identity and the Recipient of it when I pass on.  The Locus and Shepherd of the birth of stars, the heat death of the universe, and me.

The removal of the enslavement of death is not to cling to a specific idea of exactly how things are going to shake out, but to cling to God and say to Him, “I don’t know how You’re going to pull this off, or what You’re going to do, or when.  I don’t know what you’re going to do with me.  But I trust You, so here You go.”

I have never been able to shake my belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  I’m not sure I can confidently say exactly what that looked like or exactly what happened.  We just have stories written well after the fact and the stories do not agree on various details.  But no matter how skeptical I get, I can’t shake the idea that this must have happened, as completely ridiculous as it sounds.  It’s not even a matter of what happened in history afterwards with Paul’s conversion and the spread of the Church, although that’s worthy of consideration.  It’s a simple, embedded in my bones faith commitment.

Friends who make fun of me for it are probably right to do so.  It’s ridiculous.  People do not come back to life, again; I know this, and so did everyone in the ancient world.

I believe this happened at least once.

But Jesus, you know, he was a trailblazer for the rest of us.  He didn’t have Paul’s argumentation.  He prayed in Gethsemane to be spared, and God did not respond.  He anguished over his impending death, and God did not make him feel better.  He did not fall back on prooftexts or arguments about the immortality of the soul.  He was confronted with his extermination and he did not want it to happen.

But at the end, without any kind of sign or assistance, he threw himself into God’s arms.

And just look what happened.

Happy Easter, everyone, from the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, King James-onlyist of you to the most materialistic, naturalistic, atheistic, disenchanted universe of you.

This God I’m talking about loves all of you.

Sunday Meditations: The Fear of Death

I have been reading The Slavery of Death by by Richard Beck, one of the rare books that I would recommend without qualification (so far).

Beck is a psychologist and a theologically-minded Protestant.  In his book, he begins by noting that the Eastern Orthodox have latched on to a relationship between sin and death that doesn’t get a lot of air time in Protestant doctrinal formulations.  It is the view captured in verses like 1 Corinthians 15:56 – “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.”

There are passages in the Bible that portray death as a consequence of sin.  Yet, there are other passages that seem move death to the top of the hierarchy.  Sin becomes a means to an end, which is death itself.  Beck argues that both ways of looking at the relationship of sin and death are correct, but notes that in western Protestantism, we tend to overlook the latter.

Because he is theologically minded, Beck looks at different passages with this in mind and also talks about how certain theological categories, like the Atonement, can be enhanced by thinking of death as a primary force which causes, among other things, people to sin.  Death becomes an enslaving force, not just in the sense that everyone dies, but in the sense that the fear of death has dominion over the living while we are still alive.

As a psychologist, this is where Beck spends most of his time, illustrating the impact the fear of death has on both individuals and institutions – impact that is being empirically proven in tests.

One of the more interesting impacts, and where the book spends most of its time, is the idea that our cultures (national, religious, corporations – any collective entity that has a culture) typically define some way for us to leave our mark.  By performing according to certain standards, we achieve something in our culture that will outlast us because the institution will outlast us.  One example might be someone who works their butt off to close a large deal for their company.

Beck points out how easy it is to derive our senses of identity from these cultures (which only exacerbates our fear of death from losing our identity), internalize our cultures’ way of looking at life such that it becomes a primary driver in our own thinking and behavior, and the personal and social ills this can create up to and including attempts to destroy cultures different than your own because they invalidate your path to immortality.

It was at that point that I could not help but think of the rancor associated with most theological disagreements in Christianity.  It’s not just that you and I disagree, it’s that my immortality is somehow in jeopardy if it turns out your path is correct.

It is at this point that Beck also notes something in the first century worldview that I have noted a time or two on this blog: that the demonic, satanic realm and the operation of powers in the world that are not supernatural but still transhuman (like empires, corporations, etc.) are two facets of the same phenomenon.  It’s not the satanic kingdom of demons OR the Roman Empire in the first century; they are both the same thing.  One is the body, one is the spirit – an indivisible entity.  And this applies to other institutions Jesus may refer to, and they overlap in many ways in the New Testament.

In contrast to this way of living, Beck offers a definition of identity that other theologians have referred to as “ecstatic” or “eccentric.”  In this scheme, your identity – the you that makes you you that we hope will live on in some sense – is not something you create or maintain or that was bestowed upon you by a larger institution, but rather is something given to you by God who is completely in control of what constitutes that identity, how that identity gets used, and what ultimately becomes of it.

If we can begin to wrap our arms around that sense of identity, then we are free to give anything away, take risks on behalf of others, love completely, and ignore institutional expectations of what our values or behaviors “ought” to be to earn your place in the pantheon.  Because you can’t lose what you never had.

My identity is something given to me by God.  There is nothing about this entity called “Phil” that does not come from God.  He adds to that aggregate and takes away from it, sometimes in line with my wishes, other times not.  There is no “Phil the Awesome Lean Operations Consultant” or “Phil the Barely Mediocre Father.”  There is only what He has given me at this time for whatever His schedule and purposes dictate.  If I could learn to truly embrace that (which I do not in many ways), what would I fear at that point?  What would I withhold?  What sins would I cling to if I didn’t need them anymore?

Anyway, it’s a very good book.  I’m still working on it, but if time had allowed, I could easily have read it in one sitting.  I don’t know if all the theoretical connections are real in every aspect, but they are definitely worth thinking about.