Death may seem to be a strange place to begin my blogging career, but questions surrounding death seem to drive much of our religious language and beliefs.
My kids had their first experience with death when a man from church, who our family was close to, died suddenly. Questions started with “what happened,” but quickly changed to “where is he?” My middle child suggested he is a ghost, but a good ghost like the Holy Ghost.
Much of our images and language about what happens when we die needs to be evaluated. A kid I grew up playing tennis with died in the Oklahoma State plane crash that tragically took several lives. I remember watching the public memorial service and the president of the university suggested that God needed some Cowboys. Because we don’t know what to say we end up saying things that seem to place God as the cause of bad things. Part of the source of the problem is that the New Testament is strangely silent about what happens when we die. The word Paul uses to describe the faithful who have died is the Greek word koimao, see 1st Cor 15 and 1 Thess 4 and 5, which means asleep.
While I don’t take these stories literally, I want to suggest that Genesis 3 casts a vision of God and humanity living together forever. God created humankind in God’s image. We are a holy idol and we were to live our life in “perfection” with God. But we wanted to be like God, and disobeyed God so that we could be like God. Death is the consequence of sin, or as Paul puts it, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)
This question of death has driven countless cultures and religions with questions about what happens when we die. The great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann puts it this way, “Plato said ‘The life of a righteous man,’ said he, ‘is an eternal dying.’ Here, as in many religions, one finds the irrevocable victory of death, which violates the purpose of life. For if it is inevitable that we must die, then it is best to transfer all our hopes and aspirations to that other, mystical world.”[i]This vision of life after death is probably familiar with most Western Christians; death is unavoidable so we might as well hope for a better life elsewhere.
Other views of death also affirm that death is unavoidable and we want to avoid any sadness over death so it is all about how we live this life in this world. There is nothing beyond this life so have the best life possible. There is no end other than the end you determine. This is where we see people buried with their motorcycle.
The problem is that both are not consistent with vision the New Testament offers. The New Testament envisions a renewed world not another world. So death is not about escaping to another place nor is death the final word. Rather as Paul says in 1 Cor 15:26, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Returning again to Schmemann who reflects on Jesus’ reaction to the death of Lazarus, “Christ weeps at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus—what a powerful witness! He does not say, “Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.” Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing—he weeps.”
So death is not something we have to “get over” but rather something that must be defeated.
The Christian faith and life is not primarily concerned with what happens to us when we die, but what the life after the life after death looks like.[ii]
[i]Schmemann, Alexander. O Death, Where Is Thy Sting (Kindle Locations 142-144). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii]Read NT Wright’s “Surpised by Hope” to go deeper in this idea.