I am not sure how I let myself get talked into it… maybe in a moment of madness I volunteered – five weeks in Lent talking about death!
It is not that I object to the exercise of discussing the end of our lives. It is not that I find the prospect of discussing death particularly frightening.
We all share in common the fact that we are going to die. It is the one non-negotiable, irrefutable given of our existence. From the moment we are born, we are moving towards death. We may as well get used to the idea, and talking about it, is a good place to begin.
The problem is that, as soon as we talk about death, we are immediately forced to recognize that we do not know what we are talking about. None of us has any direct experience of dying that we can bring to bear in the discussion. None of us has left this physical life and been able to return to describe the experience.
When we talk about death we are driven inevitably to conjecture. We are always guessing. And, when we are guessing, it is good to resist being dogmatic about the direction our guessing may take. All discussion of death is stepping out into the great unknown.
Death is a blank impenetrable wall, beyond which, we may affirm there is light, but it is a light we are unable to penetrate with our senses or our intellects. Death is the ultimate question mark that stands over all human existence. Is there something beyond the divide that separates us from this visible, tangible realm, or is there simply nothing? If there is something, what can we possibly know now about that something? How can we begin to know what lies on the other side of death?
The Bible does not make our dilemma any more simple. As with so many of the most profound questions, the Bible seems to speak about death with a variety of voices. It is hard to nail the Bible down and say “This is what the Bible has to say about death.”
On the one hand, the Bible seems to suggest that physical death is a final end of human existence. Many scholars quote the statement in Genesis attributed to God who said to Adam after Adam’s disobedience in the garden,
you are dust, and to dust you shall return.(Genesis 3:19)
There is no hint in this verse of any aspect of the human creature that survives death. To return to dust is to return from the primal nothingness out of which God created.
The writer of “The Letter of James,” appears to share this view that death ends in fina annihilation when he writes,
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:14)
The New Testament seems to suggest, in at least one place, that Jesus alone was immortal. Speaking of Jesus, the author of I Timothy says,
It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light. (I Timothy 6:16)
Yet, at the same time, Paul suggests that immortality and eternal life are possible for all human beings.
to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:7)
And Jesus seems to make a distinction between the body that can be destroyed and the soul which is indestructible.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. (Matthew 10:28)
Paul seems to point in the same direction when he says,
we have this treasure in clay jars. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
Traditional Christian theology teds to reject the idea of the immortality of the soul, a view that is held to be Platonic not Christian. Rather, Christians have generally held to a doctrine of resurrection which affirms that at the end of physical life, the whole human being dies to await final resurrection upon Christ’s return.
Many of the learned volumes in my library that purport to elucidate the Christian faith, simply avoid the topic of death altogether. It is remarkable how little real help I find in the books I own when I search their pages on the topic of death.
The only place we can really start a discussion of something as mysterious and unknowable as death, is with our living experience. We must begin by looking at our experience of life and asking ourselves what that experience suggests to us might be true beyond this physical realm.
I hope our five week discussion of death during Lent is rooted in our experience of living and is characterized by the degree of humility and openness that is merited by the mystery of death.