Friday, 26 September 2014

Death: Where is your Sting?

So, I've written about my own experience of death, about the Genesis account of death's origin, and about the processes of denial, anger and bargaining that we use to try and deal with our mortality.  How do we get to the point of acceptance, and learn to live with the inevitability of our own death?

Of course I'm not going to give you "the answer", and I don't want to try and convince you that I have this one under control.  I'm just as prone to the illusion of immortality as anyone, more than many.  I know I'm going to die but most of the time I live as though I'm not.

However, I think the Bible has two answers for us.  The first is the answer I quoted in the last post, from the book of Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

I think part of the reason we often find Ecclesiastes so dark and wonder why it's even in the Bible is that we are still working hard to maintain our illusion of immortality.  Yet Solomon has gone past this, and is fully aware of his.  It drives him to despair, and he wonders: what is the point of it all?  Why do I bother with all this learning, all this hard work, all these wise choices, when one day soon it will all go up in smoke?

This problem doesn't cease to trouble Solomon throughout his book - he keeps returning to it, which is both honest and kind of comforting.  If anyone tells you they don't fear death, my hunch would be that they are deceiving themselves.  Solomon is honest and aware enough to admit that his answer is difficult to live by.

His answer is simply this - that we should humbly accept our lot, as a gift from God.  This is the opposite of the pretensions of Adam and Eve, who swallow the serpent's line that they can become gods themselves.  It is almost the undoing of the original sin, an acceptance that we are limited and mortal and that everything we have and are comes from God.  It is a deliberate act of submission, a willingness to live under his rule.

This is not the answer we have come to expect as Christians.  We have come to expect that we will be comforted with the promise of eternal life.  I will get to that in a moment, but I've stressed Solomon's answer for two reasons.  The first is that it is much harder for us to hear.  We desperately want to keep our god-illusion alive.  The second is that it is essential if we are to properly understand the New Testament's message.  It is too easy for us to just use eternal life as another way of bargaining with God or denying our mortality.

Death is a teacher which reminds us of our place in the universe.  Although this is  painful lesson, and one we have to relearn many times over, it is important that we learn it for many different reasons, not least of which is that we have to stop playing God with our planet and one another, and start to live out the call of Christ to lay down our lives for one another.

Once we have understood this answer we can move on to the second, and more expected, which comes from 1 Corinthians 15.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  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?’

Paul doesn't promise us that our life will go on forever.  Nor does he talk of an immortal soul, or of our loved ones looking down on us from heaven.  Death is not an illusion.  It is very real.  Those who die (and we have no special reason for thinking this will not be us) go into the ground and remain there.  We can't use our Christian hope to try and avoid this.

What Paul is saying is that this is not the full story.  Death itself is one of those temporary things, just like our lives.  Death is not an eternal reality.  Jesus' resurrection is the foretaste, the assurance that there is something beyond death.

The details of this "something" are not entirely clear - he is telling us a mystery.  He can only describe it through metaphor and analogy.  Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 he responds to the question, "with what kind of body do they come?" with a series of images.  The comparison between our form now and our resurrected form is like the difference between a seed and the plant it becomes, or like the difference between the bodies of humans and animals and the bodies of the sun, moon and stars. He says that our weakness, perishability and dishonour will be replaced bu imperishability, honour and power.   Instead of being made out of dust, we will be made out of the substance of heaven.

We don't know what all this means.  We can't picture it or describe it in any more precise terms than this.  All we know is that God has something better in store, and he will bring it about in his good time.  This is the hope with which the New Testament writers want to replace our illusion of immortality and our despair at death.  The Christian assurance is not that death is illusory, but that it precedes something much better than this life.  We will not go on for ever as we are, we will be transformed into something better.  This life of tears and suffering will give way to a life of joy.  As John Donne puts it:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Or for a more contemporary slant, as I've been working on this post I have the voice of Nick Cave and various friends in my head, singing a song written by Bob Dylan and appropriately titled 'Death is Not the End'.  Enjoy, and live in hope!

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