Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Pagan Notions of Death
For the world death is the cessation of life. I cannot tell you how many times people tell me of relatives and friends who "died" and then came back to "life" -- as if God made a mistake about their "time" and had to correct the problem. We have all heard reports or read stories of bright lights and shadowed images for those who have gone through some sort of resuscitation. The problem is that when Scripture speaks of death it has less to do with a stopped heart than a gulf or separation from Him who is the Creator and Source of Life. The trouble with Christians is that we have distanced God from our definition of death to the point where the funeral and heaven are more about celebrating or prolonging what we have now than anything else.
A Christian world view does not see death in strictly medical terms. A Christian world view is not preoccupied by this mortal life or its continuation. Christians see death as separation from God, in particular as separation from Christ, whose incarnation inaugurates the fulfillment of the promise that death will not be allowed to triumph over God's people. Those whose mortal bodies have ceased to function are, more often than not, described in Scripture as "asleep." When the New Testament uses the term dead, the phrase "in Christ" is often appended. Here we have the contrast clearly put in place. And it fits. The definition of death as the cessation of this mortal life is for the Christian "sleep" from which we shall awaken. The death that is separation from Christ is death from which no one can awaken. The mission of the Church is impart the life of Christ to all people through the means of grace, baptism, through which the Spirit works and the result of this work is faith and a life of good works.
The problem is this. We Christians do not hold a very Christian world view. We have become so infected with the view of those outside the Church that the perspective of the Scriptures seems, well, alien to us and to our lives. We have accepted that idea that life is good and full without Christ -- that Christ is but a little added extra on top of the goodness of this mortal life. We do not mourn our own distance from God and we do not lament the distance of those in the world around us from the grace of Christ. In our secular world view, it is the Word that seems strangely distant from our everyday lives and in contrast to the way we see life and the way we understand death. It is not that we need to explain Scripture so that it fits the modern conceptions of life and death (which are so consistent with ancient pagan ideas) but that we need to abandon this pagan world view (ancient or modern).
In baptism we are joined with Christ. We have life because we are joined with Christ in baptism. He in whom life has triumphed has reclaimed us from death and brought us from death to life -- a life which no one and nothing can steal from us. It is ours because of God's promise and His faithfulness to His Word and promise. This is the arena in which we are to life our lives and this is the perspective that is to shape us as people. To be people of faith is to apprehend by the power of the Spirit what it means to be joined to Christ, to live in Christ, receiving the fruit of His saving work and being reborn by this saving work to become new and transformed individuals.
There is something to this... We have adopted so many pagan notions of death that the funeral seems foreign to us but the wake seems natural. Christians do not have celebrations of life for the departed but funerals in which we confront what death is with Him who has bridged its gap and retrieved us from the emptiness of life apart from Christ and the hopelessness of death apart from Christ. We do not glory in the life of those who have fallen asleep but in the God whose rescue means that just as we carry in this mortal body the death of Christ, so we carry in us the life of Christ, rejoicing in our own joyful resurrection with Christ to everlasting life. For surely this is exactly what the great cloud of witnesses gives testament to and what their joy is -- we have been joined with Christ so that whether we life or die, we are Christ's.
We need to let our Christian faith be the world view that shapes us and not the pagan notions the world counts as real and true...