Ever since the earliest days of the Christian movement, death has played a decisive role in the ways that we have thought about our faith.
Paul Zahl, who is at the same time the most erudite and eccentric theologian in the Episcopal Church, once said: “The characteristic of life facing mortality is that something awful is going to come out of left field––and there is no exception to that.” What I think he meant is that in a life where death is inevitable, something that is both tragic and surprising is always bound to happen.
Ever since the earliest days of the Christian movement, death has played a decisive role in the ways that we have thought about our faith. Death is, in fact, one of the central issues dealt with by the writers of the New Testament. For not only had the Christ they worshipped been crucified, but more still, these first Christians increasingly had to deal with the realization that they and all whom they loved would die before that Christ returned. So they asked: “what are we to do with death?”
Yet this question does not belong to them alone. It is as much a question for us as it was for them––as this same fact remains central to our lives today. Death continues to define our day-to-day existence. Or, in the words of Paul Zahl, our lives are characterized by mortality. Death, it seems, is always before us. And eventually, we will all have to face our own death.
I say all this, not to be morbid, but to press for the same answer that the early Christians did: What are we to do with death? Where is the Christian hope to be found in this? Is there hope in this? Can there be hope in this? The answer that we find again and again in Scripture is the same. In some of the most poignant and affective and hopeful words in the New Testament, Jesus puts it like this: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn. 11.25)
What encouragement is there for us in the resurrection? How does the resurrection anchor the Christian hope? Jesus words run in two directions. First, he acknowledges all that we said before. He said, though he dies, yet shall he live. Jesus does not deny the reality of death. Instead, for him, death is the assumption of resurrection. There is no such thing as resurrection without death.
What makes Christianity different from any of its pretenders is that it has a place for death. In fact, one of the things that defines most non-Christian attempts to deal with Christ has been to deny the fact that Jesus died. In earliest days of the church, for example, false teachers were trying to convince faithful Christians that Jesus did not have a physical body, and thus, did not actually die on the cross. This same distortion is at the heart of Buddhism, which calls all physical reality an illusion, and thus, understands all suffering as illusion. Even in Islam, Muslims are taught that Jesus did not die, but was taken up by God into heaven before he suffered on the cross.
The Christian hope is absolutely unique in that it acknowledges suffering, and has a place for it. It says that suffering is real. It grieves over suffering. It allows hearts to break. It tells us to weep, to cry aloud, and rend our garments––to don sackloth and ashes. It says that death is tragic; that it is “not good” and an “enemy.”
And yet, at the same time, we acknowledge death because we do not fear death. We can face death because we know that there is something stronger than death. The resurrection is the paradox that on the other side of death, is life. And given the sort of world we are in – a world characterized by mortality – that this is the only way into life. Jesus said: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (Jn. 12.24).
So while death is the first word of resurrection, it is not only word. Death is the first word, but it is not the last word! In a life that is characterized by mortality, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. By taking death upon himself, Jesus conquered death forever. And so in his resurrection, death is turned upside down. Death itself is turned backwards. Dying becomes its opposite. Dying becomes new life.
Therefore, we need not fear death. We need not run from, avoid, or deny death. For death has lost its dominion. Death is a tragedy, an enemy – the “last enemy” as Paul puts it. But death was defeated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is why we are invited both to “grieve” and to “hope” (1 Thess 4:13-15). We can face death and “weep with those who weep.” But we need not fear death and we are free to sing Paul’s hopeful words: “Death I swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cot 15:54-55).