Death as the Defeated Enemy

Death as the Defeated Enemy

In my last blog I discussed cremation. I’ll stick with death-related thoughts for another time around.

In a presentation I gave to an Oxford philosophy symposium recently, I talked about possible links between philosophical and theological discussions of the metaphysical composition of the human person. I gave some attention particularly to an excellent essay—it has become a classic of sorts—by the theologian Oscar Cullmann, where he discusses the New Testament treatment of the ideas of “soul,” “body,” and what is labeled by theologians as “the intermediate state.”

Cullmann has a dramatic way of introducing these topics. He illustrates what he sees as the clear difference between the Greek view of immortality and the Christian view of resurrected bodily life by presenting a stark contrast between the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. After a calm philosophical discussion with his friends, Socrates takes the poisonous hemlock in a seemingly cheerful anticipation of the separation of his soul from his body.  Jesus, on the other hand, sweats drops of blood in Gethsemane as he pleads with the Father to allow the cup of suffering to pass from him. And then on the cross he cries out in agony over his experience of abandonment. The underlying issue here, says Cullmann, has to do with radically differing conceptions of the meaning of death. For Socrates, death is the welcome release of the spiritual from the physical.  For Jesus, death is an enemy that threatens the destruction of the whole person.

After my lecture I was pushed by a couple of pastors who were in the audience about what all of that means when we minister to Christians who are struggling in a very personal way with the proper way to face death. They pointed out that some believers they know experience great fear about dying, while others accept death with calm confidence.

My own sense is that there is no “right” way for a Christian to face death. Indeed, Cullmann’s portrayal of the contrast between Socrates and Jesus leaves a lot of room for differing Christian attitudes toward death. The one thing we can be certain of theologically is that Jesus encountered death in a way that none of us have to.  His was the encounter with sin and death. He faced death knowing that his dying was to be the once-for-all struggle with death. Because of the victory that he accomplished on the Cross we no longer have to face death as the Great Enemy.

At the same time, though, this does not make death into a friend. Cullmann is right to point to Socrates’ view of death as a clear example of how we are not to view death. Jesus did not make death into a friend, he made it into a defeated enemy. Think of a very dangerous person who has been captured. Those who have been seriously threatened by him now see him lying bound and gagged in a corner. He has been defeated. But this does not make him into a friend. He is a defeated enemy. Some may emphasize his defeat, and thereby gain confidence that he has been rendered harmless—he is a defeated enemy. Others may reflect on the dangers that he has posed, and continue to be wary of him—he is a defeated enemy.

Both emphases capture important aspects. Different personalities will react differently to the fact that Christ has defeated death. The important thing is to be clear about our theology of death. Once we have that clarity, we can allow for different ways in which Christians will encounter the Great Enemy that Jesus has decisively conquered.


  1. I’m reminded of Stephen Hasper’s excellent sermon at Dr. David Scholer’s funeral–one of the best such sermon’s I’ve heard. It nicely emphasized the real tragedy of death while retaining the message of hope that is essential for Christians to continue to hear.

    (For those who care, I’ve been told that it should be available to listen to via this site within a week or so.)

    Comment by B-W — September 8, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  2. Dr. Mouw,
    Thanks for the helpful note. What is the title of Cullmann’s essay? Do you know if it is available online? Alternatively, where is it published?


    Comment by Greg Smith-Young — September 8, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  3. You can find Cullman’s essay at:

    Comment by Ken — September 11, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

  4. Reading this, I thought of John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s, the preacher/poet who was so intimately familiar with death. Some may know him for his poem, “Death be not proud” which reflects the Christian idea of death as a defeated enemy. But I think of Meditation 17:

    All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

    From a secular perspective, not all accept a Socratic enthusiasm for death either. I think of Dylan Thomas writing on the death of his father:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    I had the privilege of being in Dr. Scholer’s last class, Women, the Bible, and the Church. We witnessed his gradual deterioration but also his strength and vitality. He did not miss a single class throughout his treatment, even as his hair fell out and he could barely turn the pages on his notes. He was a consummate teacher to the end. I saw a man with a passion for life who, indeed, raged against the dying of the light. It was a great privilege to have been in his class and the lessons learned there will transcend the classroom in ways impossible to describe. In a way, his life lessons remain with me forever.

    I also recently attended a funeral service for one of my mom’s dear friends. Like the pastors Mouw talks about in this blog, I too am deeply troubled with questions of death and how to minister appropriately to people in its imminent face. I thought the pastor at the funeral service conducted it appropriately for the occasion with a short, concise presentation of the gospel and our hope in Christ without sounding pushy; but I couldn’t help wondering what a pastor says in situations where the deceased is not a Christian. It seemed so much easier when the deceased is a Christian. How does a pastor conduct a funeral for an individual who clearly did not profess faith in Christ? That to me is a broad, open question with no clear answer. I’m sure many pastors here have gone through such experiences.

    Comment by James Kim — September 12, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

  5. Beloved Dr. Mouw,

    Thank you for your wisdom and your theology of death. It was just yesterday, September 14th, at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica where many of us gathered to remember the life of Danny Saye, who was just 46 years of age. Danny died of a sudden death heart attack, was cremated and his urn sent back to his native Texas. There were four pastors(two of whom graduated Fuller), and all of whom emphatically shared with us that Christ indeed defeated death!

    God bless.

    Comment by B.A. “Sunny” Murchison — September 15, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  6. It wasn’t only Socrates who thought of death as a friend. In the early middle ages, a martyr’s death was sometimes thought of as a third birthday–the day they were born to everlasting life. This was not viewed as an alternative to seeing death as an enemy, but as another perspective on the death of a believer.

    Comment by Don Sweeting — November 1, 2008 @ 7:20 pm