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.