why death is bad: a primer for Christians

It has come to my attention that some among you don’t believe death is a very bad thing; or at least that there are many things more precious than life. This is in fact not true; life is the greatest of the gifts of God, because it is the one that makes every other gift possible. This is why we often honor those who sacrifice their own lives in order to save others. They give up something of unique value to themselves; we think of this as the greatest of sacrifices for a reason.  

This is also why people who refuse to compromise their strongest commitments even when it leads to their own death are so greatly praised and long remembered. When people do this for their Christian faith we call them martyrs — witnesses to that faith — and we give them the highest praise, because of how much their obedience and faithfulness cost them. We never expect people to be martyrs, and have compassion for those who fail to rise to that height.

But when people do give up their lives in such praiseworthy ways, why do they do so? They always do it for life: they give up their own so that others may have life and have it more abundantly. “Ah,” some of you may say, “but that refers to spiritual life.” That, my child, is an error. It is certainly true that we may distinguish between bios and zoe, but in this created order you cannot have the latter without also having the former. We are made embodied creatures and will remain so: this is why the resurrection of the body is the penultimate item of our Creed. This is also why Christians have historically practiced burial rather than cremation, as a sign that we love and treasure the physical body and hope to see it filled with life again, just as the dry bones in the valley Ezekiel saw regain sinew and then breath. 

Now, some of you have already perceived where I am going next. If life is so very good, does it not follow that death is proportionately bad? Yes, my child, you have rightly discerned the logic! Death, let us remember, is the curse laid upon Adam and Eve, and all of us since, for disobedience — and it is a mighty curse. When Jesus sees a gathering at Bethany weeping for the death of Lazarus, he too weeps; he too “is greatly disturbed.” (Les Murray: “he mourned one death, perhaps all, before he reversed it.”) Death is our great enemy — indeed, as St. Paul tells us, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 

Our lives are not our own — as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches me, my only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong body and soul to my faithful savior Jesus Christ — but stewardship begins with our physical lives. We are to care for them, treasure them, take great pains to preserve them — and we are to do the same for the lives of our neighbors. And if we are ever called upon to give up our lives, we should do so only for the sake of the lives of our neighbors. We should certainly take greater care for their lives than we do for our own; but that is saying a lot, for we are accountable to God for the lives he has given us. 

All this is so elementary, so basic to Christianity that it should not need to be spelled out. But apparently it does. 

March 29, 2020

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