A Christian Understanding of Death

As a child, my mother taught me that when someone dies, we should never feel badly for them. The deceased is fine. Rather, we grieve for ourselves and our loss. But never for those who are gone. This is, in fact, a proper understanding of death, loss and grieving for a Christian to have, but one which I fear has been all but lost for many people.

I want to be clear, that this is not the trite “they’re in a better place now” which often rubs people the wrong way. Nor is it an attempt to claim that the death is part of God’s will or in any way a good thing. It may well be that the death was well outside of anything God would will and a terrible tragedy which ought never have occurred. Rather, what my mother taught me was that death is a tragedy for us who are left behind, but is not a tragedy for the loving person who has died.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:13

We grieve, yes. As deeply and as long as we need to. But our grief is for our loss – not those who have died. We miss those who go before us in death and that can bring wrenching sorrow. But it is also the sorrow which fades and heals in time. When we grieve and have sorrow over what the dead may be missing – it complicates our grief. But if we know that no matter how untimely or tragic there death was that God himself is providing for their every need, then we are able to grieve and heal for ourselves and not for ourselves and for someone whose problem (having died) cannot be fixed.

This isn’t just some nice idea meant to either comfort or minimize the enormous loss caused by the death of a loved one. This truth is one of the central works of Christ himself: “[Christ] shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” – Hebrews 2:14 Freeing us from the fear of death is right at the center of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection! Far from being a trite condolence, freeing us from fear of death and “grieving as those who have no hope” is right at the center of the Christian gospel message.

It is so natural and common to wonder where God is in the face of death. Why did he not stop that shooter? Why does he allow that war or those concentration camps or those evil people? Of course we ought to ignore the ignorant blasphemers who claim it is punishment for whatever hobby horse villain they have imagined for themselves (I’m talking about you – Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Brian Fischer!). The common answer seems to be that God grieves with us, understands our pain, etc. And that is true enough. But inadequate. While it is right for us to struggle with this question in the face of enormous suffering and evil, the answer we are heading to includes the reality that death is not to God what it is to us.

When we die, we return to God. A God who loves us and who rarely if ever is able to be fully present and connected to us while we exist in this human form. A God who has to rely on us, his creation, to do right by each other. For God, our death means a reunion – and an end to watching our suffering. It is no bad thing for God when we die.

Which is not to say that God wants or allows us to die because, as some people will say, “he wanted his angel back.” Not at all. Usually we die when our merely physical bodies being too injured or worn out to continue functioning. Which is normal – one of the ways that this good world and hard world exist together. Or we die due to things we do to each other. Which is not God’s doing, but our own. But certainly when the time comes, all is well for the person who dies and the creator who welcomes them back. (It is my personal opinion that it is God’s fervent hope that we will see the suffering of those headed towards death and be compelled to work to help each other. The depths of suffering we create and tolerate ought to be seen as commiserate to the levels of evil and brokenness we need to be working to overcome. It’s an indictment of us, not of God.)

For centuries, Christians buried their dead in catacombs under the streets of Rome. In the first few centuries after Christ, the decorations in the catacombs are mostly bereft of expressions of grief or icons of death. Even the cross is rarely seen. Instead, common motifs are of the Good Shepard with a sheep (and in a couple of instances a goat!) around his neck, fishes and loaves, the resurrection, the communion table and the baptism of Christ. Christians were encouraged to see physical death in association of new life, harvest, feasting, Christ’s redemption and resurrection. Death is separation “for a little while”, but not destruction, not hopeless and not final. It should be likewise for us.

5 thoughts on “A Christian Understanding of Death

  1. For a long time, I feared death: my own and that of my loved ones. But being older now and having a good relationship with Christ, I do not fear it as I used to. Some days, I think I would welcome it for myself. Ready to go, but not done yet! 🙂

  2. I have noticed that many (most?) cradle Christians have bought into our death-denying, materialistic culture. “Christian understanding” or the Eternal perspective is rarely expressed, even at the “socials” following the formal funeral/memorial liturgy.

    It is my personal belief that until we have come to terms with our own mortality, we will not be able to achieve a mature faith.

    The Gospel promises Eternal Life; not immortality. The truly human life for which we were created is not autonomous, but dependent on a participation, through an intimate trust relationship (faith) in the Divine Life. St. Irenaeus declared that “God became man so that man might become god” and “the Glory of God is man fully alive.”

    The Orthodox Churches of the East teach that Christ “trampled down death by death” and “destroyed death from within.”

    If the Resurrection is resurrection from the dead, all hope and freedom are in spite of death.–Paul Ricoeur

    Many others have understood death to be a transition from temporal to Eternal Life, with temporal life being a *relative good* and Eternal Life being the Absolute Good.

    “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” ~Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore), Indian poet

    There is no death! What seems so is transition; this life of mortal breath is but a suburb of the life Elysian, whose portal we call Death. ~Henry W. Longfellow

    It has been said that the *good* is often the enemy of the *best.* That seems to be what the quote below is implying, our positive accomplishments come to define us:

    “Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our ‘biography’, our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
    “Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person who we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own ?” –Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
    Scripture also seems to imply that, now that we have succumbed to the temptation of trusting the devil/serpent (and ourselves) more than ourselves denying us access to unlimited temporal existence may serve to curb the pursuit of disordered desires and predatory selfish interests by removing the possibility of long term gain. Certainly death is the “great leveler,” where justice always has the last word on human evil:

    Job 1:21 and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”

    Psalm 49:17 for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him.

    Ecclesiastes 5:15 Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.

    For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 1 Tim. 6:7

    We come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing, yet we still worry about what we don’t have or wish to have. What matters isn’t materialistic goods, but love; love for family, love for friends, love for a significant other, love for God. Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy anything of true value. ~Ed-Two (http://blog.ed-two.com/post/36554897778/we-come-into-this-world-with-nothing-and-we-leave)
    Psalm 73
    A psalm of Asaph.
    1 Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.
    2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
    3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
    4 They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.[a]
    5 They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.
    6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
    they clothe themselves with violence.
    7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity[b];
    their evil imaginations have no limits.
    8 They scoff, and speak with malice;
    with arrogance they threaten oppression.
    9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
    and their tongues take possession of the earth.
    10 Therefore their people turn to them
    and drink up waters in abundance.[c]
    11 They say, “How would God know?
    Does the Most High know anything?”
    12 This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
    13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
    14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.
    15 If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
    16 When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
    17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.
    18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
    19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
    20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.
    21 When my heart was grieved
    and my spirit embittered,
    22 I was senseless and ignorant;
    I was a brute beast before you.
    23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
    24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
    25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
    26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.
    27 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
    28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

    After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box. –Italian Proverb
    But it is even more profound than that. I lived for 18 months in a West African country in the early 60’s where death was always at one’s shoulder and, far from being depressing, it added a zest to life, a real thankfulness for simply being alive quite apart from any passing circumstances, either favorable or unfavorable.
    Here are some of my favorite quotes on the existential, apart from eschatological, meaning of death:
    Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you won’t ever come by such a bargain again. Also you have the feeling someone wore it before you and someone will after. I can’t explain that, not yet, but I’m putting my mind to it. ~ Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine, A Novel

    Our attitude to all men would be Christian if we regarded them as though they were dying and determine our relation to them in the light of death, both their death and our own. A person who is dying calls forth a special kind of feeling. Our attitude to him is at once softened and lifted to a higher plane. ~Nikolai Berdyaev (Destiny of Man, 121)

    Remembering you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ~Steve Jobs

    “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” — Anne Lamott

    What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal. — Albert Pike

    One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive.–Friedrich Nietzsche

    We describe some people as “larger than life.” If we could see their history, we could learn that at some point they were led to the edge of their own resources and found the actual Source. They suffered a breakdown, which felt like dying. But instead of breaking down, they broke through! Instead of avoiding, shortchanging, or raging against death, they went through death—a death to their old self, their small life, their imperfections, their illusory dreams, their wounds, their grudges, and their limited sense of their own destiny.
    When they did this, they came out on the other side knowing that death henceforth could do them no harm. “What did I ever lose by dying?” they say. This process is supposed to be the baptismal initiation rite into Christianity, where we first “join him in the tomb” and then afterwards “join him in his resurrection” (Romans 5:4-5). We are all supposed to be larger-than-death men, appearing to the world as larger than life. This should be the definition of a Christian man. ~Richard Rohr, OFM, On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men

    Love demands a complete inner transformation, for without this we cannot possibly come to identify ourselves with our brother. We have to become, in some sense, the person we love. And this involves a kind of death of our own being, our own self. No matter how hard we try, we resist this death: we fight back with anger, with recriminations, with demands, with ultimatums. We seek any convenient excuse to break off and give up the difficult task.–Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert

    Von Huegel, in one of his letters, writes of W.G. Ward (“Ideal Ward”) as an “eager, one-sided, great, unintentionally unjust soul” who on his deathbed saw the mischief of his life–he had consistently demanded that all others be like himself! This is the root of inhumanity!~Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

    Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death. ~Anais Nin

    This is what is sad when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness . . . they live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immortal souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die.–Soren Kierkegaard

    The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die courageously for a cause, while a mature man wants to live nobly for one. –J.D.Salinger, “Catcher In the Rye”

    The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment. –Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

    As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death. — Leonardo da Vinci

    To suffer is to have anything—great or small—otherwise than as you wish or will or want it to be. If your self-will is powerful and untamed, you will “suffer” horribly when you miss a train or run out of cigarettes: if your self-will is wholly conformed to the will of God, as manifested in the circumstances of the moment, you can undergo extremes of physical pain without “suffering” at all. Hence the joy of the martyrs: hence the serenity of an agonizing but saintly death-bed. –Christopher Derrick, That Strange Divine Sea

    Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world–stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death–and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image of the brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas. ~Henry Van Dyke

    “Faith becomes the one wholly inflexible ground for resistance to violence, precisely because it teaches us how to face death – not in excited expectation of reward, but in the sober letting-go of our fantasies in the sure hope that a faithful God holds us firmly in life and death alike. This is the hope that allows us to know power for what it is and isn’t: As what is given us for the setting-free of each other, not as the satisfying of our passion for control.” — Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury

  3. Fine work, I think. I’m not really sure, because I gave up reading because you follow the new fashion rules which avoid contrasts. So like electronics equipment that are shiny black plastic with the legends on them ins charcoal grey, your blog is sort of white and your text is a pale beige. Not good for anyone who’s eyes aren’t perfect. Please use a stronger font with the highest contrast of black against white (the publishing industry has long proven that that is the best for readability without exhaustion. Peace.to you.

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