A Biblical View of Death

June 01, 2010

A Biblical View of Death

Writing on mortality in the journal First Things, graduate philosophy student Anna Mathie relates what she describes as ‘the most exquisitely sorrowful moment in a book filled with exquisitely beautiful sorrow’ (the book is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings).

In the story, Aragorn is at death’s door, and Arwen, who has rescinded her elvish immortality to be his queen, is overcome and pleads for him to stay with her. Aragorn refuses, preferring to go with grace before he grows feeble. He tells her there is no comfort for the pain of death and bereavement, except for the treasuring of memories. Until now she has not fully understood the meaning of mortality, ‘the Doom of Men,’ with its unbearable loss and silence. Says Arwen,

Not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Elves say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.[1]

Aragorn passes away, and Arwen, ‘the light of her eyes ... quenched,’ departs and dies in the dead land of Lorien, where deathless Elves once lived.[2]

Death, ‘the gift of the One’ to women and men, is our curse. It is universal, unavoidable, and personal (Rom 5:12; Heb 9:27). It is the end of a process that commenced at conception. Where death is inevitable, it is to be accepted; where it is not inevitable, it is to be averted, though not at any cost. It is hard to accept, hard to tame, difficult to talk about, and impossible to finally outwit.

If death is a curse, it is also a blessing. The prospect of its arrival can focus the mind and goad the will, as the Apostle Paul and countless others have observed (1 Cor 15:29-32; cf 2 Tim 4:5-8). It is the ‘final curtain’ on our participation in the natural cycle of biological life, resolving the problems associated with finitude, suffering and ego. It brings to a conclusion the daily struggle to live virtuously in a fallen world, offering final relief from the moral entropy that marks human life. It is the door to the fullness of eternal life for the faithful (1 Cor 15:50-55), of which the risen Jesus holds the keys (Rev 1:18).

We often discuss death, or talk around it, through humour. For example, when I notified my twitter followers one morning that I was en route to a conference where I would be speaking on a biblical view of death, I received two memorable replies. One asked, ‘Will you sacrifice your first-born?’ The other asked, ‘Will there be examples and a demonstration?’

The Bible has much to say about death and dying. The biblical writers consider the experience of death as an event to be feared by some and welcomed by others, an end but also a beginning. Death is an enemy (1 Cor 15:54ff; Isa 25:7-8), and a punishment for improper moral choices (Gen 2:17; Ps 90:7-10; Rom 5:12; 6:23). Yet for the Christian, the fear and penalty of death have been annulled through the death of Jesus Christ.

As David VanDrunen notes in his book, Bioethics and the Christian Life, Scripture envisions the following aspects of death: [3]

  • Physical death: to experience the cessation of bodily life, and the separation of body and spirit, while surviving beyond death as a mind-body entity transformed by God despite the reality of physical disintegration;
  • Moral and spiritual death: in Paul the Apostle’s words, to be ‘dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Eph 2:1-2; cf Heb 2:14);
  • Eschatological death: to experience death in the age to come – consignment to the ‘lake of fire’ and eternal destruction (Mt 25:46; Dan 12:2; Rev 20:14f).

Thus, observes VanDrunen,

death is a curse, a realm of experience in which Satan exercises his tyranny, and a door to a far worse fate than anything that people know in this world. Yet there is an exception to this truth, an exception that is quite literally life-changing and death-transforming. The Christian proclamation about Christ and his gospel effects a radical change in how a person should think about and experience death ... Christ died for us (Rom 5:6,8), and we died with him (Rom 6:8), and thus he shares with us and bestows upon us the benefits of his resurrection life.[4]

The New Testament speaks of death invading life (Eph 2:1; cf Ps 88), but it also speaks of eternal life invading the realm of spiritual death in the present experience of the person who is reconciled to God through faith in Christ (Jn 3:36; 5:24).

There is no hint of the concept of reincarnation in the Old or New Testaments, either in the sense of undergoing a repetition of the same life, or ‘returning’ in a different form contingent upon the moral quality of one’s previous existence.[5]

There are several ways in which we could more closely examine a biblical view of death. We could develop a biblical theology of death, but that would turn out to be a celebration of the glorious doctrine of resurrection. We could look at what is called individual eschatology, and discuss the various views of what happens at and after death. We could analyse the pastoral theology of one or more biblical writers in the context of ministry to those who are approaching the end of their lives. But in contemplating this subject, my mind has turned to the experience of death and dying, and to the Psalms, and to Psalm 88 in particular.

This psalm gives voice to the experience of a dying person, indeed a person of faith – and not merely a lazy faith in a nebulous higher power, nor a formal faith in the authority of religious tradition to explicate the inexplicable, nor a therapeutic faith which assures the patient that all will be well in this best of all possible worlds, nor an atheistic faith in the grandeur of human reason and the ghastliness of ultimate reality, but an existential faith in a personal God who treasures relationship, and registers anguish, and hears prayers, and saves the suffering.

And yet Psalm 88 is also an acute embarrassment to such faith, and asks large questions of such a God, questions that remain unanswered as the psalm concludes. Derek Kidner called Psalm 88 ‘the saddest prayer in the Psalter.’ Others have described it as ‘stark and lonely and pain-riddled’, ‘one wail of sorrow from beginning to end’, ‘unrelieved by a single ray of comfort or hope.’ Michael Wilcock claimed that ‘No other prayer in the Psalter is quite as desperate as this one.’ James Montgomery Boice observed that ‘It is good that we have a psalm like this, but it is also good that we have only one.’[6]

So why have I chosen to comment on this pessimistic psalm as a way of focusing our minds and hearts on a biblical view of death? First, because it seems to represent the authentic experience of a godly person faced with chronic suffering and conflicted spirituality. Second, it provides a sober starting point for a fuller exploration of what the Bible teaches about the vital issues of death and the afterlife, mortality and hope, suffering and glory. Third, because this psalm offers a model prayer (though not the only one in Scripture) for those whose finitude is a heavy burden and whose mortality is a palpable weight. And fourth, because this is the reality of the world in which many of us work as pastors, counsellors, chaplains, doctors, nurses, and health care professionals. It is especially instructive, if not exactly comforting, to know that this psalm resides in the Psalter, and in the biblical canon, as we fulfil our calling to care for patients and parishioners facing end-of-life challenges. As John Goldingay put it in his commentary on this psalm:

On one hand, it is disturbing to be faced by the reality of such abandonment by God. On the other, it is encouraging that the psalm faces the reality of such abandonment and witnesses that this does not make prayer impossible. And further, it is really important that the people of God face the reality of death, because we understand life only as we reflect on the reality of death toward which we are moving.[7]

The psalm may be divided into three parts, each beginning with a cry to God (vv1-9a; 9b-12; 13-18).

The psalm begins with an affirmation of the saving power of Israel’s God, the object of the psalmist’s prayer (v1a), and then plunges into the darkness of human suffering. The psalmist, Heman the Ezrahite (if we accept the title above verse 1), cries out to God day and night, hoping for a response to his need, an answer to his questions, a light in his darkness. He has suffered from his youth (v15), and now is close to death, ‘like a man without strength’ (v4). Verses 3-5 describe his awful predicament, and  in verses 6-8 he reveals (or alleges) that it is God who has brought him to this place, whose wrath surrounds him, and who has driven his friends away. He concludes, in verses 8b-9a, ‘I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.’

He collapses into a slough of despond, overcome by his own misery and a sense of hopelessness, perhaps feeling trapped in his body, powerless and far from free. Yet this is not faithlessness: he prays, and reaches out to the God whom he knows to be there, and who must hear, and who must care.

Heman recognises that he is a creature and God is the creator. He cannot force God’s hand, or do a deal with God, or hope by passion or wisdom or oratory to induce God to act on his behalf. But in the midst of the darkness, and on the brink of despair, he will not be silent. He will go on praying, will call out to God again and again (v9b), and he does so, asking six rhetorical questions (vv10-12). With these questions he is not casting doubt on the goodness and loving-kindness of God, but expressing how life feels at this moment: negative, dark and foreboding. Oblivion awaits, and still God is silent.

So he cries out again, this time focusing on direct complaints against God (vv13f). He believes God is rejecting him (v14). He has suffered prolonged affliction (v15a), and  been overwhelmed by ‘terrors’ (v15b). He is in despair (v15c), crushed by the weight of God’s wrath, destroyed by divine terrors (v16), feeling ‘completely engulfed’ (v17). This is profound emotion.

He might have been consoled or counselled by a friend or a neighbour, but they too have been taken away, and again the psalmist points the finger at God (v18a). Instead of resolution, or thoughtful answers, or quiet words of comfort, the psalm ends with these haunting words: ‘Darkness is my closest friend’ (v18b).

Psalm 88 is, of course, somewhat similar to the book of Job, or it would be if the book of Job had concluded at the end of chapter 31, before the Elihu speeches, the divine response, and the happy ending. Here, in Psalm 88, there is no happy ending, yet no apostasy either; simply an image of a lone sufferer, confused and frustrated, unconsoled, unrewarded, in darkness. Yet this same person, wrapped in night and baffled by divine silence, has in verse 1 acknowledged his creator as ‘the God who saves me’. Human hope springs eternal.

We have to go to other biblical witnesses, of course, to see the full picture: passages such as Job 38-42; Psalm 23:4-6; John 1:5 and 11:25-26; and Revelation 21:1-4. Yes, we experience moral, spiritual and existential darkness from time to time, and we cross the paths of those who are completely engulfed by it. But we are confident, by faith and experience, that the light of God’s love shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. That is our Christian assurance.

The final word goes to Anna Mathie, whom I quoted at the beginning, talking again about Aragorn and Arwen and mortality. In casting death as both a blessing and a curse, a beautiful gift that is at the same time bitter to receive, she says,

Tolkien is not cheerily trying to pretend that our condition is ideal, or that mortality guarantees us any kind of virtue. But unlike the earthly immortality he has envisioned for us, our mortality offers another and higher hope beyond this world, however uncertain it may seem.

This hope is the comfort Aragorn offers Arwen in his last words:

‘In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold, we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’[8]

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Appendix A: The annals of the Kings,’ in The Lord of the Rings (London: Harper Collins, 1991/1968),  p1100.

[2] Anna Mathie, ‘Tolkien and the gift of mortality,’ First Things 137, Nov 2003, p10.

[3] David VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), p55 (my summary).

[4] Ibid., pp56, 59.

[5] Nigel Sykes, ‘death’ in Adrian Hastings et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p153.

[6] Kidner quoted in James Montgomery Boice, Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42-106 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996),  p716, fn1; Durham, in Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1990), p404; Weiser, in Tate,  p404; Michael Wilcock, The Message of the Psalms (Leicester: IVP, 2001), p62; Boice, op. cit., p716.

[7] John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p658.

[8] Mathie, op. cit.,  p12 (citing Tolkien, op. cit.,  p1100.).

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