Home » Spiritual Direction » Awaiting the Last Things lecture 5

Awaiting the Last Things lecture 5

Eschatology lecture 5 Theology of death

It often is our understanding of death that determines how we live our lives. Many people deny death. Some harden themselves in order to ignore it. People create fantasies that mythologize death. People engage in a consumer-driven culture that demands instant gratification and promises of extended health and youth to occupy our minds in place of facing reality.

There was a popular song (decades ago) written by the group, Blood Sweat & Tears called, “And When I Die.” The lyrics are;

In My Feelings

I’m not scared of dying

And I don’t really care

If it’s peace you find in dying

Well, then let the time be near

If it’s peace you find in dying

And if dying time is here just bundle up my coffin

‘Cause it’s cold way down there

I hear that it’s cold way down there

Yeah, crazy cold way down there

Now troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well

I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell

Swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell

But I’ll never know by living, only my dying will tell

Yes, only my dying will tell, yeah, only my dying will tell

Give me my freedom for as long as I be

All I ask of living is to have no chains on me

All I ask of living is to have no chains on me

And all I ask of dying is to go naturally

Oh, I want to go naturally

Here I go, hey hey

Here comes the devil right behind

Look out children

Here he comes, here he comes, hey

Don’t want to go by the devil

Don’t want to go by demon

Don’t want to go by Satan

Don’t want to die uneasy

Just let me go naturally

Maybe it was a good song, but not a very good understanding of death, and yes, you can, “pray there ain’t no hell” but that will not change reality. And when death comes, we try to spin it as something it is not. Some even use death as an excuse to be mad at God. If they cannot get at God they take it out on a pastor or a church. God did not heal my wife, my mother, or my daughter when I prayed so I refuse to believe in God (I refuse to forgive God).

The early church lived differently. Their focus was upon being prepared to walk through the veil of death and active in hope for the Lord’s return or second coming, being a return for us for all who belong to the Lord.

A prayer was developed in the church called, The Litany of the Saints. This prayer expresses the attitude of Christian faith vis-a-vis death in the petition, “A subitanea morte, libero nos, oomine”, meaning “from a death that is sudden and unprepared for, deliver us, o Lord.” To be taken away suddenly, without being able to make oneself ready, without having had time to prepare, this was the supreme danger from which man wants to be saved. It is a reality that denies us certainty.

Now, if one were to formulate today a Litany of the Unbelievers the petition would, no doubt, be just the opposite. It would be a desire for, “A sudden and unprovided death grant to us, O Lord.”

In the modern secular world, when finally facing that physical immortality is not a reality, then human beings hope that death really should happen instantly with no time for reflection or suffering. Let me die quickly after a night of fun and pleasure and may I be remembered for what I obtained. Selfish, delusional, deceived thinking and living.

This is the personal eschatology of our world that does not walk with God. If it must happen, then let it be an intrusion into my hedonistic existence that happens quickly, painlessly, and without any real warning. People what to remain the consumer of their lives and have the power and control of choice even in the ignored reality of their own mortality. The mindset of entitled continues.

The issue of euthanasia is becoming increasingly important because people wish to avoid death as something which happens to them and replace it with a technical cessation of function which I do not need to carry out myself. The purpose is to slam the door on metaphysics before it has a chance to come in. I want to be in charge so I will choose when I die. Suicide takes the same approach. Little do we understand the reality that by seeking to avoid or ignore or rationalize the reality of our own personal eschatology we enter the clutches of an enemy we may not be able to escape.

The Greek understanding of death was decisively shaped by Plato, and was idealistic and dualistic. The latter was looked upon as in itself a bad thing. Only spirit and idea count as genuinely positive, God-like, the real reality. This is why Socrates spoke of his death as a transformation ridding itself of the prison of the body. Only the body dies and decays. The spirit continues. However, this is not the Hebrew understanding of death.

For this reason, the biblical authors do not submit death to an idealistic transfiguration in their descriptions of it, but present it, rather, in its full, unvarnished reality as the destroying enemy of life. Only Jesus’ resurrection brings new hope. However, this hope in no way softens the stark reality of death in which not the body alone but the entire human being dies.

The full extent of Sheol’s abyss of nothingness is seen in the fact that a soul cannot be aware of Yahweh for Yahweh is not there, nor is he praised there. (But one is not hidden from Yahweh there:  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. -Ps. 139:8 NRS)

In relation to other human beings, there is a complete lack of communication in Sheol. Death is thus unending imprisonment. It is simultaneously being and nonbeing, somehow still existent and yet no longer having the life God offers.

Some would say that the Hebrews believed in the destruction of the soul, but this is not true. The book of Job indicates God’s power over death and suffering even though there will be times we cannot understand the love of God in the midst of our suffering.  Job, as an act of faith, declares:

“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:23-27 NRS)

In the book of Job, the book’s climax appears to be the appeal to God as Redeemer over against the God of senseless destruction found in ordinary experience. Job puts his hope in the God of faith over against the God of such experience, entrusting himself to the One who is unknown.

So even in the Old Testament, one’s own personal eschatology is founded upon hope in faith in the nature of God.

Suffering for God’s sake and that of other people can be the highest form of allowing God to be present and placing oneself at the service of life. This lesson, often ignored, is paramount to being truly human in a cursed world occupied with forces hostile to God and God’s love for us.

Next, Psalm 16 gives us insight. This is a Psalm of Personal eschatology. Also, Psalm 73 gives such insight. These Psalms lead us to grasp communion with God is the true reality and by comparison with it everything, no matter how massively it asserts itself, is a phantom, a nothing. In the OT, looking on God, being with God: this is recognized as the point from which the ever·present, the all-devouring menace of Sheol may be overcome.

In the seventy-third psalm death is shown to be the dark destiny. In this situation, the believer comes to recognize that Yahweh’s righteousness is greater than his own biologically conditioned presence in life. He who dies into the righteousness of God does not die into nothingness but enters upon authentic reality, life itself. It becomes clear that God’s truth and justice are not just ideas or ideals but realities, but is the truth of an authentic being. Though such patterns are indeed drawn on to fill the picture, the real point lies deeper, in the experience that communion with God means a life stronger than death.

We hear the same note sounded in First Corinthians 15. Death, the “last enemy,” is conquered. Its destruction signifies the definitive and exclusive rule of God, the victory of life invincible, where the shadow of death cannot fall.

Here is the reality that makes us much of humanity’s day-to-day living. It is for the most part merely a shadow existence, a form of Hades, in which we have only the most occasional inkling of what life should truly be. We live in a history of death. It is history because it is overcome and is being overcome. Death is doomed.

The phenomenon of death makes itself known in three very different dimensions.

first, death is present as the nothingness of an empty existence that ends up in a mere semblance of living.

Second, death is present as the physical process of disintegration which accompanies life.

Third, death met with in the daring of that love which leaves self behind, giving itself to the other.

The struggle with suffering is the place of human decision-making par excellence. Here the human project becomes flesh and blood. Here man is forced to face the fact that existence is not at his disposal, nor is his life his own property.

The God who personally died in Jesus Christ fulfilled the pattern of love beyond all expectation, and in so doing justified that human confidence which in the last re·sort is the only alternative to self-destruction. The Christian dies into the death of Christ himself.

The uncontrollable Power that everywhere sets limits to life is not a blind law of nature. It is a love that puts itself at our disposal by dying for us and with us. The Christian is the one who knows that he can unite the constantly experienced dispossession of self with the fundamental attitude of a being created for love, a being that knows itself to be safe precisely when it trusts in the unexacted gift of love.

Man’s enemy, death, that would waylay him to steal his life, is conquered at the point where one meets the thievery of death with the attitude of trusting love, and so transforms the theft into an increase of life. The sting of death is extinguished in Christ in whom the victory was gained through the plenary power of love unlimited.

The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ, that is, by walking in the way of martyrdom, the daily drama by which we prefer what is right and true to the claims of sheer existence, through the spirit of love which faith makes possible.

Turning to truth, to rightness, and to love, precisely as a process of receiving is at the same time the highest human activity of which we are capable.

Christian faith favors life, it believes that God is the God of the living. Its goal is life, and so it assents to life on all its levels as a gift and reflection of the God who is Life itself. The meaning of life comes from God who is love and who has created us for love.

While faith does not deliberately seek out suffering, it knows that without the Passion life does not discover its own wholeness but closes the door on its own potential. If life at its highest demands the Passion, then faith must reject apatheia (without passion), the attempt to avoid suffering, as contrary to human nature.

Christ’s teleological goal requires an eschatological death with the scope of our sin-induced separation. This is the alienated human destiny of death. He dies in tears. On his lips was the bitter taste of abandonment and isolation in all its honor. Here the hubris that would be the equal of God is contrasted with an acceptance of the cup of being human, down to its last dregs.”

As long as there is love in a fallen world there will be suffering, but not the telos of death.

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