found the sting: some reflections about death & mourning
Posted by Matt Anslow
The death of a good man, who leaves behind four children, at what seems too early a time, is never going to be an easily digested reality. So when I was asked to express some thoughts on the Christian perspective(s) about death on my blog I only barely agreed
What do I say, particularly in the short space of a blog post? Indeed, at my age, in my wealth demographic, I have yet to personally experience death to a harrowing degree. I don’t really have any concrete answers about death, and theologising does not seem to be particularly helpful at this point.
This kind of theologising, though, is precisely the reason I was asked to put some thoughts down. Some unhelpful comments made to a good friend of mine about the death of this now-deceased brother led him to ask me the question:
Why do Christians have such strange views about death?
He was referring to the kinds of comments that are uttered about how it is, in a sense, good that the person has died because now they are “in heaven”.
But is this a thoroughly biblical take on death?
Sure, Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Where, O Death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54b-55). But this is not in reference to the joy of going to heaven after one dies; it is about the victory of God over death in the eventual Resurrection of his people. The implication for the Corinthians is that death and sin, which have been absorbed by Jesus, cannot serve as an intimidation against “abounding in the work of the Lord” (v.58).
My point is that there is nothing in Paul’s words to imply that the death of humans is a natural or preferable reality. In fact death is so completely unnatural that the very sting is taken out of it precisely in the promise of its eventual reversal (not in its occurrence), and in God’s victory over sin in Christ.
(In saying death is ‘unnatural’ I am not denying death’s inevitably, but simply its intended absence from creation. For this reason death is not to be celebrated; it is an enemy.)
In this way I suppose that death’s sting, from one perspective, is still to be found and experienced in the passing of loved ones until the time when it is completely destroyed.
The polar opposite extreme Christian view of death is equally unhelpful. Those who claim death is so utterly unnatural* that any form of sickness is the result of a lapse in faith or morality fail to comprehend the suffering present throughout the post-Easter Scriptural narrative. This suffering is interestingly often redemptive in its purpose (as for example in the theology of the Book of Revelation).
This latter perspective, if nothing else, leaves sufferers and widows with more disappointment and doubt than peace and palpability. Such a perspective will of course come off the rails at some point in the journey of life.
Both perspectives could potentially lead Christians to shortcut the necessity of mourning. If premature death is just the desirable crossing from this life to the next, then why mourn? Or if premature death is the result of lack of faith or morality, then is not mourning marred by the assumed guilt of the deceased?
But true mourning holds in tension the unnaturalness of death in the Christian worldview, and indeed the grief of loss, with the promise that resurrection life will one day come and that death has lost its threat in the victory of Christ.
This does not preclude the pain of loss but rather encourages its expression, while bringing comfort in the knowledge that life and love will one day visibly triumph.
This tension does however preclude the possibility of denying the experience of being human, and suffering and grieving completely in the sudden absence of a fragment of God’s living image.
In memory of Bob Brown (1951-2011)