I have 30 minutes to engage the challenge of the fear of death and freedom in life. No one realistically expects the subject to be exhaustively discussed, much less thoroughly resolved. Yet, there is no small amount of anxiety on my part trying to decide what to include in my talk, and in what order, and with what conclusion.
Since childhood I have wrestled with these questions. There was no social motivation, I simply could not figure out how to live life without processing the meaning and significance of death. They seemed to be woven together in a Gordian knot.
When I began to focus on this in earnest, around age 12, I quickly abandoned a belief in God as I understood him.
All Powerful + All Loving = this world?!!
I was too young to read Alvin Plantiga, and so I had some unfortunate years acting as if this conundrum was inescapable. There is not a concise answer to most things of comprehensive scope and importance, but there is a brief enough summary. God in his transcendence has answers which we can only know in part, including things which are obvious cause and effect and things which are extremely counter-intuitive.
In the way of Jesus, these dynamics are actually laid out in the arrangement of the Hebrew scriptures in what is called the “wisdom literature”.
Job tells how God is good, even when we cannot understand why. (Job also tells us that religious people who are too eager to over simplify suffering are insufferable to God, as well as the rest of us.)
Psalms combines the story of Israel via majestic poetry, swirling history, feelings, doctrines, and more, into a sweeping hymnal of emotive expression.
Proverbs explains some reassuring clarity about certain things, and is often a favorite due to direct accessibility.
Ecclesiastes expresses the profound frustration of trying to string the various pearls of wisdom into anything comprehensively comprehensible.
Song of Solomon surprisingly sums it all up. Suffering is real, God cares enough to connect with us, and even guide us in many ways, but we are left depressed if we think we can/should solve all things. The issue behind suffering includes knowledge and understanding, but it is ultimately about love. Wisdom is navigating the mysteries of life such the love is not hindered.
My message on death reflects that puzzle in the pursuit of wisdom. Focusing on one aspect of the mysteries of life, death and meaning will only leave us exasperated. That is why most of us prefer to respond to unexpected conversations about death with some effort at humor, so as to relieve the tension without explicitly saying it is a hopelessly muddled problem. OK, here is a contribution to that:
Humor helps, but mainly just in avoiding the crushing weight of the importance of death and its implications for life. The book of Hebrews makes the point this way:
“We must, therefore, pay even more attention to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away.” Hebrews 2:1
The book of Hebrews opened with a string of superlatives about the greatness of God’s ultimate revelation, in Son. In a densely packed sequence of ideas and allusions to treasured wisdom, he shows that the Son is not like other messengers. Whether human, or angelic, or whatever, this Son is the ultimate answer to our deepest questions. Yet, he is concerned that his readers are in danger of drifting away from their great hope; he exhorts them to pay even more attention; to focus. I am now echoing his message to that 1st century audience to this 21st century audience:
Drive your understanding of Jesus forward.
The problem of “drift” comes into most awkward situations in life. We tend to avoid the things that seem too difficult to resolve thoroughly. Taxes, term papers, confrontations with a friend… as well as questions of what is death and how does that affect what is on either side of death?
Jesus is a very drifting subject for most people. It can be very awkward to get pinned down on how we understand Jesus and his connection to everything. Some religious people deny this, and speak rashly about their unflinching confidence, but they do so against the grain of scripture, or against exposure to detailed and specific problems. I am speaking with sympathy to people who are reluctant to focus on Jesus in depth, but I am urging you not to be put off by the overconfidence of some of Jesus’ followers. I am inviting you to see that confidence in Jesus is possible in ways that correspond to the Wisdom literature- there is mystery, story, common sense clarity, profound frustration and ultimately rich, loving devotion available. But like any good love, it is fostered by driving ourselves to think, feel and act, not just to drift.
The Ideal and the Real – Where we come undone
For the original audience the problem of Idealism, that Jesus solves everything that matters, was challenged first by the Roman emperor Claudius in 49 AD and then by the infamous Nero 25 years later. They had suffered financial loss and had even been forced to move in the first big crisis, but now there were growing concerns of extreme consequences for identifying with Jesus; even death.
Many of us our trying to process the horrors going on right now at the hands of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), or as they hope to one day establish the more universal name: Islamic State. Christians (as well as others) are being ruthlessly forced, by fear of death, to flee if they can or convert. These extreme dynamics are continuous throughout history, varying only in degree and setting throughout the centuries. There is something “unreal” to most of us about the idea of actually having your position on the afterlife be something that could get you to test your position quicker than intended.
For many of us in a free, prosperous and pluralistic society, obsessive commitment to one particular belief system can seem overly dramatic, or even extreme. The song Jesus is Just Alright was a cultural affirmation of Jesus back in the day, but it has a different sense to some ears: “Jesus is JUST so-so”. Like the preacher behind the book of Hebrews, I am saying that we should not drift into a passive acceptance of Jesus in regard to questions of life, and hope and such; we need to drive our attention deeper, more intentionally, and be amazed at what we begin to learn as we do so.
The Real Problem in Life is the Awareness of the Limits of Life
Leo Tolstoy recounted a tale in his personal account of how he replaced a spiritual drift through intellectual smugness with a sober appreciation for the magnificence of Christ’s salvation. This particular tale expresses the seriousness of the matter of mortality which urged him to drive forward in his quest for wisdom:
There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon’s jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable (sic) dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.
The fear of death leads to slavery in life. Hebrews 2:14-15
14 Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the Devil—15 and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.
The man hanging in the well is unable to focus on the trivial sweetness of life. If someone had tried to coax him to enjoy the good life, he would listen with amazement at the triviality of the achievements and pleasures offered and ask: “You bought what?”
In Tolstoy’s telling:
The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, “You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live,” I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.
The two drops of honey which diverted my eyes from the cruel truth longer than the rest: my love of family, and of writing – art as I called it – were no longer sweet to me.
“Family”…said I to myself. But my family – wife and children – are also human. They are placed just as I am: they must either live in a lie or see the terrible truth. Why should they live? Why should I love them, guard them, bring them up, or watch them? That they may come to the despair that I feel, or else be stupid? Loving them, I cannot hide the truth from them: each step in knowledge leads them to the truth. And the truth is death…
“Art, poetry?”…Under the influence of success and the praise of men, I had long assured myself that this was a thing one could do though death was drawing near – death which destroys all things, including my work and its remembrance; but soon I saw that that too was a fraud. It was plain to me that art is an adornment of life, an allurement to life. But life had lost its attraction for me, so how could I attract others? As long as I was not living my own life but was borne on the waves of some other life – as long as I believed that life had a meaning, though one I could not express – the reflection of life in poetry and art of all kinds afforded me pleasure: it was pleasant to look at life in the mirror of art. But when I began to seek the meaning of life and felt the necessity of living my own life, that mirror became for me unnecessary, superfluous, ridiculous, or painful. I could no longer soothe myself with what I now saw in the mirror, namely, that my position was stupid and desperate. It was all very well to enjoy the sight when in the depth of my soul I believed that my life had a meaning. Then the play of lights – comic, tragic, touching, beautiful, and terrible – in life amused me. No sweetness of honey could be sweet to me when I saw the dragon and saw the mice gnawing away my support.
Nor was that all. Had I simply understood that life had no meaning I could have borne it quietly, knowing that that was my lot. But I could not satisfy myself with that. Had I been like a man living in a wood from which he knows there is no exit, I could have lived; but I was like one lost in a wood who, horrified at having lost his way, rushes about wishing to find the road. He knows that each step he takes confuses him more and more, but still he cannot help rushing about.
It was indeed terrible.
Our problem is not just how we handle our own deaths. Most of us can manage humor, or swagger, or both in reference to our own mortality. But adjust the focus slightly to the one’s we love; of their mortality, and humor is no longer welcome. When mortality is aimed at those we love, everything is deadly serious.
Extend the problem further; we are not just afraid of the loss of those we love, we have an expansive fear of the loss of everything valuable, including the loss of possibility. Decisions move option into actualities, which become cemented somewhere amongst regret and nostalgia and forgetfulness. Life loses it’s luster when we look at the nature of irreversibility; in time passing and in lives passing.
Hebrews addresses this in profoundly honest and compelling ways. First there is the acknowledgment of Idealism which makes us vulnerable in the first place; a sense of awe and wonder at what it means to be alive, to be human. But that is quickly followed with a sense of dismay that the “ought” is “not”.
What follows is of the highest order of drama. We have the introduction of Jesus as a representative champion, one who fully qualifies as one of us, from among us, matured and tempered through sharing in our enslavement. He comes as a bronze age hero, a David vs. Goliath, fighting for us what we dare not fight for ourselves:
The “Monster” includes everything that is the opposite of what ought; life and love is challenged by sin (rebellious selfishness), Satan (rebellious pride) and death (rebellion’s consequence). John 10:10 is one of many statements promoting the distinction that ultimately matters:
A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.
And does he succeed? The promise is that he in fact has, in his life, his death, and in his resurrection.
Jesus brings help that is empathetic and effective. Hebrews 2:16-18
Not just in these brief verses, but throughout the book of Hebrews, quoting from a variety of sources in the Old Testament, Jesus as our champion is presented with this idea in mind. He not only accomplished what is necessary to free us from the ultimate threat of the irreversibility of death, he has done it in a way the magnifies his compassion because he has intensely experienced the very real challenges of mortality.
The imagery of the Bible is graphically illustrated because all communication is at some level through metaphor. I learned this in part when I was living in China, studying Chinese language. I saw the concept more developed through the work of philosopher and linguist Jamin Pelkey. We speak meaningfully of things, events and persons, but nowhere near as directly and accurately as we presume. The practical import of this realization was to realize there are layers of meaning in the construction of stories throughout the Bible, that without undermining its surface reading, yield a rich and complex and profound connectivity I had frequently missed.
This reading of Jesus of Champion is what is meant by the pinnacle of the book of Hebrew2 12:2 announcing the driven focus of
“keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source (ἀρχηγὸν/archegon) and perfecter (τελειωτὴν/teleioten) of our faith…”
Back in Hebrews 2:10 we have the same words laid out:
For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God—all things exist for Him and through Him—should make the source (ἀρχηγὸν/archegon) of their salvation perfect (τελειῶσαι/teleiosai) through sufferings.
The perfector is the completer, the one who brings things to culmination. This is the base word telos. The other word is much more interesting. It is only used twice in Hebrews and twice in Acts by Peter.
Acts 3:15 “You killed the source [prince, or ruler] of life, whom God raised from the dead; we are witnesses of this.”
Acts 5:31 “God exalted this man to His right hand as ruler and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.”
The idea is that Jesus is not just the source, or the start, he is the “prince”, the champion of the people. Consider Isaiah 42:13
The Lord (YHWH) advances like a warrior;
He stirs up His zeal like a soldier.
He shouts, He roars aloud,
He prevails over His enemies.
or Isaiah 49:24-26
Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
or the captives of the righteous be delivered?
For this is what the Lord says:
“Even the captives of a mighty man will be taken,
and the prey of a tyrant will be delivered;
I will contend with the one who contends with you,
and I will save your children.
Jesus is that champion who rescues the captives, who takes on death itself. Luke 12:21-22
When a strong man, fully armed, guards his estate, his possessions are secure. But when one stronger than he attacks and overpowers him, he takes from him all his weapons he trusted in, and divides up his plunder.
Ominously he continues with this:
Anyone who is not with Me is against Me,and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. – Luke 11:23
The need to think more deeply, to drive our thoughts into the challenging aspects of life/death and then what, should lead us to some serious questions about Jesus and his importance. If in fact he is the one who has crawled into the well with us, who has slain the monster for us, who has shared in victory and purpose and who has included us in the family of God by means of his sacrifice…. then what would dismissal of him mean? The warning not to drift is emphasized with a warning of consequences, punctuated by available evidences for the humble of heart who press into the questions with rigor and candor. To be unwilling to consider Jesus deeply because our experiences have not led us automatically to be comfortable with Jesus people is not sufficient. And reassuringly, the promise is that real assurance can be made that the essence of death is defeated, and that the hope of life, and love and meaning; with permanence, is ahead.
There is so much more to say; a blog is no forum, nor is a 30 minute speech. The resource I currently recommend on the subject is Dr. Tim Keller’s “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering”.