What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

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