A brief theology of death
Recently, I have been making my way, rather slowly, I might add, through Suicide—A Christian Response: Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life. The book takes the form of a collection of essays by various evangelical writers who comment on issues of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Chapter sixteen of this work, penned by Messiah College’s Dennis P. Hollinger, offers a brief theology of death.
As an outline for his theology of death, Hollinger draws attention to three theological tensions that must be biblically maintained when considering the issue of death as it relates to Scripture.
Death as friend and foe
The first of these tensions, claims to Hollinger, is that Scripture views death as both a friend and a foe. I do not agree that the Bible portrays death as a friend, but, for the believer, death does at least have some friendly side effects.
Some unbelievers mistakenly view death as nothing more than a friend to be welcomed and indeed expedited. There should be no fear of death or sadness accompanying it. The late Swedish psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, wrote that death is “a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body. Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of the million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.”1 With this philosophy of death, it is no wonder that people in contemporary society argue for the welcoming and even hastening of death.
On the other hand, there are both Christian and secular thinkers who consider death an enemy to be faced. It must always be fought, though it can never actually be overcome.
Biblically, death is viewed as an enemy. Death is the result of sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12). Paul said that “by a man came death” (1 Corinthians 15:21) and described death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). He described sin as “the sting of death” (1 Corinthians 15:56) and death as “the wages of sin” (Romans 3:23). Death is a foe associated with despair (Psalm 88:15), anguish (Psalm 116:3), and fear (Hebrews 2:15). David, in perhaps his most famous psalm, spoke of “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). “Before death,” says Hollinger, “we tremble and stand in awe of its mysterious, haunting power.”2
But the tension is maintained in Scripture when the positive effects of death for the believer are described. Death for the believer is described in “friendly” language. For example, death is being gathered to one’s people (Genesis 49:29, 33; 45:8). The psalmist described the death of God’s saints as “precious in the sight of the LORD” (Psalm 116:15). Paul was torn between his desire to die and be with the Lord and his desire to live and minister to the Philippians (Philippians 1:21–24). The believer approaches death with hope.
Suffering as a challenge to persevere and an opportunity to overcome
Suffering is often viewed as an unqualified evil, which must be removed at all costs. We have come to prize comfort. Medical advancements have relieved, and continue to relieve, much of the suffering that humans have faced as a result of the fall. As Hollinger notes, “control over life and death [and, we might add, suffering], once clearly the domain of God, is now, through medical technology, in the hands of a fallen humanity.”3 We have come to expect that all forms of suffering must be eradicated. The implication is that suffering has nothing valuable to teach us.
Joseph Fletcher believes that “human happiness and well-being is the highest good.”4 This goes against both common and biblical wisdom. Throughout the ages, suffering has been universally understood to play an important role in humanity. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned for three years in Auschwitz, noted that “suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds meaning.”5 And Friederich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”6 Robert D. Orr relates an interesting anecdote to highlight the value of suffering. Even biologically, pain serves as an important warning and protection.7
Of course, Christians can face suffering with an entirely different outlook, because Christians believe in a sovereign God who allows suffering. Christians don’t like suffering any more than unbelievers, and they don’t always understand any better than unbelievers why God allows it, but they nevertheless find solace in God’s sovereignty.
Christopher Reeve, who famously played Superman in four feature-length films in the 1970s and 80s, was paralysed in a horse-riding accident in 1995. Reeve, who made no profession to Christianity, recalled in his 1998 autobiography that many Christians wrote to him after the accident to help him find meaning in his accident. But he was never content with the answers that Christianity provided.
He tried praying, but recalled feeling phoney. “I began to think: Whether or not there is a God is not so important. Spirituality itself, the belief that there is something greater than ourselves, is enough.” His wife, Dana, was going through the same process at the same time.
She had been raised as a Catholic but found she could not accept formal religion. After my injury she read When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, a man whose son had progeria, a terrible disease in which the victim ages rapidly and dies in adolescence. Here was a man of God, who served God, and who couldn’t reconcile the fact that this could happen to him. But he finally reached a conclusion that both Dana and I could accept—that God doesn’t make these things happen. We were given free will, and everything obeys the laws of nature. If you are flung over a horse’s head, you very well might break your neck. It just happens. But where God comes in, where grace enters, is in the strength you find to deal with it. You may not know where it comes from, but there’s an enormous power at work.8
Rabbi Kushner believed, as many do, that God is love, and would dearly love to stop all the evil and suffering in the world. Unfortunately, though he would like to stop it, he simply is not powerful enough to do so. Things just happen, and they are not God’s fault. He claims no responsibility for the calamity that abounds in our world.
The Bible presents a very different picture. Suffering at times occurs as a corrective measure for man’s sin. Sometimes God allows it for man’s own development. Sometimes it simply brings God glory to allow suffering (cf. John 9:1–3). And sometimes we just don’t know why God allows it. We know that suffering generally speaking is the result of sin, but we cannot always speak in specific circumstances to specific reasons that God has allowed specific things.
We do know at least two things.
First, suffering affords us an opportunity to persevere. Despite the suffering we face, God is sovereign and his grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9). Our circumstances in no way nullify these truths. Suffering is a challenge to persevere with faith in the sovereignty and the grace of God. Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering set before him by his Father would be removed, but ultimately submitted to God’s will, which was not to remove that suffering (Mark 14:36). Significantly, when he was offered a crude form of anaesthetic on the cross he refused it. He understood that the suffering he experienced on the cross had a purpose, and he endured it for the glory of God and the good of his chosen ones.
But second, suffering also affords us an opportunity to overcome. We never want to view suffering as meaningless. We never want to see it as beyond God’s control. At the same time, we never want to throw up our hands in despair and think that there is nothing to be done about suffering. Whilst suffering is on the one hand an opportunity to persevere, it is on the other hand an opportunity to overcome.
Divine providence and human stewardship
The tension between divine providence and human stewardship cannot be overlooked in forming a theology of death. Neither truth can be ignored.
On the one hand we find the biblical teaching on human stewardship. This is a truth which is clearly set forth in the Scriptures. But human stewardship does not give us the absolute right to regulate all matters in the world—including life and death—as we see fit. God very clearly placed humanity in charge of his creation, but human authority is only valid insofar as it submits to divine authority.
An abuse of human stewardship might lead to unbiblical control over matters of life and death. Seneca wrote, “As I choose the ship in which I sail and the house which I shall inhabit, so I will choose the death by which I leave life.”9 This is the philosophy that drives the assisted suicide debate in our day. It is believed that man has complete autonomy, and must therefore be permitted to choose the timing and manner of his own death.
On the other hand, Scripture also teaches divine sovereignty. God is ultimately in control of all things—including life and death—and therefore man has no right whatsoever to speak to this issue. When God’s sovereignty is emphasised to the neglect of human responsibility, a person might refuse at any stage to “pull the plug” on a dying (or technically dead) patient.
But whilst God is clearly sovereign over all things, he equally clearly has placed man in a position of authority in creation. So long as human authority acts under God’s ultimate authority, humans have legitimate authority to make important and difficult decisions.
Much more could be said in forming a biblical theology of death, but this threefold consideration provides a helpful theological scaffolding on which to construct a fuller structure.
In the face of death and dying issues, such as suicide, we must hold together what humanity tends to pull apart: death as friend and foe, suffering as challenge to persevere and opportunity to overcome, and the dual affirmation of divine providence and human stewardship. These theological assertions do not solve every dilemma a physician or family of a dying patience faces. But they do provide a framework that can guide us to make wise decisions amidst the complexity and ambiguity we often face in death and dying issues. On the one hand they preserve us from playing God in ethics, but on the other hand they also prevent us from abdicating our responsibilities as human stewards made in the very image of an all-powerful God.10
- Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: MacMillan, 1969), 276. ↩
- Hollinger, Suicide, 259. ↩
- Hollinger, Suicide, 265. ↩
- Joseph Fletcher, “Ethics and Euthanasia” in Dennis Horan and David Mall, eds., Death, Dying and Euthanasia (Frederick: Aletheia Books, 1980), 296. ↩
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocke Books, 1963), 179. ↩
- Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 164. ↩
- Richard D. Orr, Suicide, 70. ↩
- Christopher Reeve, Still Me (London: Arrow Books, 1999), 50. ↩
- Seneca, Laws, 9.843. ↩
- Hollinger, Suicide, 265–66. ↩