Hope for Mortals

Hope for Mortals

The Church’s Witness in the Midst of Dying and Death

Often Christians inhabit a theological vision guided by instrumental outcomes – a growth in the evangelistic and social outreach of the church, a revitalization of community and discipleship. But what happens to the church’s witness when all of our grand plans and visions for change stop short against the brick wall of death?

In this lecture, I reflect upon the way in which death, although the last enemy to be destroyed through Christ, also has the possibility of exposing the nature of a Christian hope which goes beyond trusting in our own efforts and plans.

I delivered the lecture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the “Theology and Ministry” lecture series, dedicated to Carl Henry. It includes many of my recent reflections since the publication of Rejoicing of Lament. In particular, I revisit the significance of the Old Testament witness to human mortality in light of resurrection hope.

From the lecture:

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” Paul says in his chapter on the resurrection of the body in 1 Corinthian 15. If Christ was not raised, Paul says, then our faith is in vain and we are left in our sin. Moreover, if Christ was not raised, then we are not raised. But Christ is indeed risen, as the firstfruits of those who have died – and thus through Christ, God deals a decisive blow to the final enemy, death, in the resurrection.

This conviction – of death as God’s enemy – is central to Christian resurrection hope, and our hope in God’s final victory. I affirm it unequivocally. But in light of the forces of our cultural moment, I think that it is frequently misappropriated – whether consciously or unconsciously – in how the church approaches death. At times, we see death as an enemy we are called to defeat: For many who have died of cancer, “Fighting cancer to the very end” becomes the crowning virtue – rather than Paul’s virtues of faith, hope, and love. And yet at other times, because death is an enemy, we act as if we can suppress and deny its reality. We live in a culture which has death pasted over the newspapers, but paradoxically, has removed the concrete experience of death from our families and faith communities. Persons who are dying are separated from family and church in order to be as “safe” as possible, in institutions. And even when death occurs, our response often reflects our denial. For example, many Christian funerals today collude with death-dying forces as they completely avoid the language of dying and death; for many, the body of the dead person is not present; it is turned into a one-sided “celebration” of the life of the one who has died – complete with color photos, Christian contemporary music, and a “hero-making” process for the dead loved one. It has become common to use the word “homecoming” rather than “death” – since God has been victorious over death and the loved one is in a better place, speaking of “death” is seen as morbid. Death is an enemy, after all. Not surprisingly in this context, many Christians are hesitant to talk of death before it comes – to plan for it, to plan to give space for dying with family and faith community – because all of this would be giving in to the enemy, death. Until the final days of breath, many Christians in the West today pray for a miracle, for a cure. To do otherwise would be to stop fighting against the “enemy of death.”

The biblical witness to the Resurrection, and the New Life that we taste by the Spirit is indeed central to us as Christians. But ironically, our testimony to resurrection hope is muted in our contemporary moment because of our denial of death. Unlike the Jesus and the New Testament authors, we do not approach death with the earthy realism of the Old Testament witness. Thus, I think we need to revisit the Old Testament witness to death. Our hermeneutical choice is something like this: did Christ come to fulfill the law and prophets or to displace them? On the topic of death, most Christian theologians note that the in most Old Testament writings, there does not appear to be a clear hope or witness to the resurrection. Thus, they move right to the New Testament to expound their resurrection hope. There is something right about this instinct. But there is something short-sighted about it as well.

From the end of the lecture:

I have a word of despair and hope: We cannot transform the world. But we hope in a God of resurrection who promises to do just that. When we clarify that the true nature of resurrection hope is not the ongoing extension of creaturely life, or the denial of the profound corruption of death, then by the Spirit we can be empowered to “stop fighting” when it is time, but to keep hope like my friend; to keep lamenting and compassionately responding in a world where the kingdom of death seeks to move forward, even as we recognized that we are witnesses to King Jesus and not saviors who can fix the unfixable problem of death. God alone, with his covenantal preference for life, can awaken his people to a resurrection life in Christ, such that death does not have the final word.