Death, the Final Boundary

Death, the Final Boundary

It is arguable that the last hundred years have witnessed an interesting reversal in Western society, where the great taboo of the Victorian era and the great obsession of the same period have dramatically switched places. The great taboo for Victorians was, of course, sex. Human beings all depend on sex - ignoring in vitro fertilization for a moment, we are each living proof of an act of sexual intercourse; yet the Victorians proved remarkably adept at keeping the whole matter well and truly out of the public eye. Death, however, was everywhere, from the elaborate funeral rituals and grotesque mausoleums, to the great works of art and literature. Sex the taboo; death the obsession.

Today, the roles are somewhat reversed. Sex is everywhere. I cannot even switch on my television at breakfast time without being confronted with some news story or interview which brings a blush to my wife's cheeks and sees me scrambling for the off-switch before my children receive an unexpected lesson in the latest sexual gossip. Watching commercials is no better: it seems that the notion that sex sells is now universally applied to anything which needs marketing, from paperclips to sports cars. But death - that's a different story. Death is something most of us try to avoid.

Western society has generated various means by which thinking about death can be avoided. On one level, there are the trivial quirks of language: for example, if someone is plucked from a flaming building or a sinking ship, we talk of a life being saved not of a death being postponed. The former seems somehow more acceptable, though the latter is arguably more accurate. Then there is the veritable industry in anti-ageing products, which I have noted in this column before (and confessed to having purchased for my wife). More subtly, there is the trivialization of death in the various movies, TV shows and even newscasts, where it is variously turned into a surreal piece of cartoonish entertainment, an object of saccharine sentimentality, or simply sanitized in a way that can be addressed very briefly and then forgotten about before turning to the weather forecast, or the sports' results. On the news, it's something that happens to other people in far-off countries, or neighbourhoods which few of us frequent. That is why the killing of one white man in the suburbs often precipitates more fear and panic about the end of civilization than the death of thousands in famines abroad or even the daily murder of numerous Hispanics and African Americans just five miles down the road. When it happens to `us,' we can't sanitize it quite as easily.

Yet for all these mechanisms for sanitizing and neutralizing death, death is still stubbornly universal. On the surface it is, after being born, the most natural thing in the world - it would seem certain that everybody, man, woman and child, will one day die. This raises the question of why death is so traumatic: if it is natural, why do I still feel pain, so many years on, when I think of the last time I saw my beloved grandfather alive, knowing he had only hours to live? Why is it a shattering experience to lose a parent, or a sibling, or a friend or, perhaps most nightmarish of all, a child to the last great enemy? If it's natural, why does death wreak such havoc upon us? And why do we go to such lengths to ignore it, to sentimentalize it, or to fictionalize it?

Several thoughts occur to me in this context. Death is not, of course, natural. It is an intrusion into the created realm. When God created man, the only thing that was not good was the fact that he was alone, and woman was thus created to be his companion. There was no sign of death; rather, death intruded into creation as a result of humanity's disobedience and is thus not part of the natural created structure of reality. Wittgenstein somewhere describes death rather memorably as not being an event in life, but a boundary; and the Christian can, I think, say amen to that, with the necessary addition that it is a boundary which should not be there. It is not natural, and thus we should not expect it to bring anything other than chaos and trauma in its wake.

Further, death is total. One can catch a cold and get well again; one can get AIDS and be kept alive now for many years; one can even have a cardiac arrest and still be revived. But death, when all the vital organs shut down, is complete and total. There is no return. I live in a land far from my parents and siblings; but I can get on a plane and be with them in less that ten hours. My grandparents are dead and buried. I can travel all over the world and meet thousands and thousands of people; but not one of them will be my grandfather or grandmother; they are gone; their death is total; they can no longer be found in the land of the living.

Yet as Christians there is that part of us that kicks in at this point: don't all things happen according to God's will? And if death happens according to God's will, what right have we to be angry and hurt by it? Does not the knowledge that God is in control render such feelings wrong?

Of course, the theology underlying this kind of claim is entirely correct. God is indeed in control. But does that mean that we are wrong to feel pain and hurt? Absolutely not. The darkness of death may well fall on each of us at the time and the place and in the manner in which God has decreed, but, as noted above, death is not natural; it is something which runs against the design of nature and it is therefore something which brings chaos and trauma into our lives. Further, the Bible does not just teach that all things happen within the compass of God's will; it also teaches that death is painful, and that feelings of anger, hurt, despair, and sympathy are not wrong. Just read the Psalms and see how the soul of psalmist cries out in agony; and how those very words of agony are used by the Lord to form a substantial part of God's very own book of praise. Then think of Job who mourned and yet did not sin (Job 1:20-22), and even the Lord Jesus Christ himself who stood outside the tomb of his friend and wept (Jn 11:33-36). Sadness, deep sadness, and mourning in the face of death are not wrong: they are the result of being faced with a boundary which should not be there. If Thomas Hobbes could describe life as nasty and brutish, how much more does that description apply to death, the final boundary of that life?

But the unnatural nature of death is not the only reason why it hurts, and why we mourn when it happens. Human beings are not designed to live in isolation; we are made to live in relation with others. We are designed, first and foremost, to live in relation with God. Our fundamental identity is that of God's creatures. To understand myself correctly, I need to understand that I am created by God, in his image, and am utterly dependent upon him for all that I am and do. Yet there's much more to my identity than that. If it was not good for Adam to be alone, then it is clear that Adam was designed not simply to live in relation with God but also to find his full identity by existing in relation to another creature of the same kind. In other words, who I am is not an isolated individual. I am someone who stands in a complex web of relationships with others. Thus, when someone dies, I am reduced, I am damaged, I am changed. Once I had grandparents; now I am the man whose grandparents have gone; once a man was a father; now, tragically, he is no longer a father but the man whose child has died. In each case, those left behind are reduced, they are less than they once were; and that is painful. As John Donne so eloquently stated it: ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

There is, however, one final reason why we find death so painful: the death of others is a mirror in which we see our own mortality reflected back to us. In facing the death of another, we are forced, however briefly, to face up to our own inevitable demise. Most of the time we can and do live our lives as if we are immortal, as if we are little gods, supreme potentates of the universe in which we live; but the death of another is a startling reminder that we are not divine, that there will be a final reckoning with death, that the boundary that should not be there for us will one day be only too present.. Whether it is the passing of a distant acquaintance, whispering to us that we too shall perish; or the death of a close friend or loved one which seems to grab us violently by the throat and forces us to stare into the abyss of our own finitude - whatever it may be, as we witness death in others, we anticipate the day of our own demise.

So death is nasty, brutish, painful for a variety of reasons. How should we then as Christians respond to all this? Let me suggest three things:

First, it is quite all right to mourn, to feel agony and pain, even to taste the bitterness of a certain despair, in the face of death. The psalms and the example of Christ himself surely leave us in no doubt about that. Despair, of course, can never be total for a Christian who looks to God for all things; but great, even overwhelming darkness can exist when we are faced with the reality of death. And if anyone asks, `How can I speak to God in such circumstances?' my advice is simple: if you lack the words yourself, then pray through the Psalms. For example, just read Psalm 88 and see how much despair, albeit set in the context of crying out to God in faith, grips the writer You will find in the Psalms that there is not a single emotion which you feel which the Lord himself has not given us the words to express to him in prayer and praise. Learn to pray the Psalms in private, for there you find the resources to cope with the day of death and darkness. And I've said it before and I'll say it again: the neglect of the Psalter in public Christian worship lays the groundwork for pastoral disaster: it has the effect of short-changing the broken-hearted when they come to God in the company of their brothers and sisters on the Lord's Day. Miserable Christian have every right, and indeed really must, express their misery to God in prayer and praise. To prevent them from doing so is an act of pastoral cruelty. And isn't it wonderful that we have such a God as the one who condescended in love and grace towards broken humanity to give us the psalms for these very times of darkness? Then let's not neglect them; let's use them as much as we can, in private prayer and in public worship.

Second, let us never try to comfort a bereaved believer by simply telling them that the death of a loved one was all within the will of God. That is true, but if we stop there, we give only half the story and make ourselves vulnerable to accusations of pastoral cruelty. The other half of the Christian story when it comes to suffering and death is that we should feel with the hurting and the bereaved in their pain and loss, sympathising, grieving and mourning with them. Perhaps this involves speaking words of comfort, perhaps simply sitting with them in silence as they cry out in pain. But never let us selectively use our theology, however correct it may be, as an excuse to be less than human in the face of another's suffering.

Finally, let us never forget that the gospel is for Christians too. We need to hear the word preached to us, whether from the pulpit on a Sunday or in conversation with other believers. If a brother or sister is mourning, then let us not simply tell them that the death of their loved one is all within the will of God; let us not even stop with simply feeling compassion and sympathy for them; let us also point them to the Lord Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. Death is an outrage, an illegitimate boundary; it is nasty and brutish; but the captain of our salvation has burst through that boundary and come out on the other side. He is risen from the grave; and in his resurrection we see that, though we live in a vale of tears and agony here and now, where death seems to hold all the trump cards, there is a day most certainly coming when we know that we too, and all the loved ones who have gone before us in Christ, will rise to be with Christ. His death was agonizing but it could not hold him; ours will no doubt be terrible and traumatic; but because of Christ, death will not hold us either