Q & R: After Easter: Is Death Now Our Friend? Brad Jersak
“Easter is God’s ‘victory over death.’ Death is no longer the curse that it was. It is no longer the power that rules. It is no longer the enemy to be feared. But here’s the twist. In doing so, Jesus also reclaims death and befriends it – not death in its perverted form, but death in its state of grace. Jesus reclaims death as a natural blessing to the rhythm of life and shows us that it is possible to befriend it.”
|Woman grieving after death of 70+ in Pakistan|
My first reaction to this quote is that while it sounds wonderful, perhaps the author wrote it from a great distance to those who have recently experienced death as an enemy … and should maintain that distance for the time being. But before being immediately dismissive, let’s have another look at Easter, death and dying.
What is death, in fact? I am working to free my mind from previous definitions and assumptions, in order to see a fundamental shift in the nature of death as a result of Christ’s work. In light of 1 Cor. 15:26, I’m not ready to call death a friend yet, but how might this statement be true? Three points bear considering.
1. How has our relationship to death been altered as a result of Resurrection Sunday? I need not move from enmity to friendship with death in order to make the basis NT assertion that death has apparently lost its sting (which is not to say, its grief … a different issue). Death’s sting was that either we ‘were no more’ or that we were consigned to the gloom of sheol/hades. Death’s sting is the fear or death-anxiety common to humanity. Through our death-anxiety, the devil held us in bondage and it is that fear of death and subsequent demonic bondage from which Christ has freed us. Heb. 2:14-15 (and maybe Jn. 14:1-6).
If death is an enemy, it is no longer an enemy I need fear. This suggests to me that perhaps death in the NT is not synonymous with the cause of death, the experience of dying, the moment of death or the grievous aftermath for the survivors. All of these remain most unwelcome, in want of God’s compassion, comfort and/or healing.
Rather, in the NT death per se relates to the destiny of those who are dead. That is, death and ‘the grave’ were synonymous, used in tandem in the same manner of Hebrew parallelism. If so, then Christ has not only changed my relationship to death but fundamentally changed the nature of death itself. Thus…
2. How has the nature of death itself been altered by resurrection Sunday? Christ and the NT as a whole handle this shift in the nature of death in two broad ways.
a. One approach is to say that death itself has changed. Death used to mean ‘consigned to the grave’ (whatever that meant) and then with Paul, came to mean ‘present with the Lord.’ Death as our destiny shifts radically with the harrowing of hades, the emptying of ‘the grave’, such that death-as-moment may remain a door from this life, but it opens into an entirely new reality to be embraced. If death-as-destiny used to be an equivalent for hades, it now becomes equivalent to promotion to Mt. Zion. If that is the new death reality, and if that reality IS our reality (everyone dies), then there is this point of view where it can be embraced. Embraced, not as the thing that rips my spirit from my body (the moment), but embraced as the place of joy that lies beyond that moment.
b. But an even more prominent theme in the NT seems to be a denial of death altogether. This only confirms that the NT does not equate the moment-of-death with death itself. The NT treats death (or ‘perishing’) as something believers will not experience. The most dramatic example:
John 11:25-26 – Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Clearly he doesn’t mean we won’t experience the moment we call death, but rather, that their destiny is not and never will be death as ‘the grave’ or ‘sheol’ or ‘hades.’ In other words, he maintains the old definitions of death and says, ‘That’s not going to happen to you!’ That death is not our friend. Not only do we not embrace it; we won’t even experience it; we won’t ‘go there.’
I would suggest that is why Jesus does not refer to the moment of death as death. Rather, for Christ, he usually calls that moment is ‘falling asleep.’ He won’t concede to calling it death because if he holds the keys of death and hades, no one is ultimately stuck there. Being stuck there is the problem that he forever ended.
I believe this is how the NT predominantly deals with death-as-destiny. But this still leaves us with the reality of the moment-of-death. Do we fight that? Do we embrace that? As the door of mortality to Zion is it a friend? Or as a grotesque curse of the fall, do we resist it to the end?
3. Dying is an inevitable reality that I accept: Dying is not death-as-destiny. It’s a process prior to death. And I suggest we attach the moment-of-death to dying as it is part of the dying process. But I also suggest that we treat dying independently from the cause-of-dying. Thus, we have:
a. The cause of dying: Cancer, heart disease, strokes, car accidents are causes of death that we instinctively want to avoid, prevent, treat and cure. Cancer is never my friend, heart disease is never my friend, etc. We know this. We automatically oppose these enemies of humanity as did Christ whenever he encountered them. He referred to sickness and disease as oppressors and treated them as such.
b. Dying. I’ll come back to it.
c. Death = Death once referred to the gloomy grave, sheol, hades from which we’ve already been rescued and need no longer fear. This too was an enemy, which the NT treats as a prison that he has forever unlocked. When the Son of God holds the keys to death and hades, what do we think he does with them!? This was settled that first Easter. As John Owen proclaimed, ‘The death of death in the death of Christ.’
Now back to the question, ‘Is death now our friend?’
It seems to me the statement is not talking about embracing either the cause of death nor the defunct state of the grave as an afterlife prison. It seems to primarily be referring to acceptance of the dying process once it truly begins as a human inevitability. They accept it on the basis of the equally inevitable resurrection aftermath. That is, dying is no longer bound to death, but to our place before the throne of grace.
If we are bound for Zion, then once the cursed cause of death, which we’ve fought in every way through medicine and through prayer, has done its work and we are now truly dying, then instead of fretting and thrashing against reality, we practice acceptance and surrender (a la the 12-step tradition) so that dying itself becomes an occasion for Christ’s presence.
The Problems with the above thesis include the following:
a. Who can know when the dying process has truly begun? How do we know when it’s time to surrender? What if it’s not time? Or if it’s not time, why do most nevertheless die?
b. In the NT, on rare occasions, Jesus and the apostles opposed the moment-of-dying itself, at least temporarily, whenever they practiced a resurrection. Why did they bring these people back only to have them die again later? And if they had this power, why not every funeral? Are we to suppose that no one is to pass away? They seem to be resisting a premature death based on either the fact that they were children, or friends, or still useful here. But at some point, there is a recognition that all will and must fall asleep.
Towards a posture towards disease, dying and death: What if we did not have to discern when it’s time to surrender a loved one to the arms of Christ because such surrender was already inherent in our prayers before disease, before dying, before death? We never need to surrender to disease, dying or death because our surrender is always only to Christ. Thus, we do not need to move from fight-mode against the disease into acquiescence towards death … we might not need to discern when it’s time to despair because we never do. My healthy children are given into his care, my sickly mother is given into his care, my dying grandma is given into his care … with an openness and expectancy that ‘surrender to his care’ is their best odds at a divine healing or a medical success, while at the same time enjoying the maximum sense of God’s loving presence as they battle disease and experience dying.
In my experience, the tension between fighting for a healing and walking through the grief of dying can be unbearable and even double-minded. Those who want to maintain an atmosphere of healing often lapse into denial and trying to approach healing faith through a sort of spiritual wilfulness that we mistake for authority. The one who is sick or dying feels emotionally abandoned or even refused permission to experience the reality of their pain. On the other hand, those who have despaired of healing or are afraid to pray for it may also leave the sick or the dying feeling a similar abandonment to their disease and despair. Either can be worse than dying.
In my experience, the first order of business seems to be ‘presence.’ My presence to their situation, to their pain, to their needs. And God’s felt presence throughout the journey, whether it is a healing or dying path. The way I practice this presence is through attention, openness, receptivity, to welcome the presence of Emmanuel. When I practice that, that is when I have seen the most dramatic healings (way more frequently than when I practice faith declarations and authoritative commands) BUT ALSO, when I practice that, the dying don’t feel abandoned and the unsuccessful healing doesn’t lead the sick into shame or striving. I need not flip-flop between fighting and despairing because it’s all about surrender to presence. More than that, I need not focus on death as my enemy or my friend. I focus on the presence of the living Christ with us through every experience.