Set free from the curse of death, life’s end may therefore be understood more precisely as man’s natural death, as the end of that existence which he is by nature. It is not because of his nature but because of his guilt as a sinner that this natural death can become a curse. From the quite remarkable terminological fact that the New Testament makes a temporal distinction between the curse of death which threatens man’s existence and the true end of man’s life we can see that the end of man’s life does not have to be a curse: both Paul and John can say of believers that this death prior to life’s ending is something which for them is already past (Juengel, Death, 92).
Friday, April 3, 2015
A younger LCMS pastor recently directed a question to me (in the context of a private internet group to which he and I belong): “When it comes to evolution and the Scriptures you never deal with the problem of death. I am very interested and open to theistic evolution but you lose me when it comes to the issue of death. How can it be reconciled with theistic evolution? It just doesn’t jive in my mind.“
A few people thought my response was helpful, so I’m taking the liberty of sharing it here. (I’ve added some content that was not in the original post.)
Death is always with us. We cannot not deal with it. It comes up in expected and unexpected ways. It affects each of us individually and all of us in our various circles of family and friends and fellow believers. For those of us who serve as ministers of Christ in congregations, e.g., as pastors or interim pastors (as I did recently for several years), the reality of death and its effects are near the center of our vocation. In a sense, the essential content of the Christian faith as a whole is directed to the reality of death. We are called to shed light on this reality, to proclaim the judgment of God that is wrapped up with it, and to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We are called to comfort those who mourn and to point to the Risen One as the basis of our hope, especially in the face of death. We proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus as "the death of death." During Lent, the focus on our own mortal nature has been sharpened and intensified: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are mortally aware of our sins and our depraved condition. We are daily reminded of our need for Christ, his forgiveness, his new creation, and the salvation that he freely offers to us and the whole world.
And of course today, on Good Friday, our eyes are directed to the suffering, crucified Christ, even as we also anticipate the joy of Easter morning and the central apostolic proclamation: Christ is risen!
We look upon death differently because of Jesus Christ. We face our death in the sure and certain confidence that because Christ has died and has been raised from the dead, we too shall be raised—and even now may walk in the newness of that resurrected life. “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead… If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God…” (Col. 2.12; 3.1ff.)
That NT teaching is the largest context for dealing with the reality of death and all other earthly realities. That "good news" is at the heart of every evangelical sermon; it is the promise that is attached to the means of grace; it is the center of the Scriptures; it is the basis for all Christian pastoral care (and not merely at funerals); it is the principal theme in all of my university courses in theology. That NT gospel keeps the heartbeat of faith pumping. It is what gets me out of bed in the morning, allows me to go about my vocation with a deep sense of purpose and frequent joy, and gives me a sense of peace when I fall asleep at night.
This being said, one has to note that the context given by Col. 2-3 and similar NT passages is not the only context for addressing the reality of death and the questions it raises. There are other contexts that need to be taken into account as well, at least if one is to probe these matters theologically (i.e., academically, in relation to the natural and human sciences, medical knowledge and ethics). For instance, many contemporary people whom we seek to reach with the gospel—including people who have heard that gospel and continue to hear it and receive it in faith—wonder about the nature of death as a human reality in light of the evidence of death in the plant and animal kingdoms in the long history of the planet. Such evidence indicates that creatures have been dying—and going extinct!—for millions and millions of years, long before the advent of the first human beings. What are we to make of this “hard” evidence?
There is no question that creatures of God were living and dying long before the emergence of the first human creatures. The evidence of these pre-human deaths in nature is as irrefutable as the fact that the earth is spinning on its axis and orbiting the sun (additional natural facts that God has chosen not to reveal in his Holy Scriptures!). As I tell my students, the evidence here is something on which you can stub your toe.
This evidence needs to be taken into account by educated Christians, especially pastors and theologians and others who seek to make sense of the Christian faith in light of contemporary knowledge and in contexts that include scientifically-informed people.
The way I do this is to take note of the fact that the Scriptures illuminate and address the reality of death in the most profound and promising of ways. To begin with, the Scriptures do not contain a single, monolithic understanding of “death.” There is instead a great variety of passages that address and illuminate the reality and threat of death (both “physical,” “bodily” death, and other, harsher kinds of “death,” e.g., alienation and separation from God, “spiritual death,” the “second death” mentioned in Rev. 20.6, 14). Any good Christian dogmatics text will indicate that the Scriptures do not have a monolithic presentation about "death." I have found Pannenberg's reflections on sin and death helpful in this regard (see his Systematic Theology, 2.231ff.).
For the sake of brevity, we may take note of two key emphases about “death” in the Scriptures. On the one hand, natural, physical death is understood to be an aspect of finite, creaturely existence, as an aspect of life itself. This emphasis is especially prominent in many OT passages. “Lord, teach us to number our days [teach us to remember that we have to die] that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90.12). Our lifespan is in the hands of God (Ps. 31.15). Our lives do not belong to ourselves; they are a gift of God. We are created for life, yet in the end, all humans die (Ps. 89.48f.; cf. Eccl. 2.16ff.) It is God who returns people to the dust (Ps. 90.3) So the psalmist prays to God for protection from an untimely death. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73.26). Those who are blessed by the Lord die “old and full of years” (Gen. 25.8; Jud. 8.32; 1 Chr. 29.28). When one comes to a ripe age, “full of days,” then it is time for death. If death comes then, a person has truly lived. “You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, as a shock of grain comes up to the threshing floor in its season” (Job 5.26). Commenting on this aspect of the OT’s teaching about death, Eberhard Juengel remarks: “To be delivered from death means that one’s life is prolonged so that the number of one’s days may be fulfilled (Exod. 23.26). In the end, for Israel, the longed for future time of salvation in the new Jerusalem was pictured as a time when there would be no old man who had not fulfilled his days—that is, who was not ripe for death (see Isa. 65.20; Zech. 8.4). Death can therefore be something other than a curse” (E. Juengel, Death: The Riddle and the Mystery [Westminster, 1974], 76).
In other words, to be a creature, human or otherwise, is to be a finite, mortal being. Finite beings are not eternal. Death marks the end of every life. Every multiple-celled life must die. Physical, biological death is an aspect of our creaturely finitude that we share with all of God's other creatures, going all the way back to the very first simple, single-celled life forms. Creatures have an end. Karl Barth (d. 1968) was right when he wrote, "Finitude means mortality" (Church Dogmatics 3/2.625). The life we are given is an allotted time; it has limits, boundaries. “Death is intrinsically the end and limit of human life” (ibid., 588). “…[I]t also belongs to human nature, and is determined and ordered by God’s good creation and to that extent right and good, that man’s being in time should be finite and man himself mortal… Death is man’s step from existence into non-existence, as birth is his step from non-existence into existence. In itself, therefore, it is not unnatural but natural for human life to run its course to this terminus ad quem, to ebb and fade, and therefore to have this forward limit” (ibid., 632). We live our lives at present always under the shadow of death. “It then becomes clear that dying is the way of all the earth (1 Ki. 2.2)” (Juengel, Death, 67). (Even the Christian who takes the story of Adam and Eve in Gen 2-3 quite literalistically has to agree that “Adam” was subject to death from the very beginning of his being created. Adam/Eve were “mortal” creatures, even before they sinned, something Luther also acknowledged in his great commentary on Genesis.)
On the other hand, the Scriptures elsewhere reveal, especially in the NT, that human death is a judgment from God as a consequence of sin. “The wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6.23). As a result of sin, God has subjected creation to futility. The world is fallen, corrupt, and suffering under the judgment of God. Here death is the sign of God’s judgment. Death has become an enemy, the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15.26). Why? Because death brings us mortal sinners into the hands of Almighty God.
A careful study of the biblical words and Scripture passages relating to “death” helps to uncover the rich variety of meanings that these terms/passages convey for a fuller theological understanding of death. Many of these passages can be understood to fit within an understanding of the natural history of the world that includes the reality of death—the condition of creaturely finitude established by the Creator, the temporal character of all life, of death as the boundary of all life—long before the appearance of the first human beings.
BUT, and this is a big BUT: If physical death is merely talked about as a natural part of life, as merely something to be accepted as a part of the natural rhythm of this created order (though, to be sure, it is this, too), then a key biblical teaching is minimized or even lost. Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr and most other Protestant theologians are right to stress that there is a profound anxiety that overcomes one when one contemplates the reality of one’s death. Here the Pauline emphasis that connects “divine judgment” and “death” is spot on. We know that death is a threat not merely to our existence, but to our standing before God. Through death we enter into God’s perfect judgment. And that judgment is also then a kind of “separation” or “estrangement” from God, the source of our being. To paraphrase Tillich, when we are estranged from the ultimate power of our being, we are then determined by our finitude. We are given over to our natural fate (and all the other creaturely conditions that mark us and define us). We know then too well the truth of what we hear on every Ash Wed and at funeral services: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are under the domination of death and are driven by the anxiety of having to die. That leads to all sorts of other problems and sinful consequences, as we try to secure ourselves against the threat of death and against the sober reality of its being more than a mere inconvenience.
Our Christian hope, however, anticipates a new life beyond death and the divine judgment connected with it, a new life that has dawned for the first time in the multi-billion-year history of planet earth in Jesus of Nazareth. This new life has dawned in his death and resurrection from the dead—God’s decisive, final act in creation. Jesus alone makes this new life possible for all mortal sinners who put their trust in him. (I will leave open the question about whether or not the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the dawn of the new creation in him have positive implications for the future of God’s other creatures. I remain hopeful, in this regard, provided the new life of the dinosaurs means they no longer will eat meat...) God alone is able to bring us through death into new life through Jesus and the creating Holy Spirit. So Scripture also refers to death as liberation from this mortal life and as gain, so as to be with the risen Christ.
The death of Jesus has inaugurated the death of death for us. Jesus has suffered the harshest, most damnable death of all, his suffering of God’s judgment upon all sins, so that we might receive life to the fullest.
So the death of which paleontologists, biologists, anthropologists, and other natural scientists speak, and which they analyze, needs to be set into that larger context to which the author of Colossians spoke (and speaks!). "Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth." There is here a more profound understanding of death than that which any natural scientist or medical doctor could offer, based on his/her scientific understandings of this old, fallen creation (as important as this latter knowledge is for our understanding of human beings and their place in the natural history of the world). The law and gospel of God offer a new interpretation of death, but not merely that. The gospel promises a great victory over death and the grave/ash urn/final resting place of human dust. “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14.9). That Easter promise makes all the difference for your finite, mortal, sinful dust. (For a profound reflection on precisely this point, see Bob Bertram’s classic, “Pardon My Dying: A Sequel to Ash Wednesday,” which is available at the online Crossings website. See also Ed Schroeder's essay, "Encountering the Last Enemy," which builds on reflections in Tod und Leben [Life and Death] by Ed's Doktorvater, Thielicke.)
Dying has been occurring in God’s creation since the beginning of the earliest life forms. At least for human beings, who uniquely bear the image of God and who are mortal sinners under the law of God, such “damned dying” (to quote Bertram) needs forgiving and it needs a resurrection.
Hence, the return to baptism again and again. While all creaturely life leads to death, Holy Baptism takes one from death to new life. According to the Gospel of John, the person who hears Jesus and believes the One who sent him, has eternal life; “he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5.24). Cf. the Colossians passage above, which makes the same point.