Death permeates the Bible. The consequence of Adam and Eve eating from the tree is that they will surely die. When God speaks to Adam, he says to him, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) Immediately following, we read about Cain killing his brother, Abel. In Hebrew, Abel’s name is connected to the most common word in Ecclesiastes. Abel’s life is a vapor, meaningless, vanity. He is cut down in the middle of his life because he was more righteous than his brother. Death comes for us all.
In the next chapter of Genesis, death continues to be prominent. In tracing the genealogy, there is a recurrent phrase, “and he died.” And he died. And he died. And he died. And he died. It is jarring. Like scenes in movies where flashbacks have a recurring sound that grows in intensity, “and he died.” In the middle of this, there is the story of Enoch, who walked with God and was not.
Yet death is pushed to the periphery today. Have we lost something in understanding the Bible? Have we missed part of the gospel? If we remember death, can we grow in the effectiveness of our apologetics?
In Remember Death, Matthew McCullogh has written about death so that the gospel of hope in Jesus Christ is clearer. The book works as a form of affective apologetics. If our apologetics is a defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must remember death. We must witness to the reality of death so that the gospel of hope can shine brightly.
Death, however, has slipped to the periphery (ch. 1). Two examples show that this is odd, historically speaking. First, Blaise Pascal imagines a number of men chained up under the sentence of death where some are killed each day in the sight of others. The ones that remain await their turn by seeing their own fate in those who are killed. “This is an image of the human condition,” Pascal states.
A second example comes from Cotton Mather. He suggested allowing everyday details to trigger thoughts on death,
Thinking those examples show that Pascal and Mather were a bit neurotic or deranged simply proves that death has been pushed away from us. McCullogh gives four factors that have caused this change. First, death has moved from the house to the hospital. It is no longer an experience among us but something secluded and outside of us. Second, modern medicine has given us a sense of entitlement where we believe that any form of dying can be prevented with the latest surgery, medicine, or something else. Third, the modern practice of burial shows this. McCullogh gives examples of comfortable or fancy clothes for the dead, how great the interior of the casket is, the gravesite itself, and more. Finally, death has been pushed away in our language. I reflected on this recently when my grandfather passed away. When people would ask how he was doing, I was not sure of how to answer. Did you notice the language I used? He “passed away.” At other times, I said he died. But that is so foreign to modern ears.
Here McCullogh heads off an objection that is worth considering. Isn’t our culture obsessed with death? It is on the news and the central point of the most popular television shows. But these depictions show death as something not common, the result of some tragic circumstance, a serial killer, or a zombie. As death is pushed from ordinary discourse, we engage in fantasizing about the reality. Death becomes exotic. As Sigmund Freud says,
Death Points to the God of Life
The following chapters show how remembering death clears away so many of our answers and points to the gospel of King Jesus.
Death is the Great Leveler
Death shows us that we are not too important to die (ch. 2). All of our accomplishments will be lapped up by the waves of time. We will all slip like sand through the hands of time. Death is the great leveler of us all. Genesis shows us that our dignity is profoundly right, for we are all created in the image of God. However, it is a created and gifted dignity.
This created and gifted dignity is grounded in union with Christ. As McCullogh says,
Death marks us off in one way, as condemned, fragile, and alienated. God’s answer in justification is that we are precious and loved in his sight. God’s answer in adoption is that we are his beloved children who are one with one another.
The Realization of Futility
Death also gives a sense of futility (ch. 3). Drawing on Ecclesiastes, McCullogh shows that none work, pleasure, or wealth can overcome this sense of futility. They will all slip away.
At the root of the problem of futility is the question of what can deliver from death, what can overcome death’s power, where can one find hope and purpose.
None of these idols can deliver us. Only the one who swallowed up death by his death and has thereby sealed the fate of the death of death can deliver us. Only when our work, our pleasure, our wealth, and everything else find their proper ordering can they be experienced as not ultimately futile. Once we stop striving to overcome death through these means, we can trust the God of life who will defeat death and gives meaning and purpose to our present lives.
Impermanence and Irreversibility
Death-awareness also exposes the problems of impermanence and irreversibility (ch. 4). Impermanence shows us that nothing lasts. Every meal has a final bite. Every joke has a final laugh. All of this is irreversible too. We cannot get back the final moments with our departed loved one. We cannot draw back the wonderful memories of friends or family we once had. And one day, all of it will be gone as the permanence of our beating heart and active mind stop. We will lose it all when we die. These two aspects of death are all around us:
Highlighting the gospel of John, McCulogh discusses the phrase eternal life. This is about a full life, an abundant life. This is a life that Jesus brings that gives fullness to our present lives. Do not be mistaken, this is a Christoform and cruciform life, but it is a life that overcomes the impermanence and irreversibility that we all experience. This full life is grounded in the final life we will have in communion and union with God.
The Hope of Glory
Next, McCulogh takes up the problems of life and the hope of glory (ch. 5). Drawing on 4:16-18, McCulogh shows that the hope of glory makes the problems of life light and momentary. This does not downplay or deny the reality of the problems of life, it simply highlights how great the glory that awaits us is. This helps us overcome discontent, envy, and anxiety. Death helps us see that these are problems that we need not face because death is the leveler of us all. The gospel of Jesus Christ helps us face up to the reality of hurt, pain, suffering, loss, love, goodness, beauty, and more because we know the glory that awaits us is eternal and weighty.
The final chapter of Remember Death is entitled “Grieve in Hope” (ch. 6). Embracing death-awareness means embracing grief in this life. We will love and lose. We will invest and not receive back. We will build and our efforts will crumble. The gospel does not deny grief, it embraces it. But it is a grieving hope, a hopeful grieving. As Jesus himself taught, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4) Grief helps clarify where our hope is and where true hope is found. We know that we can grieve in hope because Christ’s resurrection has sealed ours. The new creation has begun. He will bring it to completion one day.
Death pervades the bible. Death invades the world through Adam and will be the last enemy that is defeated by the last Adam. Death-awareness helps us see this life for what it really is: a vapor. Facing the reality of death helps the gospel shine more brightly. Only in the gospel of Jesus Christ do these monstrous realities that pull us in opposite directions find their resolution. This is a form of affective apologetics. We must help others cultivate death-awareness as part of our defense of the faith. As Sarah Coakley says, “[A]s a priest I think rehearsing for death is actually one of the most important things we do as humans because once we’re no longer afraid of death, then we’re no longer afraid of life.”