The ambiguity of death

Should Christians see death as an enemy to be feared and resisted or as a friend welcoming us to a new and better home? Or, as Paul Griffiths argues, is it both? On the one hand it is a horrible consequence of sin and a sign of our brokenness. On the other hand, it is “a transition to a new condition,” and one whose way has been marked out and sanctified by Jesus himself.

And, Griffiths argues that the ambiguous nature of death has two interesting implications. First, it should lead us to emphasize that life is a good to be cherished and one that should not be lightly cast off through life-ending practices like euthanasia. But, more interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Griffiths draws a second conclusion from death’s ambiguity:

To jettison the view that death is a friend to be welcomed, a friend who will greet you one day whether you like it or not, suggests blindness to life eternal and a fixation on postponing death at all costs and for as long as possible. That fixation, because of our ever-increasing capacity to keep the body alive, now often leads to tormenting the body and the person by refusing to permit death to do its work.

Both of my parents worked for years in the nursing home industry. So, I have witnessed first-hand what happens when the ambiguity is lost and death becomes something to be resisted at all costs. Every family must face these decisions for themselves, but watching the doctors resuscitate the same ninety year-old man for the fifth time, practicing every emergency measure available in a technologically advanced society, knowing full well that the end has come and that such measures can only hold death back for a few days at best, makes you ask some hard questions.

Griffiths hints that we need to consider issues of global equity and justice when a country like America spends as much money as it does keeping its wealthy citizens comfortable and healthy despite the costs involved and regardless of the disease and death rampaging through the rest of the world. (On a similar note, see the recent Yahoo news article today on the rise of unnecessary back surgeries in America.)  To combat this, he concludes that we “need to begin to think and teach again, in public, about the ars moriendi, the art of dying.”

So, for the first half of the essay, I thought Griffiths did a nice job challenging us to recognize the ambiguous nature of death for Christians. Unfortunately, the latter half of the essay went in directions that I found less compelling. Swinging the pendulum too far back in the other direction, Griffiths concluded that Christians can (should?) pay less attention to preventative care and diagnostic testing, and we should spend less time celebrating those who have “survived” in their battles against illness. Neither of these conclusions seems warranted and both press against his earlier contention that we should cherish and celebrate life as a gift. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with seeing each of these as examples of human flourishing, even as we try to redress the balance between death as curse and death as gift.

What do you think? What is the proper response of the Christian in the face of life-threatening illness? How do you counsel people to deal with their own mortality? Do we have a responsibility as wealthy westerners to be more careful with the way that we use the world’s resources to sustain our own lives?


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 8, 2010, in Anthropology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I am not sure if we can view death as a friend to be welcomed. I am not really comfortable with the “ambiguity” of death. Scripture clearly states death as an enemy to be done away with at the return of Christ.

    Of course, because Christ died in our place, we no longer have to fear death, because our death will not end in eternal separation from God. Thus, we have hope in Christ, the hope of resurrection. However, this does not make death a friend to be welcomed.

    Biblical thinking, I believe, is that the disembodied souls of the saints in the presence of God now are looking forward to being embodied again in a new, imperishable bodies. This suggests that their being in the presence of God as disembodied souls is less than what God has originally intended. So, they wait and long for “that day.”

    Instead of learning the art of dying, we should learn the art of living, the life Christ intended for us. If we lived our lives in a manner God intended for us, my guess is that we will die well. Even when you may have an aggressive cancer, it’s a matter of how you live moment by moment, gracefully communicating Christlikeness to those around you.

    When it comes to all the medical technology and services available in some wealthy countries, I don’t think it’s a simple issue. How much of it is driven by a genuine desire to preserve life as much as possible instead of a lustful desire to make profit? If you have the medicine for AIDS, but cannot provide it to those in the majority world because of its price, then are you willing to lower it so that they can afford it? If not, you are perpetuating the global inequality and injustice.

    This is an area that we can’t be legalistic about. This is where we need to apply our ethical improvisation, improvisation meaning acting from “habit in ways appropriate to the circumstance (Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 65).”

  2. While I would completely agree that death is an “enemy”, and that we should long to see it ultimately defeated in the end, I do think there is more ambiguity in our current state. I’d put it in the same general category as pain and suffering in general. We’d never want to say that pain and suffering in themselves are good things. They are also the result of living in a broken world. Nonetheless, in our current state, pain and suffering do serve some useful purposes. They can cause us to learn and grow, they can teach us about humility and dependence, they can alert us to problems in our life and the world around us. So, I’d say that a similar ambiguity arises with respect to pain and suffering. And, I think we can make a similar mistake with respect to pain and suffering. If we see them only as enemy, then we take an “avoid pain at all costs” approach that is almost as unhealthy as a “pain is good” mentality.

    Coming back to the issue of death, I see the same dynamics at work. We don’t need to reject the idea of death as enemy. That’s an important part of the framework and Griffiths points out some problems that arise whenever we forget this. But, in our fallen state, I still think that there is a sense of death as friend. It marks the point of transition from our fallen brokenness to the eschatological realization of God’s purposes for me. I still look forward to the day when death is no more, but I don’t have to view my own death as only enemy.

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