We have several houses in our neighborhood that really get into the Halloween spirit. Every year they’re decked with all kinds of scary things—witches, ghosts, goblins, giant spiders, black cats (any of kind cat would work for me), and pumpkins carved to demonstrate what a psychotic dentist could do to you if he really wanted.
And, without fail, each yard has its own supply of skeletons. Now, I can understand how most of those other things would be scary, but skeletons? What exactly is a skeleton going to do to you? They don’t have any muscles, so I’m guessing they can’t run very fast. (Actually, without muscles they shouldn’t be able to move at all, making them even less scary.) And, if they did somehow manage to catch you, what are they going to do, poke you with a finger? Those bony hands can’t be very good at holding onto things, so good luck using a knife or any other weapon. And, they don’t really have any special powers. I’ve never heard of skeletons suddenly being able to fly, cast spells, or shoot fireballs from their empty eye sockets. They do have teeth, but they’re generally not very sharp. So I suppose your worst case scenario is that the skeleton would catch you napping and start gnawing on your leg. Unpleasant, but not terribly scary.
So, why are skeletons scary? I think it’s because skeletons represent a human person without life—no flesh, no spirit, no warmth…no life—an empty person. And, that’s scary.
Now, imagine that you’re standing in a valley with the hills rising all around you. Shifting your weight a bit, you hear a crunching sound. You assume at first that you’re standing on some dry leaves, but that impression flees as soon as you look down. Bones. Dry, brittle bones all around your feet. Slowly you raise your eyes again and see that the entire valley is filled with skeletons—jumbled piles of blanched bones blanketing the valley floor. And, imagine that these aren’t just any bones, these are the bones of your people—your families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, all turned into dry bones and scattered uselessly across the ground. Not very pleasant , is it?
That’s what Ezekiel saw (Ezekiel 37:1-14). God showed Ezekiel the nation of Israel as a valley full of dry bones. Because that’s what Israel had become: a people separated from God, sapped of life, discarded among the nations. East of Eden.
Walking around among the bones, Ezekiel is struck by how dry these bones are. That might seem a little odd. Of course the bones are dry. Why wouldn’t they be? The point, though, is not simply that the bones were not wet, but that they were without Spirit. The Bible routinely associates the Spirit of God with water and life (e.g. Jer. 17:3; 31:12; Ezek. 47:9). So, in the vision, the very dryness of these bones shows that they are without Spirit, without the life that only God’s Spirit can provide. The bones are God’s people without God’s Spirit.
Notice the stark contrast between the Valley of Bones and the Garden of Eden. The Valley is dead and dry, but the Garden contained life, water, and Spirit. In the Valley, God’s people are separated from him, cut off from the source of life. In the Garden, God’s people walked intimately with him, bringing him glory throughout creation. The Valley is east of Eden. And, God’s people are in the Valley.
But, God offers more. The coming one, the one that God has been promising since the Garden, he will also bring with him a new spirit for God’s people. He will be the one on whom God puts his Spirit (Isa. 42:1). And, when he comes, God will pour out his spirit “on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). All of God’s people will receive God’s spirit again.
And, when the promised one brings the promised Spirit and pours it out upon God’s people, the Valley of Bones will again be filled with life! “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek. 37:5-6).
Think back to the Garden. When God created Adam from the dry dust of the earth, he breathed into him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). But, Adam rejected the God of life and was separated from the source of life. Here, God demonstrates his faithfulness to all of humanity by again breathing into his people the breath of life. He will not allow his people to remain trapped in the Valley of Death, but he promises that he will again restore them to life.
When he comes…God’s people will live again.
[Read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.]
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?