Blog Archives

What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man….The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.

These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.

A prayer for Sunday (John Chrysostom)

I’m cheating a little with today’s prayer, since it isn’t actually a prayer. But, the end of Chrysostom’s Easter homily (ca. AD 400) is so powerful that I thought it worth posting this morning. Have a blessed Easter!

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Flotsam and jetam (8/31)

Historical Jesus sighting

As promised, Brian has posted some reflections on last night’s discussion between Marcus Borg and Paul Anderson on the subject of the origin of the Gospels. He led off with a post interacting with Borg’s tendency to claim a scholarly consensus for his positions, something Brian apparently finds a little annoying. And, he followed that up with a summary of Borg’s presentation. Brian does a nice job summarizing some things that he appreciated, while still concluding that Borg’s understanding of the historicity of the Gospels and the nature of the post-resurrection Jesus is just wrong. And, there will be a follow-up post summarizing Anderson’s counter-presentation, which emphasized particularly the historicity of the Johannine tradition.

A Review of “What Is the Gospel” by Greg Gilbert

I’m working my way through several books that have written recently on the subject of “What Is the Gospel.” So, of course, I have to comment on a book actually called What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010). In this brief book (only 127 pages), Greg Gilbert offers a concise explanation of the Gospel and some warnings about contemporary misunderstandings of the Gospel.

Gilbert begins by looking at how Paul explained the Gospel in Romans 1-4. Here he identifies what he sees as the four core truths of the Gospel, which he summarizes as God, man, Christ, and response.

  1. God is the Creator to whom all people are accountable.
  2. Humans have rebelled against God.
  3. God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  4. Humans can be included in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

The next four chapters focus on unpacking each of these ideas a bit more. Here he does a particularly good (though brief) job connecting the idea of Jesus as the messianic king coming to establish God’s Kingdom for his people, and Jesus as the suffering servant coming to offer his life as a sacrifice for the people.

In the next chapter he discuss the Kingdom of God as “God’s redemptive rule, reign, and authority over those redeemed by Jesus” (p. 88). And, he does a nice job emphasizing that ultimately the Kingdom is something that only God can bring about. We live as ambassadors of the Kingdom and are called to live Kingdom lives in a broken world, but we can’t actually bring about the Kingdom in the world.

In the seventh chapter, Gilbert argues against several ways of presenting the Gospel that he thinks moves the cross out of the center where it belongs. And here he is primarily concerned with people who call for a “bigger” Gospel – i.e. a Gospel that focuses primarily on believing that “Jesus is Lord”, that creation-fall-redemption-consummation is the Gospel, or that the Gospel is all about cultural transformation. He correctly points out that each of these three approaches can have a tendency to downplay the cross, or even ignore it altogether. But, he also does a good job of not going too far and rejecting these ideas entirely. He simply wants to see that the cross remains central in any attempt to unpack or explain the Gospel message.

As I turn to some critical comments, I need to be a little careful. Some of my criticisms will involve some things that Gilbert didn’t do, or didn’t do enough of. And, to be fair, in such a short book it would have been difficult for Gilbert to address these issues. Nonetheless, in a book on the essence of the Gospel, there are a few more things that I would have liked to see.

First, Gilbert doesn’t do as much as I’d like to ground the Gospel in the narrative of the Bible. My guess is that this is because he is targeting a Christian audience and he expects them to know the story already. But, as I commented early in “Why We Need Thick Gospel Narratives,” I think we need to do a better job in general of grounding people in the biblical storyline that makes the Gospel make sense. Gilbert is aware of that and even comments on that when he discusses the Creation-fall-redemption-consummation approach to the Gospel. But, he doesn’t engage the narrative framework much in this book.

Second, Gilbert says very little about the resurrection or the Spirit in his understanding of the Gospel. He is rightly cross-centered, but to the near exclusion of other important realities. He doesn’t completely ignore them (see pp. 69-70, 96-97), but he comes close.

Third, similarly I would have liked to see Gilbert do more with the empowerment of the Spirit and the transformed life of the people of God as new Kingdom realities in the world. He deals with this very briefly under the heading of “The Kingdom of God”, but it’s clearly not a central issue for him. I’m sure this is at least partly because his concern throughout is to make sure that the cross remains central to the Gospel, so he’s hesitant to spend too much time addressing issues that might shift the attention in other directions. But, surely we can come up with a way of talking about the Gospel that keeps the cross at the center while still not neglecting the rest of the story.

[Update: I just realized that I never actually completed this review by offering a concluding evaluation. Overall, this is a fine, little book. It should be used with its purposes and limitations in mind. It doesn’t say anything particularly new (it wasn’t trying to), but what it does say it says clearly and accessibly. It’s probably targeted at the average church goer who needs to develop his/her understanding of the Gospel a bit more, but with a view toward getting them into something a bit more expansive down the road.]