Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Problem of Death (Part I)

While the Problem of Identity may be the most important one in our cultural climate, the Problem of Death just may be even more central to the human existence. If it is not felt as pressing in our age, it is not because the problem has diminished, but because death has become such an abstract concept in our time. There are some rather dubious ways our culture has come to deal with the problem, such as the strong notion of "living on" in one's children, no doubt a result of the strong influence of biology on our way of looking at life. On the other hand, the problem of Death cannot be disregarded, because it crops up in other areas of our life instead.

The Problem of Death manifests itself as fear. We can fear many things: to loose a job, to be robbed, to catch a disease. These fears, however, are fairly easily traced back to an underlining fear of death. We fear to loose a job ultimately because we fear we will not be able to survive. Fear of loss of all material things go back on our longing to be safe from harm. We also fear the death of those we are close to. It is not only the thought of no longer being alive that we fear, it is death itself, wherever it manifests itself. We fear the loss of those close to us, because such a loss leaves us vulnerable.

The Christian faith presents the answer to the problem of death in the victory over death of Christ, and in His resurrection, understood as a kind of proof that we too one day will rise from the dead.

Now, what does this mean? I will gladly confess that this, to me, is the most difficult part of the Christian doctrine, and I think it can be no other way. Any theology that avoids to ask this question is betraying its purpose.

I think the above description of fear as a force that is found in all areas of life can be a key to understanding what the talk about Jesus being victorious over death is about. I already pointed out that Jesus, in being "one with the Father" was completely secure in his identity, and the notion that he was without sin indicates that no force alien to himself affected him.

Fear makes us vulnerable to such forces. Take for example the most clearly demonic force in our time, advertising. Few adds these days does not try to trigger our fears: fear of being unacceptable, fear of being ugly, fear of getting old, fear of getting sick. But this is true of almost any force that has power over a person: the boss can influence you only under the (unspoken) threat of firing you. In the end, all the laws of society is upheld, if not by the final threat of death penalty, at least by the threat of removing the right to decide what to do with life by imprisonment.

A person without fear can not be manipulated by any force. This is what we see in the life of Jesus. He is free from fear of death (mind you, this doesn't mean he finds it pleasant) and therefore free from all fears. This is why he can display this complete integrity in the face of all authorities. They have no way to force him to anything.

This means that Jesus has overcome death already before his death. By being free from sin he has overcome fear and death has lost its "sting".

How does this relate to the afterlife, and to us? I will continue this line of thought tomorrow.


James said...


I like the work you're doing on this issue. I've been working out a theology of post-modernism (there I go, I said the p-word). I hope to blog a deconstructionist view of the resurrection tomorrow. That said, perhaps my posts could contribute to this dialogue. Give it a read and let me know what you think.


Patrik said...

I'm following your work, I will probably comment it when I get a feeling for where you're going. I'm not 100% sure of post-modernism, though, I'm in the camp that prefer to talk about late-modernism, seeing that we still very much subscribe to central parts of the modern view of the world. But keep it up, by all means!

i.m.small said...


I´ve had enough of well-stoked fear:
Disaster may before me lie,
But I´ll not listen more, you hear,
Because the threat--even sincere--
Perturbs too much, when I might die.

One death were not the worst of it,
I do believe. For I have had my fill
Of pondering with my brows knit
On matters that have yet to hit,
Nor know not will come well or ill.

I do my best to be prepared--
That´s prudent, not one to indulge
My lusts or luxuries. If scared
Regardless I have always dared,
Yet fear needs not to over-bulge.

Atop a striving toward restraint,
Detachment in adversity
And times of favor equal, saint
Nor sinner overmuch, from taint
Of soul´s dishonor I would flee.

By keeping honest, and in terms
Forthright with heaven, to what purpose
Harboring fear? We are not worms,
Our chance less than a single sperm´s
To start with--who had mothers burp us.

All wends to death, come late or soon;
Therefore no matter what the time is,
Receive the blessing as high noon:
To harbingers of fear attune
Not soul which ready for a climb is.