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Death, the Enemy

Sitting here in the library on a dreary, rainy December day, I find myself thinking about death—which is ironic, and perhaps a little morbid considering the fact that we’re in a season of the year which is focused on the birth of Christ, who came to give us new life. Nevertheless, I’ve been mulling over a conversation I had with a student on the last day of the class I taught at CBC this past semester—a conversation in which she wondered why I had presented death as the ultimate “enemy” of humanity in my final lecture. “Why do we need to see death as an enemy?” she asked. “Why not just look at it as a normal part of life and make the most of the time we have?”

At first I was a little taken aback. The Bible does, after all, present death as an enemy and we were concluding a class on Biblical Studies. It seemed strange, at least in a Bible College context, for me to have to be arguing that death represented a feature of the world that was not meant to be—an enemy that human beings were created to find unnatural, and to resist and rebel against.

I asked her if she had ever had anyone close to her die (she hadn’t) or knew of the pain and heartache that the living feel as loved ones slip into dementia or various other forms of mental and physical decay. My own experience of this is very limited as well, but from what little I have been through and observed, regardless of how “natural” we may understand the physical process of death to be, it is experienced as an enemy for those who face it and those whose lives will have gaping holes left by those who have departed.

Death is an enemy because it is the negation of life. This happens most obviously in physical death. A physical being is no longer present among us, but, perhaps as importantly, neither is the life they brought to everyone within their scope of influence. Each person who knew them suffers a mini-death. We who are alive can and do bring life to others—in the ways that we relate to them, meet needs, love, affirm, and care for them. No matter if new friends, lovers, parents and children come along, the specific part of our lives that was touched by the specific part of the deceased’s life in just that particular way, is gone. Death isn’t just an enemy because we, as selfish individuals, want to keep on living. We are (or ought to be) a source of life to others as well; the loss of individual lives are corporate losses as well.

These things were going through my head this afternoon when I came across this passage from Jürgen Moltmann in a chapter he wrote for World Without End: Christian Eschatology from a Process Perspective:

Just as love is the communication of life, so Evil is experienced in the breaking off of what is necessary for life…. Evil in human life is always linked with death somehow. In breaking off a relationship, I threaten the other with “social death”… and create for myself deep loneliness. Through unloving behavior, I spread hatred and close doors which should be open. With jealousy and envy I deprive others of due respect and seek to humiliate them. In virtue of malicious gossip I defame them behind their backs. With murder and vicious assault human beings take lives of others directly and their own lives indirectly. Every diminishment of a life that is reliant on trust and affirmation is evil.

So is death our enemy? I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to talk to this young woman again, but I remain convinced that yes, death is a bitter enemy and we are not crazy to view it as such, no matter how “natural” it may seem in the environment we find ourselves in. It is the ultimate “diminishment,” the ultimate betrayal of the trust and affirmation necessary for human flourishing. Death represents the termination both of the life we experience and the life we impart to others. Even when we have failed to live well or affirm life in others, continued existence always holds the possibility of redemption, forgiveness, new beginnings, new chances to live well. Ultimately, I suppose, it is this redemptive horizon that life presents to us that leads me to affirm the inherent goodness of life. Insofar as death—whether it be physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual—cuts this off, it is an enemy.

Christmas may seem like an inappropriate time for such heavy matters (if you’ve read this far and I’ve robbed you of your holiday cheer, please accept my apologies), but I do think that it’s important to keep the whole story in mind at this time of year. The hope and promise of new life symbolized by Bethlehem’s manger must be seen alongside the brutality of Golgotha three decades later. Both are necessary parts of the story of the beginning of the end of death, our defeated enemy.

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