Few welcome death, and those who do mostly see it as an escape or respite from their present suffering. Typical discourse on death is that it is the enemy of humanity, the unnatural consequence of sin, and victory of evil over the world and all it’s inhabitants. The war on death has been waged longer and more fiercely than the war on drugs, the war on poverty and the war on terror, all the while quietly claiming more casualties. Doctors are preoccupied with slowing aging, increasing longevity, and cheating death as long as possible. Fountains of youth are still sought, ascension to higher plains still desired, and immortality still pined for by the fearful. Yet, is death meant to be this enemy to humanity? Is death really so unnatural, or has it been made to be unnatural? Does death have the potential to be a gift rather than a curse?
Popular modern religious thought is that death was never a part of God’s plan and was only introduced to the world through the Fall. Most Christians have been told at least once in their lives that God never willed for any of us to die, and that Eden was a sinless paradise void of pain, suffering, discomfort and death. Nowhere, however, does Scripture tell us that had we stayed in Eden we would have been immortal. God never intended for there to be no death; in fact, God placed a cherubim to guard the tree of life so that no human eat from it and live forever. Yet, death was never intended to be an enemy or a curse either.
Death with God is natural and could even be seen as a gift. Death divorced from God becomes a power unto itself and becomes master of humanity rather than servant. Only through the re-mastery of death can death cease to be an enemy and return to its place as servant of God and humanity. Death is what Christ came to reconquer and is the means by which He conquered. Death became servant to Christ so that it might once again become servant to humanity. It served the true human so that it might serve all humans.
How is death a gift even after it is subdued? No one wants simply to die, to cease, to be dust. Life is tenacious and does not want to be snuffed out. We still rebel against it, but now it is not lordless death, but the Lord’s death, in which we take part. We do not die without God but we die with Christ and to Christ, in Christ’s death. Death is the gateway to life. Death is the boatman who ferries us from this life to more life. Death is the servant now. For one must lose his life to save it. We are baptized into death so that we might rise with Christ. We are joined to Christ’s death so that through death we might be joined to Christ’s resurrection and new life (Romans 6:4-5).
New life is not found through any other means than death. Resurrection implies death and it is resurrection that we seek. New life in Christ is not merely the prolonging of this life but it is a completely new life unlike this one. New life requires death. Death is the gift, the means, through which we are granted new, resurrected life with Christ.
Lordless death is the great enemy, not death itself. Christ, who submitted to God, submitted to death and in doing so received life and death’s allegiance. Christ cannot die again because death has no mastery over him (Romans 6:9). Death returns to its proper function as servant of God and is rightly ordered humanity’s servant as well. Natural immortality is horrendous and hopeless. Death gives us hope for new life. Death, when with God, is hope. It is hope of resurrected life. It is the gift of God to humanity, abused by humanity during the Fall, then given back at the Cross. Paul continues to warn that sin and corruption lead to death (Romans 6:23;8:6) but to lordless death, not Christ’s death, which brings eternal life in Christ.
J.R.R. Tolkien illustrates death as gift and the corruption it underwent better than I ever could in his epic The Silmarillion:
The sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope.
Charles Williams, a personal friend of Tolkien, once wrote “The definition of the Fall is that man determined to know good as evil.” One example of this is to be seen in humanity’s view of death. A good was seen as an evil. A gift was seen as a curse. A servant was seen as an enemy and became just that. Christ laid down his own life freely to death and in doing so mastered death. In his mastering of death he gave death to us once again to be our servant. Christ says, “He who believes in me will live even though he dies,” (John 11:25). Christ goes onto say “whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” (John 11:26). I believe Christ speaks of the life that only comes from death. As Christ cannot die again, neither can those who are united with Christ’s death. Death is not the end of life but the means to it, for Christ says, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it,” (Luke 17:33). To defeat death one must die. To be born again one must die. To live one must die. Therefore, die before you die. There is no chance after.