For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:21-22
Death, in other words, is what all men truly have in common with each other and with the whole of creation. Death is what you have essentially in common with me and the only reality, it seems, that we have in common with everyone else and everything else in this world.
~ William Stringfellow
I’m a busy man these days. No busier than others, I suppose. I like to blame my illness and many life transitions for my lack of writing and rigorous intellectual thought as of late. But I am without excuse. Regardless, I want to write something, anything, about this Easter weekend. What better to write about than death? The greater meaning associated with this arbitrary weekend is that death is truly the only lifeless creature in this reality.
Yet death pervades all aspects of our lives. From desiring the next and greatest technological gadget, to watching television, to spending quality time with those we cherish – to live is to live with, avoid, or fight against death. It is the ever-present moral problem, the shadow behind us on a sunny day, the clouds above us on a rainy day – it is, in a sense, as omnipresent as the Greeks like to think of God.
You may be wondering what exactly death has to do with every facet of your life. Take a basic example: work. You go to work to make money. Why do you make money? To pay for housing, food, transportation, and all the other amenities that keep the cycle of your life flowing – work, pay, leisure, work, pay, leisure. Why do you do these? In essence, so you do not die. If you stopped working, there is a good chance you would die in many forms: you might become homeless and lack proper shelter, food, and healthcare. You could physically die. If you don’t physically die, your social life might pass away – it is hard to keep up with the Jones’s if you don’t have a job or a home. Eventually, then, your self-esteem will probably die.
What about all the little things at work? Promotions, getting along with co-workers, enjoying the job. Why are these important and how are they related to death? Well, if you get a promotion, you make more money. Physically, you may be better off and more able to avoid death. Socially, your status may go up and you may acquire more social power, thus feeding the ego and preventing a death of the self-esteem. What of relationships? Faring well with co-workers could lead to a promotion, it could feed the self-esteem/ego, and help one’s life feel meaningful. Rewind. Why is meaning important? And how is it related to death? Well, we are mortal beings. More specifically, we are mortal beings who are aware that we are mortal beings. Unlike most, if not all, other animals, we know we are eventually going to die. Yet, we also have the ability to see beauty, to consciously love, to make moral decisions. With this kind of power, coupled with our mortality, we begin to want to make our lives matter – otherwise it appears all for naught. Why have these abilities if we eventually die? The question is agonizing – it produces in us our anxieties. Thus, we seek to give meaning to our lives, however fragile – regardless of culture we find ourselves in. This does not mean that for our lives to have “meaning” we must continue to live on physically – for example, certain cultures, such as the Japanese, have found a certain kind of meaning and honor in suicide. The search for meaning drives humans to do much of what they do. At its root, then, avoiding or fighting death drives humanity.
This is not necessarily bad. All aspects of culture are not inherently ugly, or disdainful, or terrible. There is much beauty and wonder created in the name of death. That said, much of it, at root, comes out of a spirit of fear.
But there is no fear in love, as we are told by Jesus’ disciple John.
And this is precisely where Jesus and his resurrection becomes intrinsic to us as human beings.
Jesus’ resurrection shows us that there is no more to fear. He has conquered death. He has made it so we no longer have anything to fear – we are free to give up our lives to sacrifice for another, because in reality, we are not really losing our life. We are free to love fearlessly and selflessly, without secretly trying to feed our ego. We are free to be rid of need from another human, from idolizing each other, so that we can more accurately and lovingly care for one another.
This does not mean, of course, we will be successful. Some people who have foolishly believed they have conquered the fear of death may commit themselves to suicide so they can simply skip to the coming eschaton. This however, is not truly freedom from the fear of death – what drives a person to such impatience or theatrical measures? Either feeding the ego (“look at me and how I’ve conquered death!!”) or unconscious fear of not maintaining fearlessness in the face of death (“I must prove I’ve conquered death by physically killing myself!”). Both are illusions of fearlessness – both motivated by the fear of death. In other words, to live in Christ is not intentionally killing oneself for selfish sake (because that is still fearing death), but to lay down one’s life for the betterment of others, without fearing what may come of one’s own well being.
And we can do this, because “[Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14b-15)
Grace and peace.