I recently defended a dissertation on the theology of death. During the defense, a member of the committee asked what I thought the pastoral implications of my work might be. I confessed at the time I hadn’t thought much about it. Most of my work as a Catholic theologian is speculative and decidedly impractical. But this question, on the practical import of thinking about and writing on death, came at an interesting time. I’d just finished teaching a semester-long course on the theology of death to undergraduates, and we were in the middle of a global pandemic. My students wanted to know what all the conceptual work we’d done about what death is and where it comes from meant for their lives. My friends and neighbors wanted (and still want) to know whether I’ve something to offer them as they think hard, perhaps for the first time, about their own inevitable demise. What I’ll offer here, then, is something of an answer to this kind of question. It’s what I think getting clear on what death is and is not offers—apart from the satisfaction of knowing the truth about it. Here’s what I think knowing the truth about death allows you to do.
Death is not natural. It’s an interruption of the natural, a waylaying of plans and friendships and desires. This is true even of the holy dead who see the Lord face-to-face now as souls separated from their bodies. Though in heaven, they too remain in a state unnatural to humans. To be a human is to be a body-soul—not one and the other, but both together, at once. A human soul, even in heaven, if it’s not united to a human body, is not a human being. It instead remains in expectation of being so again, of reunion with its body at the general resurrection. But the unnaturalness of death isn’t obvious to most. In fact, it’s likely you’ve heard someone, perhaps many people, tell you, “Death is just a part of life.” But for Christians this can’t be true. Christians are instead confronted by death as an irruption, a festering wound, a ghastly mark on the beautiful handiwork of the Lord’s cosmos. This is certainly true for human death, and there are compelling reasons to say the same holds for nonhuman death too. Here, Christians stand in stark contradiction with most pagans.
You needn’t look far in Scripture to be confronted with this truth about death. In addition to death being levied on humans by the Lord as a punishment for sin in Genesis 3, you also find, quite explicitly, in the book of Wisdom, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13). In the New Testament, too, there’s talk of death’s intimacy with sin—death enters the world through sin (Romans 5:12), death is sin’s wages (Romans 6:23), and sin is death’s sting (1 Corinthians 15:56). Death is also called the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). This is not talk of something natural. How could it be? Death is instead something anti-natural, something to be rooted out and finally brought to nothing.
A human soul, even in heaven, if it’s not united to a human body, is not a human being. It instead remains in expectation of being so again, of reunion with its body at the general resurrection.
I asked how death could be thought natural by Christians. This is a critical question. It’s critical because while it’s clear the Christian tradition as a whole takes the scriptural statements I’ve listed above as fundamental to thought about death, it’s just as clear contemporary Christians seem downright abashed by this claim. It’s common enough now to find Christian theological attempts at naturalizing death. This is true in the work of Protestant and Catholic theologians alike. You can find this, to a certain extent, in Karl Rahner’s work on the subject of death; more contemporary instances crop up in the writings of Celia Deane-Drummond and David Kelsey. But what’s the cost of taking up this view? What are the risks of dissociating death from sin and failing to see death as sin’s punishment?
I’d venture the cost is nothing short of making a hash of the whole economy of salvation. The principal risk lies in obscuring the saving action of Jesus Christ. Let me put it another way. If death is natural to humans, what reasons can you offer for the Lord taking on human flesh, suffering, and dying in order to save us from it? The Letter to the Hebrews claims Christ became incarnate to “taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Not for the hell of it, but so that, by tasting death for us, he might “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). Why would we need deliverance, what would we need saving from, if death were simply a part of life?
That’s what death is, or rather what it is not, and here’s what knowing this allows you to do. Because death is something from which we need saving, each death is an occasion for lament. Death is an evil, an instance of the world not being as it should. Knowing death is not a part of life allows Christians to mourn truly, in a way those who naturalize death cannot. And death’s intimacy with sin means the interruption it causes can’t be shrugged off or ignored as someone else’s problem. Death is the result of willful evil, the unmaking of the natural that sin is.
This is one side of the coin. Recognizing my own sin and myself as sinner means recognizing my implication in the economy of death, the photographic negative of the economy of salvation. But to see the economy of death for what it is isn’t something you can do on your own. For that you need revelation. Blaise Pascal, in his Pensées, explains that it’s only through the incarnation that we’re able to recognize sin and death for what they are. “The incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery through the greatness of the cure it needed,” Pascal says.
Death certainly produces sadness, misery, and fear in all people, but it’s only when you’ve looked on the Word made flesh and him crucified that the true horror of death becomes apparent. The Lord himself became human to die our death for us. And the stab of compunction comes precisely from knowing that while Jesus went to his death willingly, it was my sin that made that death necessary. Jesus died for (on account of) my sins.
This ability to lament, to recognize the truth of death and death’s intimacy with sin, is the first thing the Christian is able to do in a way the pagan cannot. It’s also a precondition for the second thing: hope. Just as death can’t be truly lamented or named as evil if it’s simply a part of life, neither can there be hope of deliverance from it unless death’s unnaturalness is recognized.
This is where we get to the heart of the risk of calling death natural. Not only does naturalizing death make it impossible to lament properly, it makes it impossible or at least nonsensical to hope from deliverance from it. Why should I want to be delivered from something that is part of life? But Christians do hope for deliverance from death. Christians know, for instance, “He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 25:8). Not only that, Christians know this work has been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If the incarnation and crucifixion show us how great the cure must be for the human mired in sin and death, it’s the resurrection and ascension into heaven that shows the remedy’s success. Everything hangs on this, St. Paul tells us. For “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Christians and Christianity are pitiful without it (1 Corinthians 15:19). But Christ has been raised, and our faith is not in vain. And what is faith but “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)?
Faith and hope belong together. To believe in the gospel is to believe Jesus has put death firmly underfoot. He’s determinatively changed death’s character. As St. Athanasius puts it, “We no longer die as those condemned, but as those who will arise do we await the common resurrection of all.” The very thing that is and remains a cause for lamentation has become a sign of hope. Death itself is evil, but it’s also the occasion for new life. As the fathers of the church regularly proclaim, Christ put death to death by death.
Faith and hope belong together. To believe in the gospel is to believe Jesus has put death firmly underfoot.
In dying and rising, Jesus Christ is both the reason for our hope and the thing we hope in. But—and this is crucial—it’s only by following him through death, by allowing our death to be conformed to his, that this hope comes to fruition. Nobody gets out alive. But Christians know death is not the end of the story. And those who’ve gone before us, who belong to the communion of saints, bear witness to that fact. They did it during their lives, archetypically in the martyrs, who by grace showed themselves to be perfectly conformed to the Lord’s love. They do it now as our advocates, praying on behalf of the body of Christ still on pilgrimage in this vale of tears.
I have said already that Christians are capable of lamenting and so of hoping in a way that those who naturalize death cannot. So what are we to make of the very real grief of loss, the fear of death that’s presently consumed the attention of everyone? I want to say at least this: there’s a visceral, perhaps ineradicable, sense that death is an evil, an instance of the world gone wrong. While it’s the case that the truth of death can only be fully grasped by contemplating the Christ, it’s also clear that “death is just a part of life” is wildly unconvincing.
And so perhaps even a disease capable of ending hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives is also reason to hope. Perhaps pagans and Christians alike who haven’t thought about the imminence of death seriously before now might begin to see it for what it is. What if, that is, you were to countenance the revulsion you feel at the thought of your own grisly end? What then? Perhaps you’ll ask yourself why you feel this way. It’s possible you’ll tell yourself it’s foolhardy and wishful thinking to imagine the world otherwise.
But what if you don’t? What if you instead feel your blood run cold at the thought of your own, your friends’, your family’s deaths and weep for them and yourself? Assuming you want to press on and ask how you might make sense of that grief, you might be moved to imagine a world where every tear is wiped away and there is no more death (Revelation 21:4). You’ll probably tell yourself it’s wishful thinking—too good to be true. But what if you don’t?
You see, lament is not only the proper stance for the Christian to take toward death, the precondition for real hope. It’s also a guide. We can’t stop ourselves from weeping at the deaths of loved ones, no matter how often we tell ourselves it’s natural. If we, whether Christian or not, allow ourselves to be led by our grief over death not to despair but to the gospel, then life, not death, will have the last word.