In the eyes of God, death is the negation of the life He created. God permits death as a consequence of sin, but only so He might destroy sin and death in and through Jesus Christ. What is death in our eyes? In what follows, I would like to examine four characteristic human responses to that question: those of the secular, the scientist, the suicide, and the saint.
The secular response to death is to ignore it as much as possible. “Secular” means “worldly” or “of this age.” A secular society is not necessarily atheistic. In contemporary American society, most people profess belief in God. But I think it is safe to say that our society is predominantly secular, focusing its interests and energies on this world without much consideration of a world to come. In such a society, death, which Christians and other people of faith consider a passage between this world and the world to come, is devoid of any positive meaning. So, we ignore it as best we can.
It is impossible to ignore death all together. Try as we may to ignore it, death remains a fact of life. The secular response to death’s persistent intrusion is to relegate it to specialists and thereby insulate it from the wider world. Death becomes the business of hospice nurses and morticians, confined as far as possible to hospital rooms and funeral homes. To be sure, those professions and institutions are good and needed. What I do not think good are the ways in which such specializations insulate the reality of death from the thoughts and experiences of most people. When people don’t have to deal with death or think about it, they are free to focus their interests and energies solely on this world.
The scientific response to death is to find ways to prevent it. This is a prevalent response to death in our society. We support scientific research through private donations and government funding. We participate in charity events to support experimentation aimed at curing cancer and treating life-threatening diseases. We request, in lieu of flowers, that donations be given to support scientific research aimed at curing the disease that claimed the lives of our loved ones. In all those ways and more, our society turns to science as a way of preventing death.
The scientific response to death aims to prevent it by controlling it. We marshal the human resources of science and technology in order to defeat death. In this way, we try to subject death to our power, to bring it under our control. In itself, this death-defying impulse is unquestionably good. But what do we do when death will not be subjected and evades our control? Do we regard death as the ultimate enemy and so persist in fighting against it at all costs? If we do, our aims will be shortsighted and even our victories will amount to varying degrees of defeat.
The suicidal response to death is to cause it as a way of controlling it. The suicide, recognizing his powerlessness to defeat death or to prevent its sometimes painful and debilitating onset, asserts his power to deal death. He cannot control death by preventing it, so he controls death by inflicting it.
The motives of the suicide may be good: the avoidance of pain or a burdensome and debilitated form of life. He may also be afflicted with mental illness or influenced by external pressures that limit his freedom of his choice. Nevertheless, whether wittingly or not, the suicide treats death as something to be brought about, not something to be defeated. From a theological perspective, we might conclude that the death-dealing impulse of the suicide is opposite to the life-giving purpose of God.
The saintly response to death is to prepare for it. The saint does not avoid thinking and talking about the reality of her inevitable death. Contemplative monks and nuns are not known for being chatty, but one of the things they traditionally say to each other is, “Remember your death.” The saint sees death as the culmination of life, the moment when she commends her spirit to God. For the saint, death is not something to fear but something to prepare for with hopeful anticipation.
The saint recognizes that her life and her death are in God’s hands and trusts God to make her life and her death beautiful and holy. The saint sees her life as meaningful even when she suffers, is debilitated, or faces the certainty of dying. Indeed, she sees her life as having a special meaning at these times, for then she can enter most fully into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death. She joyfully accepts that part of her preparation for death may involve bodily sharing in the suffering of her Lord.