Friday, January 10, 2014

"Snorting" at Death


The past few months have been rough in our family. Last summer my mother's brother died in Oklahoma. Then in late fall a series of deaths occurred in swift succession: my wife's beloved, 97-year-old paternal grandmother and a long-incapacitated cousin shortly before Thanksgiving, a 100-year-old family friend after Thanksgiving, and, on 3 January this new year, another old family friend with no family of her own for whom my wife and I were privileged to serve as POAs. At one level, we can rejoice that these family members and friends were Christians and are now, we believe, "at home with the Lord," as the Apostle Paul tells us (2 Cor 5:8). At another level, we can be thankful for the long lives they lived in their mortal bodies. At yet another level, however, witnessing the ravages of age and illness, let alone contemplating the world's loss their deaths represent, inexorably produce sadness and grief in those left behind, even if we do not sorrow "as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13).

Reactions to death's inevitability are, of course, varied. Many live their lives as if they have somehow been uniquely inoculated against its universal sway and depredations. Such blithe avoidance is often born, of course, of a fear that inflicts most of us, religious and nonreligious alike. Avoidance of death's spectre doesn't negate its empirical inevitability, however. In recent years it has become fashionable, particularly among those committed to a philosophical naturalism, to claim that "death is just a part of life;" hence it shouldn't be feared, but rather accepted and even celebrated. Well, of course death is a "natural" part of the life cycle, at least as life on earth is presently constituted. Those of us for whom, as John Mellencamp once sang, "There's less days in front of the horse/than riding in the back of this cart" need to take this nasty fact seriously and plan accordingly. Nevertheless, one wonders if such apostles of "comfort" really do protest too much. After all, they are responding to the well-nigh universal phenomenon of the fear of death. Could indeed such a fear, manifest across cultural lines, reflect something hardwired into the deep structure of human personality and based ultimately on "religious" impulses and reasoning the naysayers would do well not to ignore?

I am writing for Christians, however, and there is one common response I have found increasingly troubling over the years. One manifestation often gets expressed after a saint succumbs to death following a long, painful illness: "So-and-so has now experienced 'complete healing'." Another instantiation of this general sentiment comes when various bodily attributes (seeing, dancing, etc.) are posited of the deceased in heaven. The point may be implicit, but it is clear nonetheless: the "real me" is the interior me. The body we inhabit is incidental to who we are, and thus is ultimately not necessary to human flourishing. The aforementioned Mellencamp, though not a practicing Christian, expresses this though nicely in his powerful song, "Don't Need This Body," from his 2008 album, Life Death Love and Freedom:

Ain't a gonna need this body much longer
Ain't a gonna need this body much more
I put in a ten million hours
Washed up and worn out for sure


Well all my friends are
Sick or dying
And I'm here all by myself
All I got left
Is a head full of memories
And a thought of my upcoming death

This, to be blunt, is bad theology. It is, in fact, a vestigial remnant of a sub-biblical Greek, especially Platonic, worldview. By contrast, the Bible consistently presents the human person as a psychosomatic unity. In answer to the question posed by Pete Townshend's character Jimmy in hos rock opera Quadrophenia, "Can you see the real me, doctor?" the scripturally-informed observer would respond with a resounding "Yes!" What this means is that, at death, the believer does not yet experience the ultimate hope for which he or she is destined. Without a body, the deceased believer has not yet experienced "ultimate healing." Whatever the mysterious experience of believers in the so-called "Intermediate State," it is not, we must suppose, akin to embodied life on earth. And what this means ultimately is that the Christian's hope is not for some nebulous, disembodied (?) life after death "in heaven," but what N. T. Wright has helpfully termed "life after life after death,"  i.e., the resurrection of the body promised in Daniel 12 and 1 Corinthians 15, of which Jesus' own resurrection was the firstfruits both representing and guaranteeing the eschatological resurrection harvest (1 Cor 15:53). After all, if all we have hope for is life without the body, then sin, despite protestations to the contrary, ultimately won the battle.

Death, on this reading, remains, not only a nasty fact, but a damnable one as well, one which ought to arouse the emotions of those who witness its depredations. Yes, death has lost its "sting" for those united with the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:55). Yes, it is a comfort to know that suffering believers are relieved of their pain at death. Nevertheless, death hurts, and that is true both for the one experiencing it and those loved ones watching it do its work. 

How, then, should we respond? Certainly not by pretending it doesn't hurt, whether out of a hyper-"spiritual" impulse or simple repression. I propose that the proper model is provided by our Lord himself in his response to the death of his friend Lazarus narrated in John 11. The story is as famous as it is vivid: Lazarus has been dead for four days, and his sisters Mary and Martha are following the cultural protocol by having mourners (some of whom may have been of the "professional" kind) aid in their lamentation. The ever-anxious Martha runs to greet Jesus, wistfully expressing her faith by immediately saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21). Jesus responds by telling her that Lazarus would indeed rise again (11:23), to which Martha shows her theological orthodoxy (Pharisee-style) by saying, in effect, "Duh! Of course I know he will be raised on the last day; that doesn't help me or Lazarus now" (11:24). The reader already knows Jesus' intent to resuscitate Lazarus's corpse (11:4, 11), and so John has Jesus proclaim his (ongoing) theological significance, to which the resuscitation will provide illustration, that he is "the resurrection and the life" (11:25-26). When Mary arrived, she repeated Martha's sentiments (11:32) and, along with the crowd of mourners who followed her, continued to weep. Jesus' response is instructive: 
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and greatly troubled (11:33).
The key word is the verb enebrimēsato, which the ESV, consistent with other English versions, translates "deeply moved." Frederick Danker, while acknowledging the "apparent harshness" of the verb, offers the same translation as an expression of Jesus' "feeling strongly" about the situation (BDAG 322). This "apparent harshness" is even manifest in the manuscript tradition, as such witnesses as P45, P66, and D add hōs ("as [if]") before the verb so as to soften the blow somewhat. What is this "apparent harshness" of which Danker speaks? Simply put, the verb embrimaomai implies anger, and was often used by Aeschylus and others of the "snorting" of horses when provoked to rage (cf. BDAG; EDNT 1:442). There is, in my view, no lexical justification to soften the force of the term so that it here speaks merely of an intense feeling of grief (indeed, the motivation is transparently Christological, viz., to protect Jesus from the implication of giving in to or displaying  "unsavory" emotions). Jesus, if we take the language of the text seriously, became indignant when he witnessed the tears and cries of Mary and the other mourners who accompanied her.

The text doesn't say what it was that moved Jesus to this inner (tōi pneumati) indignant turmoil. Suggestions have not been few. Among the many proposals, two have been predominant. Some (e.g., Bultmann) have suggested that Jesus was angered by the lack of faith he perceived in the mourners' lamentations. But the text portrays Jesus' indignation as precipitated by the weeping and wailing of Mary as well as the crowd of "Jews" from Jerusalem who had come to comfort her and her sister. Mary, as we may deduce from John's portrayal of her in chapter 12, as well as her averring that Jesus could have healed Lazarus had he been there earlier, already believed in Jesus and, like her sister, surely believed in the ultimate resurrection at the last day.

It is better, it seems to me, to look behind the mourners' grief and understand Jesus' anger as directed toward that which caused Lazarus's demise. Taking cue from the Markan episode of the healing of a leper (Mark 1:43), Raymond E. Brown argued that "he was angry because he found himself face to face with the realm of Satan which, in this instance, was represented by death" (The Gospel according to John [i-xii] [AB 29; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966] 435). No one expressed this perspective better than the Old Lion of Princeton, B. B. Warfield, back in 1912:
Why did the sight of the wailing of Mary and her companions enrage Jesus? Certainly not because of the extreme violence of its expression; and even more certainly not because it argued unbelief—unwillingness to submit to God's providential ordering or distrust of Jesus' power to save. He himself wept, if with less violence yet in true sympathy with the grief of which he was witness. The intensity of his exasperation, moreover, would be disproportionate to such a cause …The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its "violent tyranny" as Calvin (on verse 38) phrases it. In Mary's grief, he "contemplates"—still to adopt Calvin's words (on verse 33), — "the general misery of the whole human race" and burns with rage against the oppressor of men …It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. ("The Emotional Life of Our Lord," reprinted in The Person and Work of Christ [ed. Samuel Craig; Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1950] 116-17).
Christ, St. Paul wrote near the end of his life, "destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim 1:10). In that we have a sure and certain hope. Yet the "present evil age" lives on and death still holds sway over all who live in its midst. Thus we who follow Christ need not shroud our speech with euphemisms and shrink away from rage at the horror death in fact is. Witnessing the ugly horrors of dying should indeed rouse us to indignation against it and, though we all thereby implicate ourselves, at the sin which is its ultimate cause. But with the eyes of faith we see Christ, the firstborn from among the dead (Col 1:18), who was appointed "Son of God in power" at his resurrection (Rom 1:4) and who will continue to exercise his messianic reign (basileuein [present tense!]) until he places all enemies under his feet in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1, the last of which to be subdued and destroyed will be death itself (1 Cor 15:24-26). At that time, in the words of John of Patmos, "[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former days have passed away" (Rev 21:4). What a day that shall be! 

Soli Deo Gloria!


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