This will get long, so I’ll put most of the matter below the fold. The story is that the Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church keeps its members from idleness by assigning them the annual task of producing a small tract called The Grosvenor Essay on a particular topic. A year ago, it was ‘Incarnation’; the one in preparation concerns ‘Marriage’ (we’ve had some quibbles about the title, whether it concludes ‘and Human Relationships’ or ‘and Same-Sex Relationships’ or ‘and Human Intimacy’ or, in a left-field suggestion, “and Salacious Photos of George Newlands’). The one on which we’re working right now concerns the spiritual preparation for death — the Ars Moriendi. This is, as I’ve said to many, many classrooms and naves full of people, a very good thing, and I’m happy to be participating.
Among my other various obligations, including clearing up tax returns, finishing the notorious James commentary, and watching back episodes of the Spooks BBC series with Margaret, the lot fell on me to prepare the biblical material on death and preparation for death. For today’s meeting, I managed to cobble together a synthesised summary of the Old Testament’s handling of the topic of death; I’ll have to revisit the various suicides in the OT, since part of our work will involve addressing the Scottish Parliament’s consideration of a bill permitting assisted suicide/assisted dying, and I need both to report on the New Testament and offer an overview of the whole Bible on ars moriendi. Since what I write will be mashed up and woven into the community property of the Grosvenor Essay, I figured I would post today’s draft here, where it can attract the corrections and suggestions of careful readers, and where I won’t lose it on my hard drive.
Death in the Old Testament
Death represents one of the topics on which the testaments contrast with one another most sharply. The Old Testament generally regards death as an undesirable necessity, with no particularly vivid ethical implications. Some passages entertain a figurative sense of continuing existence, but without an understanding of that existence being concrete ‘life’; only in a very few OT texts, perhaps only one, does the expectation of a resurrection of the dead emerge.
On the other hand, entire New Testament is saturated with the anticipation of a resurrection from death to continuing life. This is, of course, associated principally with Jesus’s resurrection, though by the first century CE, the Pharisees and some other groups within Judaism had come to regard resurrection as theological axiom. The specific contours of Christian teaching on life after death do not take on definitive shape within the New Testament, as Paul’s difficulties in Thessalonica and Corinth amply illustrate, but one can discern a broad affirmation that Jesus’s resurrection inaugurates a state of affairs in which death’s universal scope has been broken, the promise of well-being for God’s people is being fulfilled, and all will eventually be raised from death to a divine discernment of reward or punishment.
Given the differences between the testaments, and the inchoate doctrinal directions manifest in the NT, the notion of a biblical perspective on the art of dying must be approached with a certain reticence. Still, the framework on which subsequent generations of wisdom will build is visible in the mist. It recognises the inevitability of death for all human beings (and all living things, bearing in mind that the life/death binary itself constitutes a tautological affirmation that life must yield to death), a death that temporal intelligence cannot fathom. Death is, in that sense, very much like what the Old Testament envisions: an endless duration of shadowy subsistence (in familial heritage, in memory, in record-keeping, in the enduring effects of temporal actions) about which we may know little other than that the dead no longer participate visibly in the cosmos of cause and effect, of interaction and affect, of community. The condition of the dead is not, therefore, indifferent; the subsistent traces of the dead persist as a treasury of honour or shame, a legacy of story, allotment, and precedent, so that our behaviour toward the dead reflects on both them and us. As sharers in the New Testament, we affirm that mortality is not the last word relative to life, and that in Jesus and in the anticipatory visions and inferences of the apostles, we understand that by the conduct of our mortal life (as distinct from our lives under supernatural conditions) we store up consequences that we must anticipate affecting our eventual eternal identities. As such, we ought live always in the light of our inevitable deaths, not blithely assuming that our behaviour will not matter coram Deo, but willingly, joyously, offering to the world a testimony of trusting (and penitent) humility. Remembering that we are dust, and that at any moment we will return to dust, we devote our interval of enfleshed vitality to the cause of freely pursuing what is good, what is peaceable, what is joyous, what expresses our dedication to the God of hope and redemption from death.
Setting aside, for the time being, the Genesis story of the incursion of death into existence, the Old Testament expresses a near-unanimous sense of death as simply a given condition of worldly existence. The inevitability of death functions in some contexts as axiomatic: ‘As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more’ (Ps 130:15f); ‘ The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away’ (Ps 90:10).
Human mortality corresponds, in some accounts, to our dependence on God’s spirit (or ‘breath’). We received life, in the beginning from the in-breathing of God’s spirit: ‘ the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). Apart from God’s animating presence, we are as lifeless as the earth from which we were made; ‘…the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it’ (Eccles 12:7), and ‘When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created’ (Ps 104:29-30).
The Old Testament characterises the disembodied dead as rephaim (NRSV ‘shades’; the Hebrew is an obscure term which also functions as the identifier for a lost giant race of Canaanites). These spirits are eternally consigned to a realm below the earth’s surface. The domain of the dead is variously identified as Sheol, Abaddon, the Pit, the deep, and so on; it is located below the surface of the earth, and one typically reaches Sheol by verbs of descent. Likewise, in the rare occasions in which the OT calls attention to somebody making a way from Sheol to the land of the living, it does so with verbs of ascent or raising. While it is tempting to ascribe this spiritual stratigraphy to naiveté about geology, figures of ‘descent’ and subterranean realms correspond to the location of graves, and to the dying sun’s setting in the west (apparently going down into the deeps of the sea), so that these expressions may not indicate so much a literal expectation that excavation would lead to Sheol, but that the most obvious ways of talking about an elusive experience draws on visual cues.
The inhabitants of Sheol, the rephaim, constitute a sort of negative reflection of the community of the living. Their realm has gates (Ps 9:13, Job 38:17); its inhabitants dwell in dust, darkness, and shadow (Job 10:21f, Is 26:9) where one’s ancestors sleep (cf. the stereotyped concluding idiom ‘he went to sleep with his fathers’ in 1 & 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles). The land of the dead seems even to have a monarch: ‘ By disease their skin is consumed, the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs. They are torn from the tent in which they trusted, and are brought to the king of terrors’ (Job 18:13f).
The principle characteristic of protracted existence in Sheol is its futility. ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going’ (Eccl 9:10). The shades cannot engage with mortals or God — their future offers no change or activity to which they might look forward, not even worship. ‘For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness’ (Is 38:18); ‘[I]n death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?’ (Ps 6:5); ‘ Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?’ (Ps 88:10-12).
The dead were thus unable to protect their own interests; we read of no haunting in the Old Testament (with the possible exception of Rachel’s lamenting over her children in Ramah). On the other hand, the danger that one’s legacy be dishonoured or annihilated by the living frequently troubles OT writers. Psalm 109 adds curses that arise even after death to the predictable prayers for the enemy’s afflictions: ‘May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation…. Let them be before the LORD continually, and may his memory be cut off from the earth’ (109:13, 15). In a similar way, Isaiah warns the king of Babylon that in contrast to the glorious tombs of other kings, his corpse will be unburied, trampled underfoot (Is 14:18ff).
The prospect of endless futility (compounded by the risk that one’s shade be vulnerable to dishonour and disturbance) combined with the experience that righteousness constituted no protection against death engendered theological conflict in the Old Testament. On one hand, many currents in Old Testament thinking affirm that God will not allow the righteous to suffer, nor permit the wicked to prosper — but the evidence of centuries forced many other sources to conclude that rectitude and turpitude were accorded the same life span. Thus, according to Ezekiel,
The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. (Ezek 18:20-22)
but Ecclesiastes remarks that “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil-doing” (7:15), and ‘Everything that confronts [the righteous and the wise] is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone’ (9:1-3). The Psalmist may advise that we not fret ourselves because of evil-doers, but observation shows that too often, the wicked persist like dandelions rather than withering like the grass.
In a thin thread of the Old Testament, we can observe first the intuition, then the confident affirmation that God will, post mortem, rectify apparent injustices. The Psalmist trusts that ‘Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (49:13-15); and even more confidently Isaiah exults ‘Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead’ (26:19). Ezekiel prophesies — perhaps in a figure, but in a bold figure nonetheless — that the bones of the whole house of Israel will be brought up from their graves, that God will put flesh on their bones and put God’s spirit in them, and they will live.
At length, among the latest writings, the Book of Daniel asserts an eventual resurrection of the dead for judgment — that a time will come when ‘Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.’ 2 Maccabees echoes this hope with the promise that the martyred brothers and their mother would drink of ever-flowing life, under God’s covenant; but that the tyrannical oppressor, by the judgment of God, would receive just punishment for your arrogance (7:36).
It is in the broad context of this conspectus of the Old Testamen’s view of death that we will return to the Genesis story of how death entered the world (Gen 3:1-19). The tale is so familiar that it is often difficult to see just how disjointedly the narrative proceeds. The talking serpent (nowhere here identified as Satan, a devil, or even particularly malicious — but simply as ‘more clever’ than other animals) asks the woman whether God had indeed forbidden her to eat of all the trees in the garden; she reponds that she and her man had been warned against eating, or even touching, the fruit of the one tree in middle of the garden, ‘or you shall die’ (3:3). The serpent rightly observes that she will not die; so she takes, eats, and shares the fruit, and neither she nor her man die.
Only after God calls out to them while taking an evening constitutional, and after the two humans both try to assign responsibility for their disobedience on someone else, does the curse of death fall on the humans: ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (3:19). And even then, the turn to mortality seems to require that the humans not eat from the tree of life (of whose existence the reader will not have known until this point) in order that they not enjoy divine immortality — so God banishes them from the garden in which the tree of life grows.
In the context of the wider Old Testament portrayal of death, the Genesis story seems more like a Just-So story that explains why it is that people die, than as the first act of a cosmic tragedy. Adam and Eve practically disappear from the Old Testament after the Cain and Abel story; only later would the fateful ‘first disobedience’ take on paradigmatic significance as a pivotal moment for the nature of humanity. As the Old Testament simply accepts the inevitability of death, so it seems to regard Genesis 3 with resignation, as though it would have happened sooner or later.
New Testament angles
Jesus’s teaching about death
The apostles’ working-out of the ramifications of Jesus’s resurrection
Paul (Rom, 1 Cor and 1 Thess)
A New Testament theology of death and life:
Death is an enemy, but an inevitable enemy whose defeat (in turn) is assured
Death has no dominion over Christ, and will not have dominion over us
We have already died (in baptism), in the most relevant sense of the word
Though we do not see our vindication now, we see Christ’s vindication I which
we will assuredly share
We ought not grieve as do those who have no hope, but press onward beyond
death to fullness of life
Biblical theology of Ars Moriendi
Pastoral: Grief will come, and death may appall; such sentiments are not alien to
discipleship, but the testimony of lament still speaks of hope.
The good of releasing cares about death does not warrant negligence
Wisdom: [Temporal] death is inevitable, neither to be dreaded nor scorned
Our ignorance of the specifics of our salvation precludes putting stock in any
particular vision of what death’s aftermath is like
Parenetic: As all inevitably are sinners, the effort to justify ourselves enmeshes us
more perniciously in illusion and in defiance of grace
Live by the Spirit, in the sure knowledge that death holds no sting