To summarise the New Testament understanding of death, then: Death constitutes both an inevitable element of temporal life (life according to the flesh), and a representative figure for all the characteristics of temporal, physical life. Thus Death bears a defining connections to sin, not necessarily because sin causes death, but because both sin and death are universally manifest in temporal life. Everybody dies, and nobody’s perfect.*
(The topic of ‘justification by faith’ matters so much for the Apostle Paul because it touches on the magnitude of God’s merciful grace; that for which an even-steven exchange is made, that which we can claim as our due, has nothing to do with grace. And by this logic, any effort we make to shore up our standing before God amounts to a repudiation of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and even Christ’s self-giving on the cross. Thus, necessarily, self-justification collaborates with Death. All share in lives coloured by sin; none of us can lay claim to attainments that would suffice to exculpate ourselves, and the persistent temptation to immunise ourselves to any possible criticism enmeshes us, once again, in the snares of Death.)
As such, Death is both integral to the fullness of (temporal) humanity, and is an adversary, since it represents an unnecessary Iimitation. Death ‘wants’ to finalise our separation from God; it has never been able to do so, and in laying claim to the life of Jesus, Death over-reached and its power was broken by the inextinguishable life of Jesus; though its power has not vanished, from the Mount of the Resurrection we can see Death’s brittleness. Strengthened by Christ’s encouragement and sustained by the Holy Spirit, we can outwait death.
Excursus on Suicide: The Bible expresses no explicit deprecation of suicide at any point. When the Bible narrates the deaths of Abimelech (an ‘assisted death’, since the wounded leader demanded that his armour-bearer kill him), Saul, Saul’s armour-bearer, Ahitophel, Zimri, and (arguably) Samson die, the narrator betrays no sign that their self-determined deaths warrant criticism. Judas’s suicide (in Matthew’s version of the story — Luke simply has him stumble and explode) likewise receives no criticism. All these, it should be noted, kill themselves under circumstances when they can not take life after death (and judgment) as given aspects of their faith in the God of Israel; they are hastening their departure to Sheol, but they do not seem to be transgressing the Torah.** When Paul ponders his ‘desire to depart and be with Christ’, he stops not because suicide would be a sin, but because he may still do some good for the Philippians. Paul’s case stands out because of his invocation of the topics of resurrection and judgment; were he to have known that suicide would bar him from entering the kingdom of heaven, it would seem exceptionally peculiar that he not acknowledge it. To this extent, then, the evidence of the Bible suggests no opprobrium to suicide or to assisted suicide.
To what does all this add up, with regard to a biblical practice of the ars moriendi?
First, that although the Christian hope affirms that Death has been broken, yet Death persists as an element in every human life. Death is not a failure of discipleship, nor an unjust imposition. We rightly grieve at death, for we who remain are the poorer without our brothers’ and sisters’ presence among us. This grief, however, takes its place within a broader frame in which death does not bring our relationships to a terminus, but interrupts what will be rewoven. Indeed, unwelcome as a person’s death itself may be, it marks the hinge which opens onto the fulness of life in God’s presence, which we confidently hope to share. We live in Death’s shadow with mindfulness, but without fretfulness; with earnestness, but not without joy.
The inevitability of death does not justify carelessness in how one lives. We will be held accountable for the use to which we put our days and nights, as for our wealth, strength, intelligence, and other resources. A biblical ars moriendi rejoices in the on-going opportunity to shape lives that bespeak Christ’s grace, and accepts the limitation on this opportunity.
While the Bible offers various characterisations of what will ensue after death, we have good reason not to take any of them as precise specifications of Heaven, or Hell, or any other state. The sheer diversity of those accounts militates against supposing any one of them is more concretely applicable than others. We are promised that resurrection life is in some sense bodily, but ‘bodily’ in a sense we cannot yet ascertain. We have been taught those who have understood and sought God’s approval will flourish, and those who defy the ways of life, of truth, of grace and hope will subsist in their alienation from divine blessings. Whatever pictures one associates with those assurances, they suffice to underscore the worth of directing our lives toward a death congruent with our affirmations and our hope.
We may sum up a biblical ars moriendi as the enacted acceptance of unearned justification. We practise hopeful generosity, and renounce the fearfulness that withholds trust from God; we practise humility, and renounce the presumption that we have escaped the effects of mortal limitations on our understanding; we practise solidarity with the breadth of our sisters and brothers, and renounce the enmity that strives to separates us from one another. In harmonious unity, disinterested respect for others, and confident grace we adorn lives given for God’s glory, and accept death as a completion of that offering.
* Whatever one may think of the Augustinian tradition of binding ‘original sin’ to biology, to Adam’s primal transgression, and so on, he must be correct to insist that it’s futile and a distraction to look for some point in time at which an infant first becomes subject to sin. Sure, cute li’l babies don’t belong to the same category as remorseless self-serving financiers in a certain sense — but all babies are mortal, all babies will sin sooner or later, hence we may say with justification that all humans are subject to sin. Slice the problem some other way if you want to avoid the bugaboo of original sin, but I’m not sure there’s an intelligible way to parse temporal human-ness apart from mortality and sin.
** On the other hand, it should be noted that despite the abundance of crimes and misdemeanours set forth in the Old Testament, only rarely does anyone invoke the Torah explicitly as a criterion for distinguishing good from bad, mitzvah from averah; an argument from silence relative to the Torah’s apparent toleration of suicide requires support from positive evidence.