On Death, Part 2

I wrote the first part of this essay about six weeks ago, at which time I received helpful comments and promptly turned to finishing the final draft of my James commentary. The Doctrine Committee is about to meet again, though, so I need to have produced the second half of my part. It’ll be much longer than any of the other contributions, but it’s raw material for the amalgamated final product, so I’m happy to set it all out there in case any of it pleases the colleagues who piece together the final product.

When I left off, Chris Hays (about whom I could tell tales from the days when I assisted his dad as coach of the Little League teams Chris played on, but I won’t) gave me a gentle nudge to consider his [magisterial] treatise, Death In the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah, which actually spent ten weeks as the number one Amazon bestseller in the category of ‘books about concepts of death in the iron age that cost over $200’ until Amazon retired that category. A lot of Chris’s argument is somewhat beside the point of my assignment, since I’m to cover the biblical material, and much of Chris’s research concerns archaeological evidence, ancient Near Eastern parallels and contrasts, and other material that the readers of the Grosvenor Essay won’t have at hand to consult. His point, however, that the powerlessness of the dead is not an uncontested point even within the Old Testament is well taken, and when I draft the combined version of these two parts I will ramp up my account of the active influence of the dead.

And Alana pointed out that I said nothing about Deuteronomy 30:19 in my account. That was partly because i was trying to describe an understanding of death itself that might seem alien to my contemporary Christian readers; the notion of ontologically significant life continuing after death has become some ingrained that it’s very hard for many readers to even consider that possibility when they see the words before them (it’s the old ‘Well, but surely it means…’ or ‘but it could mean…’ phenomenon reassertion itself). I take the force of Dt 30:19f as divine counsel on how one ought to live, or (to put the same point from a different angle) the consequences of sin, more than What death is like. Now, those verses pertain, vividly, to the broader assignment of ars moriendi, so I should come back to them — and probably should have cover them last time — but I’ll y to roll them into the summation later.

All that being said, I’ll put my Part 2 of On Death below the fold.

Part 2

Between the later parts of the Old Testament and the New Testament, some schools of thought in Judaism came to the firm conclusion that God would not simply allow death to end the ethical/political/theological significance of human life. As the Wisdom of Solomon says, ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them’ (3:1); ‘But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves, those who disregarded the righteous and rebelled against the Lord’ 3:10). Within the Old Testament, this sentiment emerges clearly only at Daniel 12:2-4 — ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’ The theological reasoning that ultimately issued in Pharisaic, then in rabbinic, Judaism held that God’s justice could not be realised if the last word for the pious died in misery, or the wicked died in prosperous comfort; hence, there must be a further dimension to life, in which God redressed the imbalances the temporal life tolerated.

This conclusion was not by any means universal among the people of God before the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple. Several stories in the New Testament hinge on the dissent between Pharisees and Sadducees on this point. The anecdote in Matt 22:23ff//Mk 12:18ff//Lk 20:27ff explicitly identifies the Sadducees as ‘those who say there is no resurrection’, and in Acts 23, Paul escapes by instigating a fracas between Sadducees and Pharisees, saying ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ While the dubiety of the Sadducees on this point is attested, we have clues that bespeak other perspectives as well. Philo of Alexandria treats life after death as a strictly spiritual matter, in keeping with his Platonic/Stoicising tendencies, and Josephus’s presentations of the topic do not provide any coherent picture of the topic. The Pharisaic position ultimately prevailed, and may have been dominant at the time of Jesus, but the matter of life beyond death was undeniably contested in Jesus’s days.

On this topic, as on very many others, Jesus seems to have held a generally Pharisaic position. He offered few instructions on the charcter of death itself; Jesus in several sayings relativises the importance of death: ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt 10:28), and the several occasions in John’s Gospel when Jesus indicates that death itself matters less than the glorious power of God to which it points (11:4, 12:33, 21:19; indeed, John associates ‘death’ and ‘glorification’ so forcefully that they almost become synonyms in his usage). The gospels present Jesus as affirming a general resurrection at a time of judgment, at which God would redress the injustices that mortality had permitted. Jesus, however, asserted a unique role for himself (or ‘the Sone of Man’/‘Human Son’, which role ought not be simply conflated into Jesus’ own identity); those who join themselves to Jesus might be considered differently from those who were good or evil apart from Jesus. John’s Gospel characterises this salvific relation between Jesus’ followers and Jesus as “believing in him’, ‘believing in his name’. The synoptic gospels treat the effectual characteristic that joins believers to Jesus as ‘following’ or ‘being disciples’, which entails taking up the cross, and not being ashamed of Jesus. Whatever the specifics of how one attains this condition, Jesus promises that his followers/believers/family will be rescued from the danger of judgment. They will be treated as though they were righteous by virtue of their association with him, and thus need not fear death.
Jesus’ specific teachings about death, though, figure less forcefully than his bodily resurrection from death. The gospels present this as a faît accompli with little interpretive elaboration. The fact of Jesus’ victory over death moves to centre stage in the apostolic exposition of the gospel, and particularly in Paul’s letters. Paul identifies Jesus’s resurrection as the pivotal theological datum in creation, the hinge of human existence. Paul locates Jesus’s resurrection as the ‘coming attractions’ anticipation of the general resurrection (‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ 1 Cor 15:20), confirming and foreshadowing the premise that all will be raised to judgment. The resurrection to exalted life vindicates Jesus as righteous; then (Paul reasons) all who unite themselves by baptism with Jesus in his death, are assured that they will share in his resurrection.
Paul’s association of resurrection with vindication and righteousness entails his understanding that death is antithetical to righteousness; death becomes a manifestation of the spiritual effects of alienation from God, a sort of anti-acrament (an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual lack of grace). Paul describes death as ‘the wages of sin’ (6:23), and James submits that ‘when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death’ (1:15). Once death is firmly associated with the power of misdirected desire, of unrighteousness, Paul can connect the dots that also associate death with Adam and disobedience. Moreover, as the specific ‘natural’-theological effect whose undoing demonstrates Jesus’s vindication and salvific power, Death sometimes figures as the consummate adversary, the harsh taskmaster who punishes the slaves of sin. In all these ways (and more), death symptomatises the underlying condition of alienation from God and God’s ways — and Paul understands Christ ultimately to have undone their power over the children of God (so also Hebrews 2:14f).
The Book of Revelation stands somewhat apart, since it discusses death in a comprehensively eschatological and (in many cases) post-mortal context, more concerned with a sort of poetic apocalyptic than with spelling out a schematic account of death’s relation to sin, resurrection, and so on. Still, the Revelation takes it for granted that human identity survives death, that the life after temporal death will entail judgment, and that Death is an adversary of God (though here it is only one among several opponents). In the concluding resolution of the book, John cites Isaiah 25:7f, ‘[God] will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces’, repeating the refrain of God’s final annihilation of death.
[I have other things to do today, so I’ll wrap up in a ‘On Death, Part 3’ sometime later this week.)

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. it’s very hard for many readers to even consider that possibility when they see the words before them (it’s the old ‘Well, but surely it means…’ or ‘but it could mean…’ phenomenon reassertion itself).

    Every teacher of biblical studies (maybe other lit teachers also) will recognize these two related responses with a familiar creeping horror. I know I deal regularly and systematically with the big pedagogical picture that they represent (the whole “explaining exegesis” thing). But, I can’t say I’ve explicated and refined my approach to them in the distinct species that you name here. The second has something to do with the fallacy of special pleading, and the first with the larger fallacy of knowing-what-the-Other-will-say-without-having-to-hear-it.

    So, that’s what I’ll be thinking about during my drive into the office today.

  2. You realize that the comment “A lot of Chris’s argument is somewhat beside the point of my assignment” is true for all but about half a dozen people in the world, right?

    Oh well, hopefully all press is good press. And I’m glad you’re enjoying death so much.

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