Developing a Theology of Death

Let’s just face facts for a moment.

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH DEATH

Isn’t that a crazy thought? We embrace a future and hopeful orientation. How could such an outlook ignore perhaps the most important milestone that each of us go through in the path into the future– death?  Let me give a few anecdotal evidences of this:

  • So many Christian books written on the Rapture. Considering that the Rapture as a Biblical concept is rather uncertain at best, it really makes one wonder why there are any books on this topic at all.  If there were 1000 books on Rapture, there should be 100,000 books on death— a certain concept and the most likely end of this part of our existence for the vast majority of potential readers.
  • So many books and websites trying to identify the day and hour of the return of Christ. I know so many people who pray that Christ will return really really soon. Why? Not sure. If one really wants to leave this earth before God is done reaching out with mercy to mankind, one should find solace that we are very much mortal and can leave well before God is finished with what he is doing.
  • I have talked to a number of Evangelicals who lost a loved one. I would ask the surviving partner if he or she had talked to the other about death,  preparing for death, and addressing issues of the family after death. On several occasions the answer was something akin to “No we never talked about death. We always talked about how God was going to heal even up to the last moments.” That actually makes me a bit sad. I hope I can embrace death when the time draws near and help my family to embrace my passing as well. But if the one dying chooses to live in denial— that is their right, it should be honored I think.
  • I had been a member of a church that would pray over and over again for people to be healed. When someone got better, members would praise God. When someone died… SILENCE. No reflection on it… Did God fail? Did we fail? Is our theological perspective on death faulty? Is death a natural inevitable part of life?
  • Over the years denominations have struggled strangely with connecting Resurrection with their “Christian burial.” Does cremation (or aquamation or “natural burial” or mummification or enbalming) serve as a good or necessary Christian death or does it somehow desecrate the body. Does it draw into question resurrection or affirm it or have no relationship positive or negative to it at all. Does one need to be planted in sanctified soil or mausoleum? <I recall someone asking the former President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when he visited the Philippines his thoughts on cremation. He stated that theologically speaking there is nothing wrong with cremation. However, then he went on for maybe 5 or 10 minutes explaining how burial of an uncremated body treats the body as more “sacred” than other methods. I really think he should have stopped after his first statement. The rest did not make any sense as far as I could see.>

I don’t know… maybe it is just me… but I think Christians need to have a better understanding of death.

  • Death is a natural, normal part of the living process.
  • Death is not a failure. It may be a result of The Curse, but it is not necessarily itself a curse.
  • Statistically speaking (and historically speaking) the most likely way that Christians have ceased and (presumably) will cease their  corporeal functioning on earth is through the stopping of the heart rather than being called up into the clouds.
  • It is healthy to talk about death in the family.
  • We need to realize that praying for someone to recover from an illness, prolonging the death process, may not only be acting in opposition to God’s will (one of the few things that we know is God’s will for everyone is that we die) but it may also be cruel.
  • While many say that we should not speak ill of the dead, we do in fact speak ill of them when we lie about them. People are a strange combination of good and bad… of joy and pain… of the transcendent and the mundane. The dead deserve a gentle truth-telling (and perhaps even moreso the living). <I was thinking that it was Robert Heinlein who described a role in future funerals where a person would deeply study a deceased person’s life and then share it, warts and all, at the funeral. It was seen as honoring and cathartic. Maybe it was Orson Scott Card, not Heinlein. Card wrote a book called “Speaker for the Dead.” Maybe that was it.>
  • Funerals and burials are still a place where secular people often draw on religion or at least religious rituals of passage as a coping aid. As such, the church should come up with better ways to address this important transition more reflectively than “Oh good. We can plug a gospel presentation to this group of trapped grievers!”

I was raised up in farming country where we understand all too well that our survival comes from the death of animals and plants, and that death is part of a very normal and healthy life cycle. My father (although professionally an engineer) served as the sexton for our community cemetery. I helped out there. He was also a bit of a local genealogist and would spend freetime often visiting cemeteriess to record data from headstones, as well as digging up census data to work out family trees. I would help him maintain the cemetery and once or twice even helped dig a grave. Although my connection with death is not overly deep, it is strong enough for me to realize that a body (embalmed or not) in the ground would need to be resurrected through miraculous means every bit as powerful as that needed to resurrect cremains, aquamation remains, mummified remains and the like.

Anyway, don’t want to drag this out too far. But as Christians we need Thanatology.

Thanatology is “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.”

But we need a theological Thanatology that is systematic, practical, and pastoral. And it should not be hidden in the confines of dusty library shelves, or seminary lecture halls. It should be practiced in the presence of death and dying, and taught in the churches.

<I noticed that the Youtube Channel “Ask a Mortician” has several hundred thousand subscribers. While she does do a good job of coming up with interesting topics to pull in “death enthusiasts,” I can’t help but think that part of her appeal is that she answers the questions that people avoid talking about, and normalizes a process that many are trained to think of as abnormal.>

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3 thoughts on “Developing a Theology of Death

  1. First question is, where do we start? One of the big challenges for coming up with some theology on death is today’s social climate. My last term paper in college was about “Death and Dying”; and I don’t remember much about what I wrote, except the idea of suicide. Back then, the perspective between anything positive and negative was still sort of balanced, with slight except on the reality of death. Today, people are more into positive things (thoughts & ideas, words we choose, people we tend to like, etc.).
    Nobody likes anything negative; and, the idea of death is definitely a negative idea because it induces real fear/trembling. Thus, it would be very difficult to come up with some theology on death and dying in such social climate.
    Another challenge to being able to come up with a wholesome theology on dying is that the Scriptures, particularly the OT, do not explicitly teach about it in terms of spiritual but more on the physical. That is a big part of the reason, I think, why most of our prayers are on the physical level; and, such huge challenge make us to just ignore the spiritual ramifications of physical-death-moving-into-spiritual life. The only time our prayers tend to get into the spiritual level of death is when we try to get someone to be saved (i.e., spiritually); and after that, we resort back to thinking of and living with what is more real (physical/material).
    To answer my own question, perhaps we may need to deal first with current social condition/trend of positivism. How? My message last Sunday, though the topic was on prayer, touched a little bit on such social condition of positivism. I tried to implore the balance between fear and love, positive and negative, etc.

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