Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University discussed death from a Christian perspective at the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Catholicism’s conference on Christian anthropology on June 3-5.
Meilaender began by noting “many in our culture have concluded that what we should do is try to master death.” People seek to do this by endeavoring to live as long as they want in good health, while avoiding “decline and frailty.” The Stoic and Epicurean ideal of a good and balanced life in this world in view of the oblivion to follow has begun to take hold. Western society has “begun to look with favor on suicide, assisted suicide, euthanasia as choice worthy ways to meet our end.” But Christians believe that Jesus has overcome death, Meilaender said. “To enter into his story is to begin to see our life and death differently … all things were made through him … and he promises to be with us in all of his mastery of death, even to the end of the age.”
“For human beings hovering between being and non-being, we experience life as a fragile gift.” God made us for this world first of all. Meilaender believes that this explains why when Odysseus was offered the choice between eternal life with the nymph Calypso or return to mortal life with his wife Penelope, he chooses to return to mortal life. Nevertheless, the very nature of life itself seems to point to a “freedom that transcends earthly life.” Throughout the many changes of life “we somehow both are and are not the same person.” While death is “built-in” to our life’s trajectory, it leaves unsatisfied the longing for something that is “qualitatively different … the gift of this life, lovely as it is, is not meant to satisfy the deepest desire of the human heart.” To live “worthily” in this life, we must take up the task God gives us “for as many years as God gives us.” He seemed indicate in discussing this that our duty to God implies that ordinary, but not necessarily extraordinary care should be taken to sustain life. But he clearly believes that we should aim to live our lives in such as a way that, having done our duty in this life, we are eager for heaven at its end.
With this ideal, Meilaender asked how we are to understand the Biblical references to death as “the wages of sin” and “the last enemy.” Each death, he said, “is a unique occurrence.” Death may seem inconceivable in one’s own case. Yet what is unique in one’s individual life is the individual self, which although different from all other selves, is mortal. The fact of death at the end of life is not unique. Nevertheless, God will not “confuse one John Smith with another … One who dies has been summoned, summoned for judgment.” Referring to a cemetery in New York City for unclaimed corpses, Meilaender quoted from the central monument there: “He knows them by name.” But for Christians, Jesus draws near to us in death. While “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” he is, as Meilaender noted that Karl Barth said, “the judge judged in our place.”
We should “live our lives in hope, a term that specifically excludes mastery.” The world to come “must in some way be a restoration of the world we have corrupted.” For what do we hope? Meilaender asked. In this life and for the next, we hope for communion with Jesus, “to be taken into an ever widening participation in the life of love.” While we are “pretty much on our own” to speculate about the exact meaning of this, but we know it will be “a renewed and transformed life in the body.” Meilaender believes that “we must honor with Christian burial the bodies of those who have died in the faith.” In a Christian funeral, believers should “accompany them with singing.” He said that “the funeral gives expression, not to our mastery of death, but to our hope for the promised redemption.” Burial will “capture better” the Christian significance of death than ceremonies in which the body is not present. Such ceremonies may suggest that “the body is not the place of the person’s presence” but “simply a dispensable husk.” Yet the apostle Paul, Meilaender observed, said that the body “is sown in weakness, is raised in power.”
A questioner asked about legislation recently signed into law in the state of Washington allowing for “human composting.” Meilaender said this was an example of one way of saying that “the body doesn’t really matter any longer.” Another questioner asked if in addition to Meilaender’s observations, we should also recognize the presence in death of “an anti-divine power.” The questioner commented that there seems to be a tension between claiming that one will be “at home with the Lord” after death, while death is still an enemy. Today people tend not to think of divine sovereignty in connection with death, in which God overcomes evil, but instead deal with it by “some form of Gnosticism,” denying the importance of the body, or with devastation. Meilaender agreed that death is recognized as the “last enemy” by the apostle Paul. As to whether Christians should speak of death positively or negatively, he believes that there are times when one is “more appropriately … said than the other.” Another questioner suggested that the caregiving of those who are dying allows us to “hold in tension” mourning at the unnaturalness of death, while embracing the hope of resurrection. While he expressed some caution, Meilaender said that (presumably at least in our current state) death is a natural part of life, yet for a Christian there must be hope. There is no “formula” for knowing when to say what, he indicated.
Following up Meilaender’s presentation, Paul Hinlicky of Roanoke College related his own personal experience as a victim of a stroke, and his brush with death. He related that he fell on a staircase when his stroke occurred, striking his jaw on a handrail. Disoriented, he experienced “cognitive dissonance.” He remembered with some emotion the special care given to him and his loved ones by friends. “I was not forsaken,” he said. This gave him some answer to the question posed by the conference, “What’s the good of humanity?” But evidently knowing he had suffered a stroke and possible brain damage, another question came “What good am I now?” He said that “throughout the ordeal, I had no fear of death for my own sake. Rather my thoughts went immediately to the suffering that my untimely death would cause my loved ones.” While we live first of all for the Lord, we also live for our fellow man. Although recognizing death as an evil and an enemy, it is answered for the individual Christian personally by the hope of the resurrection. We have a strong incentive to live as long as possible in the duty and joy of participation and support in the “beloved community.”