A Christian Understanding of Death
As a child, my mother taught me that when someone dies, we should never feel badly for them. The deceased is fine. Rather, we grieve for ourselves and our loss. But never for those who are gone. This is, in fact, a proper understanding of death, loss and grieving for a Christian to have, but one which I fear has been all but lost for many people.
I want to be clear, that this is not the trite “they’re in a better place now” which often rubs people the wrong way. Nor is it an attempt to claim that the death is part of God’s will or in any way a good thing. It may well be that the death was well outside of anything God would will and a terrible tragedy which ought never have occurred. Rather, what my mother taught me was that death is a tragedy for us who are left behind, but is not a tragedy for the loving person who has died.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:13
We grieve, yes. As deeply and as long as we need to. But our grief is for our loss – not those who have died. We miss those who go before us in death and that can bring wrenching sorrow. But it is also the sorrow which fades and heals in time. When we grieve and have sorrow over what the dead may be missing – it complicates our grief. But if we know that no matter how untimely or tragic there death was that God himself is providing for their every need, then we are able to grieve and heal for ourselves and not for ourselves and for someone whose problem (having died) cannot be fixed.
This isn’t just some nice idea meant to either comfort or minimize the enormous loss caused by the death of a loved one. This truth is one of the central works of Christ himself: “[Christ] shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” – Hebrews 2:14 Freeing us from the fear of death is right at the center of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection! Far from being a trite condolence, freeing us from fear of death and “grieving as those who have no hope” is right at the center of the Christian gospel message.
It is so natural and common to wonder where God is in the face of death. Why did he not stop that shooter? Why does he allow that war or those concentration camps or those evil people? Of course we ought to ignore the ignorant blasphemers who claim it is punishment for whatever hobby horse villain they have imagined for themselves (I’m talking about you – Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Brian Fischer!). The common answer seems to be that God grieves with us, understands our pain, etc. And that is true enough. But inadequate. While it is right for us to struggle with this question in the face of enormous suffering and evil, the answer we are heading to includes the reality that death is not to God what it is to us.
When we die, we return to God. A God who loves us and who rarely if ever is able to be fully present and connected to us while we exist in this human form. A God who has to rely on us, his creation, to do right by each other. For God, our death means a reunion – and an end to watching our suffering. It is no bad thing for God when we die.
Which is not to say that God wants or allows us to die because, as some people will say, “he wanted his angel back.” Not at all. Usually we die when our merely physical bodies being too injured or worn out to continue functioning. Which is normal – one of the ways that this good world and hard world exist together. Or we die due to things we do to each other. Which is not God’s doing, but our own. But certainly when the time comes, all is well for the person who dies and the creator who welcomes them back. (It is my personal opinion that it is God’s fervent hope that we will see the suffering of those headed towards death and be compelled to work to help each other. The depths of suffering we create and tolerate ought to be seen as commiserate to the levels of evil and brokenness we need to be working to overcome. It’s an indictment of us, not of God.)
For centuries, Christians buried their dead in catacombs under the streets of Rome. In the first few centuries after Christ, the decorations in the catacombs are mostly bereft of expressions of grief or icons of death. Even the cross is rarely seen. Instead, common motifs are of the Good Shepard with a sheep (and in a couple of instances a goat!) around his neck, fishes and loaves, the resurrection, the communion table and the baptism of Christ. Christians were encouraged to see physical death in association of new life, harvest, feasting, Christ’s redemption and resurrection. Death is separation “for a little while”, but not destruction, not hopeless and not final. It should be likewise for us.