Learning about Death from Jesus – Prof John Attia.

Why we mourn

11 MINUTE READ

From Luke’s Journal 2021 | Dying & Palliative Care | Vol.26 No.2

Photo: Sixteen Miles Out at Unsplash

“It is ironic that a community that has a story about death at the centre of its Scriptures and its practices of baptism and Eucharist, should fall so often silent about death.”

(Allen Verhey, The Christian Art of Dying1)


As a general physician who has recently retrained in palliative care, I am constantly surprised by how unprepared the vast majority of people are when facing the prospect of death. 

It was Italian philosopher, Umberto Eco, who said: “It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”2 The apostle Paul, who went through many trials and risked death many times (see 2 Cor 11:23-27), reflects that he “eagerly expects and hopes that… now, as always, Christ will be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20).

Being a believer, therefore, means that we can worship God, not only in the way we live, but also by the way we die.

To understand this idea fully we must first understand death fully. The Greeks summarised the three major approaches to understanding death through history:

  • Death as a release from the body: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all viewed the body as corruptible and death was a release from the physical body and a triumph of the spiritual self.
  • Death is natural: the Stoics saw death as natural and hence anything in accordance with nature was to be accepted cheerfully.
  • Death is final: Epicurus saw death as the end of the body and soul and the return of atoms to where they began with nothing further.

In contrast, the Bible tells us that God the Trinity has created us as a trinity of body, soul, and spirit to enjoy life with Him:

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Thes 5:23)

  • Body: from the Greek soma, meaning our physical body. We enjoy good food, good coffee, a cool swim on a hot day.
  • Soul: from the Greek psyche, meaning our heart and mind, our emotional and intellectual selves. We are in community with others and can engage in work that is intellectually stimulating and creative.
  • Spirit: from the Greek pneuma (wind), meaning the breath of God in us, our spirit in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. We can worship, pray and praise our Creator.

In Old Testament Jewish thought, all of these good things were brought to an end by death, including our relationship with God: “The grave cannot praise you… those who go down to Sheol cannot hope for your faithfulness.” (Is 38:18). Death brings the curtain down on all the good that God intended for his creation at every level. It is this finality that often fills our patients with fear and apprehension – what the palliative care field calls ‘psychospiritual’ or ‘existential’ distress. This finality deserves to be recognised and mourned.

This recognition of finality is exactly what we see with Jesus’ interaction with Lazarus. When Jesus hears about Lazarus, he says: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep: but I am going to wake him up.” (Jn 11:11) He is evidently planning from the start to raise Lazarus from the dead, yet when he arrives in Bethany, he does not enter the village triumphantly as if to say, “Wait till you see what I’m going to do!” Instead he takes the time to weep and mourn (Jn 11:35). It is fitting and proper to mourn and grieve those we lose to the finality of death.

This finality is why death is referred to as ‘the enemy’ throughout Scripture: “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26).

“We can worship God, not only in the way we live, but also by the  way we die.”

This is a truly revolutionary perspective. Where the Greek attitudes to death could be summarised as welcome it (classical view), accept it (Stoics), or endure it (epicurean), Jesus tells us to fight it. Jesus fights death and wins the victory in the cross and resurrection: “He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.” ( Col 2:15 – The Message). This is an image of utter and complete victory, mirroring the parade of defeated soldiers that conquering generals would use to display their dominance in the ancient world.

We see this victory reversing the effects of death at every level in the resurrected Christ (Luke 24:13-35):

  • Body: Jesus has the disciples touch his body and he eats and drinks with them.
  • Soul: Jesus is in relationship with his disciples, teaching and talking with them. 
  • Spirit: Jesus prays to his Father, and opens the way to eternal life.

The resurrection reverses the finality of death on every level. Death is no longer the last word, and this is what gives us hope. We are right to mourn those who die, but because of the resurrection we mourn with hope. As Paul puts it: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:14). 

Why we Hope

Earlier, we reviewed the finality of death on our bodies, souls and spirits, and how the resurrection reverses that and gives us hope. We now look at seven ways in which that hope is worked out:

1. Life is seen from an eternal perspective.
Scripture tells us that God knows us long before we are born: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jer 1:5), and God will know us long after we die: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me…” (Jn 14:3). We can face death with hope because in Christ our life on this earth is no longer the whole story; it becomes a few pages in a story that started when we were still a glimmer in God’s eye and that will continue into eternity when we reign with him in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21).

“We can face death with hope because we are part of a community who can pray with us and support us.”

2. Death is shared with a community.
Although Jesus often slipped away on his own to pray, we see that when he was facing the crucifixion, he chose to bring his disciples with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, saying: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matt 26:38) Three times he asks them to pray with him (even if the disciples are not very helpful!). We can face death with hope because we are part of a community who can pray with us and support us.

3. We trust in a good Father.
Monica Renz, a palliative care clinician in Switzerland, describes in her book Dying: A Transition3 that those who experience existential distress at the end of life tend to be those who have not learned to trust a higher power and to relinquish control.

We see positive examples on both these counts in Jesus’ time in the Garden where he says: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” demonstrating trust in his heavenly Father, “Yet not as I will, but as you will,” relinquishing control (Matt 26:39). We can face death with hope because we have learned to trust God and to relinquish control to him.

4. We identify with the crucified Christ.
Death can sometimes be a humiliating experience. I have seen patients with rectal carcinomas who are incontinent due to recto-vaginal fistulas, and those with dementia or brain tumours who have lost their cognition and have to be helped with all their daily cares. We have a Saviour who endured the most humiliating death devised under the Roman Empire: crucifixion was a public spectacle where prisoners were stripped naked (unlike the images of the crucifixion that we are familiar with where there is a loincloth for modesty) and left to hang and die of asphyxiation over hours or days. We can face death with hope because we have a Saviour who knows what it is like to be humiliated, but who shares his triumph with us.

5. God redeems but does not necessarily reverse our sufferings.
In his resurrected body, Jesus says to Thomas: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” (Jn 20:27). Despite Jesus being in his glorified and risen body, he still bears the marks of the crucifixion; they are not erased or ignored or written out of the story, as if the crucifixion had never happened. Though we often wish that God would remove the scars of our suffering or restore things to normal, as if the suffering had never happened, he instead chooses to redeem that suffering and bring something good out of it that we could not have arrived at any other way. The parent who loses a child doesn’t have that memory erased but instead grows deeper in empathy and compassion and is able to comfort others with the comfort they have experienced (2 Cor 1:3). We can face death with hope because God doesn’t erase, but instead redeems, our suffering.

6. God has a purpose for us right to the end of our life.
I looked after an older woman with advanced liver cancer who, despite falling into a coma, continued to live for another two weeks before she died. Her husband was extremely distressed during this time and I also found myself asking God what potential purpose could be served by this prolonged demise. One week into her coma, the woman’s husband revealed that he had two estranged children whom he had not seen in years. We were able to contact them and one agreed to visit. He and his father were reconciled. When his wife died, her husband now had some support from his son. We can face death with hope because we know that our work for the kingdom is not over until God says it’s over.

7. Our work does not perish with us.
The images of the coming kingdom are described in the book of Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed with her husband…” (Rev 21:1). Two things of note in this verse are that the original Greek for “new” does not refer to the sense of ‘brand new’ but to ‘renewed’, and the tense of the verb is the present (being renewed) not the future (to be renewed). NT Wright4, among other theologians, writes that this radically changes our understanding of the coming kingdom. This kingdom is no longer God destroying the world and spiriting us up to heaven; instead, the kingdom is being built now, in the present, and every act of kindness and every word of encouragement is adding a brick to the walls of the new Jerusalem, i.e. we are co-workers with God in building the new Jerusalem. Although we can only see darkly now, we will one day see the full glory of creation as God intended it to be. We can face death with hope because our work for the kingdom will not perish, and we will see the new Jerusalem in its glory in due time.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)


Prof John Attia 
Dr John Attia studied physiology, neurobiology, epidemiology and medicine in Canada and moved to Australia over 20 years ago. He is now Laureate Professor of Medicine and Clinical Epidemiology and Assistant Dean Research in the Faculty of Health at the University of Newcastle. He is married to Melissa and they have four children, attending the Grainery Church in Newcastle, where he occasionally preaches. email: john.attia@newcastle.edu.au


References

  1. Verhey, Allen. The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus. Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, Eerdmans Publishing
    Company. 2011
  2. Eco, Umberto. The Island of the Day Before. Secker & Warburg (UK)/ Harcourt (US). 1994
  3. Renz, Monika. Dying: A Transition Col Uni Press. 2015.
  4. Wright, NT. The Day the Revolution Began. Harper One, 2016.

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