Death is Dead



“We brought nothin’ into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothin’ out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessèd be the Name of the Lord” (I Tim. 6:7; Job 1:21). So the words of Paul and Job rang out clear in rural South Carolinian twang from a stout “Babdist” preacher, his beet red face betraying his sharecropper childhood as he took up once again his long life’s work of weeping with those who weep. And there I stood, several yards away from a newly dug grave, not long after Duke’s spring break email had sent me and thousands of other students scrambling back home. 

In obedience to Governor McMaster’s recently released regulations, just a few of us were able to mark my Aunt Jackie’s passing with a short, sweet, and socially distanced graveside service. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. 

Instead, the days before we were supposed to be gathered in her home, eating good home cooking brought by loving friends, shedding intermittent tears, and laughing uproariously as we retold tall tales about our newly departed loved one. We were meant to be embracing each other frequently and wiping away one another’s tears. The night before, we ought to have stood together by her open casket in Floyd Funeral Home up in town as our neighbors came for one last visitation with and one last look at their friend. That day, we should have been in the sanctuary with hundreds of other people whose lives Aunt Jackie had touched. We all should have been listening to several preachers comfort us with the gospel while they also competed to see who could more convincingly canonize the old woman.

But no, we didn’t. The countrified strains of “Beulah Land, I’m longing for you!”1 didn’t get to air. The coronavirus made sure of that. And yet, while COVID-19 robbed us of our customary mourning rituals, thank God, we were still able to send her home at the graveside. Like the companions of the paralytic, who, desperate for a miracle, ripped through the roof to lower their friend down to Jesus, we committed Aunt Jackie to the grave, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, praying that God would once again do his healing work (Mk. 2:1-12). 

Soon after, another loved one passed: Virginia Lee, or as five-year-old me called her, “Miss Vahginjah.” She had taught me in Sunday School, she gave me my first personal Bible, and hugging her feeble body was one of Sunday’s great pleasures. We went through the same graveside routine for her. Then, a few more died with the same meager ceremony. And now my “Grandma Momma” has the disease. The coronavirus might just bring us enough dead to overfill even the Southern appetite for a good funeral. 

As a country boy at Duke, I often feel as though I am from another world. The journey from my hometown to school is only two and a half hours north, but it’s always clear that this ain’t where I’m from. Where I’m from, Death brings with it an array of rites, liturgies of food and songs and stories that we use to send off the dead. In a backward romance, we teach ourselves to cope without our beloved. But having conversations with fellow Duke students, I’ve been astounded by the fact that they didn’t grow up with similar practices or how so many of them have told me they’ve never even been to a funeral. These few months of disruptions in my family’s normal observances have offered me a glimpse into what that’s like, and I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it.  

Nevertheless, while they may not encounter it often, Duke people know Death is something to fear. We each attempt to deny Death’s reign over the world. Every well-honed essay, every extra rep, every beautiful outfit, every club activity is just the raising of a tiny defiant fist at the all-consuming power of Death. Men and women of ages past toiled away all the same, but for most, little remains to testify to their labors. Despite knowing this, “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing;” we feel the insatiable urge to leave our mark, to rage against oblivion (Eccl. 1:8b). Nevertheless, “all is vanity,” and our pains will likely meet the usual fate of obscurity (Eccl. 1:2). We’re hellbent on keeping Death at bay. All the while, Death smirks.

But the good news is Death doesn’t have the last word. God has made sure of that. Jesus Christ is God doing something about Death. 

You’ll have noticed that I’m capitalizing Death. I’m doing that because in the New Testament, while the Devil gets some play time, Jesus’ real opponent is Death — the supreme antagonist of a cosmic drama. As the Apostle Paul says, “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death” (I Cor. 15:26). The one thing common to all humanity is that every last one of us will die. In Jesus, God may have had one Son without sin, but He has billions of children who perish and turn to dust. 

But God is life, and the closer God gets, the more alive we become. The problem is we constantly resist the invasion of God. Though we were made in God’s image, we have wandered into “the land of unlikeness.”2 The result is lifelessness, Death. It feels like hopelessness, in the words of Dante, like being “lost in a dark wood.”3 Yet despite Death’s role in the New Testament’s cast, it is not in fact a personal entity. Death is not a positive quality but a privation of being — the lack of existence. On the other hand, God is the one who is, the one in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Therein lies the other problem. How could God, being itself, rescue us if it meant He had to encounter unbeing? How could Life experience Death? 

He became one of us. It’s impossible to understand by what mechanism this “magnum mysterium,” this great mystery of the Incarnation, occurred.4 What faith proclaims, though, is that Christ’s human nature (and therefore all of us along with him) was filled with divine life and that His divine nature became able to experience Death. And so He did. He took our place so that He could condemn evil without condemning us. As church and state sought to crush Him, nailing Him to a Roman cross, the hands that made the world were stilled and the Word that spoke creation into existence was quieted. God was murdered.5

But Death cannot kill Life. As it grasped a corpse, it met God. Death “seized earth and encountered heaven. Hell took what it saw and was overcome by what it could not see.”6 In the death of Christ, Death died. The yawning cavity of nonexistence was filled with life and being. Jesus told Death to go to hell. God showed what it meant to be God not by being “almighty,” throwing lightning bolts and smiting sinners, but in the all too human act of dying.7

Because Jesus is Life itself, the inevitable consequence of His death was resurrection. Best of all, Jesus refuses to be raised alone.8 He brought all of us with Him. The God who sits high looked low and pulled us to his side. That’s the good news that country bumpkins like the apostles took to the farthest ends of the world. They saw Him face to face, hand to hole in the hand, and it changed them so that they had joy even when they were variously skewered, beheaded, or crucified (James 1:2).

That’s why we do not grieve as those without hope (I Thess. 4:13). We mourn, yes — grief is a desert that you’ve got to cross on foot — but the Spirit breaks through and reassures us so that even “when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod, then [we] find that selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.”9 He knows our grief. He knew the pain of a relative’s passing, He experienced that cavernous ache for a friend taken too soon, He felt the state’s knee on His neck. Because of that — not in spite of it — He brings us consolation, restoration, life. And He enables us to do the same. Just as He killed Death through dying, He has transformed the “use” of death for every man and woman since. It can now be the instrument for a new way of living. In dying to ourselves and living for others, we can truly breathe for the first time. 

I believe that’s the inspiration behind the way my community mourns together. We greet Death’s presence on our doorstep together, warning it of the strength of the body of Christ, taunting it: “‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ Ours is a living God of the living, you have no power here” (I Cor. 15:55; Lk. 20:38). Each loved one’s death then becomes an event that fills us “with grief, but even above grief, wonder” at the intoxicating beauty of life.10 We can look beyond the deep abyss that Death leaves in its wake knowing there waits for us a further abyss of light and love greater and deeper than we can imagine. There, all the world’s pain is treasured and cherished in the ever-open heart of God.11 Not even a pandemic can take that away.

I hope that I can sing that song for the rest of my life and that when I die those who love me will sing it too. Alternative narratives might try to comfort with promises of loved ones living on in our memories or in the atoms of distant stars. That’s nice and all, but, personally, these secular attempts at hope beyond the grave seem like the sweet but paltry ghosts of faith’s promise of eternal life. They just don’t do the trick. If religion is an opiate, then pass me the damn needle.12

That ruddy ol’ preacherman went on to declare, taunting Death: 

I know that my Redeemer liveth,

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;

whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold,

and not as a stranger” (Job 19:25-27a).

[1] A southern gospel song

[2] Augustine of Hippo, (d. A.D. 430), Confessions, Book 7, Chapter 10

[3] Inferno Canto 1, Lines 1-3

[4] Responsory from the Matins of Christmas

[5] Melito of Sardis (d. c. A.D. 180), On the Passover

[6] John Chrysostom (d. A.D. 407), Paschal Homily

[7] John Behr, Becoming Human

[8] Will Willimon

[9] “God is Love, Let Heaven Adore Him”

[10] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

[11] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Scapegoat and the Trinity”

[12] I believe in Christianity because it’s true, not just because it works. Still, I find its strategy for comfort to be far more effective than that of any other worldview.

One response to “Death is Dead”

  1. Remarkable.
    Great presentation.
    I couldn’t wait for your next words & I felt it spoken with your southern slur.


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