Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The sting of death

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Lk 22:39-46).
This is a sequel to my earlier post:
 Theologians are often taken aback by the fact that in this passage, Christ balks at going through with his mission. As Robert Stein bluntly puts it, "If Jesus is quailing at the thought of physical death, he is a poor example for his followers of how they should face death." Stein and other like-minded commentators then appeal, not to the mere prospect of physical suffering and death, but to the prospect of Christ enduring the wrath of God. That, so goes the argument, is what he really dreads.
No doubt that points to an important theological truth. However, commentators are too quick to rush past the apprehension of death. They minimize the apprehension of death as if that's unworthy. But is it biblical to trivialize the fear of death?
i) In Scripture, human mortality is punitive. And it's not improper to dread divine punishment. 
ii) Christian martyrs aren't necessarily fearless. Courage is not the same as fearlessness. Indeed, someone who's fearless isn't really courageous. Courage is doing your duty in spite of the fearful risk or fearful consequences.
Moreover, Christian martyrdom doesn't necessarily require courage. What it does require is fidelity. To be faithful even–or especially–in the face of death.
iii) Furthermore, Stein has it backwards. Christians can face the prospect of death or martyrdom with greater equanimity precisely because, to a great extent, Jesus took the sting out of death through his own redemptive death in their stead. By absorbing the judgment of God, he makes death more bearable for his followers. 
iv) Some unbelievers draw invidious comparisons between the way in which Christ faced death and Hume or Socrates. They also draw attention to soldiers who steel themselves in the face of death. But what about that comparison?
a) Hume was simply a fool. He had every reason to fear death. He didn't believe in hell, but if, in fact hell exists, then he ought to fear death. 
b) Some people die peacefully simply because they are so worn out by the end that they lack the vital energy to resist it. That says less about their attitude towards death than the process of dying, which–itself–can be enervating. They don't put up a fight because they are too weak. In the words of Pete Seeger, "My get up and go got up and went." 
c)We don't really know how Socrates felt about his impending demise. All we have is Plato's eulogistic, hagiographic account. In addition, Socrates might have been terrified, but put on his best game face. In an honor/shame culture, you care about your reputation. How people remember you. How you go out. 
That dynamic is also a factor in battlefield valor. Likewise, in the heat of battle, soldiers may act instinctively. In addition, it's psychologically easier to die with your comrades than die alone. 
v) For most-all of us, death is inevitable. We can't avoid it even if we try. It's just a matter of when. We can sometimes postpone it, but in the long run, stalling tactics are futile.
But Jesus was in the unique position that no one could force him to die. He chose death in a way that no one else can. For he had the power to make himself immortal. Indestructible.
If we had that choice, then that would put death in a very different perspective. 
vi) Death exposes our impotence and creatureliness like nothing else. Dying in Christ is the ultimate act of faith, as we plunge into the darkness, hoping and praying that God will be there to catch us. That it's not a free fall. That he's waiting for us. But that's something we can only experience after we let go. After we put the securities of this life behind us. 

No comments:

Post a Comment