The Sting of Death

Death.

We don’t really like thinking about it too much do we? I know I don’t.

I also feel that as a Christian death becomes even more complicated to deal with. The belief in eternal life makes the idea of death difficult to know how to react to. I believe it, but have a hard time echoing Hosea 13:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:55.

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

To tell the truth, even though I believe in the idea of eternal life, death still stings quite a bit. Part of this is just the fact that even though eternal life is available, we don’t really know the ins and outs of who will be granted it. We aren’t the judge of that, God is. People we may think are in, may not be. The opposite could be true as well. It presents an uncomfortable unknown.

Death also stings because you have to deal with missing the loved ones who have died. Even if there is the idea that one day you will meet again, the reality is that you still miss them here and now. It’s been hard in our lives to move past the death of my grandmother at the end of last year.

It’s hard in the getting used to planning and doing family gatherings without here. It’s hard when you realize that you’re able to move on even though she’s no longer there. It’s hard when you hear your four year old brings it up every once in awhile and realizing it had a larger impact on him than you have realized.

This aspect of death has also been the topic even in a book and show that I’ve been watching. I’ve been making my way through Wizard and Glass the fourth book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and it is largely an extended flashback of the main character, Roland,  recounting the loss of his one true love. Even though her death was a long time ago, it still haunts Roland. Part of this is because he blames himself, but I don’t think it is all of it.

Another source of my thinking about death lately has been the anime Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day. This story is about a group of childhood friends and how the accidental death of one of them ten years ago has impacted this group. The friends have largely all drifted apart and are dealing with the pain, guilt, and grief of this incident in different ways. It’s a sad story that shows that the sting of death can have deep roots.

So I feel I live in tension with death. On the one hand I do believe it is something that has been overcome. That God has sent the means to overcome it and that this way is available to anyone. On the other hand, death is still painful. Death is still hard to deal with and the loss of loved ones is not easily glossed over. It can leave scars for long after the actual loss. This tension is not a particularly comfortable one, but it is where I am regarding death.

The Death of Abraham

The final transition of the Abraham story is understandably the death of Abraham. Genesis 25:1-18 presents us with Abraham’s death and begins to prepare us for moving on the Isaac. While this is a fairly significant event, it may be hard to view this with much interest.

After all, the account of Abraham’s death isn’t very long. Most of the account isn’t even directly about his death, but rather about what he did after the death of Sarah. Abraham remarried and had a bunch of other kids. In case anyone worries about the status of Isaac though, the story shows that Abraham left Isaac everything and gave gifts to each of his other sons and sent them away.

After all that we’re told Abraham’s age, and that he lived to a good old age (as if we needed that affirmation) and that he died. We’re then told rather briefly that both Ishmael and Isaac bury Abraham beside Sarah in the land that he bought a couple chapters ago. The direct account of Abraham’s death ends with God blessing Isaac, as if to complete the transition that we know is coming.

From there we move to the genealogy of Ishmael, which if you think too much about it is a strange thing. Ishmael is not the son of promise, and yet he we are shown his descendants. One wonders why such an account was included. It largely seems rather matter of fact, except for the closing verse that describes the descendents of Ishmael as hostile towards all the tribes near them. It is a bit surprising to see the account here since Ishmael was sent away.

It’s hard to draw too much out of these rather short accounts. The only thing that I can really think of is that life goes on without us, no matter how important we may be. Abraham was and still is viewed as the father of the faith. He is a man who displayed great faith in God, even while he still had the messy human tendencies of doubt. Even though Abraham was no doubt an important figure, he died, life went on and the following generations took up this journey of following God.

That thought isn’t necessarily a comfortable one, but it makes it no less true. My life no matter how important will come to an end and the following generations will continue life. The cycle will continue. Our impact may be written of in history books or only extend a few generations after us, but life will still go on.

This is true with Abraham. He lived a life in relationship with God. We see him act with great faith in some places, and in doubt and worry in others. Yet he still died. We then turn to his son Ishmael, and the time of his death is also recorded in this chapter. The story then turns to Isaac and will follow him and his sons through the next portion of the story. That’s where we’ll pick up next week.

Buying Into the Promise

Last week marked an end to a lot of the tension found in the Abraham story. The story known as the Akedah (binding) was full of it as Abraham was called to sacrifice his son that was the fulfillment of God’s promise. The next few chapters regarding Abraham shift in focus. The son of the promise has arrived and there is no further threat to Isaac.

In Genesis 23 we have the first of these shifts, the death of Sarah. While very little of the chapter is directly about her death, her death leads to a lengthy dialogue between Abraham and the Hittites as Abraham desires to purchase a burial site for Sarah. It’s a somewhat lengthy exchange, but opinions differ on what was going on here.

John H. Sailhamer seems to view the exchange as Abraham refusing to be given the site by the Hittites. In his view, the Hittites are offering Abraham his choice of a burial site for free. Sailhamer then views Abraham’s rejection of this as similar to Abraham’s refusal of the king of Sodom. He views it as Abraham’s reliance on God as source of his blessing, but that only works so far. After all Abraham accepted goods from both the Pharaoh and Abimelech with little trouble.

Another option, which is the view Walter Brueggemann holds to, is that this was a rather lengthy economic exchange. The Hittites were not really offering their land for free, but were simply going through negotiations. Brueggemann almost seems to present it in a way that the Hittites were reluctant to sell to Abraham.

No matter how you view the Hittites, as either generous givers or reluctant sellers, both agreed on one thing. That this purchase indicates the first purchase of land in the promised land. This purchase by Abraham is viewed as an act of trust in God’s promise, despite the current circumstances.

Abrham’s family is not yet large enough to take possession of the promised land wholly. In fact with the death of Sarah, Abraham is probably realizing the nearness of his own death. Abraham will not see the fulfillment of God’s promise of this land. However, it seems that by purchasing this piece of land now, he is trusting in the fact that one day his descendants will have this land that God’s promise will be fulfilled.

I may be wrong, but this kind of faith seems foreign today. We have trouble trusting God for things after any amount of time goes by. Trusting in God to fulfill something after a few years seems like a long time. Abraham even surpasses that by literally buying into a promise that won’t be fulfilled for generations.

So often, I feel that faith like this eludes me. Maybe it is because I lack the tangible promises that Abraham relied on. Maybe it is because faith like this is difficult and can often seem foolish. To wait years and years for God to work? To wait generations? Who wants a God like that?

I don’t always feel that I have tangible promises to grab a hold of. I don’t have the promise of land or children or anything like that to look to. Yet, I feel that relying on this logic is a bit of a cop-out, at least personally. Logic like this can allow me to avoid God or the pressing questions about Him.

While I don’t think many of us have these kind of promises given to us by God, we still need to ask if we’re able to follow a slow God. A God who does thing in schedules and ways that seem slow to us. If God did give us a promise would we be able or willing to trust in him for years, decades, or even for something that wouldn’t be fulfilled in our lifetime? Would we be able to buy into the promise of God like Abraham does here?

While in some ways what Abraham does is unremarkable here. He is simply looking for a place to bury his wife. He is not responding to a command from God, nor does this action even warrant commentary within the passage. However, we still see a glimpse of the promise of God, that this land will be the land of Abraham’s descendent’s one day. Even if Abraham himself is only buying and owning a small portion of it.

Life, Death, and Humans Killing Each Other

Have you ever had times where you’ve been mulling over a passage of Scripture. Thinking about it and wondering how it fits into everything else, and then you run into things that fall into line with it? Maybe it’s reading a book, being involved with a conversation, reading a blog, or some other avenue.Things just unintentionally start going towards a certain topic and you find yourself dwelling on related topics.

This has happened with me this week. I’ve been thinking about what I was going to focus on next in the book of Genesis.Through the past week I’ve been dwelling on  Genesis 9:1-7. This passage drew me in with the contrast between life and death that goes on in this short little passage.

We see life being talked about on both ends of this section. This is found in the ideas of Noah and his sons reproducing and filling the earth and is found in both verse 1 and 7. The idea is pretty straight forward, have children and grow the human race again.

In between these verses the focus takes a darker turn. It focuses on death. First, it focuses on how God is now giving animals as food to man. This seems a bit of an odd allowance here at this point. However, one thing is out of bounds, that the lifeblood of the animal is not eaten.

It is this talk of lifeblood that seems to serve as a transition to a more difficult section to wrestle with. That is the idea that taking the lifeblood, in other words the killing, of a person requires an accounting from any man or animal who has done the killing. It ends with this rather haunting little verse, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”

Now going solely by this passage, it would seem that we are to repay murder and the intentional killing of a person with death. This is centered around the idea that mankind is made in God’s image and to kill someone made in God’s imagine is to be taken seriously. Enter a related blog that I’ve read recently. It was a guest post over at Internet Monk by Marci Alborgehetti called Sanctity of Life and the Death Penalty. While I’ll admit I didn’t really enjoy the tone of it overall, it gave me more to think about regarding this passage, but this article comes to a very different conclusion than what is in Genesis 9.

Now there are many Christians who do not support the death penalty, and to be honest I think that the death penalty has issues. The problem is that we can turn this question and our answer of it into a mark of true Christianity. I don’t really see how this helps, and it often makes the arguments for an against seem very shallow in my opinion.

Often the argument against the death penalty, and the above article makes this appeal, is that Jesus has rejected the death penalty due to the words recorded in Matthew 5:38-39 with a dash of verse 44. These verses say “You have heard that it is said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Verse 44 concludes with “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” See the part where Jesus rejects the death penalty here? To be honest the most definitive answer I can come up with is a maybe.

I mean we don’t have murder or killing really at the focus of Jesus’ words. You can get that out of the passage, but I don’t think you have to. There are three references to the idea of “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth” in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24, 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21) and all of them include the idea of “life for life” nearby as well. The omission of those words here can be interpreted as not including that facet or as Jesus subtly indicating that “life for life” is included as well. Thus this passage like so many aspects of the Bible is in how you interpret it.

Not to mention that we’re assuming that Jesus is focusing on both personal and civil government’s responses to an issue like murder. This aspect further muddies the waters and leaves us with thinking that maybe Jesus was against the death penalty, or that maybe he wasn’t even really thinking about that when he said these words. Ultimately, I’d be wary of anyone using this to definitively mark this issue as concluded and turning on other Christians to wonder why they weren’t unified on this issue.

So if we’re looking for the total victory verse for this battle either way, I’m afraid I don’t see Matthew 5:38-39 as it. Now does this mean I think you have to support the death penalty? No, I think you can approach an issue like this in a couple ways without the Matthew 5 support.

We can talk about the grace and mercy that God extends and how we may want to extend that to those who have taken the life of another. This works, but I’ve also seen and heard people talk about life imprisonment as more of a punishment than execution… so I’m not sure grace and altruism is always at the heart of the matter here. However, I do think that extending grace to those who commit these crimes is a possibility, but I also view that grace as something to be extended by the family of victims, not the culture at large. It doesn’t cost us much grace to keep a murder incarcerated where it may cost much more for the family of victims.

There are also others who claim that the death penalty is often used unjustly and that is a cause for concern. I think this holds a decent amount of weight, but does a lack of justice mean dissolution is necessary or that steps to ensure proper use are needed? I ask this not to support the death penalty, but more in acknowledgement that our whole justice system could be viewed as unjust in economic and racial ways. Do we do away with the whole system or try to take steps to eliminate unjust practices?

So I wonder what do we end with? Is the call for death to anyone who ends the life of another human something that has expired with the coming of Jesus? I honestly don’t know. I do think that life is sacred because we are made in the image of God. The rub, for me, comes when I ask if considering life sacred is only about extending life and not taking lives, even of those who have displayed no regard for the sacredness of life themselves. I want to say that it is more than that, but struggle to say exactly why.

I don’t know if I have problems with a death penalty that is enacted in a just manner, even understanding that our ability to be perfectly just is impossible. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I have this burning passion to endorse and require a death penalty either. So I find myself unsure. I can’t really muster up the passion to call the death penalty inhumane or a necessity. All I know is that human life is sacred, so I’ll try my best to live like it is. Maybe that will just have to be enough for now.

Decreation vs. Recreation

Looking at the flood last time I did it in one large chunk, but this week I’m looking at a smaller passage and wanting to think about what it is trying to say a bit. That smaller passage is Genesis 8:20-22. It deals with the promise of God to never destroy all living creatures as he has done here.

After Noah has left the ark that he built to endure the flood, he then sacrifices some of the clean animals that God told him to bring seemingly for this sacrifice. This sacrifice smells pleasing to God and causes Him to say that he’ll never again curse the ground because of man, despite our wickedness and that he will never again destroy all living creatures. This seems a pretty straightforward promise, so what am I limiting it to these three verses for?

Well a few weeks ago, I ran into a comment online (I can’t remember where) that talked about the fairly common idea that God says he won’t destroy the world again after the flood, at least until we reach the absolute end when he destroys it all again. For some reason the comment stuck with me, and it made me wonder if that is true or if there is something a bit different going on in the two different occasions.

With the flood there appears to be the idea of reversing creation. A decreation if you will. The water that God separated into sky and sea earlier was coming back together and was going to set the world back into the state we saw it at the beginning of Genesis 1. This would result in the death of all living things, and honestly we aren’t given any hint of what was going to happen if Noah didn’t find favor with God.

When we get to Revelation talking about how the first heavens and earth will pass away (Revelation 21:1), we’ve already found that there is a new heaven and earth. The idea here isn’t one of decreation, where we’re simply destroying what’s present and taking it back to the beginning, it is one of recreation or maybe a better term would be renewal. Yes, there is judgment associated with the path to the new heavens and earth, but largely the new heavens and earth are a sign of hope and fulfillment rather than just resetting creation back to the beginning.

I wonder though if sometimes we don’t focus too much on the whole judgment and destruction part. I mean so often it seems like we’re just itching for something like the flood to come again so the world can get destroyed and Christians can go up to heaven, preferably before the whole destruction thing happens. We can so easily teach and embrace God’s promise to Noah here while simultaneously be hoping for the final destruction to come. However, is the end of the world really about its destruction or about its renewal? A renewal that removes the curses of death (even for those already dead), mourning, and pain. A renewal that sees us living with God in our midst, as children of God.

Maybe I’m wrong and there isn’t much difference between the two. After all, as I said both seem to indicate a judgment of the wicked. However, I see no promise of withheld judgment coming from Genesis 8:20-22, just that the judgment will not be the destruction of the earth and of all life.

They do both involve destruction (assuming that the plagues mentioned in Revelation are literal and/or reflect any kind of destruction of the earth), however I think they have different intentions. The flood was resetting the world back to being formless and void with the waters of the deep covering the surface. In comparison, I see the end of Revelation as a renewing of heaven and earth to an idealized state, not one that is formless, void, and covered in water (in fact Revelation 21 also mentions that there isn’t going to be a sea, which is an interesting contrast as well).

I’m not sure if this little rumination has any kind of practical insight that goes with it. I’ve just been wondering if the flood is the same as the destruction to come at the end of the world. I don’t think it is, but I could very well be wrong, and I’m sure there are those who don’t agree with me. I’m certainly not saying that I know what the end of the world is going to be like or that there aren’t ideas that make me uncomfortable about such topics. I’m simply saying that I think of the flood as an act of decreation, of resetting back to default as portrayed in Genesis 1:1-2 with no human life, and that I think of the end of the world portrayed in Revelation as a recreation, or a renewing of creation into an idealized state that includes human beings, even ones raised from the dead.

Have you ever thought about this contrast? Any thoughts of your own to add?

 

Of Roses and Church Structures

Yard work has become a reality we’ve had to get adjusted to now that we’ve bought a house. We’ve had to figure out what was planted around the yard, and what survived the rather harsh winter. Once we discovered what kind of plants we had growing around the yard, we had to figure out how to take care of what we had and buy the tools necessary to do what we needed to do.

One of the plants that we have in our yard is a rose bush. We weren’t sure how much of it was healthy for awhile. A lot of it seemed dead, but we didn’t want to just start cutting too soon, and well we couldn’t anyway since we didn’t have trimmers that would work for a rose bush very well at that time. Earlier this week though my wife was able to get to trimming the rose bush and a fairly significant amount of the bush was dead.

Now before the rose bush was trimmed some of the vines that were healthy looked to be pretty strong and upright. After the bush was trimmed and the dead was cut away some of the vines that were alive slumped to the ground. They may have been alive, but they weren’t very strong. They had been relying on the support of the dead vines.

For some reason as I was mowing around the rose bush over the weekend this led me to thinking about the church. I wonder how often this is the case with our church structures. Part of it just dies and never gets cut off. It doesn’t kill the whole church, but when parts spring to life they are unable to become as strong because they’re stuck on all the parts that are dead or “just the way they’ve done things.”

If you don’t cut away all of the dead parts then the stuff that actually has life may never get as strong as it needs to be. What needs to be cut off may vary depending on the church and the situation, but checking to see what needs pruned on a regular basis is a necessary thing to do. What I’m talking about isn’t just to make sure your church is doing the newest thing or filling your activities with all kinds of programs. I just think that we routinely need to examine the church to make sure we’re nurturing and putting time and effort in the parts that are alive and vital.

If this is mistaken for just adding lots of stuff like programs or ideas that are currently cool or faddish, it may look like another situation in our yard. The previous owners also had a herb garden planted. As it grew this year we saw that only two herbs remained. Most of it was overtaken by mint, but there were a few chives that grew as well.

The mint was so thick though, that when we removed the ones growing around the chives all the chives just fell to the ground. Because of how crowded the herb garden was the chives weren’t able to gain any strength on their own either. You could have looked at our herb garden and seen a lot of life. It was green and healthy looking for the most part, but it wasn’t really a healthy situation either.

So a church that is so crowded with activities and maybe even focused on attracting one particular demographic of people may crowd out other parts of the church that are also healthy and growing. Having a lot of options doesn’t always mean health. Sometimes it can mean that the life is just being choked out of other avenues of the church’s ministry or that maybe certain people groups are feeling like they’re being chocked out.

I guess all this just makes me wonder that sometimes we fail to prune and weed out the structures of our churches. That our lack of health may be because we’re trying to cling to what is dead, or maybe trying to fill the church with programs and aspects to attract a certain demographic alone. I’m not always sure I know what needs pruned, but a willingness to honestly look at the structure of the church on a regular basis seems like it would be a helpful and even a healthy thing to do. That could just be me though, what do you think?

It All Falls Apart – Genesis 3

After reading the first couple of chapters in Genesis it is not hard to realize that we’re not living in those same conditions. We are not in an idyllic paradise and shame and guilt are not unknown. We have lost paradise, but how does this happen? What is the reason behind this? Genesis 3 presents us with the story that a number of people call “The Fall.”

You Snake!

We start off Genesis 3 being given a portrait of the serpent. The picture we’re given is that the serpent was a crafty creature beyond any of the other animals God had made. This is meant to be a contrast to the human pair who were naked (which could also be used to mean innocent) and unashamed in Genesis 2:25. So much for the humans ruling over creation eh?

Now a lot is made out of the serpent. The serpent is commonly associated with Satan or the Devil. Now admittedly there is no explicit connection made between the two here. This connection is usually made by connecting Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 to this story. These may very well be proper connections, but a lot of time went between these two stories.

I also imagine that a good part of trying to connect it to something supernatural (but not above or on par with God) is that I haven’t met many serpents who can talk and have tempted me to disobey God. It certainly seems like something more is at work here than just what’s being presented at the surface. Does that mean for certain the serpent was Satan? No, but does it rule it out either? Personally, I don’t think so.

Did God Really Say?

The serpent comes upon the woman and asks “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” Now this is the point that most Christians really rally around, that the worst thing to ask is if God really said something. While there is a degree of truth to that, I think the danger lies when we ask that while skewing what God actually said for our own purposes, which is what the serpent is doing here.

There is a divide between asking this question in a subversive manner and asking this question in an inquisitive manner. I know that on my journey of faith I often wondered where we found the basis for our belief that something is wrong to do. So asking “Did God really say playing cards/dancing/drinking/etc is wrong?” isn’t necessarily bad, because it can be asked to gain insight and understanding. I feel that we don’t always do a good job at discerning the intent behind questions and often assume the worst and maybe even point to this passage to vindicate ourselves.

Now, the serpent asks this question and doesn’t even present what God actually told the man and woman, which was “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). He instead presents this as if God had not allowed any tree at all to be eaten.Trying to present God as one who keeps the man and woman from doing things rather than focusing on what God does allow.

The woman tells the serpent that there is only one tree they can’t eat of or else they’ll die. The serpent then counters by saying that the woman is wrong. They won’t die if they eat the tree, instead eating from the tree will make them like God. This is again playing up the idea that God is keeping this from them. This is all it takes for the woman to reevaluate the tree, eat of it and get the man to eat of it as well.

Once they eat of it their eyes are opened, they realize their nakedness and seek to cover themselves up. John H. Sailhamer in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis frames this whole exchange in an interesting way by saying, “Ironically, that which the snake promised did, in fact, come about: the man and the woman became ‘like God’ as soon as they ate of the fruit. The irony, however, lies in the fact that they were already ‘like God’ because they had been made in his image (1:26).”

Hide and Seek With God

God enters the scene in 3:8 and once the man and woman notice this they run away and hide. This prompts an exchange between the man and God. God seeks out the man and the woman and I believe offers a chance for confession and repentance.

Why do I believe that? Well because all God does is ask questions. Here he casts no blame and doesn’t pronounce any judgment. The ones who cast blame are actually the man and woman themselves. The man instead of taking responsibility for his own part blames the woman and indirectly God for giving him the woman in the first place.  The woman comes out blaming the snake, but does admit to eating the fruit. Neither strike me as really seeking forgiveness, but rather trying to put the bulk of the blame on another person. I could be wrong on this, but that’s my take.

Anyhow, God curses each of the individuals after asking his questions and the chance of repentance now lost. The snake is told that he will crawl on his belly and eat dust. Sailhamer doesn’t think that it has to mean the snake once walked on all fours, but that “The emphasis lies in the snake’s ‘eating dust,’ an expression that elsewhere carries the meaning of ‘total defeat.'” So it seems that the whole curse of the snake is centered around the idea of defeat, and specifically defeat at the hands of the woman’s offspring.

For the woman and the man there seems to be some difficulty added to things they were to enjoy in the garden. For the woman one difficulty would center around being fruitful and multiplying as was presented in Genesis 1:28. Greatly increased pain in childbirth would now be a factor.

In addition there seems like there would be added difficulty in the relationship between the man and woman. I wonder if this is a adding difficulty to the notion that man and woman would be one flesh as presented in Genesis 2:24. Instead of oneness, there would now be contention and battles for power. It doesn’t mean that they would not become one in marriage, but that this oneness will now be more difficult to achieve.

With man the first focus is regarding the land. Instead of being able to freely eat of  any of the trees in the garden (Genesis 2:16) he is now going to have to toil and work for the crops. The second focus is the life of the man himself. Instead of living eternally, he would one day return to the ground that God formed him out of. The idea that man would surely die by eating of the forbidden tree is coming, even if not immediately.

Death and Exile

One aspect of this story I’ve never quite realized before, is the idea that the fall breaks God out of his rest. He makes garments for the man and woman. As Sailhamer says “After—and because of—the Fall, there was more work to be done.” I never really thought about it from the vantage point of God and his rest, which we were to be a part of, being interrupted by the fall.

I’ve always thought of this act as being a sacrifice. In place of the immediate death of the man and woman, animals were killed to literally cover them as clothing after their disobedience. Maybe that isn’t something that is to be taken out of the situation, but it certainly seems fitting to me.

If this was a sacrifice, it was not enough to have the human race escape the death that God placed as punishment. What is interesting with how it is described is that the death of the man and woman was due to God exiling them from Eden and the tree of life. It isn’t something naturally within man or nature that keeps them alive, but something that has to be accessed externally. This is a different angle than is often the way I feel that immortality is presented regarding the world pre-fall by many Christians.

Summary

Tempted to become like God in ways we weren’t meant to be, humanity was separated from God and life was made harder due to their disobedience. After being tempted by the serpent, being made in God’s image wasn’t enough, the man and woman sought more. The price for that was separation from God, increased difficulty in life, and eventual death.

Any thoughts about Genesis 3 you have? Questions? Disagreements? Comments? Feel free to leave them below.

The Battle Against Death, Part 4 – Any Answers?

This will be the final part of my reflection on death that has been ongoing for the past month or two. I started thinking about all this because of current debates on gun control, and the semi-recent debates about health insurance. It was the idea that these things were part of a battle against death. This led me to look towards the Bible and see if I could get any consistent themes about what it says about death. The three that I found were that physical death is inevitable, the Bible views death as more than just biological, and God is ultimately the one who defeats death. However, the question I have to tackle here is how does the Biblical view of death help us figure out how to fight against death?

This is a difficult question to answer in some ways. We are all coming to this question at different places. Some people could care less about the Biblical view of death, so they think that the Bible has little to say about fighting death, either spiritually or physically. Some of those may even think that the Bible is part of the problem. On the other extreme there are those who propose that the Bible has every answer, be it about diet, how to pick your spouse, how to parent, how to exercise, and the list could go on.

I don’t feel like I fit any of these camps, I’m a Christian and want to try to reflect on what can be gleaned by what the Bible says about death and how to fight it. I think the Bible has a lot to say about how to fight death, it does talk about issues of food, marriage, parenting, money, but not always in very detailed ways. You’re not going to find Jesus marketing a diet plan so you can lose weight or be healthy. The Bible doesn’t tell you that you and your spouse need a date night. Tips on how to potty train or when your child can do chores are lacking. We can come up with some things due to principles that are presented and stories that are told, but sometimes these details are up for debate.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the Bible is all up to debate and has nothing solid. It is just not as comprehensive as some people like to make it. The Bible speaks clearly about worshiping only one God, not casting idols, honoring parents, speaking against murder and hatred, being truthful to and about our neighbors, engaging in fair business practices, seeking justice impartially, and also talks quite candidly in places about sexual ethics. Even with some of these pretty clear teachings there are still room for questions. Does the commandment to not murder, mean that war is wrong? Does the idea of being truthful and not bearing false witness against our neighbors simply mean not lying? What exactly does honoring parents look like?

So if things that are talked about fairly clear in the Bible still allow some questions, what do we do about issues that are not quite as rooted in Scriptures. For those who are Christians and care about what the Bible says on ethics and how we should live, often this comes from trying to develop an underlying ethic and building on that.

To give an example of this lets look at gun control. I’m just making general arguments here, I’m not trying to be comprehensive, but rather showing how two viewpoints can derive from the Bible. For those who think that the commandment to not murder means to never take a life, gun control could look like a way to do this. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and his own turning away from violence in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion adds to this idea of pacifism and that taking a life is never a good thing even at the danger of our own demise. So if all killing is to be avoided, then the need for weapons is not a high priority and gun control could be a way to express this. Add the consistent theme of God being the one to take vengeance, and you get a little more of a reason to not worry about trying to take the life of another.

On the other hand, if  you look at the teaching to not murder, you can say that it doesn’t mean that killing is completely wrong. The command says do not murder, so the intent is for the crime of murdering another human being. So it doesn’t apply to self-defense, the death penalty, or to times of war. We see this interpretation lived out in the wars of Israel through most of the Old Testament. Exodus 22:2-3 also adds to this on the area of self-defense saying that “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.” It is pretty easy to take this as a solid foundation for the owning of a weapon that would allow us to protect ourselves in such a circumstance. From that it isn’t much of a jump to thinking that owning a gun is a good idea for the protection of family. People who view things this way also tend to view Jesus’s words on turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy to be about issues different than self-defense when your life or the life of others nearby are threatened.

So we have the same question, but two different answers. So it is no wonder that when we step out of the foundation of the Bible that we find mass chaos on what to do on gun control. And I’m only giving two possible arguments on either end of the spectrum from the Biblical foundation.

So where does it leave us? I wish I had solid answers. In part, I think we’ve become a nation, and perhaps a Western culture, full of know-it-all’s. People believe that their answer is the only right one and belittle any other opinion there is.  I’ve seen people that that want to place the United States as better than any other country or that Canada or that any given European country is better than the United States. That Republican is better than Democrat or vice versa.  It is easy to see people try to use pictures and stats to bolster their own opinion, but do very little to promote heavy thinking or invite true dialog on the subject.

Thinking about that reality, leads to perhaps the most disheartening thing about this reflection is that I don’t think there are many answers. Death is inevitable, and as a Christian I believe that that death is more than just biological death. When we fail to listen to anyone but our own voice we are agents of death When we hate another for how they view life we are agents of death. When we try to reduce God to the very outskirts of life we are agents of death. When we fail to see our own sin and rejoice in it instead of repent from it we are agents of death. So I ultimately trust that God is the one who will be victorious over these two types of death.

It is not intentional that I write this final post on Good Friday, it is merely the time that I sat down to finish it. However, the significance of it is not lost on me. Today is the day we celebrate the crucifixion of Christ. It is the day that Jesus Christ died for the death and sin that is in all of us. It is this day when the defeat of death began, even if it wouldn’t be realized by Jesus’s disciples until a couple days later, and even if that defeat isn’t fully realized still today. However, that is where I put my faith, that one day the death that we so easily promote will be gone for good. That the struggle to figure out what is best on this world will be over. Until then, we do our best to struggle for answers and hope that what we do will be towards the fight against death, and not aiding death in its battle against us.

The Battle Against Death, Part 3 – The True Winner

Here we are at the third part of my reflections on our battle against death. The first part focused on how death is something we can’t avoid. This is a view that we can come to with no reliance on a source like the Bible. However, it is also something that the Bible reiterates and reinforces. In the second part of this reflection, the focus was on how the Bible views death not just as a biological thing, but as something that goes deeper than that. Death is also in reference to how we focus our lives. This focus is centered around believing and following God, which includes being able to show love to the people we interact with as well. If you want to read them fully, then here is the first part and second part.

If you read the second part it would seem that I ended it with the idea that in order to have this second kind of “spiritual” life we would have to believe and follow God perfectly. Not only obeying what He has instructed, but also showing grace, forgiveness, and love to those around us. There is no way that we can achieve this life on our own. We have trouble enough living up to our own expectations of ourselves. Then if we throw how we treat other people and how we view God into the pot, well the end result is simply not within reach.

This setup leads us to the last observation, at least that I noticed, about death from the Bible. That observation is that God is the only one to have complete victory over death. Now I know that this seems like one of those cop out answers. The answer is God and let’s just move on. We can use God as the answer to everything, but when we do that it can seem like it’s an answer without a lot of thought behind it. I think this usage results in a problem that is tackled in a post on the blog Mere Orthodoxy that talked about how we often try to use Jesus and God, as the answer for so many different problems, but that at its core Jesus came to solve the problem of death. It was an interesting read for me and fit into this theme of death that I’ve been wrestling with for the past few weeks.

If Jesus and God are the answer to death, that should then be a consistent theme of Scripture for both types of death that I have presented, right? I do happen to believe that this is the case, but I also believe that it can still be a difficult sell to some people on both types of death. I’ll explain what I mean by that for each type of death.

So let us start with the idea of physical death. I think it is pretty easy to see that we can’t beat physical death. As I’ve said we have medical technology and we can do pretty amazing things with it. Even with all that though, we have yet to prolong life a little beyond the age of 100. Maybe with more time we’ll extend it beyond that, but even then it is only an extension of time until finally dying.

So if God is to be the solution for physical death than there should be some evidence of this in the Bible right? Well I think we have a number of examples where this is the case. If we are to look at the Psalms, it is interesting to note that there are a number of Psalms that call for God to deliver them from death. It is not something that the author is seeking to achieve, or even presented as being able to achieve. They are calling on God to be able to do it. This isn’t the most solid of evidence, but it isn’t alone.

Another example can be found in Isaiah 25. It is talking about what God will accomplish, and in verse 8 it talks about how “He will swallow up death forever.” This sentiment is also found in Revelation 21:4 where it says that, “There will be no more death…” Similar sentiments are found in 2 Timothy 1:9-11 and Revelation 20:14. However, again we see that these are mostly conceptual in nature. Are there other more active examples of God fighting against death.

How about the seven times that individual people are recorded as being raised from the dead. There are three examples of this in the Old Testament. Most of these are centered around the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah raises a widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:19-24, Elisha raises a Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4:23-25, and strangely enough Elisha’s bones resurrect a man who is accidentally buried in his tomb in 2 Kings 13:21.

Then there are four accounts of people raising from the dead in the New Testament. Two of these are by Jesus, the ruler’s daughter in Matthew 9:23-26 and Lazarus in John 11:43-44. The other two are by Peter in Acts 9:36-43 and Paul in Acts 20:9-10. Of course this isn’t including the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is in a different league, since it isn’t someone raising Jesus, but Jesus in essence raising Himself. Which is another powerful example of God’s power over death.

These examples are also only dealing with actual death, but there are a number of examples of Jesus healing the sick, blind, and crippled which would also be well within the range of battling physical death. So all in all it seems like there is a fair amount to base the idea that God is in a battle against physical death. However, I mentioned that this wouldn’t be an easy sell for everyone. What did I mean? Well simply put I think there are at least two hurdles to get over with this answer.

The first seems obvious to me. This is the fact that death is still a present reality. I think it is very easy for us to say that if God is really battling against death, if He really has victory over death through Jesus, then why are we still experiencing death? I understand that theologically there are explanations for this, but in the times where we have lost a loved one, are in the process of losing a loved one, or simply have to see a loved one ill or wounded, these theological reasons often can feel empty. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is. I think this is the reason why people don’t talk about God’s victory over death in these terms too often, but rather focus on the ideas of eternal life after death which are the results of God’s victory over death, but doesn’t entirely account for the lingering presence of death.

The second hard sell is the fact that God is often looked at as a cause of death in some places in the Bible. The place scrutinized most for this tends to be the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. These are wars fought by Israel at God’s command. Even worse it calls for the elimination of certain groups of people, including women and children. I’m not wanting to give easy answers on this topic, because I don’t think they really exist. However, I think a lot of our rub comes from the cultural ideas of Freedom of Religion that to be honest are not really present in the Bible. If my observations are true within these posts and physical death and “spiritual” death are both ultimately parts of a larger meaning of death then that could be part the reasoning behind these events. I could go on about this, but I don’t feel that here is the best place to go further.

Since I brought up the idea of “spiritual” death in the last paragraph, I think it is time we turn to examples of how the Bible deals with battling against this type of death. Honestly, this is pretty easy. The instruction found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are essentially the foundations on how to battle “spiritual” death. I know we get bogged down in all the ceremonial requirements and rituals, but they are Israel’s way to make God be the center of their lives. However, there is also a lot of instruction on how to treat other people in very practical ways as well in these books. These books really set the stage for the entire Old Testament, but is also foundational to Jesus’ own teaching. This is seen in the fact that the two greatest commandments that Jesus gives are quotes from the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Jesus mainly highlighted a fact that had been there probably the whole time, but people either missed it in their own self-righteousness or in the jettisoning of God’s instruction in the first place. That we aren’t able to have “spiritual” life by our own effort. This is the reason there was the invovled sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice in the New. We can’t live up to the necessarily requirements for “spiritual” life in the first place. This is why you get statements like that in Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our sin, our failure to achieve “spiritual” life and vitality on our own, is death. We can only have life in Jesus.

So why could this be a hard sell? Again I have two thoughts. The first is that the instruction of the Bible doesn’t always line up with our own ideas of “spiritual” life. Whether it be the Biblical ideas of forgiveness, loving ones enemies, or simply views on sexuality we can take the instruction of God as being harmful. We fail to see how following God’s way is really the way towards “spiritual” life and therefore reject the idea of needing God’s forgiveness.When we don’t agree with what is healthy and harmful to our lives then it makes it difficult to really accept the need for Christ as the solution to this kind of death.

The other thought is simply this, have you ever met a perfect person? Have you met someone who puts God and others so highly that it shines in everything they do? If you have I’d love to meet them. I know there are good people who follow God that I respect and admire, but the truth is not one of them are perfect. I think I’ve met a few who give off the aura of thinking they’re perfect, but they’re often much less perfect than the ones who admit they aren’t.

What’s the problem with this you might ask? Well again we have a rub. We’re saying that Jesus has victory over sin and can give spiritual life, but we still all struggle with sin. I do, you do, your pastor does, everyone. So like with physical death, we have this tension. Death both physical and spiritual is supposed to be defeated by Jesus, yet we still have to deal with heart attacks and heart break, disease and deception. It is a lot tougher than just saying Jesus is the answer and moving along our merry way.

Am I saying that Jesus isn’t the answer to the problem of death, the problem that is both biological and spiritual? No, but what I’m saying is that as Christians who know that He is the answer we can also understand that sometimes we don’t always get a lot of solace when people give us empty words, no matter how true they are.

I believe that Jesus, that God, is the answer to death. What is interesting though, is when Jesus came down to earth, he didn’t say that all too often. He did at times, mostly to his disciples, but he often times showed that he was the answer to death. He healed people, he accepted people who were marginalized, he forgave and he called people to repentance be they religious or non-religious.

It is because of who Jesus is and what he did that I want to be able to do these things too. I don’t just want to hand out pat answers like they were candy. I want them to have substance. I may not have performed any physical healings, but I want my actions to be healing to people. I may not be perfect in word or deed, but I do believe that as I follow God I can become part of the battle against death. Not just in the ability to prolong biological life, but also in the ability to point people to the source of life that is not as easy to see on the surface of things. On the surface it seems that we will always lose, we will all die we will never be perfect. No matter how dreary this is, how hopeless it all seems, I believe that there is a true winner who will defeat death. That true winner is God.

The Battle Against Death, Part 2 – Not Only Physical

This is the second part of my reflections on the battle against death. In the first part I talked about my own thoughts about how our battle will turn out, and started to look at what the Bible says about death. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very uplifting observation that I discussed last time. This observation was that we will all die and that there is no way to completely beat death no matter how hard we try. If you want to take a look at the whole thing, here it is.

The second aspect of death that is important to note is that the Bible appears to view death as not just a physical reality. There is more to death in the Bible than just our life ending. I’ve tried to figure out a way to describe this, but the best that I can come up with is spiritual death. I do not like this designation though. So before I go any farther I’ll explain why.

There is a faulty line of thought in Christianity that likes to try to divide the physical and the spiritual. The idea is that what is physical is evil or at least less important than the things that we would designate spiritual. Therefore issues like physical health, possessions, good food, entertainment of any sort can be looked at with great disdain unless we somehow infuse a “spiritual” theme into them. The Bible does not present this separation. Instead it calls for a centering of our full life around God. Both our “spiritual” life and our physical life should reflect our following of God. Therefore helping our neighbors with matters of health, money, or possessions is to be held in union our faith and as a part of our faith. I know this isn’t a complete exploration of this topic (maybe I’ll have to explain this further later), but it is something that I want out in front. I am not advocating a separation of the physical and the spiritual, but I am catagorizing them here for ease of understanding.

So let’s get back to the issue at hand. There are two types of death presented in the Bible; a physical death, and a “spiritual” death. The physical death was the focus of the first part, and we can easily see this death presented a number of times. It is present in the descriptions of the death of men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, etc. I also gave examples in the first part that show the Bible understands physical death.

However, there are many times where the Bible will talk about a death this isn’t a physical death, but is rather a death that is exhibited by a turning away from God and what He says. Like the beginning of Proverbs (Proverbs 2:18-19) where the author has this to say about the house of an adulterous woman Surely her house leads down to deathand her paths to the spirits of the dead. None who go to her return or attain the paths of life.” Proverbs 8:36 talks about those who “fail to find [wisdom] harm themselves and all who hate [wisdom] love death.”

This emphasis on a death that is exemplified by turning from God and His instruction continues in the New Testament as well. John 5:24 does this in reverse “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” This talks about the passing from death to life that comes from a proper belief and following of God. Not to belabor this point, but to give one more example, Romans 6:23 also carries this view as well when is says that “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There are also other places that you can look to see this view of death as something more than just physical death.

Now, there is another problem with just labeling this as “spiritual” that I need to address here. I think it can be too easy to reduce “spiritual” death as simply not following God or believing in Christ. This is certainly a major component, but like my warning from before this tends to be completely disconnected from the physical reality of everyday life. God is interested both in our love, belief, and loyalty to Him and our love for our neighbor. While these things may not have much to do with death as we typically think about it, they are major aspects of our “spiritual” life.

This idea is present both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are focused in on providing justice for those who tend to be marginalized, a call for fairness in judgments (not favoring either the rich OR the poor), a way to forgive debt for those who have had poor judgment or a rough season of life. The prophets often brought two main charges against the people of Israel, idolatry against God and an overabundance of injustice in the land.

We have this capped off by Jesus when he says in Luke 10:27 that the two greatest commandments are to “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Which, by the way, are both statements made in the Old Testament; Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 respectively. So while belief in God and what He has done for us is important, God does not want this disconnected from love and mercy in practical and physical ways.

Honestly, I think the idea of death resulting from turning from God and His ways is something that is often missed when we think about fighting death. Not that our culture doesn’t understand the concept, but that we have removed it from the framework of following God either completely or in certain spheres. We all seem to know that life is more than just being physically alive. We want jobs that are fulfilling, enjoyable experiences, good relationships, and things that are not just about whether our heart is beating or not.

Now this is not bad in and of itself, but without the framework of God this can be twisted to where we believe we are the ultimate authorities. This leads us to believe that God doesn’t have any business with how we live our life or at least that His interest in how we live our lives should be limited as we see fit. This is especially true of things that we don’t view as being a big deal, like sexual ethics. To present an example of this you could read the article The Millennial Generation’s Acceptable Sin on the Gospel Coalition. I think this presents a picture of being with God on certain issues, but not caring too much about what he says on others.

The point here though is that death is viewed by the Bible as more than just a physical thing. There is a spiritual dimension to it that is connected to our interaction and attitude towards God. There is more to life than just whether our heart is beating and we’re breathing. There is a deeper dimension that is present in how we live our life. This dimension involves both loving and following God as well as loving those we interact with in our lives. To simply hold one aspect of this dimension isn’t enough.  Saying we love and believe in God while we deny mercy, love, and justice to those around us isn’t true spiritual life. However, neither is simply loving our fellow humans and rejecting God either entirely or partially. This may sound pretty daunting, and to be honest it is. This will be what I look at in the next part. So we’ll see you then.