I was somewhat surprised last week that some of my fellow ministers seemed to think it was absurd to say that Christians were against death. Being against death seems to me to be close to the heart of the whole enterprise.
The classic text here, of course, is Romans 5. In verse 12 we read: ” just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned”; in 17-18. “if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” The chapter ends with the ringing declaration: “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
None of this, of course, is a programme of action for us to follow. We are neither to go around protesting against death as if that might prevent it, nor are we all called to the medical profession (although there is much to admire in the Seventh Days Adventist commitment to promoting physical health). The good news is NOT primarily a system of ethics or a new “law”. It is a proclamation about what God has done, is doing, and will do. The end of death and the coming of eternal life is not something we are commanded to do, it is something we are promised God will do.
The biggest single problem with the theological liberalism of the nineteenth century, which lives a sort of after-life as the received wisdom in denominations like the URC, was its anthropocentrism, It displaced the Bible as the the site of the revelation of God and replaced it with some combination of human experience and human reason. One key aspect of this was the putting of ethics right at the heart of religion. Christianity became first and foremost a way of teaching morality. This meant the core of had to be something WE could do.
This reversed the Reformation which had insisted, in its rejection of late medieval Catholicism, that nothing we could do made a difference to anything that really mattered. The target was primarily religious observance but the extension to ethics was not one the Luther or Calvin had any problem with. Whether it was in Luther’s teaching that actions were good only through faith or Calvin’s uncompromising promotion of the Augustinian doctrine of predestination (which was also adopted by Luther) the decentring of human striving in favour of a stress on God’s sovereignty was crucial to the Reformation.
In Luther’s case, especially, this was linked to a very lively eschatological expectation. And in general to say that we’re against death and that “endless is the victory, thou o’er death hast won” (to quote a favourite Easter hymn) is more difficult where the end of time is not seen as imminent. However it seems to me that the New Testament teaching is pretty clear and consistent. Jesus brings eternal life. Death is an enemy against which God in Christ is struggling and victory is promised.
One way round this has been to see death as a staging post to new life, to see the new life as discontinuous with this life and death as, therefore, unimportant. That is not the view of the New Testament, as I read it. Death is not a natural and inevitable part of life that one accepts and even welcomes, in the Biblical witness.
Death is a consequence of sin. Without sin there would be no death. In the new creation which is to come there will be no death, as there will be no sin.
I can’t say what this means. What I can say is that this extraordinary vision of a world without suffering and without death, without sickness, fear or pain, is what I take to be the point of the gospel. If we stop believing the promise we are given (that God’s rule is close at hand) then I can’t see what we’re doing. Some rather unexceptional ethical teaching and the gathering of people into communities of care are good but not enough. They are certainly not true to the excitement and challenge of the New Testament.
The gospel promise is of a world good beyond anything we can imagine or hope to achieve. That’s the point. All things are possible with God, as Jesus responds to the disciples shocked bewilderment at how high the bar for salvation seemed to be set. What we’re given to proclaim and to teach is not first of all what people should do but what God has promised.