14 January 2013

The Dilemma of Death

IMG_6908In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, the apostle Paul struggles with the Dilemma of Death. He describes three states of human existence:
  1. Mortal Life. Paul uses the metaphor of a tent to emphasise the temporary, precarious nature of this life (vv.1-2). This follows hard on the heels of his description of his trials in 4:7-12. Mortal Life is a life of groaning and burden, since it is clear to us that this is not Real Life. We long, not for Death  but to be clothed with a different kind of body (‘not that would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed’ v.4, ESV), not temporary and precarious, but a body as God intended (vv.2-4).
  2. Death. Some refer to this state as Life After Death. This is misleading. A separation of soul and body cannot be properly described as life. The state of Death is not fully human existence. It is best described as the state of Death. Death is the destruction of our mortal body, our ‘tent’ (v.1). This state is likened by Paul to being (in a change of metaphor) naked, unclothed (vv.3-4). To keep the same metaphor as tents and buildings, we might say that Death is being homeless with respect to the possession of a body. Paul does not want to be unclothed, to be homeless. The thought is a burden. It is an unnatural state. And yet, Death is also the state in which we may be present with the Lord. Jesus the Christ is present in the heavenly realm and at death we are, despite being without physical existence ourselves, present with him.
  3. Real Life. This is what we ought to have in mind when we use the term Life After Death (some refer to this as Life After Life After Death). Real Life is resurrected life. This, not Death, is Paul’s great hope in the face of the realities of Mortal Life (4:13-14). It is not an entirely different existence, an existence about which we have no knowledge now. Rather, Paul describes Real Life as an engulfing of mortality by life (v.4b). The image is one of a tsunami of Life sweeping across and through the mortality of our present experience. This wave of renewal transforms Mortal Life into Real Life. The ‘tent’ of our mortal body is replaced with what Paul calls a ‘heavenly building’, a building that is not temporary but eternal. Paul rather poetically here conceives of God holding this building for us (contrast his view in 1 Corinthians 15) – its giving to us is so certain that Paul can describe it as ‘in the heavens’ (v.1). But we do not receive it in heaven. It is kept there for us, for the day of the resurrection. As Tom Wright famously wrote: ‘If I tell my friend I’ve kept a cold beer in the fridge for him, it doesn’t mean he has to get into the fridge to enjoy it!’
Of course, Paul writes from the perspective of a faithful disciple of Jesus. The descriptions of these states apply to Christians, who participate in God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Resurrection is but the final act in God’s work of human salvation. It is for those who he has chosen, called, justified, sanctified and glorified. It applies to those baptised into the Church who believe and follow Jesus in faith, as disciples. For those who do not follow Jesus Christ, there is no hope of being present with Jesus in the state of Death. Nor is there any hope of Real Life.
 
The Dilemma of Death for the Christian is seen in how Paul uses the language of being ‘home’ and being ‘absent’. He mentions two homes:
  • if we are in our bodies, we are ‘home’ (v.6b); and
  • if we are with Jesus Christ our Lord, we are ‘home’ (v.8b).
And, correspondingly, two absences:
  • when we die, we are ‘absent’ from the home of our body; and
  • when we live Mortal Life, we are ‘absent’ from Jesus our Lord.
The Dilemma of Death is found in the fact that, when we die, we lose one ‘home’ but gain the other. In Mortal Life we are at home in the body, but absent from the Lord. In Death, we are absent from the body, but at home with the Lord. Neither state is ultimately desirable, but to be with the Lord is better than being absent from him and this is the consolation in Death (v.8). Compare this with Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21-24.
 
This Dilemma is only resolved in Real Life, the life of the resurrection. No-one gains this Real Life ahead of any other (Heb 11:40). Or, in terms of Paul’s poetic view here, no-one receives the heavenly building prepared by God ahead of anyone else. Real Life is given to all (whether dead of alive, 1 Cor 15:51-52) at the Parousia of Christ (1 Thess 4:14). During Death we await the realisation of it. It is our final adoption, the goal of our redemption (Romans 8:23).
 
So, at a funeral of a Christian brother or sister, ought we to grieve or rejoice? Both. We grieve because Death is an enemy, an imposter in God’s purpose for man. We grieve because our friend is absent from the ‘home’ of their body. To be dead is to be not fully human. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13-14). We rejoice because they are present with the Lord and are free from the groaning and burdens of this Mortal Life. They are with the Lord, which is better. And we rejoice in the hope of the resurrection. Are they finally ‘home’? No, they are not. They await Real Life when they, along with us, will be at ‘home’ in our bodies, and at ‘home’ with the Lord.
 
The doctrine of human resurrection is neglected in Christianity. If we do not proclaim the resurrection as part of the Gospel, it is not a Christian Gospel. It is no Gospel at all. The Gospel without Resurrection becomes a gnostic shadow of the Christian Gospel. Silence about resurrection in the preaching of the Gospel comes close to a de facto denial of it. We ought to heed the words of Justin Martyr.