If We Weren’t Meant to Die, Why Do We?

A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar conversation on medical assistance in dying (MAiD) that was sponsored by MB Seminary, where I teach theology. MAiD is a thorny theological and existential issue that requires a great deal of reflection from Christians. A major reason for this is that deciding one’s moral opinion regarding MAiD is only a relatively small part of the matter. The fact is that over thirteen thousand Canadians have chosen to die via MAiD since its legalization in 2016. Not only have many made this choice already, many more are likely to do so, especially in view of the fact that the Canadian population is aging. Even if you have not yet encountered MAiD up close, there is a good chance you will.

But I want to back up and consider a question that may tend to be glossed over in the conversation. That question focuses on how we view death. For many people, death is a great evil that plagues the human condition. It is something to be resisted as much as possible for as long as possible. From dietary discipline to exercise to cosmetics to medical technology, the goal is to remain as young and vigorous as one can. Only when it is evident that death is unavoidable will one shift one’s focus to addressing its imminence. In that case, the prospect of MAiD becomes an attractive option, for a variety of reasons — and I will acknowledge that I am sympathetic to the concerns that motivate people to consider MAiD. No one relishes the thought of pain, incapacity, or worse — least of all me. More on that in a moment.

Back to the topic of death. For Christians, the big theological question from which to begin is what death — and I am talking about physical death — implies in the context of the human condition. There are basically two options. The first and probably more common theological conviction is that physical death is an evil that humans ought to try to overcome, a product not of God’s plan for his creation but of human sin. God didn’t intend for us to die. We will all die, but God has nevertheless provided a hope for us beyond death. Nevertheless, our physical mortality remains a reminder of our sinful limitations, and we consider it an obstacle to be resisted, overcome as long as possible, and addressed as we see fit when it cannot be avoided.

The other option for thinking about physical death is that it is a normal part of life, simply a product of being not a sinful creature, but simply of being a creature. Death is a part of life — no more, no less. The fact that we are each going to die is in itself only incidental. The goal of our lives is not to attempt to overcome death, but rather to die well, even as we have lived well, according to the lordship of Jesus the Christ. Death is simply another opportunity to live faithful discipleship. I find this second explanation far more compelling than the first.

Why do I believe this? There are two main reasons. The first comes from my observation that fear of death is a fairly recent development in human history, and especially in Christian theology. I am reminded that the great Puritan divine Jeremy Taylor, a contemporary of John Bunyan, is known for two famous devotional treatises known colloquially as Holy Living and Holy Dying. The fact that the latter was written to help Christians die well at a time in history when they had no recourse to medical technologies to attempt to forestall death does not take away from the point Taylor makes so eloquently. The point is to be holy in every circumstance. I cannot imagine why this priority ought not to persist now.

The other reason I believe physical death is incidental is that it addresses the scientific, anthropological, and sociological data around human existence more holistically than the traditional view of sin and death. Simply put, the prevailing scientific evidence is that cosmological and human origins are earlier than is envisioned in young earth creationist theories. Evolutionary scientists, many of whom are Christians, have shown compellingly that humans evolved from pre-human creatures. The only coherent way to integrate the biblical creation account in Genesis with the scientific data is to posit that hominids, the taxonomic family that includes humans, apes, and their genetic ancestors, evolved not only in terms of physical characteristics but also in a way that is indicated by the development of human moral awareness that is inextricably connected to the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

As a result, what we have is death before sin, chronologically speaking. This is a theological problem only if one ties physical death to spiritual death. However, for a variety of reasons that are too lengthy to enumerate here, I do not make that association. The problem of sin is that it caused spiritual death — estrangement from God, and everything that goes with that — not physical death.

When we look at death in this way, a lot changes, and it is easier to see why theologians like Jeremy Taylor thought the way they did. But I recognize that it does not eliminate the problems associated with the end of one’s life. I am very aware that this can be frightening, and it is personal for me as well. Both my parents are in decline with forms of dementia that have largely robbed our family of their presence even while they are physically alive. And looking at them makes me wonder what future I have as their progeny. I would be lying if I said I had never thought of escaping a fate I consider worse than death.

Here is what keeps me grounded. First and foremost, I believe that, notwithstanding embrace of healthy personal disciplines (e.g., diet and exercise, among others) to attempt to fight ultimately against aging, with whatever pains and mercies that accompany it, would be to forego an opportunity to embrace faithfulness at the end of my life, knowing that the one who is my Lord in life remains my Lord despite my imminent death. (And note that I am talking only about the end of my life, when death is imminent. If I get sick, I go to the doctor. I see my chiropractor regularly. I am not talking about resigning myself to death.) Second, I am fortunate enough to live at a time in history when medical advances may be able to make the end of my life somewhat more comfortable than it would be otherwise. I see no reason not to avail myself of those benefits. Third, an enduring indicator of the work of the Spirit is the peace that passes all understanding. Pain may bring sorrow and lament, but it ought not precipitate despair, anger, or panic.

Those are my convictions now, when I am in my 50s and healthy. I trust they will remain so should I be allowed to see truly old age. The bottom line is that I do not believe death is to be feared, and believing that Christ is Lord, I will allow it to arrive in my life on his terms, not mine. So the question of why, even if I think I understand it, is largely moot. “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Romans 14:8 NIV

4 thoughts on “If We Weren’t Meant to Die, Why Do We?

  1. I have a particular interest in this topic. so I am grateful you chose to write about it.

    As a family physician I have had to have many conversations with the families of the critically ill for whom further treatment would be medically futile, trying to guide them through agonizing decisions about withdrawing care. In those cases I have had a sense of fulfillment when the families were able to come to a place of release,. Sharing in the grief of my patients in some small way is painful, draining but such a worthwhile privilege. I have had similar sense of satisfaction when I am engaged in end of life care of the patients with illnesses of slowly fading variety and am able in some way to accompany my patients and their caregivers as the natural course of their illnesses draws them to the end of their lives.

    And like you Brian I have seen first hand the ravages of dementia in my mother(and in my wife’s parents) and I fear for myself.

    And every day I care for the non-terminally ill who are plagued by a multitude of sufferings from chronic incurable conditions. Some come to terms with their mortality and enjoy some measure of peace and happiness, while others rail at their incapacities, grow angry and bitter or hopeless and despondent. For them death would surely be a release from this physical life’s suffering.

    But that’s just it, isn’t it? Any Christian view of physical death must encompass at least 3 essentials:
    – physical is not all there is
    -this life is not all there is
    -compartmentalizing physical from spiritual, this life from the next , is mere artifice, not Reality.
    Not so?

    If that is so then what we do with our physical bodies is intertwined with our spiritual lives. Is my determination of when my life will end not much more than a reasonable utilization of available means to hasten death so as to interrupt suffering ? Is not also a declaration that I will not drink the cup in front of me? Even if I were as sanguine as you are about the strength of evolutionary biology’s theory of the origins of mankind or were convinced that death predated sin (which I am afraid I am not), it would give me pause to consider the spiritual implications of my termination of my life (or my mother’s).

    And wouldn’t one have to reject the implications of a BODILY resurrection and the apostle’s words “ The last enemy to be destroyed is death”. – 1 Corinthians 15:26 in order to suppose that physical death is a “good”?

    And might you have presented a bit a false dichotomy in casting the 2 camps as “death is evil and to be resisted at all costs” vs “ “death is natural and needn’t be feared but actually summoned at the time of one’s choosing? A few (not many) of my patients have shown me the great beauty and dignity of suffering well , not with stoic impassivity but with Godward lament and supplication not fearing or resisting death but , in their Gethsemane’s, submitting to the will of their most wise and loving Father.

    Is that not what the apostle seeks to convey ?
    16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.
    17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
    18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

    Forgive me, I have been discourteous and gone on far too long. You would be quite justified in saying “Get your own blog, buddy!”

    As I said, the topic means much to me….

    1. Dilip, I thank you for taking the time to write. I can’t take the time to respond to everything you wrote, but I agree with many things you included, especially your three points of a Christian view of death. I want to make a modest suggestion in defence of my proposal that physical death is not a result of the Fall. You rightly note the transitory nature of our physical mortality, as Paul notes. I will add as a sidebar that death is not incidental to those outside of Christ because it brings judgment associated with either glorification or damnation, and perhaps should have qualified my statement — that death is a good — in light of that. But in Christ, what was threatening is now the gateway to a glorious existence in the presence of Christ. You astutely note that 1 Corinthians 15:26 indicates that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. But later in the chapter Paul says that the “sting of death is sin,” (v. 56) and implies that without sin, death is neither as ominous nor as fearful as before.

      I really think that physical death is not the ultimate problem, nor even an effect of the problem, though it can be truly difficult to face. The fear of death is a symptom of the real problem, which is sin. I am convinced that sin – and with it, spiritual death, separation from God – is the real issue. And for Christians, this issue is gone, since Christ has removed the sting of death. So for Christians, shouldn’t we model a freedom because the fear of physical death is gone?

      If we grant that this might be, then might death be a relief from the transience, even the burden, of this life, and an entry into glory? Might our attitude toward its approach be an opportunity for worship, of modeling a faithfulness that is exemplary? Especially toward those who have not experienced regeneration and so are still bound by fear? To me, this makes sense, and offers wonderful evangelistic opportunities.

      I don’t think this is heresy. What do you think?

      1. No heresy there, I heartily agree! And that’s what Ms Carole was resonating with, I think.
        Lord, have mercy on us and grant us your peace to face our death and dying well. Amen

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