Death is Natural
In episode four a young boy named Cole learns that his grandfather, Russ, is going to die. We never learn how he is going to die, only that his death is imminent. In a striking scene, Russ takes Cole to a mysterious artifact called the “Echo Sphere”—a giant spherical object that tells you how long your life will be or how much life you have left. When you shout into it, you hear your voice echoing back to you, with each echo representing a decade. Cole calls into it and hears six echos, but when Russ calls in, he hears nothing back. The remainder of the episode revolves around Cole and Russ learning to accept death as natural.
Death is not a subject that probably makes your list of favorite things to talk about. In Western culture, the hush-hush nature surrounding our grief attests to our discomfort with death. When someone close to us dies, we sometimes fight back tears or try really hard to “keep it together.” And while our friends offer us grace during our grief, people inadvertently expect us to eventually “get over it.”
In secular culture, death is seen as a natural phenomenon. As Cole’s mom says to him, “We may not like it, but dying is just part of life. The very last part.” The question is, then: “How do we respond to death?”
One way of responding is to say that we should do everything that we possibly can to fight death. This is what Cole wants. He struggles and hopes for a way to save his grandpa from death. Even though death is natural, this view sometimes makes it look as though death is something that humans can eventually overcome. The idea is that, given enough time, humans can figure out a way to beat death. Some people have turned to cryonics, in which your dead body can be frozen in hopes that one day a technology will be developed that can reanimate your body. Others are experimenting with the idea of uploading minds to a computer. These efforts make one think of the poem, “Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. “Old age,” Thomas says, should “burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Meanwhile, Russ represents another way of responding to death. He simply accepts it. Though he has spent his whole life proving possible what other people say is impossible, when Cole asks him if there is anything that can save him from death, he simply answers, “impossible.” “There’s nothing to do,” he says, “these things happen.” So, there you have it. Death is natural. It happens. Just accept it.
Death is Unnatural
Where do Christians fall in this conversation about death? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. While the Christian worldview argues that death is unnatural—that death is the great enemy—many Christians struggle with how to talk about or deal with death. Having the hope of eternal life, Christians can sometimes minimize the tragedy of death, especially when the person who dies is a Christian. “They’re in a better place now,” we say, or “They’ve gone home to be with the Lord. Their troubles are over now.” At their funeral service, we “celebrate” their life and speak of the joy that comes from being “with the Lord” or that “in death, there is nothing to fear.”
Of course, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the above statements. It is true that if they were a Christian, the person who has died is with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), and that the ultimate power of death has been overturned by Jesus. We can think of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57, NIV). In Jesus, death has been defeated and we will rise again with him. Our grief for those who have died is not without the hope of resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This is the great hope that Christians can hold on to.
However, just because we have hope, it does not mean that we should minimize death or try to soften its tragedy. When Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus he didn’t say, “That’s alright then, everyone stop crying. I’m about to raise this guy back to life!” No, instead “Jesus wept” (see John 11). Jesus took the time to feel the weight and the tragedy of death. Jesus knew that this was not how it was supposed to be. He knew that death was unnatural.
Death is of course “natural” in that every one of us will die. There is no machine we can build to fix it, nothing we can do to stop it. Despite medicine, technology, and all the advancements we make, eventually our bodies get old, they die, and they return to the dust.
But it was not always meant to be so. In Genesis, Adam and Eve were given a life of abundance and goodness. However, contrary to what is commonly thought, there is no indication in Genesis that Adam and Eve were created immortal. In fact, when Adam and Eve sin and God casts them out of the garden, God gives an interesting reason for doing so: “He [humans] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22, NIV) In other words, the tree of life provided the possibility of immortality, and presumably humans were meant to eat from this tree. The possibility of eternal life with God was held out to them, but they chose the other tree instead. They chose death.
And if we think that God was somehow unfair in his punishment—that the penalty of death is overkill for eating a piece of fruit—consider what it would be like to live forever in a world broken by sin (violence, suffering, pain, heartache)—for all eternity. So, while death in this sense is actually an act of God’s mercy, when we consider the whole biblical outlook, we must conclude that death is unnatural. It is the great enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that has invaded the world. It’s not the way things were supposed to be.
The Hope of Eternal Life
This “natural” vs. unnatural view of death is the tension that Christians live with. As Christians, we feel the loss that accompanies death. We should weep, we should feel the pain of death, and we don’t necessarily have to “get over it.” Some things in life are not meant to be “gotten over.” Perhaps they are things that we must learn to live with by the grace and strength of God.
But this does not mean that we have no hope or that there is nothing to do now. Indeed, we ought to make use of the best medicine and technology to facilitate life, but we need not grasp after immortality or desperately struggle to “stay alive as long as possible.” Immortality is not a thing that we can attain by our efforts, it is a gift from God in the form of eternal life in his presence.
Tragically, in Tales From the Loop, while Russ is willing to accept death, he has no hope of an afterlife. When Cole asks where you go when you die, the only thing Russ can say is “in an urn.” “You don’t exist anymore.” For Russ, there is no reason to think there is an afterlife, and when Cole suggests that there could be one, Russ basically ridicules the idea. Strange, for a man who spent his whole life exploring the secrets of the universe, proving the impossible possible.
As we have seen, Christians have a different story to tell. Jesus came to take the full weight of sin (in death) on himself. He felt the full force of death’s sting on the cross. When Jesus died, it seemed that death was that great victor, that it had conquered even God. But, three days later, Jesus rose up from the grave, trampling down death and putting it to open shame (Colossians 2:13-15).
Death no longer holds the final word. It has been defeated. And while we continue to live in a world where death is a reality, its power has been lost and its unnaturalness has been shown for what it is. Just as Jesus rose from the grave, so too, we will rise again with him (2 Timothy 2:11, Romans 6:8). This is the hope that we have even in the midst of death. It does not mean that we do not grieve (I Thessalonians 4:13-14), but it does mean that death is not the end.
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