Defanging Death

Posted by Jeffrey Tiel on

Defanging Death

A profound philosophical look at life and death.


(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)

Texts: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13); “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

There are different ways of looking at our lives. On one view there is a definitive end, a point at which all that we do becomes pointless. Death looms as that great conundrum. It confuses us, because, though we dread it, our dread doesn’t really make sense, since nothing makes sense if death is all there is. If that sort of death awaits, what difference does one more day make? If such an empty death awaits, then really, how can we even experience consciousness? Shouldn’t we “already” be dead? It’s like those medical procedures where they give you a semi-anesthetic that numbs your memory. Apparently, you were partly awake during the procedure. But as far as you are aware now, it never happened. So, how can we exist at all if death is our end?

Jesus offered a different way to view life, where death is swallowed up in victory. This points to a life with meaning and hope. We still despise death—we grieve over it—but not as those without hope. So potent is Jesus’ promise that our actions have value in spite of death. And I don’t mean that they will have value post-death, but rather that in spite of death and before death, they mean something. We Christians don’t merely live for the next life, supposing that only the next world is real. That’s not what Jesus promised. He said not that we would receive eternal life, but rather that we now possess eternal life. This means, in part, that the significance of life overcoming death is available to us right here. We need to think about what that means.

Let’s start by considering the notion that you sometimes hear of “living in the moment.” People who have had close calls with death will sometimes talk about the importance of never missing the value of a single second of life. The close shave awakens them to how incredible it is to just live. But living in the moment is about more than just me appreciating the pounding of my own heart and the rush of oxygen-enriched blood throughout my body. Living in the moment means finding value not just in terms of what is to come, but in terms of the significance of what I am doing right now.

This is tricky, because Aristotle told us that our actions have value in terms of their purposes. So, if the purpose is something in the future, how can an action find significance before the future? It would seem that significance is a futuristic perspective on life. But God doesn’t live that way. He is eternal, complete all at once in himself, alive at all possible times, so that all our times are one huge “time” for him, one gigantic divine Moment. He, accordingly, carries significance (the Eternal Word) within himself, for he is his own good (his own purpose), as the philosophers say. Thus, it is possible to live with value in the moment, but it requires divine activity and an eternal perspective.

As temporal creatures (rather than Eternal Creator) we cannot assume such a perspective. So, the Church teaches that God infuses this kind of life—eternal life—into us supernaturally. At our baptisms we are given faith, hope, and his love all at once, and the latter of these is a purely divine thing. God is love. His momentous value is eternally contained in each and every second of our time. When we love like he loves, we participate in his eternal love. It doesn’t even matter how effective that love turns out. Jesus speaks of giving a drink to someone in need. But suppose that person then walks into the street and gets hit by a car? From an Aristotelian future-hope theory of meaning, the given drink seems pointless. Yet the irony is that we are all on a death-trajectory! So, it’s hard to see how on Aristotle’s view any action could have meaning.

Yet Jesus sees in that simple action the fullness of love, a love that returns to God what he gave to us, creating a full circle, a reciprocity, a coming-home. When we love our neighbor, we have done it to Christ. We give back what is given. Thus, in that act, in that moment, we are literally in God, sharing in divine activity, participating in divine Beatitude. So, when we live lives according to the Beatitudes (poor-in-spirit, mourning, merciful, meek, hungering for justice, pure-in-heart, peace-making), then our value is contained not just in what results from our actions, but from who we are in loving God in that moment. Who are we? We are God-bearers, bearing divine love to our neighbors.

How, then, do we truly “live in the moment”? How do we find fulfillment no matter what is happening around us? We love.

How, then, do we truly “live in the moment”? How do we find fulfillment no matter what is happening around us? We love. But you can’t love without hope, so if you love, your hope is restored. How? Because the proper object of the theological virtue of hope is God himself, and loving and hoping in him is never pointless, just as the eternal reciprocating love of the members of the Trinity is meaning itself. Loving God makes us co-participants in that divine love, a love that defeats death, overcomes hell, crushes ennui, and offers rich color to every creative aspect of human life. The only way to choose despair is to reject God. Hence, to restore hope, love God.


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