DEATH is an almost unmentionable subject. Although we are regularly told that “Black Lives Matter”, it is actually death that underlies such slogans. Euphemisms such as “past (gone)” and “lost” are prevalent, especially in “In Memoriam” newspaper columns and popular discourse. These terms must reflect a primitive and quasi-superstitious fear of death, the unknown or the uncontrollable, according to Bart Ehrman’s latest foray into the field (Heaven and Hell: A Story of the Afterlife, One World, 2020). The words used are unlikely to reflect the Church’s attitude towards death inherent in its beliefs.
Christianity, while recognizing the natural human pain that results from a sense of loss whenever a loved one dies, views death itself as an essentially non-tragic event, due to its belief in the assurance of life beyond the grave. It is not always clear from the New Testament, however, whether the individual believer is promised entrance into eternity at the time of death, or whether it is simply said that there will come a time when the death of the individual can be transformed into a triumphant second life. . Either way, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, because Christ rose from the dead, those who belong to him will share with him a comparable resurrection.
Because death is generally not a popular discussion and because the New Testament is often obscure or ambiguous about the future, contemporary Christian preachers tend to either ignore or minimize eschatological teachings. To modern ears, the word “eschatology” smacks of superstition and can even lead to strange and extravagant claims. Therefore, current Church teaching prefers to emphasize ethics or the role(s) played by Christians in the world. So we hear a lot of talk about Christian socialism, Christian humanism, Christian education, and so on.
While all of these topics obviously have their place, if Paul’s teaching (in particular) is meaningful and should be followed, ethical behavior and the resulting “good works” are natural for a believer who is already profiting here and now. benefits of the resurrection of Jesus.
If the New Testament picture as described is accurate, then the Church came into existence as an eschatological body. Many non-Christian groups throughout history have hoped to exist beyond their death. Where the Church differs from such a mundane hope is in its tradition that adherents are already assured of eternal life. This earthly life is inevitably incomplete, but Christianity teaches that its followers already belong to an eschatological community.
Even when modern Christian preachers conclude that the irreducible historical minimum behind the Easter accounts in the Gospels is the proclamation that “He is risen,” that cry alone is enough to place Christianity in an otherworldly sphere. It was this proclamation that separated Christianity from the Judaism that nurtured it. And it is on this belief that the Church itself was created.
GENERALLY, Orthodox Jewish teaching in the “Old” Testament speaks of death as the kingdom of Satan, over which even God’s control is impotent. Such a belief underlies Jesus’ own cry on the cross in the Passion accounts of Matthew or Mark. In death, even Jesus feels “separated from God” (see the variant in Hebrews 2:9). In teaching the revolutionary doctrine of the resurrection, the early disciples of Jesus in effect noted that the old order was broken and that the resurrection of Jesus abolished the power (but not the immediate effects) of death.
All who would then be incorporated into his newly resurrected body (ie the Church) would share with Jesus — and in a sense already shared with him — a resurrection like his. He then became, for Christians, the very first to be resurrected; but such a message was also decisive. Paul, for his part, certainly saw him as a new Adam, bringing into the world not death (as Adam had done at the beginning of time), but, in its place, eternal life.
All of this opens up many questions. How are we to be incorporated into Christ? How does our subsequent behavior affect the future? What is the ultimate fate of unbelievers? What does it mean to be a member of an eschatological community? Questions like these inspire curiosity. Later Christians often tried to answer this in the so-called apocryphal writings of the New Testament.
All of these questions, as well as many more, need to be discussed by individual Christians today in the realization that they belong to a group of people destined for eternal life. Far from the current Western tendency to dismiss any discourse on death, the
The Church – despite its reduced role in society – must teach After about the meaning of death itself and the afterlife. By projecting itself strongly as an otherworldly community, the Church can (like the early Christians) return to its original teaching.
JK Elliott is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism at the University of Leeds.