1 Corinthians 15:25-26
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
We do not choose to come into this world, and it is certain that we will die. Death is the only thing we can’t avoid. Death is most often accompanied with great grief and sorrow on the part of those who are left behind. 1 Corinthians 15:26 refers to death as “the last enemy,” the evil one’s greatest stronghold. The most human action Christ could have performed, his sacrificial death on the cross, changed the use of death for all time, transforming it into the means of life.*
The Last Enemy
Death, the last enemy: In many respects however, it’s the first enemy. As Baudelaire observes, ‘the dust of death is on all things now’. Don’t we find ourselves experiencing death already in the dreadful anticipation of the all-consuming totality of its negation?
The slip into non-being; that beckoning event which promises to swallow whole our very existence; being itself (and whatever fragile meaning it’s accrued) – this is the ultimate event of our lives. Ultimate both as in final in sequence, and also ultimate as the summation of our existence: our being climaxes in this blink into nonbeing. ‘We are beings toward death’, observes Heidegger. Plato remarks that ‘life is a preparation for, and meditation upon, death’. Barth sees clearly that ‘Death is engraved inexorably and indelibly upon our life. It is the supreme tribulation in which we stand. In it, the whole riddle of our existence is summarized and focused…the dying Socrates is the only fitting emblem of philosophy.’ What more can the human say for itself, than that it ends? The recognition of our finitude, and the anxiety attendant upon this recognition, cause fear and despair. We endeavor to hide and cloak this reality; indeed, the herculean attempts to forget this inevitability generate their own pathologies. Our gurus—both ancient and modern—offer varied techniques to mitigate or even avoid suffering and death. We speak of our ‘immortal souls’ (although our text tells us that ‘God alone is immortal’ [1 Tim. 6:16]). We strive to mask and prevent our aging, to avoid sickness, these interruptions to the ‘good life’ to which we deem ourselves entitled. This fate is not for us, surely!
The Sting of Death is Neutralized
But it is. Jesus says it is. He himself doesn’t avoid suffering and death, he certainly doesn’t promise you anything different. ‘In the world, you shall have tribulation’, he says, on his way to a cross, ‘but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.’ We witness Jesus march into the very yawning maw of death (telling us not to be afraid!). And by the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit, he is resurrected, and appears on the other side of death. He beckons us, be not afraid, follow me through death to life. Death now is not extinguishment, the unmaking that results in eternal non-being; it is but a membrane, the other side of which is eternal life.
Christianity doesn’t ignore death, it doesn’t soft-pedal its reality. It doesn’t offer techniques to avoid it. Instead, the Christian faith looks at death level and clear eyed, and boldly out-narrates it. The Christian proclamation reduces to hope, and it is here that this hope is most audacious. No naivety, no delusion, no escapism, but rather, a relativization, a making of the ultimate and absolute end a mere penultimate step in a broader, and better, story. The God who is, out-narrates nonbeing. Death as the emptying of our existence, the stripping of our meaning, is itself emptied and stripped of its meaning. Negation is negated. The sting of death is neutralized. Its reality remains, but it is now a toothless lion. Fear is thus removed.
Our God, the very ground of our being, the one who calls us into existence as finite beings, beings who must confront death (although we seek to ignore it), let us remember our hope: we must experience death, and yet we may rest in peace (because, even though we often leave off this second part), we shall rise in glory!
Written by Ryan Patrick Murphy, Ph.D., DAI Director of Educational Programs, for the Biola University Lent Project. Used with permission.
*First paragraph taken from Biola University Lent Project http://ccca.biola.edu/lent/2019/#day-mar-17