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Death: Friend or foe?


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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 08/13/17

And if the former, what does that mean for life?

Bill Tammeus is a friend who for many years was the religion editor of The Kansas City Star. Though retired, he did not shake the habit of writing a daily column. He links it to his Facebook page which is where I usually find it, every single day. Me, I think I could get over that habit pretty quick, but following his blog, I am glad he hasn’t.

He did a recent column called, “Are You Prepared for Your Own Funeral?” Bill had attended a retreat at the Hermitage Spiritual Center, where he is on the board of directors, which prompted his column. He lingers over something the director, Fr. W. Paul Jones, said about death that caught my attention.

“Father Paul,” Tammeus wrote, “was particularly strong in his view that death is the enemy, one which we should resist with vigor because ‘death was not intended by God,’ he said. ‘All of life is a struggle between being and not being.’ And, he said, when he reads in the Bible that ultimately ‘death shall be no more,’ his response is ‘I’ll drink to that.’”

I will, too.

Theologically, death is the consequence of sin, in Christian and Jewish and Muslim thinking. The penalty for sin is death. The sin may be original to the Edenic fall, or it may arise from the exigencies and existential constraints of scrambled human living. But either way, sin renders us untrusting of God and suspicious of one another, and does it to such an extent that human sin stains creation throughout. We suffer a “moral bellyache,” to borrow a snippet of dialog from The Seventh Seal, and it is contagious.

St. Paul accordingly speaks of the “groaning travail” of all creation, yearning God’s deliverance. St. Paul says death is God’s last enemy. God has other enemies standing line (1 Cor. 15:26), but the last awaiting defeat is death. Death is the enemy of God, and so an enemy of our flesh.

There is much argument nowadays regarding death as an enemy. The advocates of “death awareness” and “death-positive” movements suggest death can be a friend. It merely is the natural biological result of birth, part of our “biologic” journey through our small part of the cosmos, as beautiful as a sunset. Death is not a futility, we are told; it is wired into creation’s innate destiny. There is every reason to embrace it.

But that is only after death has been rescued from the hijack Christians pulled off, linking death up with Christian notions of God and afterlife and judgment, and things like that. Shorn of those, death actually becomes sort of friendly. But it is a ginned up camaraderie, a cold snuggle with the falling night.

I think it is this — death-as-friend — that gives euthanasia supporters their impetus. If death is no enemy to God or Man, because the former does not exist and the second does not care if God is or is not, then we must exercise – what other term is there? – our godless compassion for those who (in our opinion) suffer for relief from life? It makes a rude kind of sense, absent any god.

(Understand, though, I do not advocate pointedly fruitless, heroic medical intervention with no prospect of improvement or recovery.)

Read more:
I was at my wife’s deathbed for one reason, and it had almost nothing to do with me

One response to the post exhibits this “a relief from life” approach. “The notion of death as enemy, however, deserves being challenged. One of my parents had a long and suffering death and implored me daily for help to die. Perhaps as a response, the other [parent] went quickly and during sleep. Should we all not be able to choose the latter?”

It would seem a cruelty, wouldn’t it, not to grant the last wish of the dying to die? Help them, quickly and during sleep, because death is no longer an enemy. From euthanasia and “death with dignity” springs this new variety of “denial of death.” Denial of course is that stage of grief the terminally ill go through, and it is experienced by those grieving a death. We are all supposed to work ourselves out of denial quickly. This is so we can move on in overcoming debilitating heartache, so we can get on with our lives without being hampered by what is natural, friendly death. Making death a friend is the way to do it.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but this always is what I think of when I hear something like quickly and quietly, and too often it is I what I have observed.

It comes to a question. What does death mean? There is a Christian answer. Death means that God brings us a step nearer to Him. We do not believe we die into nothing; we believe we die into God.

If that is in any way true, then human life has value beyond measuring, value extending beyond even ourselves, we consumed as we are with our chores, disabilities, loves, struggles, fears, and sins. Death is God’s enemy, and ours. And for us through Christ he has promised to destroy it.

But if death means we merely slip away to nothing, if we behave as if there is only death after death, life itself comes to have the same definition: It is nothing worth worrying about.

Read more:
Does the Church expect us to suffer instead of “dying with dignity”?

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