Death is the peak of all that is contrary to God in the world, the last enemy, thus not the natural lot of man, not an unalterable divine dispensation. … Peace cannot and must not be concluded just here in such a way as to establish a spiritual-religious–moral Kingdom of God on earth, while forgetting the enemy. There is peace only in prospect of the overcoming of the enemy.
I recently accepted an invitation to write an encyclopedia article on death and dying, and I wonder if I am up to the task. In particular, I wonder if I have it in me to tell the truth about death. The fact is death intrigues me even as it scares me. I think about it all the time. I read books and essays about it. I have my students read and talk about it.
And yet, I find that I rarely tell them or myself the truth about death. That truth, if Barth is to be believed (and I think he is), is that death is an enemy, one with which we are never to make peace. More importantly, death is a defeated enemy, defeated by God’s raising Jesus from death.
We in the Ekklesia Project talk a great deal about the Kingdom of God: about participating in the building of that Kingdom, about the establishment of justice and peace that are the hallmarks of the Kingdom. I believe we are right in doing so. We would also do well, I believe, to heed Barth’s admonition not to forget that the real enemy of that Kingdom is death. It is death – and especially the fear of death – that keeps us from resisting injustice and violence.
The late Pope John Paul II maintained that our world is dominated by a culture of death. He pointed to our frivolous attitude toward life, our cheapening of the gift of life, and our easy embrace of medicalized killing as evidence that we have forgotten that death is an enemy. In fact, our disposition toward death is paradoxical: even as we rush into death or push others headlong into it, we spend an inordinate amount of time and money struggling against it. Either way, we betray in our actions and attitude a failure to acknowledge that only God has the power to defeat death, and that God has indeed already done so by raising Jesus from the dead.
Paul calls the risen Jesus “the first fruits of those who have died,” maintaining that Jesus’ resurrection secures a general resurrection of all the dead at the conclusion of history. This is then the linchpin of the gospel: Christ is risen, and the enemy of us all has been overcome. We make peace, not with death, but with the deeper truth of the resurrection. This deeper truth allows us to face death – tentatively, fearfully, haltingly, but to face it nonetheless.
After the long drought of Lent we can once again say, “Hallelujah,” for Jesus is risen!