A CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY FOR DEATH AND HOSPICE MINISTRY

Death Theology

Dr. Saul Ebema.

Introduction

One evening, I received an emergency death notification for one of the hospice patients. I had met this patient a few times prior to his death. He was a man of faith who had grown up in the church, and served on different church leadership boards. Prior to his illness, he was serving as an elder at his Baptist church.

Every time I visited him, he would ask me to read Psalm 23 and other bible passages that came to his mind. After reading scriptures, we would sing a few hymns. He liked, ‘Amazing Grace.’ He often spoke about his readiness for death. One of his favorite scriptures was Philippians 1:21 which states; “For me to live is Christ and to die is to gain.”

Over the last five years working as a hospice chaplain, I have seen dying patients frightened by the reality of death but not this man. He faced the final days of his life with grace and a genuine sense of peace. For him, death was not something to be afraid of but a journey back home to be with God. His theological understanding of death was a source of strength and comfort.

Although a Biblical understanding of death offers a source of comfort to many Christians facing mortality, death is usually an unpleasant truth that is avoided in our contemporary American culture. Feifel notes “four primary reasons for why Americans have difficulty in dealing with death.”[1] The first reason he gives is urbanization. He states that in western culture, individuals are increasingly removed from nature and witnessing of the life/death cycle. The process of urbanization has led to people having less sense of community with others, and few common rituals to express feelings and guide behavior. Secondly, healthcare practices segregate the aged and dying from the general populace into nursing homes and hospitals, making death a foreign experience that elicits the fear of being alone. Thirdly, the movement from extended family to nuclear family has limited the opportunity to see aged relatives die and to experience death as a natural part of the life cycle. The fourth reason is the increase of secularization. “Religion minimizes the impact of physical death by focusing on the hereafter, endowing death with a special meaning and purpose and provides a future and immortality. With the decline in religion there has been a marked loss of these coping mechanisms.”[2]

The fear of death is not only an American experience but a universal phenomenon. If you think about it, there is much about death to fear. The dying process has the potential to be painful and lonely. The threat of losing everything we have worked for and all the meaningful relationships we have established during the course of life can be overwhelming. Not only that but;

The loss of a loved one to death is often one of the most emotionally painful experiences that we can have. Even when the death is not that of a loved one, simply being a witness to death can evoke a natural horror and revulsion. Furthermore, because of its seeming finality, death presents one of the most formidable challenges to the idea that human life has meaning and purpose. Given these facts, it should be no surprise that fear has been one of the most commonly expressed responses of humans to death and dying.[3]

Rando however sees the benefit of the existence of death in human experience. She says;

Life as we know it is inconceivable without the tacit assumption that it must end. Such things as reproduction, emotion, competition, and ambition would be pointless if there were never any death. The very fact that we are finite and have only limited time makes life all the more poignant and meaningful.[4]

Whether we are comfortable with the reality of death or afraid of it, death remains a fact of life. As ministers who minister to the dying and their loved ones, having a theological and biblical understanding on death and dying is vital.

The Theological and Biblical Understanding of Death

Throughout the centuries, death has been conceptualized from many different perspectives. Biologically, death occurs with the cessation of physiological functioning. Death is medically confirmed when the heart stops beating, the brain stops pulsating and Other life sustaining organs stop functioning. In theological terms, “death is defined as the separation of the soul and the body.”[5]

While the Bible takes death seriously, it does not develop a theology of death. The theme of death is expressed descriptively (as history), poetically (as lamentation), theologically (as the outcome of sin) and eschatologically (as overcome through the resurrection of Jesus Christ). Yet, there is no single ‘theology of death’ to be found as a thematic development.[6]

While not succinctly offering a simple understanding of death, the bible gives us a broad theological interpretation of death. For this discussion, we will analyze the three interpretations of death as stated in the bible and these three are: Physical death, spiritual death and eternal death.

Physical Death

The first time death is mentioned in the bible is in God’s speech to Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

In Genesis 3:4, the serpent challenges God’s speech on death by telling Adam and Eve that they would not die if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Waltke states that when God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the place of his presence,

He was teaching that human life would consist preeminently in a covenantal relationship with Him. And the presence of the tree of life in the midst of the Garden indicated that this divine-human relationship would be eternal. Sadly, Adam’s sin resulted in the forfeiture of this eternal communion.[7]

Although Adam and Eve did not die immediately after their act of disobedience, the dying process effectively began with God’s judgment; “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3: 17- 19).

The curse could well be termed ‘The Curse of Death’ that strikes at both the purpose and nature of humanity. In regards to purpose; relationships are frustrated, both interpersonally and between God and humanity (Gen. 3:16, 23), and the activity of humans is now subject to frustration and toil (Gen. 3:19). In regards to humanity’s nature; the pronouncement that ‘to dust you shall return’ shows how the curse of death unravels the physical being of humanity.[8]

As a result of God’s curse on Adam and Eve, death and dying became part of life. This reality of death was also well articulated in the book of Ecclesiastes “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecc 12:7).

 The Process of Physical Death

The Bible describes the process of death and dying as an individual event. Meaning, everyone faces his or her own death. “In Genesis 5, we hear the repeated refrain, “and he died” (Gen 5:5). “Breathing one’s last breath is one of the most common biblical expressions used to depict the actual moment of physical death.”[9]

The timing of physical death in the bible is attributed to God. “See now that I myself am he. There is no God besides me. I put to death and I bring to life” (Deut. 32:29). “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21).  David in the Psalms, acknowledged the sovereignty of God in numbering the days of his life. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps 139: 13- 16).

Spiritual Death

Apart from death being the cessation of life and the separation of the soul from the body, the Bible also speaks of spiritual death. By spiritual death, the scriptures refer to the termination of the covenant relationship between God and human beings.

Paul writing to the Ephesians states that, “before we were Christians, we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but God made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:2, 5).  To Paul, when someone is spiritually dead, he or she is “separated from God” (Eph. 4:18). “Paul seems to describe people before conversion as being spiritually dead. This sense of spiritual death refers to the fact that their allegiance and affections were not aligned with God.”[10] Thus, death, in this context, conveys the idea of separation from God. Jesus speaking on spiritual death said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24). Conversion, according to Jesus and Paul, results in a transition from death into life.

In summary, the result of sin is spiritual death. This kind of death consists in what might be called “cove­nant-estrangement.”[11] The “sinner is alienated from God (Eph. 2:12, 4: 18) and God is “alienated from the sinner” (John 3:36). Rec­onciliation can only be made possible by “accepting the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:11, 11:15).

Eternal Death

Although the Old Testament community was aware of the reality of eternal death, the OT does not give much information regarding eternal death. Enoch in the book of Jude preached a final judgment (Jude 14, 15). David also spoke about eternal death in the Psalms (Ps 9: 17- 20, 37:37, 49:12). In his conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote about the concept of eternal death, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; fear God and keep His commandment, for this is man’s all. God will bring every work into judgment” (Eccl 12: 13- 14). In his prophet vision Daniel saw the Day of Judgment:

I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened (Dan 7: 9- 10).

Daniel continued to say; “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2). The Old Testament community seemed to have a general belief in a final judgment and eternal separation from God that would follow physical death.[12] The New Testament is clearer in the teaching about Eternal Death. Jesus cautioned the disciples, “not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). After the final judgment, the soul and bodies of those who are not in a relationship with God will be sent to eternal destruction in hell. The eternal experience in hell after the final judgment according to the scriptures will consist of unending pain and torment (Matt 8:12, 13:42, and 24:51).

Old Testament Views on Death and Afterlife

The Old Testament presents different views on death and the afterlife. There are at least three different perspectives in which death is understood; “(1) biologically, as life’s cessation (Gen 35:18, Ps 90:3, Job 34: 14-15; (2) mythological, as a demonic agent or power (Isa 25: 6- 8, Job 18: 13; and (3) metaphorically, as the loss of that rich existence intended by God for his creatures”[13] (Deut 30:15, Ps 13: 3- 4).

The OT community seemed to accept death as a natural part of life (1Kings 19:4, 2Kings 2:3). This perspective was well articulated by David when he was approaching his death. He said, “I am about to go the way of all the earth” (1Kings 2:2, 2 Sam 14:14). Although the OT community accepted death as a natural part of life, just like in contemporary America, their general attitude regarding death was more negative. Death was more accepted if it happened in old age than in a younger age. They viewed death in old age as:

A satisfactory end to a life lived to the full and it is accepted without resentment. However, when death strikes a man before time, it is regarded as an evil death, or as caused by divine wrath. For example, when Jacob heard that his son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, he says, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning”, (Gen. 37 :35) whereas after many years, when he hears that his son Joseph is alive in Egypt and is Pharaoh’s adviser, vitality is restored and he says, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive; I will go and see him before I die” (Gen. 45 :28).[14]

The OT community also viewed death as a transition from life here on earth to existence in a shadow form in a place called Sheol. Anderson states that the “Hebrew understanding of death as a shadow side of the community of the living can be explained by the idea of corporate personality of Israel as the essential unit of life rather than the individual personality.

As long as family, clan and Israel lived, the shadow of life was cast even in the form of the dead.”[15] This shadowy form of existence of the dead was said to be in Sheol. “The term Sheol is derived from the Hebrew word meaning to ask or to inquire. Sheol is said to be an explanation of the question, what happens after death?”[16] Theological scholars commonly understood Sheol as the realm of the dead.

The OT community understood Sheol as a place where the dead go (Ps. 49: 12, 14, 20). Whether righteous or wicked, they all went to Sheol (Ecc. 9:2- 3). There are frequent references to “going down to Sheol” (Gen. 37:35, Job 7:9). Sheol is also described as “being in the depths of the earth” (Ps.86:13 and Pro. 9:18). The Bible generally describes Sheol in a negative way. Compared to life here on earth, Sheol is entirely lacking of love, wisdom, work, thought, or knowledge (Ecc. 9:6, 10). There is no remembrance in Sheol (Ps. 6:5, Ps. 88: 12). There is no light (Job 10: 21- 22, Ps. 88:6). There is no praise of God and no sound at all (Ps. 6:5, Ps 30:9, and Ps: 94: 17, Ps. 115: 17). Those who are in Sheol are described as being weak (Isa 14:10). Some people in the OT community believed that the dead in Sheol where cut off from God (Isa 38:18, Ps. 88:3-5). While others in the OT community believed that God’s presence extended up to Sheol (Ps. 139:8).  The Old Testament understanding of what happens after death was further developed by revelations of the resurrection of the dead. “But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise. Let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead” (Isa 26:19). Sheol would no longer devour; because God would swallow up Death (Isa 25:8). “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The faithful who have put their trust in God would be taken away from Sheol and rewarded with eternal life while the wicked would experience eternal death after judgment.

In conclusion, The OT is very consistent in maintaining the negative image of Sheol. It is not clear whether Sheol was considered as hell, or simply just as the grave.

In some sense, the Old Testament gives the impression that the negative nature of death, the dead and Sheol, is a fitting destination for the wicked. In regards to the righteous, this is somehow held to be an inappropriate end. Given the nature of the God in whom the righteous trust. There arises a hope in the Old Testament that God will not leave the righteous in Sheol, but will raise them up to new life with him.[17]

The apocalyptic material in the Old Testament portrays death and Sheol as the enemies of human beings and God. The eschatological view in the Old Testament also focuses on the final Day of Judgment where God will defeat Death.

In this eschatological material, the resurrection hope tentatively suggested in the Psalms and Wisdom Literature is significantly strengthened. This final day relates not only to the righteous, for Isaiah picks up and develops the hints contained in Ecclesiastes, that this final day will also be a day of judgment for the wicked.[18]

New Testament Views on Death and Afterlife

The NT is clearer in the teachings of life after death. The NT writers suggest that the souls of the dead will continue to exist either in a pleasant place, referred to as Paradise, or in an unpleasant place, referred to as Hades. Hades and paradise as described in the New Testament seem to be the same place as what has traditionally been understood as Heaven and Hell. Hades is portrayed as a place of torment for unrighteous people before the general resurrection of all people. In 2 Peter the bible says that “the Lord knows how to … keep the unrighteous under punishment until the Day of Judgment” (2 Peter 2: 9). This indicates that, even before the final judgment of all people, there awaits an unpleasant place for the ungodly. The author of Revelation speaks about this place, “Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:13).

Hades is further described as a place of torment by Jesus in the parable of Luke 16: 19-31. This parable contrasts Hades with a pleasant place referred to as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16: 22), which is similar to heaven and is described as a place of comfort (Luke 16:22). This seems to be the same place that Jesus refers to when he tells the thief being crucified next to him, “truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise “(Luke 23:43).[19]

Christ’s Death and Resurrection as a Sign of Hope

The central theme about death in the New Testament is Christ’s victory over death. This theme conditions the Christian view of death. Through His victory over death, “Christ has conquered death” (1Cor 15:55). He has “abolished death” (2 Tim 1:10). He has “overcome the devil who had power over death” (Heb. 2:14). He is the head of a new humanity “as the first-born from the dead” (Col. 1:18) and he causes believers “to be born anew to a living hope through His resurrection from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:13). “Because of this personal hope, Christians are to remain faithful under persecution, and even death, because their destiny has now been decided through God’s actions in raising Jesus from the dead.”[20]

Christ’s victory over death also affects the believer’s understanding of physical, spiritual, and eternal death. Those who have put their trust in God and have received Christ as their Lord and Savior can face physical death with the confidence that “Christ has overcome death and has offered the believer eternal life after death” (1Cor 15:51- 56). The hope of eternal life in heaven is very comforting for a Christian suffering from terminal illness. The belief in life after death enables Christians with terminal illness to be free from inner turmoil and the bondage caused by “the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). It is also comforting for bereaved Christians because the bible gives them hope that one-day they will be “resurrected and reunited with their loved ones, forever in God’s presence” (1Thess. 4: 13- 17). Another comforting thing for Christians facing death is the expectation of being “reunited with their loved ones and God” (Heb. 12:23, Rev. 7:9) and also being rewarded with a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 2:8). This thought and expectation was in Paul’s thinking when he wrote; “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). To Paul, death was considered a ‘gain’ because the faithful will experience eternal life where there is no pain or suffering. Hoekema said it well, “Death for the Christian is not an end, but a glorious new beginning of eternal life with God.”[21]

Sources Used

[1] Herman Feifel, Stephen Strack and Jason Aronson, Death and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Jason Aronson, 1997)

 [2] Ibid.

[3]Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck, Handbook of Death and Dying (London, UK: Sage, 2007).

 [4] Therese A. Rando, Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers (Champaign, IL. Research Press Company, 1984).

 [5] Rodney J. Decker, “If you meet the Undertaker before you meet the Upper taker: A Christian view on Death, Dying and Funerals” http://ntresources.com/blog/documents/ DeathDyingFuneralsWeb.pdf (accessed March 5, 2015).

[6] Ray S. Anderson, Theology, Death and Dying (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 2012).

 [7] Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

[8] Wright, Death, the Dead and the Underworld, 14.

 [9] Decker, If you meet the Undertaker before you meet the Upper taker, 3.

[10] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmann’s, 1994), 22.

[11] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 121.

[12] Bob Gonzales, “A Brief Theology of Human Death,” http://drbobgonzales.com /2013/03/18/a-brief-theology-of-human-death/ (accessed February 15, 2015).

[13] Anderson, A theology of death and dying.

 [14] E.C John, “Old Testament Understanding of Death.” http://www.biblicalstudies./org.uk/pdf/ijt/23_1-2_123.pdf (accessed February 20, 2015).

 [15] Anderson, A theology of death and dying, 41.

 [16] Page, Life after Death, 22.

[17] Wright, Death, the Dead and the Underworld in Biblical Theology, 29.

[18] Ibid., 29.

[19] “What Happens When we Die? A Biblical View of Death and Resurrection,” http://www.focusonthekingdom.org/articles/what%20happens%20when%20we%20die.pdf (accessed April 11, 2015).

[20] Anderson, Theology Death and Dying.

[21] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994).

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