Death is on people’s minds these days, whether they want it to be or not. According to a recent report by White House science advisors, there is a chance that between 100,000 and 240,000 people will die because of the Coronavirus. In the face of such a staggering number of fatalities, what each of us does, or does not do, is quite literally “a matter of life and death,” to quote Donald Trump.
And it’s not just religious people who are trying to make sense of an often-senseless thing. Non-religious people are, too. In a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Bart Ehrman, the one-time evangelical, now-turned atheist, who teaches at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, about his new book, Heaven And Hell: A History Of The Afterlife. In the interview, Gross asked Ehrman what he thought about the fact that the number of deaths would keep growing as we got closer to Easter.
Ehrman answered by saying that, while he no longer believed in the literal sense of life after death that the Easter story conveys, he took it as a helpful metaphor that, “even in the darkest hours when there looks to be no hope and it looks like it’s simply the end of all things, there actually is a glimmer of hope and that something good can come out of something very bad.”
But if death is one of the most devastatingly painful and pathetic things that human beings can face in their short lives, how much comfort can a metaphor be to those who suffer the extinction of life, theirs or others’, at the hands of this pernicious virus?
Ehrman points to the Book of Psalms as a place where we learn that death is merely the last stop in life. In his words, “the ancient Israelites simply thought that when you died, your body got buried someplace. It got put in a grave…and that’s what they called Sheol.”
But what if that isn’t the only story that can be told from the Psalms, that ancient hymnbook of Israel? What if there is a more interesting, and profoundly more hopeful, story to be told from the Psalms, which functioned as Jesus’ own prayerbook?
For Christians who anticipate a Holy Week unlike any that they have witnessed in hundreds of years, this question is far from abstract. Either there is real hope or there is only a metaphor that proves tragically impotent in the face of the all-consuming, definitive power of death.
Looking at what the psalms say about death in the light of the death of Christ may prove, then, to be just what need to hear right now, especially in light of Jesus’ statement that everything that had been written in the psalms had been fulfilled in his life (Luke 24:44).
One of the first things that we discover about the Psalms’ view of death is that death exists in a kind of shadowy underworld called Sheol, a domain of non-life. Death appears like a phantom shepherd, escorting the dead to the grave (Ps. 49:14) and depositing them in “the land of oblivion” (Ps. 88:12). It rises up like an ocean that swallows human beings whole (Ps. 69:15) and causes them to be forever forgotten.
A second thing we learn from the psalms is that death is a reality that comes not just at the end of our life, but also in the middle of it. Anything that depletes life, as with sickness or natural disasters, is like a death. Anything that distorts an aspect of life, such as depression and slavery, is like death. Anything that mutes or reduces life is death.
In the psalms, death comes not once but repeatedly throughout a person’s life. And on every occasion, it violates God’s life-giving purposes for all creation.
A last thing we learn from the psalms is that only God is immortal. It is the Lord who lifts the psalmist “up from the gates of death” (Ps. 9:13). It is the Lord who ransoms the psalmist “from the power of Sheol” (Ps. 49:15). It is the Lord who restores the psalmist “to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (Ps. 30:3).
For the psalmist, as for the early church, death does not have the final word. Life does. God does. And for the first Christians, the death of Jesus on the cross re-defined their understanding of death and caused them to re-read the psalms in the light of the one who called himself the Resurrection and the Life.
Instead of death swallowing up humans, like a life-devouring monster, as the psalmists described it, Jesus is now the one who goes to “the depths” and swallows up death in victory.
Instead of death consuming us with fear, because we believe it will have the last word in our lives, cutting our lives “short,” robbing us of what we “might have become in life,” if we only had a few more days, shortchanging our “potentiality,” Jesus now absorbs death into himself, along with its curse, and thereby frees us from the dread of death, what Saint Paul calls “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26).
And whereas the psalmist sees the constant threat of death’s life-sucking powers, here and now, Jesus offers himself to us by his Spirit as a gift of generative and regenerative life in the face of death-like experiences in our lives, much like we are experiencing right now—with the deterioration of mental health, the absence of physical presence, the loss of family income, the increase of social inequities and relational fractures, the bankruptcy of small businesses, and the specter of funerals without any witnesses nearby.
How then ought the followers of Jesus reckon with the mass of deaths that face us in our country? On the one hand, with Jesus himself, we must grieve with those who grieve. We must grieve the losses of our neighbors and our own as well. And with Jesus, we must give ourselves permission to speak the words of the psalmist, “Why?!” and “How long?!” and “Have you forgotten us?!” This is the work of Good Friday.
On the other hand, we must choose to grieve with hope, because we have believed in the One “who gives life to the dead” (Rom. 4:17). And just as we believe that death is a concrete, obdurate reality, rather than a mere metaphor for the loss of life, so we choose to believe that resurrection life is a concrete and resolute reality, one that compels us to love our neighbor to the very last as agents of Christ’s resurrection life.
Death is real—but it is not, thank God, final. It robs us of life, here and now, not just at the end, yet the “Prince of life” does not let that theft have the last word in our lives.
And, yes, death stings, painfully so, in ways that overwhelm us with often-unbearable sorrow, but its sting no longer crushes us, because the crucified Jesus has robbed it of its absolute sting and the risen Lord has offered himself to us, in the moments of our mortal need, as “the life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19) who has pronounced the decisive death of death.
Featured image by Phaedra Taylor.