The Gift of Death: A Reflection on Death and Dying

by Nestor Ravilas

Humans do not fear death, it is the suffering that comes before death that scares them. This, however, is not true. The prospect of ending this life is what frightened us most. Apostle Paul intones this ingrained fear of death when he said, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death!” From Paul thereon, Christianity has been generally viewed as a religion that is completely insane with the problem of death. As a threat to life, it is actually impossible not to agree with Paul, and the subsequent history of vilification of death in Christian tradition. Gilgamesh on his part provides us the ghastly picture that is lacking from Paul. “No one sees death, no one sees the face of death, no one hears the voice of death, yet savage death is the one that hacks man down,” he said. Mythical stories humanity was able to preserve were marred in one way or another with the presence of death in their story plots. Death is so formidable that most of our cultural wisdom, medicine and religions, are all pursued in search of the meaning, if not solutions, of the problem of death. Philosophy included, on its emphasis on moral life, must not be construed as passive or unaffected of the threat of death. Rather, its stress on justified existence is its best way of making sense of one’s death.

Paul’s voice might be the loudest in the gamut of biblical tradition that speaks of death, but it is not the only voice we have there, however. He might have an authority behind him in reviling death: the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 indeed nowhere to show death as part of creation, or a thing that was made by God. Its very source it malevolent. It was there somewhere, but hidden. Nonetheless, it could be conjured, it could be called into being and step in the created world only once the first couple trespassed. And they did, and death entered. Death therefore is a product of sin! So when Paul says that the wages of sin is death, he has the Genesis story behind his mind. Death therefore is an enemy, death is evil.
In almost the same period where Genesis narratives in Chapters 1-11 were written (or copied, revised and compiled) there was also published a piece of literature now named as creation psalm. Psalm 104 is a poetic narration of creation. Unfortunately, it has not gained the level of popularity and importance as the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, and that probably due to the bequeathed injustice of enlightenment project that favors theological proposition over and against art and poetry. Psalm 104 then was brushed aside as mere emotional outburst of the psalmist. Trying to suspend for a while this discrimination, the creation psalm bears two distinct features that are absent in the creation narratives of Genesis. Human as not the center of the creation is the first, and the second one is that death is part of the created order.
Although the psalm does not tell the origin of death, death however was featured as part of creation. Death is not evil conjured somewhere by transgression into existence as found in Genesis account. It was created by God. Birth is a divine gift, and so as death. Both are part of created order. Death, therefore, in Psalm 104 is not an enemy, but an integral part of this divine gift we called life.
This is not a question of which of the two has the primary importance. It might be a variation in humanity’s response to our immemorial struggle with the problem of dying. You might want to side on death as a separate evil entity, not created by God, but conjured into being by sin. Or death as part of overall design of divine creation.
In the New Testament, prior to the entrance of Paul into the big screen, there are two prominent parables uttered by Jesus where death played an integral role. First is in the Parable of the Rich Fool where death is consigned as divine tool in cutting off an arrogant and sovereign life. The rich fool touted his wealth and celebrated the prospect of luxurious life. God on the other hand frustrated his drive for sovereignty by sending death in an instant. Death then is in complete control of God and could be summon to curb the impertinence of humanity’s drive for more. As in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, death is a threat, not primarily against life, but in a proud and sovereign life.
Death, however, slides to a little variation in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. From the first parable told, one may ask that not only those aiming for sovereign life that are cut down by death, but even those poor people like Lazarus – thus, in reality, death visited both the rich and the poor. Although the same death occurred to them, the life conditions of the two, however, are completely different. Lazarus lived in complete misery, while the rich man was pompously living in luxury. Death is freedom for Lazarus, it is a curse for the rich man. It timely ended the tragic life of Lazarus, it prematurely ended the pleasure of the rich man. Blessing and curse, but one and the same death.
Unlike in the story of the Rich Fool where death is pictured as an abyss of nothingness, in this parable, death portrays like a door where one could pass from one place to another. Death did not only end the suffering of Lazarus, but transferred him to a glorious space of blessedness, the complete reversal of the fate of the rich man who was dumped in torment. In both parables, death was not shown as something existing outside of divine intentionality. In the first one, it was an instrument waiting in dispense of God; in the second one, it was a passage separating the life here and there. Death is a gift that reminds us of our mortality, that no suffering will last forever, that no drive for sovereignty will ever come to fulfillment, and no life will not return to dust. Life then from the very beginning is not given to be kept, but to offer as a counter gift. I heard Jesus saying, to keep it is to lose it, and to lose it is to have it.
If we insist on the other hand that death is evil and an enemy, I am afraid we might be in company with the Rich Fool and of the Rich Man. Happy Halloween!
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