Many people make it their policy to not talk about death, even though it is certain to visit all of us. Our lives move along a deathward trajectory that none of us, even the most vigorous, can avoid. Not only do thousands of people die each day, but it is the horizon before which we rise from our pillows every morning. The Italian playboy Casanova, for instance, resented the thought of death because it threatened to remove him from the stage of history before the end of the show. Simone de Beauvoir suggested that death instills anxiety precisely because it is “the inescapable reversal of our projects.” Whatever the reason for one’s aversion, the fact remains that children continue to kneel beside their beds testifying to this reality: “If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” In this way, every nap anticipates death, a foreshadowing of the real thing, a fact that every theologian must keep firmly before his or her eyes.
Art, theology, poetry, music—none of the progenitors of human awareness and inspiration can ever fully portray the experience of death, yet that doesn’t stop us from trying. Consider, for instance, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) on this subject:
[The arrival of death] is always like the scene at the last moment before the departure of a ship full of emigrants: people have more to say to one another than ever, time presses; the ocean with its desolate silence is waiting impatiently behind all the noise—so greedy and certain of its prey. Yet all of them think that what happened before is little of nothing, while the near future is everything. And hence this bustle, this shouting, this vying to drown out and push ahead of everyone else. Everyone wants to be first in this future—and yet death and the silence of death are the only thing certain and shared by all in this future. How strange that this, the only certainty and commonality, makes practically no impression on people, and that the last thing they feel is their brotherhood in death.
Listen carefully to Nietzsche’s description of life: “bustle, shouting, vying to drown out and push ahead of everyone else.” And what is the ultimate outcome of such noise? Death! Despite good things that may be created along the way, our lives still end in the grave. It’s not very often that I find myself agreeing with German atheists, but, in this case, old Friedrich had it right.
Speaking of those who oppose Christ, the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:19, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” If you are looking for a verse of Scripture to elucidate a biblical view of anthropology, it doesn’t get much clearer than this one.
However, Paul continues in verse 20: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We, the church, citizens of heaven, are those whose lives are given to the task of bringing Christ and his kingdom to the world, which we do by embodying and proclaiming the message of the gospel. Our Lord and Savior—the one true Savior—has called us to this task and has even modeled it for us: “Pray then like this,” Jesus said: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:9-10) Jesus, the light of the world, advanced God’s kingdom wherever he went, and we, the church, the children of light whose lives are now founded in Christ, have the privilege of doing the same. Because our citizenship is in heaven, we have the privilege of colonizing Earth.
That Death Itself Would Die
So what does this have to do with death? Two things (at least). First, it shapes our attitudes, as Paul describes in the previous chapter of Philippians.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8 NRSV)
Because the example of our Savior during his earthly ministry was thoroughly cruciform—shaped and directed by the cross on which he would eventually die—we, followers of Christ, submit our minds and attitudes to this same pattern. It is, once again, a trajectory of death; however, this time, it’s not defined by Adam’s condemnation. This is a downward movement that actually results in life, eternal life, as Paul highlights in subsequent verses.
Second, this colonizing project is the only true antidote for death, the only form of hope for humanity as it emigrates toward eternity’s dark door. Why such exclusivity? It is because gospel proclamation is God’s appointed means of saving the world. It is God’s way of liberating humans from sin and death and providing them with the Savior’s righteousness and peace. So in the very next verse, Paul writes:
Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).
Casanova resented this message. Nietzsche dismissed it as mere fable. And millions of people today respond in much the same way. In the meantime, Jesus Christ is seated in heaven, reigning in splendor, full of grace, patiently waiting for the age to conclude before he returns in glory. His power dissolves the tenuous pace of the world’s bustle and shouting by removing our guilt and giving us life, a power that is available to all of who repent and believe.
As we enter this New Year, let’s give ourselves more fully to the task of helping unbelievers to raise their sights above the horizon of earthly commotion to see the risen Christ, the one who died in our place and rose from the grave, that death itself would die.
[1.] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science: The Joyful Wisdom. Trans. Thomas Common. Paragraph 278. Lawrence, KS: Digireads), 104.