Why is there death?

Death with Interruptions book cover

The great Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago, wrote a book (Death with Interruptions) in which death (seen as a person) stops working in one country. At first, all the citizens are thrilled with their newfound immortality. But then reality sets in as they continue to age and suffer, savings run out, pain can only be alleviated to a point, and an entire industry has to be created to sneak people across the country’s borders where people can die. In other words, a world without death is not an attractive place to live.

What are we to make of death? We all die, sometimes too early, sometimes too late, but we all die. And, if we have any goodness in us (and we do) then someone will grieve our leaving. And so on and so forth.

So why do we grieve such a common occurrence? Perhaps we should also ask why we celebrate every birth? Why do we fall in love when death or human failing breaks our hearts?

We can answer these questions with a fatalistic mindset — it is just the way life is and the way we humans work. While that answer may address the symptoms of life, it fails to address the cause. For the true answer, we need to turn beyond ourselves, a scary prospect at best, and look elsewhere for understanding. As Christians, we find that answer in the love of God, which some non-Christians see as our fairy-tale way to make death better. But being Christian does not lessen the sting of death.

Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.

Paul Tillich

“Being religious” said the theologian Paul Tillich, “means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.”

And as Tillich would probably agree, we also do not receive all the answers, and that hurts as well. It would be much easier to handle my 6-year-old son’s death if fate was all I could see in the world. It is trying to reconcile a loving God with a horrible death that is truly difficult. Belief in God does not lessen our pain or our grief; Christians who console others with phrases like “he is in heaven” or “God needed another angel” do an injustice to our faith. Christ wept in grief, showed fear at the prospect of his own death, and cried out in pain from the cross. Why should our journey be different?

So does our faith offer no consolation? It does offer consolation in that we have a God who was willing to suffer as we suffer and truly understands our pain. Christ accompanies us in our pain and, as we see his defeat of death, offers us life after death. That does not take away our grief, but it offers us hope. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4) Hope acknowledges that life can be bad, but points to something better, not to discount what we feel, but to know what awaits us. 

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