Of Life and Death
There is something deeply unsettling about biological threats. The very idea of unseen, undetectable, but deadly toxins or viruses is a modern nightmare. The sad thing is that we have too many actual examples to fuel our fears. For multitudes in the industrial town of Bhopal, India, a normal working day turned into a catastrophe of biblical proportions as people were poisoned and killed by gas leaking from a local factory. Similarly catastrophic, the events surrounding the reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine combined the worst of leftover Soviet era paranoia and secrecy with a calamity of truly mind-boggling proportions. Hundreds of young men were ushered in to fight a fire, knowing nothing of the deadly radiation saturating the area, and as a result, thousands died (though exact numbers are not clear).
The weight and power of these deadly issues grips us. We feel and understand it acutely. There are things in our universe that are invisible, but real and sometimes deadly. And there are few guaranteed fail-safe mechanisms to protect us, in all circumstances, from harm. This feeling of vulnerability, this sense that there are things beyond our control, this notion of risk is something the modern mind finds repulsive. We want security, we demand certainty, and we feel entitled to assurance. But what is it, and where is it to be found?
Ernest Becker, several decades ago, wrote a very challenging book called The Denial of Death. He shows how society works to create hero-systems and elaborate ways of suppressing or avoiding the reality of death. As Woody Allen once said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Yet here is where the Christian faith speaks clearly to the human dilemma. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “As in Adam, all die.” There are no exceptions, no escape routes, and no exits. It is as inclusive as it gets. Death is the great leveler. It respects everyone.
However, the apostle does not stop here; he goes on to say that “so in Christ will all be made alive.” This is the great distinction. Death occurs on a hundred percent scale. Our link to Adam is inviolable; we are all descendents, and inheritors of all that this implies. Like those infected with a deadly virus, the issue is not morality or effort. We need a solution, an antidote, an answer beyond us. What Christ embodies is an answer that is a transfer.
What do I mean? As long as we are located “in Adam,” which means our natural state and line of descent, we are subject to the outworking of the brokenness, damage, and suffering that is now a part of the human condition. The invitation to a deeper humanity is the move to be “in Christ.” What does this mean? Several things. It means trusting the risen, human, incarnate Son to provide what we cannot provide for ourselves—namely, healing and help. It means surrendering our failings and seeking his face. It means receiving a new kind of life within and without, by means of the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 1:4).
These two great antagonists, life and death, are powerful indicators in the human story. As I watch aging, decaying people, I recognize something sad and good at the same time. Death is unyielding, but the grave is not the end. With Christ, we pass through death to the resurrection. Joni Erickson Tada brought this home to me some years ago as she spoke from her wheel chair, testifying of a love for Jesus and her great expectations as a believer, despite her very real suffering and restrictions as a paraplegic. She announced to us all that when she sees Jesus face to face, she will dance. I believe it. This is resurrection hope and a sure foundation. There are many unseen but real threats, but there are also unseen but real promises, and he who makes them says, “Behold, I make all things new.”
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