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Death's Double Aspect: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 9)

January 6th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

There’s no time for niceties here:  Ben Simpson has a critique to offer, and it’s a solid one:

Is death an enemy, an evidence of a horrendous evil still operative in our world?  Has death been defeated, or does it wait for a final defeat?  Resurrection awaits us, yes, but we still must die if our end comes before Christ’s return, and if this is so, what is our posture toward death when it comes?

This is the tension, and it is a tension that I believe needs further nuance and greater care.  When we say that the body is mortal, we concede we live with this reality in view, and we must ascribe to this reality a reason for its presence.  Death is coming, for the world we have been born into is not as it should be.  The enemy, death, remains, though that enemy has been defeated, so that when death comes, it can be received not with despair, but with triumph.  Triumph comes by way of Christ and his resurrection, who is the first fruits of the resurrection to come.

Though Mr. Anderson asserts the reality of a future hope, asserting strongly a belief in the resurrection, he needs to develop an eschatological line of reasoning, one that develops death as consequence of sin, Christ as victorious over death in the cross, the resurrection as an evidence of future hope, and that future hope as determinative for how we can live without fear of death in the present.  Ultimate hope shapes present outlook, including my view of the body and how I am to live while I remain within it.  Paul’s remaining in the flesh, I believe, was shaped by just this kind of conviction, as was his posture toward death.  Death would come, whenever the Lord so appointed.  Until that day came, however, he could joyfully proclaim what he knew to be true concerning Jesus.

The “tension” that Ben gets on to goes straight to the heart of the chapter, and really to the heart of the book as well.  There’s lots more room to develop it along the lines that Ben suggests, but let me offer just this much.

I think Ben hasn’t quite described my take on Paul in the first part. The fault lies with me:  I don’t work out my thoughts on the passage in relationship to the categories of creation and redemption, but Ben’s thoughts are giving me that opportunity.  To it, then.

Ben summarizes my reading this way:

“[Death] is rather to be received, and the life that is given until that day is to be regarded as a grace and a responsibility.  It is a gift that is to be stewarded.  Death, then, is not a “horrendous evil,” but a witness to the brokenness and decay of the present created order.  Paul, as he is portrayed here in Philippians, is softened somewhat.  It is gain, but not a gain that is to be rushed.”

All of that I agree with, except for Ben’s suggestion that the “witness to the brokenness and decay of the present created order” and “horrendous evil” are mutually incompatible.  It is precisely that “brokenness” that is so tragic, and which is the same “irruption of the created order” that Ben later suggests I’ve inconsistently introduced. Paul’s death points to the “irruption” of the created order as much as my friend Justin’s.  Only such irruptions are, in light of the resurrection, viewed as moments whose meaning is transformed by grace.

In that sense, the manner of our death signifies both dimensions:  it points to the brokenness of the fall and our restoration in Christ.  Paul’s confession that “To die is gain” is startling precisely because of its reversal¾without our prior confession of death’s irregularity, then it lacks any of the power that it so clearly has.  The hope that we have doesn’t look past death¾instead, in looking at death it sees not death’s triumph, but it’s tragic defeat, it’s pursuits and aims rendered senseless by the redemptive grace of God.

When Ben talks about how we should hold "death within our imagination,” then, he is exactly right to suggest that it should eschatologically formed.  But the eschatological dimension of death's defeat has its power in light of the recognition of death's radical disruption of the original created goodness.  This double-aspect of our relationship to death was not clarified like it should have been, and hopefully this is a step toward doing that.




Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.