TOWARDS A THEOLOGY OF DEATH

Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko
General Secretary
The Bible Society of India

In the recent past, we had to confront deaths of several of our loved ones, including nine of our own dear colleagues succumbing to the Covid Pandemic. All of them could be, without any shadow of doubt described as “persons who have lived a life of kenosis”, emptying their own lives for the development of the other. The departure of the above loved ones made me to ponder over the importance of developing and practicing a Theology of Death by the Church at large so that people do not become afraid of death but instead face death boldly viewing death as a natural and normal process of life. For this, Job 1:21 is taken as a tool from which a few pertinent observations are culled out to develop a Theology of Death. Job is regarded as a blameless and righteous person, who shunned away from all evil. Yet he had to undergo suffering including the death of his children. When the news reached Job about the death of all his children, he got up, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship and remarked “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (1:21).This statement of Job is moving and thought provoking. It projects three elements which can help us in developing a Theology of Death.

  1. Firstly, the Nothingness of Life.

Job’s statement “Naked I came…naked I will depart” points to the fact that Job understood the ordinariness and the impermanence of life. He realized human life is fragile and that he is nothing. In the Biblical account of Creation in Genesis 2:7, it is stated that God formed the human out of the dust of the ground. So the human according to the Biblical writer is nothing but dust. Dust and ashes in Hebrew thought stand for nothingness and ordinariness. This thought is beautifully expressed further in Isaiah 40:6-7 where it reads “All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… Surely, the people are grass”. Uncertainty of life and certainty of death are emphasized here. Job knew well that if one is born, he/she is to die. Life and death are part of a natural process. Hence Job was able to affirm “Naked I came…naked I will depart”.

  • Secondly, the Sanctity of Life.

Job continues his theological utterance by stating “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”. Here Job acknowledges that the life is God’s. God is the source of life and hence God is its owner. If God is the owner of life, God the owner can take away life as per God’s will. When God the owner of life takes life away, we have no right to question God, the owner and fall into skepticism. Rather we need to thank God for the life given and lived till death. A primary element in a Theology of Death is God’s ownership of Life. In Genesis 2:7, it is written that after forming the human out of the dust of the ground God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The Biblical account reiterates the fact that God is the source of life and that God gives life as a precious gift to the human to live and to experience the joy of living. Because life is God’s, life is sacred. There is sanctity in life. The human needs to realize this aspect and receive this gift of life with a sense of gratitude and be responsible in living the life which God has given. Life is not to be wasted away. Rather it is to be lived in all its fullness. Job realized this great truth and therefore in the midst of bereavement he was able to say “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”.

  • Thirdly, the Approach to Life.

Job’s last statement “let the name of the LORD be praised” is equally significant. It is also to be noted that Job tore his garment, shaved his head and worshipped God and uttered the above statement. These are amazing words and the wonder of it grows when we realize the context in which these words were spoken- loss of everything including all his 10 children!  His approach to life during the moments of crisis was not one of dejection but one of creative outlook. He did not question God by asking “Why?” Rather out of great humility he worshipped God by saying “Let the name of the LORD be praised”.

Creative approach was the way Job encountered suffering and death. Dr .Paul Tournier in his book “Creative Suffering” writes about 330 world leaders like Hitler, Napoleon, Lenin, Alexander the Great who all came up in life as orphans. They all faced Life and its challenges with a creative outlook. Religions have put forward different views on Suffering in life. In Hinduism, there is the doctrine of Karma that suffering is because of one’s actions. Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. There is the doctrine of Kismet in Islam that suffering is the will of Allah. In Zoroastrianism, there is the teaching that evil/ suffering is caused in life by Ahriman, the God of Evil and good and prosperity by Ormazd, the God of Goodness. Buddhism advocates the view that suffering in life is due to one’s Attachment to worldly desires and the way out of suffering is to detach oneself from the world by following the Eightfold path. In Christianity, the way to face suffering is by the way we approach suffering by making suffering creative. Paul and Jesus are the best examples of Creative Suffering. Paul says, “… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13). Jesus in the midst of agony and pain cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Both Paul and Jesus approached suffering with a creative outlook.

CONCLUSION

Death is a somber subject indeed. None wants to face it. We take all precautions to escape death like medication, exercise etc. Yet the reality is, it comes irrespective of caste, color, creed, gender or age. None can escape death. The best option humans have is to realize that Life is nothing; Life is to be received as a gift from God to be lived responsibly and Life and its challenges including death have to be faced creatively with a spirit of optimism. By developing such a Theology of Death, life continues on the planet earth in all its fullness. Death ceases to be a threat to be afraid of. Rather Death becomes a part of the process of living.

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