I know this is a very spooky topic. my telos is to help you reconsider where you stand in relation to it.
It is an intersection that we all will go through no matter who we are. St Augustine, foreseeing the sacking of Rome, struck the perfect note when he said that the only thing we can be certain about is death. Whether the uncertainty of the time stimulated him to think that way, it is evident we are no permanent wanderers in this passing world. St Augustine so urges us to be always ready if we long for our true fatherland. Especially when tragedy strikes, the wavering capacity of life appears so palpable; none of us knows when death will trample us with its hoof and end our journey. None of the victims (May God have mercy on their souls) in the Colorado shooting expected their lives to take such a sudden turn. On the following week, thirteen people’s lives were smashed on a car accident in Texas. The Sikh Community in Wisconsin could never foresee such a tragedy on a Sunday morning. We are anything because we have the breath of life; taking it away, we are reduced to dust; the master of life can be so callous about how quickly he calls us forward. So what is the right attitude to maintain in the face of such wavering certainty? What is the right mindset to have when we know death can be so cruel and abrupt?
Socrates saw in death a way to put an end to the annoying disease called life. Interestingly and rightly so, he did not encourage suicide because he believed that we are the gods’ property and so we have no right to destroy what does not belong to us. His last words before he rendered his last breath were—we owe a cock to Aesculapius (the Crito). Aesculapius is believed to be the god of healing and wellness, so the cock is to be offered in thanksgiving for healing Socrates from the disease of being in the body, which hampered him from encountering true knowledge. For him, as he argued in the Apology, death is a good thing and nothing we should fear. “To fear death is like thinking oneself wise when he actually is not” (Apology 40c). As Socrates saw it, “death is either to be non-existent, or it is a trip to another place where all souls go”. If the former is true, then it would be like a “dreamless night from which one never awakes” (Apology 40d, e). If the latter is true, then he would gladly go there for there are quite a few great thinkers he would like to meet (Apology 41a). Finally, he would have knowledge of the really real (things in themselves). The body would no longer be a hindrance to knowing the really real as it is (Phaedo 72e-77a). What do we see here? Socrates deals with death by believing that death does not end our journey here. Death here, as he saw it, is the end of the first phase of the journey; it’s an end that opens to a new beginning.
A new beginning is what Christianity claims as well, but it is a beginning that may open to true happiness depending on the kind of life we live here. If Socrates did not weigh in the possibility of [dying completely], Christianity does. Christians know that there is death and death [beware of the language here]. One is what Kierkegaard calls “The Sickness unto Death”— to knowingly refuse to conform oneself to the image of humanity revealed by God in the person of Christ. So death in this case means choosing hell. The other is to close our eyes here and open them in the Happy Jerusalem. When most people are talking about death, they mean it in the first sense. It’s kind of hard since it involves being separated from our loved ones; however they know they will have a better one after the separation. They don’t speak of it as if they have no hope and future.
Christians acknowledge the power of death [in the first sense] over their lives here on earth. At the same time, Christianity recognizes that there is something or someone more potent than death. Without that something or someone, we would indeed succumb to the fear of death and would/should have every right to do so, but it is not so. So, we can repeat with St Paul: death where is your sting and your victory? Love, I want to say, is bigger than death; it conquers it, soothes its sting, calms its biting power, and reduces it to nothing. Christ is stronger than death. His sacrifice of love on the cross annihilates all death’s arrogance. So after the breath of life is taken away, we continue to live. If we follow Christ and his church, if we love God and neighbor, death is not the end. If we try our best, we have hope that we will inherit a much better life than what we know here.
How does that help us thwart our fear of death? Well, if we want to be happy, if we want to live where all our dreams become true at once, if we want to gaze upon the face of the Trinity for eternity, then we should welcome the prospect of death. We should absolutely fear death if it means not enjoying the “New Zion”; however, if we have tried our best to live the gospel, we should not be so tense when death is in the horizon. If we live the good life; if we truly try with our mind heart and soul to do God’s will, we should not be afraid of death. Though death seems a punishment in the eyes of those who are not in Christ, we Christians know our citizenship is in Heaven, and so death is one of the steps that we need to go through before we can reach our true country. We need to stay in the race, and not give up for our prize is greater than all the hardships we are enduring here. That’s where we draw our strength as Christians. Who am I kidding!? I know my and your natural inclination is to hold on to what we have. No dead has ever come back to tell us how it is over there. So I am well aware that I am not advocating an easy task. My hope is that you become less afraid over what we cannot control. My hope is that we understand what death means to you who call yourself Christians. As people of faith, we believe in Jesus, we rely on what He tells about the kingdom of God. We bet everything on it. We know if we win, we gain it all; if we lose, well we lose nothing.
So good, Joe. Loved it! You bring these simple truths into a deeper understanding and reflection, well done. Keep ’em coming. Jesus loves you.
Thanks for the encouragement Nick. Jesus loves you too!