DEATH IN THE BIBLE
I have come to believe that the word “death” in the Bible means more than the mere end of life. It’s finality is more profound. It means utter despair and absolute hopelessness. That means, a living person can be dead when one has lost all hopes according to this understanding of death. It can also mean that a dead person can be alive and present.
When doctor- assisted suicide and euthanasia are a pressing question demanding answer, what the word “death” in the Bible means is an important question. It’s because we take the Bible as the authoritative guide. Medical ethicists and lawmakers are challenged to come to a conclusion urgently. Quebec is attempting to allow medically assisted suicide by law. In some countries, the assisting someone to commit suicide is allowed by law. Today for some people, living has become a burden and a nightmare because they are living in excruciating pain or abject quality of life, while they can continue to live on in the wretched conditions for a long time. Thus for some people living has become hell. This is because, thanks to rapid advancements of medical science and availability of better nutrition, most of the people are living far longer than imaginable even a decade ago. Is it possible that death can be a blessing for some people? What does death mean in the Bible today? Many Christians still consider suicide as a serious sin as bad as murder. They never tolerate euthanasia under any circumstance. The United Church, on the other hand, took the position that Robert Latimer should be released accepting the idea of mercy killing.
Only a few decades ago, the Apostle Creed had a sentence “he (Christ) descended into hell” after he was crucified. However the new United Church version changed it to “he descended to the dead.” The reason is: death here is a synonym of hell. If hell is where sinners go according to our common understanding of the word, Christ could not have gone to hell, because he was without sin. So hell in the Apostle’s Creed is not what we understand it today. Creed simply means that Christ died. Not punished. Death in those days was more profoundly hopeless and tragic, but not the place where punishment is meted out. Death in the Bible is more dead than a mere end of life: it is the very end itself, absolutely nothing beyond it. Death is hell because it is the place where there is absolutely no hope. We understand death and hell differently today.
When you scan the Old Testament and survey the use of the word death, you will soon find that the Hebrew writers didn’t believe there was anything beyond death, neither heaven nor hell. I went through about 100 passages that contained the word “death” in the Old Testament. I was impressed by the tone of absolute finality in the word. “In the world of the dead, nobody remembers you.” (Psalm 6:5) Death is the door into nothingness: no future. You become no entity when you die. An ultimate blessing is, “you shall not see death.” But only person who was accorded this ultimate blessing in the Old Testament was Prophet Elijah. He didn’t die; he went into heaven on the Chariot of Fire. (2 Kings 2) Jesus Christ, on the contrary, died on the cross.
Towards the end of the era of the Temple of Jerusalem when Jesus walked on the earth, there were two different understandings of the religion among the Jews. The main-line Jewish religion, which was centred in the Temple served by priests, believed that there was nothing beyond death. Scholars who were called “Sadducees,” were the intellectual guardians of this temple centred priestly tradition, and advocated this position. They insisted there was no life beyond death. There was no resurrection of the dead, neither was there a place of eternal punishment. The dead went nowhere: They just become non-existent according to the Sadducees.
About the same time, the Pharisees appeared on the scene. They were the lawyers and the guardians of the Law (Torah). They believed that there was life beyond death and the dead could be resurrected. They also believed that there was a place of eternal torment where sinners went upon death. You can clearly see the influence of Pharisee’s thinking in the New Testament, in the parables of Jesus such as “Rich man and Lazarus.” In Luke 16:19 the poor man Lazarus died and went to sit next to Moses but the heartless rich man went to the place of torment. Christ also spoke about paradise (Luke 23:43). Particularly in the Gospels and the Paul’s letters, the resurrection is the most important article of faith.
Sadducees maintained the liturgy centred religion in the temple, while Pharisees kept moral ethics and scripture learning as the centre of religious life. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were theological enemies when Christ was living. When the temple was destroyed and priests were killed or scattered, their religion died too. The emphasis on learning the Holy Scriptures and living accordingly in ethical living took over the Jewish religious life. The church today is the descendant of this Pharisee’s tradition. We hear the Words as the essence of worship, not so much of the rituals, and putting into practice what we hear is the centre of our spiritual life.
Pharisees have a bad name among the Christians, because of Christ’s frequent criticism of them. Jesus criticized pharisees for their hypocrisy, for not practising what they preached, but did not criticize their basic attitude toward ethical life-style. We should remember that they followed Jesus everywhere asking many questions. Jesus dined with them and also had a serious conversation with a Pharisee rich young man about eternal life. He was buried in the cemetery plot owned by a Pharisee Joseph of Arimathea. Christ was against the Temple culture, calling it “a den of thieves.” Jesus Movement was very much in the Pharisee tradition, not of Sadducees.
Let us go back to the subject of death in the Bible: That death stands for an absolute finality as held firmly by the tradition of the Old Testament and maintained by the Sadducees has an important merit. It affirms the seriousness of this physical existence here and now, not “pie in the sky when you die” kind of fatalism. “There is nothing beyond this world therefore be serious about this life. Do it right,” they said. It leads us to the recognition of the importance of here and now. “You have only this life. You can not repeat it.”
The problem is: though they were serious about being good before God, their good deeds and ethical life was not often recognized nor rewarded. That is what the followers of the new teaching by Jesus began to ask. Their master was killed on the cross, thus their hope had been shifted to his return. This is where the belief in resurrection becomes central to our faith.