We wish you not to remain in ignorance, brothers, about those who sleep in death; you should not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. (Oxford New English Bible, I Thess. 4:13–16)
In Paul’s eschatology, Christians living at the Lord’s return will be swept up in Christ and the dead in fact will be the first to participate in the grand trumpet-call summons to resurrection. “Console one another,” Paul laconically concludes, “with these words.”
I am trying, but what I hear isn’t helping. I was told again a week ago at my father’s funeral—I’ve heard this now in one version or another at four funerals within the last three years and, truly, I am weary of hearing it—that “we all know where X is; he is in a better place.”
The speaker, as everyone plainly knew, did not mean the casket where my father lay, destined for Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens where, I point out, not one oak is in ready view. His intention was to assure everyone that Dad was already, if not automatically, with the Lord. Considering God inhabits a different time zone than the rest of us, I will grant that is perhaps true. In any case, it would be too rude of any Christian preacher to suggest in any way the dead are dead. Yet there is something about this mechanical immortality that bothers me deeply.
Being Lutheran, which I don’t think is the worst thing that can happen to a person, my opinion is that Scripture is the judge of doctrine. I see very little biblically to suggest that death is an E-ticket to assured immortality, as if immortality itself is inherent to the being of a human. There is little reason for God to bring the Christian dead to life with Jesus unless the dead are really, really, you know, dead.
Maybe I’m not listening intently enough, but in much Christian funeral preaching I seem to hear that a soul cannot be denied to us; it is ours by right. It just ends up as a happier and brighter soul in a better place if one is a Christian. In the lyrics of Norman Greenbaum, “When I lay me down to die, goin’ up to the Spirit in the Sky.” Poof! There you go.
I have read arguments that we are “enfleshed souls” or maybe “ensouled flesh.” It is something of a Christian way of getting around the “body–mind” duality that tends to honor the mind more than the flesh, as if flesh is a mere husk to be discarded, as if our bodies themselves are not God’s first gift to each of us. God did look upon his material creation and did call it good.
While “ensouled flesh” or “enfleshed souls” handles a number of problems, not least what happens to my “I” when I “sleep” in death, the idea requires an elaborate construct where the soul awaits unification with glorified flesh at the resurrection of the dead.
My question, far too simplistic maybe: If the soul is already somewhere while the body is at Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens under soil shaded by imaginary oaks, what point is there in messing around with the body at all, glorified or not? More bluntly, what need is there of Christ’s resurrection, or my father’s, if the soul already has found a better place?
Tertullian to an extent says it for me. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The Christianized immortality of Platonism, entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures, does mischief to Christian hope. Resurrection as a Jewish idea presupposes that death and sin go together; entwined and ensnared, the first is a result of the second. Death is not God’s tool used to pry souls from captivity to the flesh. Death is the enemy of God and therefore an enemy of the body he creates.
But if Christ is raised, we stand in a new epoch of history where God, as a sign of the times, will make the final enemy a footstool of the risen Lord. If Christ is raised, it was not one astonishing historical event among others; it was the point and destiny of human history itself. Death is conquered through Christ’s resurrection. Those who fall asleep in the Lord fall into a promise, made plain by an empty tomb.
In the “strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended,” death is subdued but not eradicated. That’s why Paul speaks of those who sleep in death; in death is where they lie. So where do I think my father is? I think he is dead with all that implies, but it is death in the Lord, with all that implies eschatologically. The final summons to resurrection is like a trumpet call, heard but dimly in grief yet growing with strident strength through faith.
Russell E. Saltzman is a Lutheran pastor, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Strange and dreadful strife
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