A Reflection on Death’s Defeat
We “see in Jesus one who was for a short while made lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and splendour because he submitted to death; by God’s grace he had to experience death for all mankind. As it was his purpose to bring a great many of his sons into glory, it was appropriate that God, for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists, should make perfect, through suffering, the leader who would take them to their salvation. … Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, he too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could take away all the power of the devil, who had power over death, and set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.”
(From chapter 2 of the letter to the Hebrews.)
I read years ago the book, “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker, winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1974. I am not sure that I remember much about it now, but I do remember that the author took a very powerful position. Hoping that I do not do him an injustice, he basically says that the whole of civilization is built on the denial of death; and death is denied because it is feared. Now, perhaps you could argue things the other way round: civilization is built on man’s basic survival instinct, his yearning for life. Death is only such a powerful and dreaded enemy because everything in us cries out for life.
The words quoted above from the Letter to the Hebrews confront head on the question of death. But they do it from the perspective of Jesus. More precisely, they do it from the angle of his mission from God the Father to take back from the devil all the power he had over death. What Ernest Becker describes from a psychological and philosophical viewpoint, i.e. the human fear/denial of death, the author of Hebrews confirms from a theological viewpoint. In fact, the letter to the Hebrews plainly tells us that the origin of human fear/denial in the face of death is the awareness which we intuitively have that death places us in the power of the devil.
Speaking like this makes us moderns a bit uncomfortable. We are not happy with the notion of the devil or any power he is said to have over us. We are probably not happy either at being told that we are fearful or that we are deniers of anything. None of this fits with the self-concept of the mature, contemporary, scientific, progressive, sophisticated man or woman which has been gradually built up since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The epitome of the modern man is reflected in Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” (1888): it is not the fear of death at all, but this will, this self-determining and self-defined freedom which is the main driving force in man. Self-mastery and self-overcoming drive us to reach for our true self which is high above us, not deep within us. The mythical figure Prometheus encapsulates this “super-man”, reaching up to a level of wisdom equal with any God, liberating us from the darkness of our inferiority and subjugation to dystopian social orders and religious dogmas.
Very few of us think, of course, in such terms. But many of the currents of philosophy which have given rise to the self-sufficient modern man have inspired political and social theories right up to the present time. And this intellectual atmosphere has, as you would expect, permeated our self-awareness and our collective awareness ever more fully across the last few centuries. Nietzsche famously proclaimed the death of God (in “Zarathustra”, 1884) because, he said, “enlightened man” simply no longer needed him.
Christians, including Catholics, have not been immune to these influences since we are, of course, and must be fully part of the society and time in which we live. On a different but related point, what Christ in the Gospel established as the separation between Church and State, the ecclesial and secular orders, has gradually become opposition between Church and State. The secular order has mutated to become secularism. The Church herself is also partially to blame for this happening, either through connivance with secularist values or by trying to assert herself over against the State.
But the fact remains that every person on the earth, Nietzsche included, dies. Darwin gave his explanation for this (evolution and the survival of the fittest). Theories of reincarnation give others. Yet none of them provides an answer that satisfies the deepest desires and yearnings of the human spirit. We want a definitive answer that responds to the definitive nature of death.
The figure of Satan is found in various religions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, his appearance in history goes back to its beginnings, indeed to some aeon prior to the creation of the physical universe but not to eternity itself, since he too is a created being. He is associated with some kind of primordial struggle of “will to power.” He is considered as having challenged the supremacy of God and has having failed. Originally good, his goodness is corrupted to the point that he becomes the standard-bearer in his person of every evil. His contentious opposition to God passes into his contentious opposition to every plan and project of God. What God does and plans and is has become hateful to him, including the creation of the physical universe and especially of its apex which is man and woman. His goal is to “do to death”, to destroy creation at every level and manifestation, but most especially to destroy humanity.
Satan was endowed at his creation with a supreme intelligence and will. By his own fall from grace, however that happened and whatever its specific explanation may be, that supremacy now exercised itself in evil (“corruptio optimi pessima”). It’s important to understand that evil is not a “thing” which exists, with its own consistency. Evil only exists as a deprivation and depravation of what is good. Evil is parasitical. Where there is everything, evil wants nothing. Where there is positive, evil wants negative. Satan wants something to be bad only as a stepping stone to it not being at all, or to never becoming what it was intended to be. For Satan, death is the prize he covets because it destroys the life-giving will of God. Wherever death is present, Satan’s hand has been involved.
The existence of Satan is not mythical but is attested by the inspired Scriptures. No-one more than Jesus himself speaks of him, describes him, defines him, judges him, loathes him and defeats him. The teaching of the Gospel about Satan is not subject to the revisionism of rationalists or of the “super-men” of Nietszche’s illusions. Science has nothing to say about Satan. Even less, politics or cultural theorists. Artistic caricatures of Satan have been foolishly taken by many as depictions of the real thing. The existence of Satan is, in fact, a dogmatic truth of the Christian faith. Christ’s entire work of redemption only had to take place because man sinned and died to God, but man sinned and died to God only because he listened to Satan.
By introducing death into creation, Satan claimed power over it. By succumbing to Satan, man opened the door to the fear of death and to death itself. Every sin consolidates the claim of death and the fear of death in man. And if sin is not removed through belief in Christ and turning back to him (repentance or “metanoia”) then the fear of death will be consummated in eternal death beyond the grave.
The Blessed Trinity, however, had no intention of allowing Satan’s counter-plan of destruction to prevail. By trinitarian design, the Son becomes man to reverse the process of death instigated by Satan and introduced by Adam. Christ does this by reversing Adam’s disobedience in His own perfect obedience to the Father. As Adam was disobedient unto death (meaning he caused death by his disobedience), so Christ was obedient unto death. But because Christ did not die in disobedience, the power of Satan over Him, the God-Man, was destroyed. And just as Adam’s sin meant that the whole human race sinned (because God attributed to Adam a representative quality on behalf of the whole human race), so Christ’s sinlessness meant that his grace and eternal life were now made available as a free gift to the whole human race.
“By God’s grace, Jesus had to experience death for all mankind.” No super-man, no self-made contemporary man, has such a will to power that he will not die. Only Jesus, the meekest and humblest of all men had the power to die and to take up his life again, because only he was the man who died without sin. His immediate motive was certainly to despoil Satan of his power over death, the power which had instilled “the slavery of the fear of death in all men.” But his purpose in doing so was one of eternal love and eternal life: to liberate us not only from the fear of death, but from death itself. He does not deliver us from dying in the flesh in this mortal life. That is a death we must go through so that death itself can be expelled from our bodies. Jesus frees us from death in the sense that he delivers us out of the death we have died and restores our bodies to eternal life.
What this means is that, if we believe in Jesus, our natural fear of death need have no sense of terror of annihilation. But we must be careful. I said, “if we believe in Jesus.” Believing in Him, is not simply the statement that we believe in Him. It means much more: that we hand our lives over to Him. To believe is to trust, to hope against hope in Him. To believe is to let Christ become the heart and foundation of our lives, our plans, our relationships, our decisions, our priorities. We cannot believe in Him and then live as if He did not exist, as if He had nothing to say about who we are and what we are doing with our lives in all their dimensions. To believe is to enter into a covenant of love with Christ, to live from Him and for Him and because of Him.
To allow the standards of the world, the arrogance of our times, many of the questionable values of our Western way of life, our choice of self or selfishness in our relationships: to allow these things to be our main guidance in life, the foundation of our lives, is quite simply not to believe in Christ. In the presence of the real Christ, and not the atrophied version of him which our selfishness and so-called sophistication and intellectualism can subtly create, we allow ourselves to be purified of all that is not worthy of Him – and, in the end, not worthy of ourselves either. To believe truly in Christ is to be freed of the false worries and importance that we so easily attach to things that don’t in the end matter.
Christ’s victory over our death is not only for when we die, but more truly for our life now! Since it is in how we now live that we will then die. Christ can certainly be called upon at the last moment, but what sort of faith and love for Him is it if we purposely ignore him now or relegate him now to third or fourth or an even lower place in our priorities?
No-one is more powerful and free and carefree and joyful and fulfilled than the person who truly believes in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. No-one has greater power at his or her disposal than the person who humbly and sincerely leaves sin behind and clings to the Nazarene. We don’t need to fear or deny death, for He has destroyed it. He has shared in our flesh and blood and he will lead us to salvation.
During this time of crisis in the world, which can be a time of grace, a new Pentecost, if we want it to be, we can say and even sing defiantly with St. Paul: “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I pray for myself and for you that the salutary remembrance of our death will grace us with the saving wisdom about how to live our life.
Mgr. Peter Magee, 31 March 2020.