Is death really the enemy?

Death in Christianity

1. Concepts of death in the New Testament

The founder of the Christian faith Jesus of Nazareth himself gave neither a definition of death nor a special teaching about it, nor anything precise about life after death. His hope, his thinking on this was Jewish. Even the New Testament (for example the letters of Paul) does not provide any clarification of open questions about it. What is really unmistakable and original is that there is a new point of reference for Christians: the Easter experience, the experience that Jesus was raised from the dead. For Christians, this experience has far-reaching consequences for the way they view and shape life and for dealing with death.

Paul offers the first fundamental reflection on death. As the first in Christian spirituality, he radically contrasts life and death. His initial question is why there is death at all, why it is common human fate. Paul proclaims his views from four perspectives.

  1. All of humanity is invariably and inevitably at the mercy of death. In essence, man is mortal. Only God is "... the Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality ..." (1 Timothy 6:16).

  2. The suffering of death can become a testimony for Jesus - his message and his life: "... so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:11).

  3. Death is always a terrible event. He is and remains the enemy of man. It was only through Christ's victory over death that death lost its power: “The last enemy to be disempowered is death” (1 Cor 15:26).

  4. Death is the consequence and punishment of sin. Here death is at work not only as a physical but also as a spiritual power. In contrast to the Greek way of thinking, Christianity does not understand death as a natural process, which has its basis in matter or in the loss of the spirit, but it is perceived in the horizon of responsibility and the personal decision of man (about good and bad). The appearance of death therefore includes not only biological death, but also man's turning away from God and sinking into dull, earthly spiritlessness. For Paul it is important that man come to the certainty that sin and death cannot be abolished by him. But by believing in the resurrected one and by following on his way, man can free himself from these entanglements: “So you should see yourself as men who are dead to sin, but who live for God in Christ (Rom. .

Separation of Body and Soul: Post-Biblical Tradition

Only the post-biblical tradition from approx. 200 AD describes death as a separation of body and soul: a point is set for earthly life, but with this it does not disappear into an absolute nothing. He stands before God by virtue of his immortal soul. Christianity took over this doctrine from Greek philosophy - and changed it at the same time: if with the Greeks the soul is immortal by itself, then in Christianity it is promised immortality by God. Because if the soul were by nature immortal, any kind of lifestyle would be permitted, since immortality is guaranteed in advance.

Strictly speaking, the conception of the body-soul separation is not a definition of death, but only its presupposition. In contrast, an inner moment of death is finality, the closure of temporality and the beginning of eternity. It is a total breakdown and inevitable end of earthly life that embraces the whole human being. Death is not just a blissful asleep, but seals the premonition that life was not what it could be. That is why death remains ambiguous: it is a hopeful gateway to life and at the same time an “open account”.

Knowing about one's own death is also important for one's own life. It is not the knowledge of the when and where of death that is decisive, but the knowledge of its inevitability. Only then does life receive the full weight of the uniqueness of its opportunities and the irrevocability of its decisions. Because the end can be just around the corner at any time, life must be taken seriously. At the same time, every moment is irretrievable, an opportunity and a precious gift, a gift and a task: “Teach us to count our days! Then we will win a wise heart. ”(Psalm 90:12)

2. The afterlife

Belief in the resurrection is inextricably linked to the experience of death. This belief did not begin with the disciples of Jesus. The hope of resurrection is much older. It originated in Judaism. It took around 1000 years for this hope to “ripen” at all. Because of this belief in the resurrection, the men and women around Jesus were only able to interpret and initially understand the special events at Easter, namely that Jesus was raised to perfection and immortality (in contrast to the resurrection of a dead person) after his death and burial in all his reality. One of the oldest Christian Easter testimonies can be found in Paul. It reads: “For above all I delivered to you what I also received: Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and was buried. He was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures, and appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve ”(1 Cor. 15: 3-5). Death is thus the transition of the created to God. With him people find their goal and their perfection. The resurrection therefore does not mean the restoration of an earlier state, but a total, radical transformation through which the whole person has to go through in order to find his perfection with God in overcoming space and time. Therefore, when the Bible speaks of resurrection, it speaks in figurators.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul compares the resurrection to a grain of wheat that is buried and from which a surprisingly new shape develops. Or to put it another way: Man began his life like a germ and was able to form buds, but in death (at the same time the resurrection) he blooms in a spring that no longer ends with a cold snap.

Death can also be compared to childbirth. The theologian Leonardo Boff writes: When a child is born, it leaves the familiar but narrow womb. The possibilities of life in the womb are exhausted. So the child gets into a huge crisis, is pressed and pressed from all sides and finally "thrown" into the world. At this point in time it does not yet know that this process has opened up a world that is wider than the womb was. In death man has to go through a similar crisis. He becomes weaker, he finds it harder to breathe, the agony of death overcomes him, and finally he is torn from the world. Just like shortly before birth, even in this dying situation he still knows little about the fact that a much wider world awaits him. Here the full development of the human being knows no bounds.

Death: full-ending instead of end

Christian theology associates death with a completion event. The theologian Medard Kehl offers a particularly successful description of this completion process in death in his book "Eschatology". So we can hope from our experiences with God that he will continue what he started here. The statements about heaven, hell, purgatory, judgment and resurrection are therefore conclusions from the experience of Christian history and the present. They are not reports from the afterlife. The all-perfect encounter between God and man takes place in death. This encounter is not much different from the encounter with God already experienced in life. This is where our current relationship with God will find its final form; here we hope for healing and the perfection of our identity. The moments of this completion event are described with the figurative words of judgment, purgatory and heaven.

a) The “judgment” is the finding of identity through the “judging” love of God
In death the whole of a life story gets into a “crisis”. What happened is final and irreversible. However, this “end result” should not be stipulated unchangeably. Man finds his full identity and his salvation only in the encounter with the forgiving love of God. What is only apparent or of unconditional stability and validity in human beings is revealed here. This radical insight into the truth of his life does not have to plunge him into the deepest despair, which he owes to the loving mercy of God. To be seen through by her and thereby to find oneself is not annihilation. It gives that identity in which I can endure my finality. I can see myself as a completely accepted "prodigal son".

b) The "purification" is identity finding through the "healing-cleansing" love of God
“Purification” (or “purgatory”) can also be understood as a moment of being absorbed into the perfect love of God. It is about turning away from the will to evil, from self-satisfied clinging to oneself and finally turning to God. That is an opening towards the love of God, a letting go of oneself and a surrender to God. Sinful man is purified and transformed - "as if through fire". Paul writes:

“For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid: Jesus Christ. But whether someone continues to build on the ground with gold, silver, stones, wood, hay or straw: the work of everyone will be revealed; that day will make it visible because it will be revealed in the fire. The fire will test what is good in the work of each one. If what he has built holds up, he will receive a reward. If it burns down, he will have to bear the loss. But he himself will be saved, but just as through fire. "(1 Cor. 3: 11-15)

c) “Heaven” is the finding of identity through the “happy” love of God
“Heaven” does not mean a state “after” judgment and purification, but another highlighted moment of the one completion event, namely the finally successful identity of a person. He only finds his full purpose when he is completely “absorbed” in his relationship with Christ. “Heaven” means the matching of a given and accepted identity, the gift of a successful identity.

Regarding ultimate failure in death (hell), there are different approaches in the Bible. The theologian Hans-Urs von Balthasar points to two series of statements in the Bible. On the one hand there is the threatening speech in the Bible about a final judgment and a divorce between good and bad. On the other hand, there are statements in the Gospels and especially in the Pauline letters that speak of a “universal reconciliation of God”, of a hope for all. In his two little books about hell (What can we hope ?; Small discourse about hell), the hope in the merciful God, who still has possibilities where there seems to be no way out for us humans, outweighs where actually “Justice” should prevail.

So writes Hans Urs v. Balthasar: “And we do not claim more than this: that these (universal salvation) statements give us the right to hope for all people, which at the same time means that we do not feel compelled to take the step from threats to settlement a hell occupied with our brothers and sisters, which would destroy our hope of having to perform. "

3. The funeral ritual

The desire for a special funeral service arose very early, namely at the graves of martyrs, in order to secure their intercession. The customs were initially taken up by the non-Christian Jewish-pagan environment - to the exclusion of everything that contradicted the belief in the resurrection: for example, the cremation was forbidden and only burial was common. The mourning for the dead was replaced by singing psalms, readings and prayers, as was the funeral meal by the Eucharistic celebration at the grave. The 3rd, 7th, and 40th day, as well as the annual memory, were adopted as dates for commemorating the dead. Deserved Christians - mostly socially high - were buried in the church, the others in the courtyard of the church. At the end of the Middle Ages, the cemeteries (from the monthly "Freithof" = place, free from worldly power) were relocated outside the cities due to a lack of space. Not only all believers have the right to an ecclesiastical burial, but also unbaptized catechumens. Since the 11th century November 2nd is prescribed as the annual commemoration day of all those who have died - All Souls' Day. In the Middle Ages, death was understood not so much as going home to the Lord, but as appearing before his judgment. Because of this, the funeral service was dominated by thoughts of repentance, atonement and fear of judgment and thus by intercession for the deceased. No funeral celebrations were celebrated on Sundays, gloria, hallelujah and peace were not given. Prayers, alms, and soul masses were seen as an aid to purification.

Since the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-1965), the liturgy of the dead has expressed the Easter meaning of death more clearly by making visible the use of holy water and the setting up of an Easter candle, the connection between baptism, death and resurrection of believers with the resurrection of Christ. When the relatives and friends keep the wake and pray the psalms or the rosary, then they lend their voice to the dead so that he appears as a prayer.

The funeral service itself is celebrated in such a way that the coffin with the deceased is first led into the church. The presence of the dead in the middle of the celebration shows that this celebration community does not only consist of those living on earth. The fellowship goes beyond those here to include those who preceded us in death. They celebrate with us - as transformed and now living with God. Nobody can destroy this community, not even death. After the funeral service, the burial takes place. Here the coffin is let into the pit, sprinkled with holy water and smoked, earth is thrown down, and a cross is erected. The comforting understanding of death and eternal life is particularly impressively expressed in the prayer of the church funeral:

“Kind Father, in your hands we commend your servant (your servant) N. and hope confidently that he (she) is with Christ. We thank you for all the good that you have bestowed on him (her) in his (her) life and for the good that we were able to experience through him (her). We ask you to take him (her) in and give him (her) an apartment and home with you. But give us who remain behind the strength to comfort one another with the message of faith until we are all united with you. Therefore, we ask through Christ, our Lord. Amen."

In Christianity, the burial of the dead is considered an act of love. It is an aid to the success of the transition to eternal life and a consoling turn to the mourners in prayer, care and accompaniment. In the present, the Christian burial culture is subject to change: the attitude to life and death is privatized, dealing with pain and grief is becoming insecure, after all, the church has long since ceased to have a monopoly on religious issues. A secular attitude towards cemetery culture is becoming more and more apparent. These changes are a challenge for Christians. Through the revitalization of a contemporary "ars moriendi", through diaconal care for lonely persons, through qualified care for the dying, aesthetic awareness in the design of godparents, texts and symbols in the design of tombs, through conscious examination of their own liturgical tradition, among other things, Christian communities can give testimony for them who in his death conquered death.

(Author: Mag. Theol. Hadrian Kraewsky and Dr. Stefan Schlager)


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