The question arises, then, whether God causes death or can deliver someone from it.
Death and Dying
Almost any form of religion must say something about death and dying, for these topics inextricably figure in discussions about the purpose of life and the possibility of postmortem existence. A people’s views on death shape their understanding of what it means to be human and vice versa. Religions usually provide practices and teachings that help survivors endure and interpret the loss that comes from a loved one’s death. Christian theology’s interest in death is most distinctive in its belief that God, in Jesus Christ, shared fully in human vulnerability and suffered lethal violence. Jesus’s resurrection demonstrates God’s power over death and promises others a future beyond the grave.
Christians have understood death and have marked the departures of the dying in various ways, even as now diverse rituals and traditions, varying from culture to culture, fall under the name “Christian.” Anthropology and theology cannot be neatly separated. A historical overview of death in the biblical traditions confirms this has always been so.
Biblical Texts and Contexts.
While biblical references to death understand the phenomenon as the end of earthly existence, they show little concern for what modern people would call a biological understanding of death. Instead, these texts illuminate ancient theological convictions about the purpose of living, the nature of the human being, the potency of God, and the power of God’s adversaries or other peoples’ deities.
The biblical material on death and dying exhibits considerable inconsistency and does not allow for tidy systematization. Numerous ideas from neighboring cultures influenced ancient Israelite, Jewish, and Christian attitudes about death, yet these influences resist easy mapping. The Bible confirms that views on death’s meaning and death’s future mutated over time, as did beliefs about the afterlife and eschatology. A wide range of terms, metaphorical representations, and euphemisms for death appear in the Bible (just as in modern cultures and languages); this further frustrates attempts to find consistency and clarity among biblical references to death.
The Old Testament and its ancient contexts.
The Old Testament writings generally accept death as the natural termination of existence, not necessarily a malevolent power preying on humanity or a punishment for wrongdoing. This perspective comes into clearer relief by comparison with other ancient writings, some of which imagine death as connected to evil forces. On the whole, ancient Israel’s neighbors held a variety of understandings about death’s causes and its aftermath.
Egyptian religion tended to see death as a departure on a journey, one toward judgment and ultimate fulfillment through unity with the deity Osiris. Many therefore saw positive aspects to death, viewing it less as a loss and more as an opportunity for the dead to persist in living. Funerary rituals protected the departed from chaos that came in death’s transitional character; the practices performed by the living aimed to ensure smooth continuity for those passing from life in this world into life in the next.
Zoroastrianism regarded human beings as part of a good created order but death as the result of the malignant activity of an evil supernatural being. At death, souls separate from bodies and begin a journey toward judgment. A positive judgment allows souls to rejoin with their bodies to attain a higher form of existence.
According to the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. seventeenth century b.c.e.), the gods hold sway over a human being’s life span; they ordain life and death. While some scholars interpret this to mean that the gods merely created humanity as mortal, the relevant passages appear to assert that the gods appoint every person’s time to die. Ugaritic texts speak of different classes of demons and other evil spirits who kill by various means, including disease, as well as dangerous ghosts of dead people who were not properly buried or ritually satisfied. The Canaanite pantheon, according to Ugaritic mythological texts, included deities of the underworld who brought death to individuals and communities. Vocabulary for death in biblical Hebrew derives from the name of one of these figures, Mot (or Mōtu), although some scholars contend Mot was not considered a full-fledged deity but rather a demon. By and large, all these powers—the death-dealing beings of the underworld that served the gods, as well as the ghosts associated with death and suffering—were feared and, when possible, counteracted with rituals.
Interpreters disagree on the question of whether fear animates the Old Testament’s outlooks on death to the degree found in other ancient Near Eastern writings. When Jeremiah personifies death as an invader penetrating buildings (Jer 9:21; cf. Hos 13:14), the image hardly calms anxieties. Still, Jeremiah comes short of portraying death as a marauding demon. Other passages regard death with greater resignation, viewing it as part of the human condition: if one is fortunate, a life span might last 70 or 80 years (Ps 90:10) or, as the wise woman of Tekoa puts it, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up” (2 Sam 14:14; see also 1 Kgs 2:1–2; Sir 14:17). For Qoheleth, the certainty of death should inform one’s conduct in life (Eccl 7:1–4). Still, the Old Testament’s perspectives largely eschew the mythology surrounding death apparent in other ancient texts. To a degree this stems from the Old Testament’s monotheizing tendencies. The question arises, then, whether God causes death or can deliver someone from it.
The Old Testament devotes very little attention to considering how death originated or why it occurs. (The same holds true in later centuries, in the Mishnah and Tosefta.) Genesis 2–3 speaks of dying as the consequence of eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but its description of humankind’s creation suggests God created people as mortal beings, made from the earth and enlivened by God’s breath. God expresses concern in Genesis 3:22 that humanity will achieve immortality if anyone eats from the tree of life. The Old Testament does not dwell on whether God, who creates humanity as mortal, must therefore be considered the cause of death; but it regularly affirms God’s power over life and death. God declares, “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal” (Deut 32:39; cf. 1 Sam 2:6); God’s breath sustains all living things, and death follows when God takes away that breath (Ps 104:29). Those statements also acknowledge God’s agency when people face situations of flourishing or hopelessness. In some stories God plainly kills people—thus, the death of the Egyptian firstborns (Exod 12:12, 29), an angel of the Lord that slays 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kgs 19:35), and the demolition of Job’s household (Job 1:6–19, where Satan does not cause death unless God permits it). Much more prevalent are assurances of God’s ability to deliver or withhold people from imminent death (Pss 56:13; 68:20; 118:18; 102:20). This is fitting since God regards the death of faithful people as grievous or costly (Ps 116:15). Such biblical assurances do not include nuanced discussion of God’s role in granting life or death, for in their contexts they arise as pleas for mercy and aid. They reassert, usually with poetic pathos, God’s power over all creation. They do not support claims that God decides when, or how, a specific person must die.
Attention to God’s power to grant life, and thus to frustrate death, also emerges in passages anticipating a future victory over death. Isaiah 25:8 looks forward to when the Lord “will swallow up death forever.” This promise of God’s devouring of death conjures and reverses notions of death’s voracious appetite (see Job 18:13; Hab 2:5), imagery likely derived from depictions of the Canaanites’ Mot, whose gaping jaws stretched from the ground to the heavens, devouring all in its path.
Any understanding of death contains within it understandings of what it means to be human and, thus, what one experiences at death. The Hebrew term nepeš (usually translated “soul”) indicates a life force or “breath” that animates human flesh, which upon decomposition returns to earth following death (Gen 3:19; Job 34:15). (The word rȗaḥ is sometimes used synonymously.) This nepeš is the “life” of flesh (Gen 9:4; Lev 17:11). Its exit from the body means death (Gen 35:18; Ps 146:4 [using rȗaḥ]). If at death the life-giving “breath” returns to God (as in Job 34:14; Eccl 12:7), it is as this depersonalized life force, not the distinctive existence of a discrete person. What remains at death, a corpse, bears the potential for ritual pollution or curse, according to the Torah (Num 19:11–20; Deut 21:22–23).
Earlier Old Testament writings consider death the end of any essential or meaningful existence. The “breath” or “soul” that departs the body at death does not proceed to a conscious, personalized existence. Yet there are references to a postmortem continuation. A kind of residue or shadow (see “shades” in Ps 88:10) remains, but these shadowy dead remain separated from God. Three tiers make up the Old Testament’s conception of the universe: God dwells in heaven, human beings inhabit the earth, and the departed shades go to the underworld (commonly called Sheol or the Pit). Everyone’s remnant goes to Sheol at death; it is everyone’s fate, whether a life has been lived well or poorly (Ps 89:48; Ezek 31:14). The texts do not paint Sheol as a place of torment or the abode of demons; Sheol is a shadowland in which faint, disembodied selves reside in darkness, isolated from God (Ps 88:5; cf. Ps 139:8) and, thus, unable to praise God anymore (Ps 6:5). Accentuating the idea of death as separation from God and from the worship of God, the Old Testament describes Sheol as far from heaven (Deut 32:22; Isa 7:11) and heavily fortified (Ps 9:13; Isa 38:10; Ezek 31:15). As death itself ends a person’s ability to relate to God, Old Testament passages also speak figuratively of dying to indicate despair and hopelessness in the perceived absence of God from this life (Ps 18:3–5; Prov 12:27; cf. Jonah 2:2 for a metaphorical reference to Sheol).
Euphemisms for death call attention to familial identity, as when one is said to “lie down” with one’s “ancestors” (Gen 47:30; Deut 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12) or “be gathered” to one’s “people” (Gen 25:17; Num 27:13). These expressions do not mean the deceased joins an active, social community of ancestors in Sheol; they indicate, rather, death’s inability to erase familial belonging. The dead may descend into Sheol, but their previous existence continues to matter for their descendants’ corporate identity. While survivors might lament an individual’s death, their loss is mitigated by the reassurance that their clan continues, for its long-term survival constitutes a greater value.
Archaeological and textual evidence has led some scholars to conclude that ancient Israelites provided offerings, especially food and drink, to the dead, to appease them (Deut 26:1; Ps 106:28). If so, this “cult of the dead” may have resembled those in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Occasionally these practices—as well as attempts to consult the dead for their protection or to learn their knowledge about the future—were strongly opposed (Deut 18:10–11; 1 Sam 28; Ps 16:4; Isa 8:19–20).
Although the Old Testament’s dominant perspective regards death with a sense of finality as the extinction of life and perhaps consciousness, a few passages nevertheless hold out hope for humanity’s future beyond death. When Isaiah 26:19 speaks of the dead living and corpses rising, its focus is on the future restoration of the ruined nation; it is not necessarily a promise about the resurrection of individual, deceased selves. But the image of life returning after death assigns such power to God (cf. Ezek 37:1–14). This theme comes to bloom in the latest of the Old Testament books, Daniel (ca. 168–165 b.c.e.): “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). Accompanied by an understanding of a coming judgment, this text imagines some kind of new life after death, at least for “many” who comprise the people of Israel.
The New Testament and its contexts.
The New Testament does not regard death as merely the end of life. In these writings death is a passageway, ushering one toward judgment and followed by a resurrection.
The prospect of a meaningful afterlife, as in Daniel 12:2, becomes more prominent especially in Jewish apocalyptic literature that antedates Christianity’s emergence. Many Jews began to view death as a gateway to judgment and the possibility of ongoing existence for one’s soul, now understood as eternal. These views apply to many, but not all, Jews, as seen in the differences of opinion among Pharisees and Sadducees concerning the existence of the soul beyond death and the hope of a future bodily resurrection (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8; Josephus War 2.163–166, Ant. 18.12–17).
The Wisdom of Solomon provides several examples of the perspectives of at least some Jewish groups during the Hellenistic era. This book describes death as an intrusion into God’s design, a consequence of evil: “God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it” (Wis 2:23–24; cf. 1:12–15; see also 2 Esd 7:78, which speaks of “the Most High” as decreeing when a given person must die). Nevertheless, “the souls [Gk psychē] of the righteous” remain under God’s care, enjoying immortality and rewards (Wis 3:1–9). In other writings Sheol remains the destination of all who die, but there judgment occurs, moral distinctions are made, and (in some texts) blessings or punishments follow (see, variously, 2 Esd 7:79–99; 2 Bar. 52:1–6; 1 En. 22:1–13; 41:1; 61:8; 103:3–8). Some believed that eternal souls await an embodied resurrection (2 Macc 12:39–45; 1 En. 51:1–5). In these perspectives death hardly looms as the cessation of personal existence; rather, it represents nearly the beginning. Dying thereby serves as an appropriate occasion for people to consider what a well-lived life looks like. The genre of Jewish “testaments” (farewell addresses like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, offered by a revered figure expecting to die soon) composed during this period regard death accordingly. (See Gen 49:1–28 for a predecessor of this kind of writing, as well as Acts 21:17–38 and 2 Tim for later Christian examples.)
Probably these developments in Judaism derive partially from Persian Zoroastrianism, especially its drama of cosmic struggle between good and evil and the notion that souls persist after death. But more is at work here than borrowing from or reacting against neighboring cultures. Such ideas might have found support in long-standing convictions, very much rooted in Jewish scriptures, concerning the tenacity and vitality of God’s covenantal commitments to enjoy meaningful relationship with God’s elect, despite death’s apparently virulent power. Consistent with these theological developments, some documents view even premature death as a blessing in certain cases, especially when its aftermath means relief from persecution (e.g., for martyrs) or from evil influences (2 Macc 6:18–31; Wis 4:7–16).
Taken as a whole, the Dead Sea Scrolls do not present a consistent perspective on the composition of the human being, death, and the afterlife. The poetic quality of much of their teachings on these topics further complicates analysis. These documents do focus on the postmortem judgment all people will face. Life does not necessarily cease at death; at death, a person’s soul or true essence would be kept until the time that God would judge it worthy of eternal blessing or damnation (e.g., 1QS 4:2–14; cf. the mention of a purification in 1QS 4:15–23). This perspective on death, as an entry into judgment, tended to dominate perspectives on living, lending urgency to ethical behavior and religious devotion.
Given their longevity and wide-ranging philosophical and religious options, Hellenistic and Roman cultures do not lend themselves to easy summary. The nature and outcomes of death were contested topics when Christianity arose. Some groups considered death the end of existence. For Epicureans, it amounted to extinction: the cessation of consciousness and sensation (Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, 2). Others, such as Plato, imagined death as launching the soul, now finally freed from imprisonment within the body, on an elaborate underworld journey that could involve punishment, purification, or communion with the gods (Apology, Phaedo, and Phaedrus). Among the movements Plato influenced, such as Platonism and some currents in later Stoicism, the idea of an immortal soul persisted. For these groups, death does not terminate existence; it allows the true, immortal self to move toward a new horizon of existence, which some authors characterized in terms of reincarnation or transmigration into a new body (metempsychosis; e.g., Plutarch, De sera numinis vindicta). That other existence remains distinguishable and inaccessible from this one; death brings separation. In line with basic Platonic notions, the first-century Jewish authors Philo and Josephus did not believe death annihilated the soul, the essential part of a person confined within a body until death (Josephus, War 3.362, 372; Philo, QG 3.11). Beliefs in postmortem judgment or opportunities to enter higher qualities of existence encouraged many to prepare for death as a time of reckoning one’s true character or morals.
Burial practices varied in these contexts. For those in densely populated areas, burial societies offered those with modest means proper burials, usually in collective tombs, sometimes attended with postmortem liturgies. These societies functioned as social clubs, with the inevitability of death prompting urban residents to seek ways of being remembered and honored after their deaths, sometimes by ongoing rituals. These remembrances may have mitigated the sense of death sharply separating a person from the living.
The New Testament bears the theological imprint of Jewish apocalypticism: its writings essentially assume the reality of an afterlife. That belief influences its various perspectives on death and dying, as does its notions of how God’s final victory will affect the phenomenon of death itself.
The apostle Paul, in tones resonant of apocalyptic Jewish theology, refers to death’s participation in the cosmic struggle, a war in which God will ultimately emerge victorious. Paul personifies death as a rival power, partnered with sin (Rom 5:12; 7:13; 8:2; 1 Cor 15:56), opposed to God and God’s ultimate purposes; it remains as “the last enemy to be destroyed” by Christ (1 Cor 15:24–26; cf. Isa 25:8). Paul regards death as anything but natural or intended by God. Death entered the cosmos through sin, according to Paul’s understanding of Adam’s sin (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:21). Sin brings death, not as a strict quid pro quo but, more generally, as part of living in a corrupted cosmos: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23; but cf. 1 Cor 11:30 on death possibly stemming from egregious behavior). Since sin’s inception, death has “exercised dominion” in the world (Rom 5:14, 17) until Christ, raised from the dead, destroyed its power over him (Rom 6:9). Christ’s resurrection provides the same opportunity for others to be free from death (Rom 6:10–14; 1 Cor 15:20; cf. 2 Tim 1:10). This means not that physical death immediately goes away (1 Cor 15:51–53; 1 Thess 4:13–18) but that it cannot ultimately separate Christ’s people from him, one another, and the love of God (Rom 8:38–39; Phil 1:20–21; 1 Thess 4:17). Dying provides constant reminders of all creation’s decay, wrought by sin, just as Jesus’s resurrection remains a constant and confident hope of death’s defeat. Although Paul mocks death because of its certain demise (1 Cor 15:54–55), he does not consider it an illusion. As elsewhere in the New Testament, grieving over the death of loved ones is not criticized but acknowledged as an appropriate response (1 Thess 4:13; cf. John 11:35; Acts 8:2; 9:39; 20:37–38). Nevertheless, death’s effects are temporary and not of ultimate consequence: God intends eternal life (Rom 6:22–23; 1 Thess 5:9–10), so God’s people need not fear death.
Jesus’s death matters much for Paul’s thinking about everyone else’s death. As Paul’s theology frequently highlights the saints’ union, or participation, with Christ, likewise he and his fellow believers have already died; baptized into Christ, their lives are lost in his crucifixion (Rom 6:3; Gal 2:19–20; 6:14). Thus, Christian baptism symbolizes dying and rising again. Paul usually presents these ideas in metaphorical language, but the point remains: Christ’s death reconfigures any understanding of who a person is. Christians have, in a sense, already died; and now they await the promise of resurrected life (Rom 6:3–11).
Paul routinely speaks of death as the entry into judgment and an afterlife, but he is less consistent when describing what happens immediately upon death. Sometimes he suggests a waiting period between people’s death and their meeting the Lord at the consummation of all things (1 Cor 15:50–55; 1 Thess 4:14–17; cf. Rev 6:9–11). Elsewhere he indicates no delay (1 Phil 1:21–24; cf. Luke 23:43). Some texts, such as 2 Corinthians 5:1–10, remain exegetically vague.
Paul’s writings show great concern for human bodies. He imagines that life after death—resurrection—is different from resuscitation into one’s former body. As a passage into incorruptibility, death results in a new and incorruptible body. Those who enjoy ultimate victory with Christ will exist in an embodied way, but their bodies will be a different kind of material (see 1 Cor 15:35–57; Phil 3:20–21).
All four gospels assert by implication that Jesus’s power exceeds death’s. His résumé of miracles is never more impressive than with his resuscitation of corpses (Mark 5:35–43; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:1–44). While these events may recall acts of certain prophets, especially Elijah (1 Kgs 17:17–24), Jesus’s ability to restore the dead to life without praying and by using only words supports the gospels’ presentation of him as one possessing God’s own power. Jesus commissions his followers to “raise the dead” (Matt 10:8), further establishing his unique authority. When, in the book of Acts, Peter (9:36–43) and Paul (20:7–12; cf. 28:1–6) raise the dead, the wider narrative implies they do so by appropriating the power of Jesus’s name.
The Synoptic Gospels offer a roughly uniform outlook on death. These gospels give no indication that existence ceases at death; rather, when the body dies the soul continues to live (Matt 10:28; cf. Luke 12:5). At death, the soul begins its wait for judgment, which happens for all (Matt 16:27; 25:31–46; see also Acts 17:30–31). The inevitability of death, to say nothing of its unpredictability, therefore serves as impulse for moral reflection and repentance (Luke 13:1–5). Postmortem judgment relativizes this life’s value; the “eternal life” to come bears greater importance (Mark 10:29–30; cf. Mark 8:35). Moreover, a negative judgment will lead to intense punishment (Matt 10:15; 13:47–50; Mark 9:43–49). These gospels expect death to be one of the results of persecution that believers will suffer (Mark 13:12; cf. Acts 7:60; 12:1–2).
Unlike Paul, Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels does not explain why human existence is mortal. Indeed, when given the opportunity to blame specific sins for people’s deaths, he refuses (Luke 13:1–5). Death, it appears, simply happens; and one should not read too much into random accidents or violent atrocities. Yet death is not final, and afterlife means something other than a soul’s perpetual existence. Jesus affirms a coming resurrection from the dead (Mark 12:18–27). His followers do likewise in Acts (4:2; 23:6). Offering a revelatory foretaste of the crucifixion’s role in obliterating the power of death, Matthew reports that when Jesus died “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (27:52). Jesus wields power over death not only in his public ministry but also in his own experience as one killed by mortals and raised up by God in an embodied resurrection. As Peter puts it in his Pentecost sermon, “it was impossible for [Jesus] to be held in [death’s] power” (Acts 2:24).
Just as the Gospel according to John has its distinctive eschatology, so also does its outlook on death and death’s aftermath set it apart from the Synoptics. Even though it does not speculate on death’s origins, John casually acknowledges that all who live will die (John 11:25; 21:23). But here lies the distinctive aspect of John’s view: death according to this gospel does not bring one to a point of judgment, for judgment has already occurred during one’s earthly life, based upon whether one believes what Jesus reveals. Believers have already “passed from death to life” (5:24), from a doomed or impotent spiritual existence to eternal life (cf. 3:16; 8:24). Eternal life begins now, in one’s earthly existence, so physical death becomes merely a point in an ongoing, continuous experience of eternal life. Resurrection has, so to speak, already occurred. When Jesus says, “whoever keeps my word will never see death” (8:51; cf. 6:49–51), he speaks of death in a different way, referring to an ultimate or spiritual death, the opposite of eternal life (3:36; 5:29; 10:28). Believers, therefore, have nothing to fear about their physical deaths, for in this sense they can never ultimately die (11:26). Also in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, John includes no mention of people’s suffering punishment or consignment to places of torment after death. The outcome of a spiritual death (as well as “the resurrection of condemnation,” 5:29) remains undescribed.
The reality of death looms large in Revelation, mostly because the book lays such emphasis on a universal postmortem judgment resulting in reward or punishment (20:13). Death, although intimidating in its own right, looks appealing in comparison to many of the horrors this book outlines (9:6). For Jesus’s followers death marks an end point; it delivers from persecutions, and the prospect of judgment inspires faithful living (2:10; 14:13). Revelation sometimes personifies death, pairing it with the abode of the dead, Hades (6:8), thereby characterizing it as a threat or enemy. Yet Christ’s ultimate power over death (1:18) as “the firstborn of the dead” (1:5) minimizes death’s threatening potential. So, too, does the promise that “death will be no more” (21:3–4, recalling Isa 25:7–8), when God’s ultimate intentions come to fruition.
Four times Revelation refers to “the second death” (2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8), an expression found nowhere else in the New Testament. Those whose names appear “written in the book of life” (20:15), the faithful and persistent, do not suffer the second death but enjoy existence in God’s presence. Revelation 20:14 identifies this death as “the lake of fire” into which the personified Death and Hades themselves are cast, along with the reprobate (21:8). Presumably this ends existence for the damned, or perhaps it punishes them forever; the text is not explicit. Some older Egyptian traditions (the Coffin Texts and the Egyptian Book of the Dead) spoke of a second death as the annihilation of a soul, while Jewish writings (Aramaic targums) used the expression to indicate eternal punishment or being refused resurrection. In either case, Revelation speaks of the second death as a subsequent, ultimate, and fearful separation from God.
Other writings mostly reassert basic ideas put forth by these New Testament authors. They assume a judgment and continuing existence following death (e.g., Heb 9:27; 2 Pet 2:4–9). In Hebrews 2:14–15 “the power of death” belongs to the devil, whom Jesus destroys through his own death. Likewise, 2 Timothy says that Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (1:10). Some passages echo the undisputed Pauline Epistles in asserting that Christians have already died through their identification with Jesus Christ (Col 3:2–3; 2 Tim 2:11). Stating ideas similar to those in John’s Gospel, 1 John 3:14–16 speaks of believers having already “passed from death to life” and finds therein motivation for laying down one’s own life for others. In this way Jesus’s particular death not only frees people from the grip of death and the hopelessness it represents; it also gives his followers the strength and confidence to accept death when faithful living requires the ultimate sacrifice.
Patristic and Medieval Periods.
Following the New Testament’s lead, Christian theological reflections on death consistently consider the Christ-event as a defeat of death, offering assurance that all will share in a future bodily resurrection connected to a final judgment. Death is more transition than termination; sometimes it brings refreshment from persecution. Faith in God’s promises concerning eternal life allows the living to die confidently. At the same time, patristic and medieval Christians expressed differing views about the cause of death (whether as an enemy preying on humankind or only the natural end of this life), the nature of bodies and eternal souls, how immediately judgment follows after one’s death, and what will be the nature and specific outcomes of God’s judgment.
Martyrdom and the communion of saints.
With the patristic period comes an increasing valorization of martyrdom and martyrs (see especially Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity). Dying by persecution imitates Christ and displays an exemplary manner of embracing death and enacting self-sacrificial disregard for the value of earthly existence. According to some contemporaries, the souls of those killed because of their faith go to heaven immediately, where they intercede on behalf of the living and thus participate in Christ’s ongoing work on earth (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.42). Martyrological literature views martyrs’ deaths as births, entrances into true existence. Martyrs willingly encounter death with joy, and Christian funerals incorporate joy and hope as central themes, reasserting confidence in resurrection.
Patristic authors do not see death as severing a Christian’s connection to the church (Augustine, Civ. 20.9). The dead still participate in the church’s work, whether by interceding for the living or by receiving benefits from the prayers of saints living on earth. This world still matters, therefore, for the dead; death does not fully divide the “communion of saints.” Various practices and beliefs developed, such as burials near martyrs’ gravesites, the collection of martyrs’ remains, and teachings about ghosts and other contacts with the departed.
The art of dying.
During the fifteenth century in the aftermath of several generations of considerable strife and plagues in Europe, the book Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) circulated widely. It exemplified a whole genre, whose contours were anticipated in literature produced during the ancient Greco-Roman era, focused on preparing people to die well. This literature assumed death and the subsequent encounter with divine holiness to be terrifying, and it expected the process of dying to involve struggles between faithfulness and despair. The ars moriendi tradition was devotional in nature, offering exercises and recitations to the living to bolster faith, allowing one to meet death confidently.
Visual art in the late Middle Ages also depicts dying as a time of struggle. Temptations assail the person on a deathbed, urging one to deny God and the faith. Demons lurk, aiming to instill fear about a person’s ability to withstand judgment. Saints of old, angels, or Christ himself may come to the bedside to cite scripture, reminding the dying person of God’s fidelity.
The ars moriendi tradition and the kind of dying it commended express a regard for the dying not as passive victims but as those involved in decision making about how to confront their mortality and God. To live is to prepare to die, and to die is to encounter a holy God. In this perspective the right, or perhaps best, way to die involves having time at the end of life to concentrate attention on God, to confess sins, and to receive consolation from others.
Continuing Developments and Relevance.
Death—violent death, humiliating death—remains at Christianity’s core, glimpsed in every cross on a church remembering God’s rejection at humanity’s hands. Christ’s death plays a part in most explanations of soteriology. Somehow this death addressed humanity’s central problem of alienation from God. Somehow this death continues to minimize the threat and seriousness of Christians’ bodily death, just as it may continue to comfort the dying.
The modern period has impelled many branches of Christianity to articulate new understandings of death and to care for the dying in appropriate ways. Insights from the physical sciences and philosophical objections pose problems for both Christian belief in life after death and traditional notions of a human soul (or even contemporary notions of “selfhood” enduring beyond death). These fields challenge Christian theology to offer sensible descriptions of death. Salient issues include how an afterlife and new material existence might square with basic cosmological propositions, as well as how a soul might connect to brain activity and the riddle of consciousness. For others, research into near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences suggests that the separation between living and dying, or between current existence and a coming existence, is not as fixed or impenetrable as moderns sometimes presume.
Modern theologians have grappled with these and other issues in countless ways. Barth (1960) understands death as a natural dimension of being alive. Rahner (1961) regards death as allowing one’s soul to progress into a deeper relationship with the universe, a universe utterly transformed and inhabited by God. Thielicke (1983) speaks of death as a departure from temporality and an entrance into a new kind of sharing in relationship with Christ. Borrowing from Eastern philosophical traditions, Hick (1994) argues for the persistence of one’s personal identity beyond death.
Owing much to liberation theologies and post-Holocaust theologies, the latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a growing rejection of theological proposals that ascribe undue spiritual value to dying or discount the sufferings and (especially lethal) violence experienced in this life. Likewise, these theologies commonly emphasize God’s presence in the travails of those who are oppressed, ill, and dying. Classical theology may emphasize God’s immortality, but this does not preclude God’s own presence in humanity’s most terrifying moments.
Theological understandings of death matter for other theological and pastoral concerns, such as how the gospel speaks against racial and economic injustice in the light of current disparities in life expectancies and death rates among different groups, considered both locally and globally. Christian ethics confronts questions related to death and dying. As new medical advancements and genetic therapies promise greatly increased life spans, at least for those who can afford them, massive economic and societal challenges loom. Overpopulation takes a toll on human and ecological well-being, especially in developing nations. The perceived virtues and hazards of euthanasia and advance directives do not elicit easy answers.
People in the twenty-first century, especially those in more developed nations, experience death differently from how, and much more privately than, their ancestors did. Many observers conclude that contemporary Western cultures, if not all cultures, structure themselves to maintain “the denial of death” (Becker, 1973), avoiding whatever would remind people of death’s inevitability. In addition, medical practitioners often do all they can to prolong life. When death can be anticipated during an illness or following an accident, a patient’s experience is managed by medical professionals. Once hospitals became places for people to go to die, dying occurred less frequently in communal or familial settings. The modern hospice movement, which gained steam in the 1960s through the efforts of Cicely Mary Saunders, has altered that experience for many. These changes have led theologians and ethicists to explore what it means to die with dignity.
Death and dying matter for pastoral theology. Churches understand their mission to involve preparing the living to die well—at peace with God—and caring for those in the process of dying, along with their loved ones. Kübler-Ross (1969) and others have illumined the psychological experiences that attend dying, calling attention to human beings’ varied and changing spiritual needs. These insights matter for theologies that inform pastoral care, even as they issue reminders of the numerous cultural factors informing people’s perspectives on death, how best to die, and how the living honor and assist their beloved dead.
[See also Angels; Anthropology; Apocalypticism; Baptism; Blessings and Curses; Body; Christology; Comfort and Mourning; Cult and Worship; Devils and Demons; Eschatology; Ethics, Biblical; God and Gods; Good and Evil; Hope; Life and Life Force; Miracles; Resurrection; Reward and Retribution; Sickness, Disease, and Healing; Sin; Soteriology; and Underworld and Hell.]