Here’s just a smattering of stories that have made the headlines in recent weeks:
- SpaceShip Two, Virgin Galactic’s experimental spacecraft for tourists, mysteriously breaks up in flight over the Mojave Desert, killing the co-pilot.
- On Halloween in southern California, three 13-year-old girls, including twin sisters, are out trick-or-treating and killed by a hit-and-run driver.
- In Washington, a 15-year-old high school student texts five others to sit together at a table in the cafeteria. Two of them are his cousins. He shoots them, then kills himself. Three of the victims, all 14 years old, died.
- In Mali, a two-year old girl dies of Ebola, making Mali the sixth nation in West Africa to have a confirmed case of the disease. The World Health Organization estimates the overall death toll to be over 5,000.
The list, of course, could go on and on. What all the stories share in common, of course, is some form of tragic death. We accept that death is inevitable — “Death is just part of life,” some say — but people are not supposed to die from technical malfunctions or painful and debilitating diseases. Children, who have so much of life ahead of them, are not supposed to die either. And Lord, have mercy, they’re most definitely not supposed to kill one another.
But what would make death not tragic? It comes out in conversation, when we muse over what we consider to be a “good” death, the kind that makes us say, “That’s the way I want to go.” I want to go quickly; I want to endure as little suffering as possible. Ideally, I want to live a full and rich life, then pass away painlessly in my sleep.
The problem is that we don’t see it happen that way, at least not as often as we might wish.
As discussed in previous posts, some members of the ancient church in Corinth had been teaching that there was no resurrection of the dead; the immediate implication for that congregation was that those Christians who had already died had no future, no hope.
I wonder if bereaved Corinthians were being told, “Death is just part of life”?
I wonder if, in the attempt to be encouraging, some were saying, “Be happy that your father lived a full life and didn’t suffer too much before he died”?
And if so, I wonder if, having removed the tragic sting, people no longer found a use for believing in resurrection?
Death, Paul insists, is the enemy of God, the last one to be destroyed before Christ the King hands the kingdom over to his Father (1 Cor 15:24-26). All death — even the relatively peaceful kind — is tragic, because death is the consequence of sin (Rom 5:12-21), and God created us for life. We may count certain ways of dying as less tragic, because they represent a more acceptable end to our own personal stories; but every death is a violation of God’s good creation, a tragic turn in the larger story whose climax is resurrection and eternal life.
It is the hope of resurrection that allows us to rage against death without despair. And it is communities of hope that allow their members to wrestle with rage and despair as needed, holding resurrection hope in trust for them until they are ready to receive it with thanks.
In God’s story, death isn’t just “part of life.” Thanks be to God that death isn’t the end of the story.