When I was still looking for a church home, the Pastor at the Catholic Church offered me an interesting bargain. “Do you want to die, or live forever?” I wonder how he interpreted my bafflement.
People have a fascination with death. We are designed that way. When it arrives, it is prefaced with pain, weakness, and isolation.
Avoiding death is the primary driver of Darwinian evolution, but also the concern of many political movements. Consider the 2nd Amendment absolutist. They carry lethal weapons because they are afraid of dying.
But that is all biology. What is Death, that god honored by all the ancient religions?
Before diving into that answer, we should turn the question around and marvel at how life started. Today, science shows us that it involves variety and collaboration. That is seen in our own bodies. We have skin and eyes and hair, each unique but somehow forming a whole that seeks self-expression.
Variety and collaboration are seen at a deeper level. Each of our cells is composed of organelles, little sub-cells within the cell. Some of those are simple: the Golgi bodies that transport chemicals. But others are almost cells in their own right. Mitochondria, the converters of sugar to the simpler chemicals used by the cell for energy, have their own DNA, transmitted only from mother to child.
But again, that is all biology.
God intends something deeper when He offers us the gift of Life. Remember the Garden: God “breathed His Spirit” into Adam, making him a “[L]iving creature.” In a spiritual sense, then, to be Alive is to carry God within you.
As John teaches us at the end of the Bible, God is Love. Love is the witness and negotiator that empowers all collaboration. Seen that way, Love is witnessed in our cells and bodies, but most powerfully in our relationships. We cannot start a new life without another person. That act can a collaboration of Love, in which case the intercourse is Sacred. Or it can be done as an act of control, in which case the intercourse is profane.
To be Alive in the Biblical sense is to collaborate under the witness of Love. To be Dead, conversely, is to exist as a collection of cells under the threat of destruction by a more powerful animal. We can be Dead (Biblically) and still be alive (biologically).
The second state is the goal of all tyranny – to reduce people to a state of living Death. Think again, then, regarding the commandment: “Thou shalt not Kill.” It is a sin to end a life in a way that tears apart the Life held in witness by God. That is accomplished not only by violence. It is also accomplished by using fear of violence to break the victim’s will.
The deities worshipped as Death reflect the power of tyrannical inducements. In ancient Greece, the Olympian gods, fearing that Hades would conquer the world, gave in marriage Persephone, the Goddess of Spring. In ancient Israel, the women offered Jesus of Nazareth to Death. While Persephone went meekly, Jesus went as a lion, proclaiming, “Not even the gates of Hades will stand against me.”
How great is Death’s realm? Well, consider the Trumpets of Revelation, events that we recognize as the extinction episodes known to paleontologists. In each episode, one-third of the creates Die. They are captured in Death’s realm. Even in the Victory in Heaven, when the devil is thrown down, one-third of the angels are taken with him. Death is the method of their isolation from Love.
This dynamic – that Death has an independent realm – gets to the spiritual root of our fear of dying. Life only has meaning through loving collaboration. When a loved one dies, they depart to the realm of Death. Either we are left alone with a hole inside our heart, or we try to tear out of them the virtues that they offered us, maiming them instead. Death can be a violent spiritual struggle, painful to both parties.
Does that justify our fear of Death? One of the great missions of redemptive religions is to teach us that living in the fear of Death is to deny ourselves Life. We should grasp and cherish in every moment the opportunity to be joined in Love to others. When we die, we die. Our soul leaves the body. Let the going be gentle.
While that separation can be painful, we find in that pain an opportunity to understand ourselves better, and thus to be more effective in loving those that remain with us. This was the path chosen by Jesus – to continue loving even through death. Even more, Jesus chose to love Death itself. Death is a darkness, a separation that divides. The sun poured its energy into Jesus as he died on the cross, piercing Death’s realm with light. From that moment, as promised in Revelation, those that “die in the Lord” go to rest, their good deeds following them. They are shown, by the light of Jesus, the path to the Realm of Peace.
We measure our Christianity, then, not by knowledge of Scripture that justifies control over others, but by our devotion to Love. That is witnessed by our toleration for variety and support for collaboration. Judge your politics accordingly.
So then, to explain my bafflement in the face of the pastor’s proposal: I Live in Love. What in the name of all that is Holy is a Catholic priest doing using fear of death to proselytize? To rely upon death as an inducement is to honor and worship Death. Having chosen Life, I was – to say the least – unimpressed.