O Death…

Due to the juxtaposition of certain events, I have recently been contemplating life, death, and the eternities.

My only nephew, Ethan, successfully hit the 18 month mark. Ethan’s mother, my sister Erin, anounced that she was again expecting. My maternal grandmother died unexpectedly. My brother Hugh returned from a mission. Missions have always seemed like microcosms to me. A missionary is “born,” learns and grows, has specific purposes to fulfill, and then (much like Grandma) “dies” and joyfully returns home.

With these events on my mind, I have asked myself several questions. Is this life all there is? How am I handling my “probation” ? What am I doing with my time? Am I fulfilling God’s purposes for me? (The Oracle says, “we’re all here to do, what we’re all here to do.”) When I am “released” will I look back on my life feeling like a servant who has been true and faithful? Or as someone who simply passed the time? (As my first mission president would say, “That man’s not a missionary, he’s a tourist!”)

Hugh Nibley would say my thinking has become eschatological, though only temporarily. See his parable here.

I derive some comfort from the imagery of the Hebrew Bible. In the ANE and Israel, death, the grave, and hell [sheol which refers to the abode of departed spirits, but may also mean “place of questioning,” or judgement] were frequently personified. Jacob three times refers to “that awful monster, death and hell [presumably sheol] and the devil” (2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26). Death swallowed people alive, dragging them down to sheol (Proverbs 1:12). Death’s appetite could not be satiated (Pro. 27:20, Habbakuk 2:5). “Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure; the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and all who exult in her.” (Isaiah 5:14, NRSV)

Grim, isn’t it?

Yet, in one of my favorite passages, Isaiah reverses the imagery. “[The LORD] will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:8-9)

Death, who swallows us alive, shall himself be swallowed up. In what I read as a millenial passage, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Until these things pass away, what am I doing with my time?

6 comments for “O Death…

  1. Kaimi
    July 26, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    Very nice thoughts.

    I suspect that the reversal isn’t quite a true reverse image. Satan (sort of) wins on this Earth; death takes us all; the glory of this Earth passes away. (Cf. Ozymandias).

    But this world turns out not to matter so much, which is how death is vanquished.

    It’s the theme of 1 Cor. 15:19-22:

    19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

    20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.

  2. July 26, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    A: blogging away at T&S.

  3. Hellmut Lotz
    July 26, 2004 at 6:54 pm

    The great thing about monotheism is that man and woman have been created in God’s image. The great thing about the account of the fall is that it helps us appreciate human suffering. The great thing about Christianity is that God became man and suffered like a man . . . before he triumphed over death.
    Modernity is addicted to the myth of progress. Religion helps us to appreciate suffering as a part of our life. We suffer but we preserve our divine heritage regardless.

  4. john fowles
    July 26, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    The Lord swallows up death through the resurrection, which is given unconditionally to all, regardless of the works done in the physical body. So the sting of death, although it remains, is ameliorated, and the grave’s victory is swallowed up.

    Because the above is unconditional, you don’t have to worry about how you are spending your time here to enjoy them. Even the depraved child molesting murders whom our society spares their just punishment will receive this unconditional gift. The interesting thing is the utility of this unconditional resurrection, which leads also to what should be the real focus of your question. The reason that all resurrect is so that we can all stand before God in the flesh to be judged according to our works (e.g. Alma 33:22). The higher purpose in that proceeding is then to grant unto us the estate that we are ready to endure based on the moral state we voluntarily chose to assume during mortality. So as to your question, death and the grave might pass away, but that will be of far less comfort to those whose works have been evil or disobedient while in mortality. In essence, then, far from not mattering, the earthly probation is of infinite value, and looking back, it will be a source of infinite regret or infinite gratitude, depending on what we chose to do while here. So when you ask what you are doing with your time until these things (death and the grave) pass away, hopefully your focus is not on death or the grave but on the conditional aspect of the Atonement and how you are preparing yourself for that part.

    As such, it seems that for Latter-day Saints, the answer should be that we are obtaining an “accurate consciousness of self,” which we have discussed on another thread. In reflection upon what was discussed regarding introspection and an “examined faith” over there, I have come to see that any accurate consciousness of self in the Gospel sense needs to be connected to our humility and capacity to repent.

    And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye; for a man sometimes, if he is compelled to be humble, seeketh repentance; and now surely, whosoever repenteth shall find mercy; and he that findeth mercy and endureth to the end the same shall be saved. (Alma 32:13)

    If we spend time gaining an accurate consciousness of self by fostering humility, faith, and the works that are the natural product of both and which serve as objective measures in our case before the judgment bar of God, then we are making proper use of our mortal probation. Part of that process, perhaps, is overcoming the temporary type of eschatalogical thinking and replacing it with a more permanent, enduring vision of what is really important in the Plan of Salvation.

  5. john fowles
    July 26, 2004 at 7:03 pm

    Hellmut: Modernity is addicted to the myth of progress. Religion helps us to appreciate suffering as a part of our life. We suffer but we preserve our divine heritage regardless.

    The “myth” of progress and the capacity of religion to help us appreciate suffering as part of our life are not mutually exclusive. As Latter-day Saints, we believe in eternal progression; thus, for us, progress is not a myth at all. But we realize that we have to endure our afflictions well in the framework of this progression because it influences our moral development.

    As for “monotheism,” I think it’s not too controversial to say that Latter-day Saints aren’t really monotheistic.

  6. July 26, 2004 at 11:00 pm

    John Fowles: Latter-day Saints certainly believe in eternal progression, but I’m not convinced that the progression we have in mind is the same as the progress assumed by modernity which, in general, makes technological progress the sine qua non of progress: we are more advanced than Adam because we have such nifty toys.

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