The meaning of death
Books | Sorting out our significance as image-bearers
by Matthew McCullough
Posted 6/08/19, 10:31 am
Matthew McCullough in Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope asks, “How can you enjoy anything about life if you know that, in the end, the more you love something the more it will hurt when you lose it?” Buddhists say the answer is non-attachment to anyone and anything. McCullough shows how Christians can see that bid for support and raise it through Christ’s promise of eternal life. I hope you’ll benefit from the following excerpt, courtesy of Crossway Books.
Remember Death was an honorable mention selection for WORLD’s 2018 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category. —Marvin Olasky
The Problem of Identity and the Promise of Union with Christ
Ivan Ilych thought he was too important to die. He was wrong, and so are we.
Ivan Ilych is the title character in one of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous short stories, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” in which Tolstoy offers a powerful picture of how death exposes and demolishes our default self-centeredness.1 When we first meet Ivan, his life is at its peak. He has a fine position at the Court of Justice. He’s healthy, well-liked, wealthy, and successful. Mortality is far from his mind.
On one level, Ivan had learned the certainty of death in grammar school with a simple syllogism: Caius is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Caius is mortal. He has no trouble acknowledging the reality of death-in-general. He just can’t see death as part of his reality. To Ivan all of that was well and good for Caius, but that’s Caius. That’s not Ivan. Caius was some abstraction. Ivan’s life was so concrete, so unique. “What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius?” Of course Caius had to die. But “for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter.”2
Ivan can’t imagine how a life like his, with such specific and unique and irreplaceable consciousness, could simply vanish. Then one day while Ivan is cleaning a window in his home, standing on a tall ladder, he slips and falls, suffering a mysterious injury that leads slowly but relentlessly toward his death. From this point most of the action takes place in his own head, as he comes to grips with what is happening to him. As his condition grows worse and worse, he realizes that practically no one cares about what is happening to him. He has become an inconvenience to family and friends. They have to break from their normal lives to visit him, and when they do, they talk about anything but what’s happening to his body. Mostly he just lies there, alone and dying, listening to the sounds of his family—those to whom he thought he was too special to die—carrying on their lives without him.
As with the healthy Ivan Ilych, death feels to us like something that happens to other people. Our own death is unimaginable. It seems as if the world can’t keep going without us. But the harsh reality of death tells another story. Death makes a statement about each of us: you are not too important to die. I want to help us feel the weight of death’s challenge to who we are so that we can see the beauty and power of how God redefines us in Jesus. Otherwise, so long as death remains someone else’s problem, Jesus will remain someone else’s Savior.
Death Humbles Us: I Am Not Too Important to Die
It helps to recognize what death says about us if we think for a moment about what we say about ourselves, at least subconsciously. There’s a narcissism in each of us that tells us the world can’t go on without us.
Sigmund Freud argued that “in the unconscious each one of us is convinced of his immortality.” If asked about it, of course we’d acknowledge we will die like everyone else. We would admit that the world will keep on spinning once we’re gone. But imagine for a moment what your world would look like a week after you’ve died. What do you see? Perhaps your loved ones grieving, finding ways to cope without you? A fickle friend wishing he’d been nicer to you? Coworkers finally realizing they depended on you more than they ever knew? What you imagine isn’t really the point. The point is that whatever you see, you’re still the one seeing. When you try to imagine yourself as dead, you’re still there, still surviving, as a spectator. So, Freud suggested, “Fundamentally no one believes in his own death.”3
What Freud is getting at is that the world only exists for us as it is seen by us. It exists because we’re here to see it and relate to it. Which is to say that, though we may not admit to it, at least subconsciously the world exists with us at its center. To shift the metaphor a bit, we’re the sun around which everything else revolves.
In my world, though my mind concedes that Nashville has been around for more than two centuries, Nashville exists as my home. That’s how I see it and relate to it. In a similar way, southwest Alabama exists as the place where I grew up. The Gulf Coast exists as a place I go with my family on vacation. And speaking of my family, Lindsey exists as my wife, Walter, Sam, and Benjamin exist as my children, and so on and so forth. You get the idea. We instinctively place ourselves at the center of things, and those things get their identity from how they relate to us. We can’t imagine our death because we can’t imagine anything without ourselves at the center.
Here’s another way to put this idea: we all see ourselves as the lead character in the story of the world. In a book or a movie that tells the story of one central figure, other characters get their identity based on how they relate to the lead character. They fill their purpose as they weave into the story of the hero.
Take Robin Hood, for example. He’s clearly the center of all the classic stories about him. Other characters set him up for the things he does. The king and the nobles are the ones from whom he steals money. The Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain, the one who tries to capture him and serves as the butt of his jokes. Little John, Friar Tuck, and the rest of the merry men are his friends, secondary characters who bring out his humor and help him when he’s in trouble. Marion is the maiden who gives him someone to love and to rescue. All the characters get their roles from how they relate to Robin Hood.
Now, what we know about central characters is that they’re too important to kill off. Other characters may come and go. Their deaths may even help to develop the story of the hero. They may give him reasons to grieve, or to feel regret, or to seek vengeance. But the hero can’t die. If the hero dies, the story can’t go on.
At least subconsciously, each one of us sees himself as the protagonist apart from which the story of the world can’t go on. That’s what Freud meant when he said we’re all convinced of our own immortality. We see ourselves as indispensable. And this is the self-identification that death so ruthlessly exposes for foolishness. This is where death is so humbling. Death tells us we are not indispensable. We are not too important to die.
Not only will the world keep going without us—eventually we won’t be remembered at all. The church I pastor meets just off the campus of a major university. Like similar colleges around the world, the campus is full of buildings named for indispensable people. A couple of years ago one of them was bulldozed to make room for a new facility bearing a new indispensable name. Here was a man influential enough to have a building named after him, a building that housed tens of thousands of students over the years, and yet I wonder, who remembers him now? I’m an alumnus and can’t even remember the name on the building much less anything about who he was.
If that is true of a man who was important enough to have a building named after him, what about the rest of us? I think of the thousands upon thousands of native Americans who lived and died for century after century along the Harpeth River valley near my home. They left no written testimony. We know they existed because they left arrowheads, shards of pottery, scraps of bone. Their burial mounds dot the landscape near the river. We know they existed. But no one knows them as people. As fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. As people. In a sense, it’s like they never existed.
At some point, especially as you age, you must come to realize what Ivan Ilych did. Oblivion isn’t just something that happened to someone else. It’s happening to me, now. This awareness breaks into my consciousness every now and then with no discernible rhyme or reason. It hit me one day while driving with my oldest son that I didn’t know my grandfather’s father’s name. My son asked me what it was, and I couldn’t remember. That may not seem like a big deal at first blush, but consider the implications. My grandfather was a huge influence on my life. We named our oldest son after him. And my grandfather’s father was surely a greater influence on his life than my grandfather had been in mine. But I couldn’t remember his name. Now think forward a few steps. There’s a good chance my son will have grandkids. Hopefully they will be precious to him, and he to them. But even if they are close to their grandfather (my son), they likely won’t remember my name. It isn’t only that they won’t know what I was like, what I enjoyed, what others thought of me, what I accomplished, whom I loved—they won’t even know my name. I won’t be remembered by my own descendants in one hundred years.
Death Disorients Us: So How Important Am I?
The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.
Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?
Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is. Besides an organic mass that eats, sleeps, reproduces, and decomposes, who am I? What is the value of a life that doesn’t even exist as someone’s memory? So I’m not too important to die. Maybe I can accept that much. But if I’m dispensable, how important am I? Maybe I can see that the world doesn’t revolve around me, but is it indifferent to me altogether?
How Genesis Explains the Absurd
What does death have to do with our identity? Death humbles us, and death disorients us. Death tells us that we are not too important to die, that no one is indispensable. And with that statement death confronts us with what Ernest Becker frames as our terrifying dilemma: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”4
There is a massive disconnect between what we feel about ourselves and what death implies about who we are. For Camus the disconnect is absurd. For Becker it’s a dreadful dilemma. But for the Bible this disconnect goes right to the heart of death’s origin and purpose. Death is not the natural end to a merely biological life. Death is an intrusion into the perfect world of the Creator designed by that same Creator to make a point. Death is a punishment for human pride. It exposes our foolish confidence in our freedom to be whoever we want to be.
Genesis explains the absurd by the twists and turns of a compelling story. Chapter 1 of Genesis opens with a beautiful poem, almost a hymn to the Creator, describing God as the only reason that anything exists.5 The world and everything in it exists because, in the beginning, when only God was, God created the heavens and the earth by his word (Gen. 1:1, 3). As the hymn unfolds, we follow him as he brings order and purpose from what was formless and void (1:2). He separates light from darkness and regulates both (1:4–5). He separates heaven from earth and then land from sea (1:6–10). Then he populates what he’s ordered, filling up what was empty (1:11–25). He gives the sun, moon, and stars to distinguish darkness and light. He puts fish in the sea and birds in the air. He fills the land with plants and animals. Everything about this poem is meant to show God’s creative power, his unrelenting purpose, and his absolute sovereignty. He speaks, and what he says happens, every time. Even the structure of the poem, and the symbolism of its words and numbers, points to the completeness of what God made. Everything was as he wanted it. Each stanza concludes with his benediction: he looked and saw that it was good (1:10, 12, 18, 21–25).
Genesis 1 celebrates God’s absolute responsibility for everything that is, but this hymn also celebrates the unique dignity of humanity. The progression of the stanzas builds to the creation of man and woman, like the highest peak in a range of mountains. With the account of man and woman, the form of the passage shifts dramatically (1:26–31). Where preceding descriptions follow a tight formula, with rhythmic and repetitive language, with the man and woman the pattern is replaced by deliberation, fuller description, and even a kind of poem within the poem.
All creation testifies to God’s beauty, creativity, and power. But humanity reflects him in an altogether unique way. Only the man and woman are created in his own image (Gen. 1:26). God looks with pleasure on every piece of his handiwork. At the end of each day, after every unique piece, he saw that it was good. But only over the man and the woman God pronounces his happiness: very good (1:31). And though the Scriptures tell us that every part of his world does his bidding, humanity alone receives God’s commission to rule over and cultivate the creation on his behalf (1:26, 28).
Genesis 1 tells us that the dignity we feel is not an illusion. It isn’t merely self-congratulation. According to the Bible, we were made to feel and to embrace the sanctity of human life. The fact that we’re outraged by Auschwitz but hire cockroach exterminators isn’t hypocrisy. It isn’t boldfaced speciesism. It stems from the fact that human beings have a preciousness to their lives that cockroaches don’t have. This is at the core of biblical anthropology, and it’s the message of Genesis 1–2.
This perspective also explains why death is such an appalling, even unbelievable affront to what we know about ourselves. We sense the unique value of each human life. We’re not merely interchangeable members of a set. Every person has memories, experiences, beliefs, affections, relationships, and all the rest that makes you you. In that sense every person is irreplaceable and sacred. How can that irreplaceable you simply be erased? It is a dreadful, mind-boggling, heartbreaking idea. And it feels dreadful to us, the Bible says, not because we’re hardwired to overestimate our own value but because our instincts about human significance are mostly correct.
Mostly correct—an all-important qualifier. The Genesis account of our creation makes crystal clear another truth about human identity that is more difficult for us to accept. The dignity we feel is not an illusion. That much is true. But the dignity we possess—like the air we breathe—comes to us as a gift, undeserved, by the God who made us. It is always and only his image we bear. It is his Word alone that calls us very good. And it is his world we’ve been allowed to enjoy and charged to cultivate.
The death of every human is meaningful and tragic, theologian Helmut Thielicke says, because “it impinges upon an infinite and irreplaceable value. Something unique comes to an end.” But according to Genesis, human lives “are unique and irreplaceable only under the Word.” Our dignity is always and only what Thielicke calls an “alien dignity.”6 It covers us because God says so, but it’s never fully ours. It belongs to God, and it’s applied to us.
Content taken from Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
1. Leo Tolstoy, like so many other great fiction writers, was a man preoccupied by death throughout his life. He described his work as his attempt to compensate for his mortality, to create something meaningful that would overcome the power of his death. Death shows up in memorable ways throughout his work. For examples and a good introduction to the theme, see Mary Beard, “Facing Death with Tolstoy,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/facing-death-with-tolstoy. For the following discussion I found the analysis of Victor Brombert very helpful: Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 13–24.
2. Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” in The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 280.
3. Sigmund Freud, “Timely Reflections on War and Death,” in On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, trans. Shaun Whiteside (New York: Penguin, 2005), 183.
4. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), 26.
5. For the following discussion of Genesis 1–3, I depend on insights from Allen Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998); Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001); Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 (1987; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
6. Helmut Thielicke, Living with Death (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 152. For a fuller development of a similar argument, see Richard Lints’s excellent and comprehensive account of the Bible’s teaching on human identity in the image of God: Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015). Lints argues, “Human identity is rooted in what it reflects” (30).
Matthew is pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tenn.