Developing a Theological Thanatology


Let’s just face facts for a moment.

 

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH DEATH

 

Isn’t that a crazy thought? We embrace a future and hopeful orientation. How could such an outlook ignore perhaps the most important milestone that each of us go through in the path into the future– death?  Let me give a few anecdotal evidences of this:

 

  • So many Christian books written on the Rapture. Considering that the Pre-Trib conception of Rapture is Biblically shaky at best,  it really makes one wonder why there are any books on this topic at all.  If there were 1000 books on Rapture, there should be 100,000 books on death— a certain concept and the most likely end of this part of our existence for the vast majority of potential readers.
  • So many books and websites trying to identify the day and hour of the return of Christ. I know so many people who pray that Christ will return really really soon. Why? Not sure. If one really wants to leave this earth before God is done reaching out with mercy to mankind, one should find solace that we are very much mortal and can leave well before God is finished with what he is doing.  If it is true that Christ can return any day, it is equally certain that our heart could stop in any second.
  • I have talked to a number of Evangelicals who lost a loved one. I would ask the surviving partner if he or she had talked to the other about death,  preparing for death, and addressing issues of the family after death. On several occasions the answer was something akin to “No we never talked about death. We always talked about how God was going to heal even up to the last moments.” That actually makes me a bit sad. I hope I can embrace death when the time draws near and help my family to embrace my passing as well. But if the one dying chooses to live in denial— that is their right, it should be honored I think.
  • I had been a member of a church that would pray over and over again for people to be healed. When someone got better, members would praise God. When someone died… SILENCE. No reflection on it… Did God fail? Did we fail? Is our theological perspective on death faulty? Is death a natural inevitable part of life? There was absolutely no reflection. That pastor told me that Filipinos don’t like to think about sad or difficult things. I have not seen this to be true… but I could be wrong.
  • Over the years denominations have struggled strangely with connecting Resurrection with their “Christian burial.” Does cremation (or aquamation or “natural burial” or mummification or enbalming) serve as a good or necessary Christian death or does it somehow desecrate the body. Does it draw into question resurrection or affirm it or have no relationship positive or negative to it at all. Does one need to be planted in sanctified soil or mausoleum? <I recall someone asking the former President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when he visited the Philippines his thoughts on cremation. He stated that theologically speaking there is nothing wrong with cremation. However, then he went on for maybe 5 or 10 minutes explaining how burial of an uncremated body treats the body as more “sacred” than other methods. I really think he should have stopped after his first statement. The rest did not make any sense as far as I could see. Are worms and bacteria more dignified and sacred, really?>

 

I don’t know… maybe it is just me… but I think Christians need to have a better understanding of death.

 

 

 

 

  • Death is a natural, normal part of the living process.
  • Death is not a failure. It may be a result of The Curse, but it is not necessarily itself a curse.
  • Statistically speaking (and historically speaking) the most likely way that Christians have ceased and (presumably) will cease their  corporeal functioning on earth is through the stopping of the heart rather than being called up into the clouds.
  • It is healthy to talk about death in the family.
  • We need to realize that praying for someone to recover from an illness, prolonging the death process, may not only be acting in opposition to God’s will (one of the few things that we know is God’s will for everyone is that we die) but it may also be cruel. I could be wrong, but I think that if I was near death and struggling, it would be a comfort to have loved ones around me and affirming that it okay if I let go.
  • While many say that we should not speak ill of the dead, we do in fact speak ill of them when we lie about them. People are a strange combination of good and bad… of joy and pain… of the transcendent and the mundane. The dead deserve a gentle truth-telling (and perhaps even moreso the living). <I was thinking that it was Robert Heinlein who described a role in future funerals where a person would deeply study a deceased person’s life and then share it, warts and all, at the funeral. It was seen as honoring and cathartic. Maybe it was Orson Scott Card, not Heinlein. Card wrote a book called “Speaker for the Dead.” Maybe that was it.>
  • Funerals and burials are still a place where secular people often draw on religion or at least religious rituals of passage as a coping aid. As such, the church should come up with better ways to address this important transition more reflectively than “Oh good. We can plug a gospel presentation to this group of trapped grievers!”
  • We need to find ways to express our faith but also honor the cultures we are in.

 

I was raised up in farming country where we understand all too well that our survival comes from the death of animals and plants, and that death is part of a very normal and healthy life cycle. My father (although professionally an engineer) served as the sexton for our community cemetery. I helped out there. He was also a bit of a local genealogist and would spend freetime often visiting cemeteries to record data from headstones, as well as digging up census data to work out family trees. I would help him maintain the cemetery and once or twice even helped dig a grave. Although my connection with death is not overly deep, it is strong enough for me to realize that a body (embalmed or not) in the ground would need to be resurrected through miraculous means every bit as powerful as that needed to resurrect cremains, aquamation remains, mummified remains and the like.

 

Anyway, don’t want to drag this out too far. But as Christians we need Theological Thanatology.

 

Thanatology is “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.”

 

But we need a theological Thanatology that is systematic, practical, and pastoral. And it should not be hidden in the confines of dusty library shelves, or seminary lecture halls. It should be practiced in the presence of death and dying, and taught in the churches.

 

<I noticed that the Youtube Channel “Ask a Mortician” has several hundred thousand subscribers. While she does do a good job of coming up with interesting topics to pull in “death enthusiasts,” I can’t help but think that part of her appeal is that she answers the questions that people avoid talking about, and normalizes a process that many are trained to think of as abnormal.>

2 thoughts on “Developing a Theological Thanatology

  1. Alvin Bragg

    Hello Bob, We certainly need to accept death as part of the curse on sin, but I would fail to see your reasoning that that there should be more books written about death than on the blessed hope of the rapture. Jesus certainly emphasized that He was the way , truth and life. I’m not quite sure where you’re finding all the books written on setting the “”hour or day” of the rapture . There were about three that I can remember reading and they soon became laughing stocks. It also doesn’t seem to me that the rapture is “biblical shaky at best”. If it is, then a lot of us have been fed shaky doctrine by some great Bible scholars over the past 100 years. Most Christians don’t like to talk about death, but that’s probably a natural reaction. It’s had for me to see death an any other way than a curse give as the result of sin. You’re right that it become the final release from the pain and suffering of this life, but it’s still a curse …There is a verse that says death is the last curse that God will remove. (1 Cor 15:26) It appears that it is abolished in the eternal state. Our emphasis should be on the offer of eternal life. Death is only a period at the end of this physical life.Some of us may not even experience it (1 Cor.15:52) —PS: I am not wanting to debate anything, but you did ask for comments. Maranatha! – Alvin

    1. I don’t think we have much to argue about. You are Pre-Trib while I HOPE Pre-Trib is true. You see death as a curse and I see it as a result of the curse. And you and I may not totally agree which books should be more common in a Christian bookstore. I think we don’t have much to argue about (as long as we stay away from discussing American politics).

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