HOW SHOULD WE BEST SERVE THE DYING AND BEREAVED?

Introduction

The concept of death and dying takes on different roles in different cultures, families, and beliefs. This makes serving dying persons or bereaved very difficult and subjective. Biblical thanatology will be the focus of this essay. Thanatology is “the branch of knowledge that deals with dying, death, and bereavement.”[1] This treatise will cultivate a theological plan for ministry that serves the dying and bereaved from a theological foundation rooted in scripture, doctrine, and philosophy of life that embraces Christian truth in the face of the realities of a thanatological worldview.

Theological Foundations

Sufficient and honorable Christian ministry needs to be rooted in biblical truth. Thanatology ministry is even more so; not because it is more important than other ministries but because it deals with the hardest aspects of life: death. This has been scientifically studied and shown that “death anxiety is clearly a central feature of health anxiety and may also play a significant role in other anxiety disorders.”[2] Therefore to have a healthy view of death and dying means to succumb to theological doctrines involving death embedded in biblical scripture.

Physical death begins at birth. We are born to a physical body and that body is bound by the limitations of this world. In essence, we are born to die. This is due to the fall of Adam in the book of Genesis; most commonly referred to as original sin. “Original sin is the propensity to sin that affects all human beings as a result of Adam’s fall. While this propensity is not simply an act of the will, it has the character of sin and does not serve as an excuse for actual sins.”[3] Therefore as sin was introduced into the world, our physical bodies are under the wrath of God and guaranteed to eventually die.

A key passage for this is in the book of  Romans:  “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—  for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law” (Romans 5:12-13 ESV)[4]. Here, Paul gives two vital points; one is a causal effect, and the other is eschatological.  

Verse twelve shows the comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ. Each brings their own causal agent to mankind; Adam brought sin which harbingers in death to all humanity. The keyword here comes: “‘Came’ is diēlthen, literally ‘passed or went through’ or ‘spread through.’ Eisēlthen, ‘entered into’ (the first clause in the verse) means that sin went in the world’s front door (through Adam’s sin); and diēlthen, ‘went through,’ means that death penetrated the entire human race, like a vapor permeating all of a house’s rooms.”[5] When interpreting this passage, the original Greek is important to the hermeneutical conclusions. Adam brought sin which created death. It is our sin, which all men/women are guilty of that causes death, primarily our own, in the world.

Verse thirteen is rather difficult to interpret but stands as another metaphor for Christ’s salvation. Just as sin was in the world before the law, and death due to sin, it could not be measured unto the law before Moses received the Law at Sinai. “But technically it was not charged to our account as sin because there was no law to define it. One cannot break a law that does not exist. Nevertheless, death, the consequence of sin, was in effect from Adam until Moses, even for those who did not break a specific command like Adam’s.” [6] It is this type of pattern that Adams stands analogous to the relationship between sin and salvation.[7]

However, sin has been overcome by Jesus Christ with his work on the cross. “Central to the Christian faith is the belief that death has been destroyed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; not just death in general, but the death of every person who ‛belongs’ to Christ through saving faith.”[8]  A key passage that ties theological themes for our death and resurrection with Christ can be found in the book of Corinthians.

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 ESV).[9]

This passage by the Apostle Paul paints a stark theological milieu of how we, as Christians, should view death.

One of the key components of this passage is how Paul uses the term “firstfruits;” an illusion to the Jewish Feast of Firstfruits in Leviticus 23:10. This is meant metaphorically to present Christ’s resurrection as a firstfruit or example of the future resurrection of all believers that he goes on to explain in 1 Corinthians 15:35-57.[10] He is laying the foundation of death overcome by faith in the life and personage of Jesus Christ. Those who follow him in death will undoubtedly follow him in the resurrection. Death then, by proxy, is a discipleship passage into victory. “Christ is the ‛first fruits’ of those who have died (fallen asleep), and as such, guarantees to all who belong to him that they too shall be raised.”[11] This passage begins with resurrection as our firstfruits but moves into the culmination and reasoning for death itself. Another way of theorizing it is that death is necessary to usher in the Kingdom of God. Believers need and should welcome, physical death in order to fully live in the manifested eternal Kingdom of God. Christ initiated it with his firstfruit death and resurrection that will ultimately bring the end of time itself and His eternal reign.[12]

Another key element of this passage is its significance to life after physical death. James Gunn writes:

The subject is not simply “the resurrection,” but “the resurrection of the dead.” That it is “the dead” who are in view is repeated no less than thirteen times in 15:12-52. So clearly what was in dispute was what happened after death and to the dead. This in itself provides a major clarification of the issue at stake, at least to the extent that it shifts the focus away from any thought of resurrection as all ready to be experienced in this life.[13]

This passage clearly shows Paul’s intent that the church in Corinth, and therefore all believers, should accept the inevitability of physical death while looking hopefully toward the Kingdom of God ushered in by the end of all things. Paul ends this passage with the destruction of death itself.  It is time itself, which is the main component of death that Jesus destroys, making our resurrected beings eternally in community with the triune Lord.

This places the believer in a stronger position than non-believers in that death, although inevitable, has been rendered defeated (2 Tim 1:10) in that salvation through faith, by grace (Eph 2:8), gives eternal life (John 6:47) to everyone who calls upon His name (Acts 2:21).  This is the foundation of hope for the anxiety of death and dying that all believers should understand when considering pastoral ministry in thanatology.

Denial

Denial is the main obstacle to pastoral thanatology. The pervasive and persistent nature of denial among individuals, families, congregations, other organizations, and even the structures and systems to whom we delegate care for the dying and bereaved is a pernicious evil that perpetuates itself on humanity. It is vital to recognize and confront said evil with biblical doctrine, practical education, and pastoral care. “To confront human mortality is a basic human need. Any theology that ignored death would be inadequate, and any philosophy of life that avoided providing an answer to death, superficial.”[14] The key here is proactive solutions.

First and foremost is the recognition that denial is evil. It is rooted in the biblical narrative and a vast weapon of the enemy. In Genesis three we are first introduced to denial with the nachash. “The Hebrew word used here, nachash, means “snake” or “serpent.” The Hebrew word satan does not appear in this passage, but the New Testament associates the events recorded here with Satan (Rev 12:9; 20:2).”[15] The serpent introduces sin into the world through temptation by persuading Eve to deny God. In essence, disobedience through denial is the first sin. Throughout the Old Testament, and New Testament, humanity falls, sins, and disobeys through the process of denial. It is the ancient curse that still permeates the world today in pop culture, politics, and even the Church. The first council of Jerusalem recorded in Act fifteen stemmed over denial of gentile worship alongside Jewish worship into Christianity. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was based on denying the deity of Christ. Denial has been at the forefront of evil in and around humanity from the inception of the fall.

Recognizing the theological implication of denial should move the pastoral thanatologist to hold a proactive stance against death and dying education. In contrast to current methods, ministries should be implemented to educate the populace on how to combat death and dying with healthy living and optimism toward the dying process. “People fear death because they have no positive vision of the afterlife. Christian martyrs, who often died painful deaths, did not fear death because they were convinced that they would be sustained by Christ and would be with him in heaven.”[16] As we saw earlier, with a righteous view of the afterlife, educating believers on impending doom and gloom scenarios should be met with hope, victory, optimism, and praise to God.

Scientific death denial case studies have shown:

By enabling practitioners to deepen their understanding of clients’ being-towards-death, and in learning to recognize how clients may deny their mortality and slip back into inauthentic being, therapists will be more able to understand how clients employ differing immortality projects, the more dysfunctional and least anxiety repressing of which result in poor mental health.[17]

Practical education in and out of the Church that focuses on the inevitability of death and ways of acceptance coupled with proper planning can ensure a shift in social death anxiety. Paradoxically, death should be met with joy and thanksgiving. 

Lastly, dealing with denial should always be handled (from a ministerial position) with humility, care, and love. Pastor care for the dying or bereaved will be paramount in times of anguish and grief. Pastoral counseling for those who struggle with denial should mimic that of Jesus Christ. His example of how he ministered to others serves as the model for helping people through the various stages of denial. Ultimately, He sought to help others through this journey of life.[18]

Direct Caregiving

Dealing directly with the congregants or faith community needs to take into account cultural, theological, and pragmatic occasionality to serve both God and the participants in this troubling time. It is important not to compromise our foundations already outlined in this treatise in order to expedite or placate the situation.

As for ritualistic needs or traditional desires of the departed or families; it is best to allow them to take as much part in the decision-making process as possible. Best practices should allow for leniency in ritual as long as it does not dilute or refute the Gospel.

Pragmatically, for this author, the ritualistic or traditional situations provide a great deal of opportunity for nuance and originality. Worshipping outside of denominational control affords a great deal of freedom that orthodox religions cannot. If the family wishes for an orthodox service then so be it; however, if working outside the rigid channels of tradition is allowed, then Godspeed.

                           Ars Moriendi      

The art of dying is an early fifteenth-century term composed of two related Latin texts which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to “die well” according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. The philosophy behind this is both genuine and naive. It lacks the fundamentals of God’s sovereign reign and his will for us on earth.

Theologically, a good death is never guaranteed. Our desire for that might be pure and well-intentioned but as the biblical narrative has shown us; good men/women have (and will) suffer terribly due to the great sin that is in the world. Peter lines this out in his epistle: “For it is better to suffer for doing good if that should be God’s will than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). Peter exhorts the saints to accept suffrage as long as it is ordained by God. Good people will suffer, the Bible assures it. After all, the one person who should have been spared from suffering is the only perfect person to roam the earth, Jesus Christ, and he suffered horribly at the hands of others. Peters addresses this: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18). If Christ could suffer for our evil, then anyone should accept his/her fate that he/she might have to die a terrible death knowing that God will reconcile us to him in the end; “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10-11). God has His will and His accomplishments will come to pass. All believers should know this, accept it, and pray for his/her role in God’s divine providence, which might include a dysthanasia scenario. There is no such thing as dying well, only the hope to pass in peace. In the meantime, “what is essential in a good death, from a Christian point of view, is dying into God.”[19]

Ramification

The potential for societal influences on thanatology is astronomical abundant and tolerable. Cultural ties, medical organizations (innovations), and political agendas have encroached on pastoral thanatology for decades.[20] It is not going to cease, and the Church needs to learn to work alongside these causes as best as can be allowed and fight them ardently when theologically permissible. It is not the place of the Church to work outside of the law or have its hand in the governmental or organizational overthrow. Our focus is on Christ and the soul of humanity; our reward is at death, not the fight against death.

Conclusion

The world is dark, and life is fraught with struggle and death. Pastoral thanatology should not be naive or misperceived about this truth.  Our ability to minister to death and dying should be undergirded with prayer and worship. This worship in God should point to the fact that – contrary to our immediate experience of mourning the dead or serving the dying – has defeated death already.[21] Therefore, the best way to serve the dying or bereaved is the same way we serve the living; with steadfast love and forbearance, rooted in biblical truth, in the person and works of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and savior.

Bibliography

Anderson, Ray Sherman. Theology, Death, and Dying. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Barry, John D. NIV Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Carini, Joel B, and Mark Ward. Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.

Collins, Gary R. Christian Counseling: a Comprehensive Guide. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Dunn, James D G. “How Are the Dead Raised? with What Body Do They Come? Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (2002): 4–18. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001499085&site=eds-live.

Furer, Patricia, and John R. Walker. “Death Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach.” Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy 22, no. 2 (2008): 167–82. https://doi.org/10.1891/0889-8391.22.2.167.

Masci, David. “To End Our Days.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, January 16, 2019. https://www.pewforum.org/2013/11/21/to-end-our-days/.

Moll, Rob. The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Mounce, Robert H. The New American Commentary: Romans. Vol. 27. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1995.

Nichols, Terence L. Death, and Afterlife: a Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010.

Vahrmeyer, Mark, and Simon Cassar. “The Paradox of Finitude in the Context of Infinitude: Is Death Denial an Essential Aspect of Being in the World?” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis 28, no. 1 (January 2017): 151–65. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=121150872&site=eds-live.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck, and John A. Witmer. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. an Exposition of the Scriptures. Vol. 2. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

Wright, H. Norman. The Complete Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling: What to Do and Say When It Matters Most! Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2014.

Footnotes:

[1] Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 466.

[2] Patricia Furer and John R. Walker, “Death Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach,” Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy 22, no. 2 (2008): pp. 167-182, https://doi.org/10.1891/0889-8391.22.2.167.

[3] Joel B. Carini, “Original Sin,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from The Holy Bible English Standard Version.

[5] John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 458.

[6] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 142–143.

[7] Ibid, 142 – 143.

[8] Ray S. Anderson, Theology, Death and Dying (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 82.

[10] John D. Barry, Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 1 Co 15:20.

[11] Ray S. Anderson, Theology, Death and Dying (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 44.

[12] Portions of this section were taken from week three assignment titled Death Theology.

[13] James D G Dunn, “How Are the Dead Raised? with What Body Do They Come?: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (2002): pp. 4-18, https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001499085&site=eds-live.

[14] Ray S. Anderson, Theology, Death and Dying (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 1.

[15] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Ge 3:1.

[16] Terence Nichols, Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 10.

[17] Mark Vahrmeyer and Simon Cassar, “The Paradox of Finitude in the Context of Infinitude: Is Death Denial an Essential Aspect of Being in the World?,” Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis 28, no. 1 (January 2017): pp. 151-165.

[18] H. Norman Wright, The Complete Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling: What to Do and Say When It Matters Most! (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2011), 17.

[19] Terence Nichols, Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 186–187.

[20] David Masci, “To End Our Days,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, January 16, 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2013/11/21/to-end-our-days/.

[21] Rob Moll and Lauren Winner, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2013).

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