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“Death Is the Cause of Sin”: Rethinking Christianity and Palliative Care

Dying for Life Book Review

When I was assigned to a hospice and palliative care unit for my practicum, I did not know what “palliative” meant, or how my first unit of Clinical Psychospiritual Education would change me. Although my previous work in youth ministries and education focused on encouraging teens to plan their futures, I was now required to shift my attention to the end of life. Navigating this unfamiliar field of medicine has allowed me to learn from palliative doctors, such as J Stephen Mitchinson, and after reading his book, Dying For Life: How Jesus’ Passion Reframes Life & Death as Dying & Rebirth, I realized that how I think about morality and Christianity required a renaissance.

Mitchinson earned his MD from the University of London, and during his 35-year practice, the majority in Canada, he transitioned from family medicine to palliative care. Like me, he never sought to work in end-of-life support, but I am beginning to see why Mitchinson says, “I sort of just walked into this field, and now I don’t plan on leaving.” 

 In his book, Mitchinson marries his adopted medical specialty to an unwavering passion for theology. As a teenager, he contemplated pursuing pastoral ministry, but eventually chose to attend medical school. Then, in March 2020, Mitchinson returned to his love of doctrine, obtaining a MA in theology and culture from St. Stephen’s University, a non-denominational private religious institution in New Brunswick, Canada. His degree commenced the inception of his book.

Rooted in both his MA thesis and his professional medical practice, the book balances science and spirit. This mix of theory and the practical, and his approachable writing style, makes the book comprehensible and theologically engaging. 

Drawing from the ideas of psychologist and theologian Richard Beck, Mitchinson asserts, “We live in a death-denying culture and as a result, the subliminal message appears to be that we are entitled to ninety-plus years of suffering-free existence.” Beck argues that death is the cause of sin, not the inverse. What he means is that the majority of sin or evil in the world is caused by thanatophobia, the fear of death. 

Mitchinson uses Christian theology in an effort to reduce the destruction that anxiety around death causes to human quality of life. For a religious tradition based on a death and resurrection narrative, it’s unfortunate that Christians don’t realize the existential richness in concepts around divine and human being and becoming. Mitchinson writes, “What if we have misunderstood or forgotten what life and death were intended to be and have attempted to live independently from the one who created us, the ‘Giver of life’ itself, only to find that this approach doesn’t work?” To remedy this, he investigates the process of accepting mortality as a form of kenosis, the emptying of himself that Jesus did as part of the incarnation. Mitchinson draws on this to explore ways that humans can give up parts of their existence in order to more fully live in union to the source of all life. 

Mitchinson pursues a pragmatic methodology for exploring the mystery of mortality. Diverse interpretations exist on what ensues after death, including the Seventh-day Adventist view of soul sleep. While I subscribe to the Adventist perspective, declaring it the only way to understand all aspects of death may prevent peace for some. His open approach left me wondering, has Adventist certitude squandered God’s gifts of wonder and mystery? 

A key part of Mitchinson’s thorough approach to exploring the meaning of death is his use of Christian theological history. Utilizing comparisons between what can be known and what cannot, he establishes clear biblical and scientific boundaries that delve into the conundrum of death. He observes, “At times, we put a simple label on things we can’t fully understand to cover our ignorance of that which transcends our ability to comprehend.” He continues, “Because we cannot fully explain something does not invalidate it. It takes us into the realm of mystery, faith, and hope with which we remain uncomfortable.” 

In reading, Dying For Life: How Jesus’ Passion Reframes Life & Death as Dying & Rebirth, I now recognize that love for others is cultivated by an intentional discomfort. Pride is abandoned when confidence in codified belief systems is removed and we welcome biblical mystery. Once existential arrogance is uprooted and unselfish love is planted, fear cannot survive. Mitchinson’s work extends far beyond scholarly discussions pertaining to death, as his writing reminds readers that faith is relationally based. “It seems breathing out is just as vital as breathing in,” Mitchinson observes. In this spirit, dead faith is brought to life, not by declarations, but by a conversant faith—a dialogue with the mysteries of the divine, here and hereafter.

Kevin McCarty

About the author

Kevin R. McCarty is a spiritual care provider and Indigenous ally who lives, works, and worships on the unceded traditional S’olh Temexw territory of the Stó:lō people. You can email him at kevin@spectrummagazine.org. More from Kevin R. McCarty.
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