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Face to Face with Death


In The Tragic Sense of Life (1912), a forerunner of existentialism, Miguel de Unamuno claimed that what distinguishes modern women and men from the Middle Ages is that while medieval people feared hell and purgatory, in modern times we are afraid of death. He illustrated this claim by recalling his experience as a boy attending catechetical classes. The priest who encouraged him to be a good boy and thus avoid ending up in purgatory or even hell did not scare him because he realized that he would be alive in those places. But, when he became an adult, the thought came to him that death was final, and that really scared him. Indeed, existentialism is based on the premise that all our decisions are ultimately determined by our constant confrontation with death as final. Today, the daily counts of people dying from COVID-19 have made us all existentialists who think about our own mortality.

Mortality is a limitation that humans have tried to overcome for a long time. What is at stake is more than personal survival. Most disturbing about death is not its inevitability; it is our ignorance about it. Thus, our need to know energizes the imagination to run freely in an open field. Life, its flip-side twin, is also somewhat shrouded in ignorance. Even though current scientific advances reveal more and more of life’s features, a scientific definition escapes us. The discovery of DNA and the mapping of its double helix structure, expressed in the combination of just four elements, GATC, has given us only insights into the way in which life finds expression.

The most important recent scientific advances have been in the realm of genetics. They make it possible to cure some diseases by gene therapy, changing the structure of the gene that causes particular congenital illnesses. The examination of the genetic structure of life has revealed that all life, whether animal or vegetable, is the same at its core. The similarities are far more important than the differences. These remarkable advances in knowledge, however, have not given us, so far, knowledge about, or power over, either life or death. Atomic bombs have given us the power to terminate all life on earth, but they do not give us power to give life, or knowledge of what life is.

The ancient Israelites had a very materialistic understanding of the person. They did not distinguish the physical from the mental, as the Greeks later did. They had a unitary, psycho-physical understanding of human beings. Their vocabulary lacked abstract nouns. They did not have the concepts of mind, will, idea, form (apart from matter), etc. The aspects of a person which we understand to be part of mental or emotional processes, the Hebrews identified in concrete parts of the human body. Thus, the arm signified strength, the hand direction, the bowels strong feelings, the heart will, etc. The word nephesh, translated “soul,” did not refer to an independent, abstract, essential aspect of a person, but to the whole person as alive, active. It is best translated as “person” or “being” undivided from the body. One of the creation stories says that God breathed into the nostrils of a clay figure and this clump of matter became a “living nephesh” or “living being” (Gen. 2:7). When a person dies, for the Hebrews the “soul” died (Gen. 37:21; Dt. 19:6; Jer. 40:14-15). The word ruach means “wind,” but it also refers to the active forces that empower the feelings, the thoughts, the conduct of the whole person, the “spirit.”

The books of the Old Testament reveal that among the ancient Hebrews there were two contrasting conceptions of the dead. On the one hand, there were those who held that when a person dies the body that is placed on a grave is still somewhat alive. The nails and the hair continue to grow for some time, and the bones remain articulated as the concrete expression of the person. In very dry climates, they may stay that way for an indefinite length of time. According to this view of the dead, when the bodies of persons are placed in graves, they go into the pit where they join the rephaim, the shades. They become negative replicas of living people and exist as very weak living things. According to this understanding of the dead, life and death are not opposites. They are related to each other within a continuum of different degrees of vitality. While living on the earth, persons may experience reductions of vitality when they are sick, under great stress or ostracized. These experiences drive the person toward the gates of Sheol, where the rephaim, the shades, reside. They feel that the arms of Sheol are grabbing them and drawing them toward the pit, taking away their vitality. Those in Sheol are characterized by their pervasive weakness. Thus, Isaiah’s taunt to the King of Babylon includes the following: “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come, it rouses the shades to greet you, all were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will speak and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us’” (Is. 14:9-10).

The other view of the dead in the Old Testament sees death as the opposite of life. The living exist; the dead do not. They are extinct. The extraction of life from the body brings about annihilation. Death is the emptying of life, the dissolution of the person; they have ceased to exist. Of the Suffering Servant it is said that he “poured out his nephesh [being] to death” (Is. 53:12). Dying in childbirth, Rachel called the newborn Benoni “as her nephesh [being] was departing” (Gen. 35:18). When Absalom escaped from the presence of King David, the commander of his army, Joab, coached a woman of Tekoa to convince the king that he should admit Absalom back into the family. Once in the presence of King David, she told him: “We must all die, we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again” (2 Sam. 14:14). Her words have become the iconic metaphor for the view of death as a dissolution which cannot be reversed. The dead go to Abaddon (destruction, Job 28:22; Ps. 15:11; 27:20), to Dumah (silence, Ps. 115:17). Pleading with God to relent from the unjust treatment he is inflicting on an innocent man, Job asks: “Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go whence I shall not return” (Job 10:20). In Job the dead are gone forever. Job reminds God: “now I shall die on the earth; Thou will seek me, but I shall not be” (Job 7:21). A psalmist who, like Job, laments the brevity of life and God’s use of it to punish sins, pleads: “Look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more. (Ps. 39:13).

The Exile in Babylon, and later, the campaigns of Alexander the Great in the East, opened the door to dialogues between the Jews and representatives of other cultures with different horizons. In Babylon they met Zoroastrians who saw reality in terms of a dualism of good and evil, and had notions of a resurrection. After the fourth century B.C.E., the cross fertilization of Hellenic and Indian cultures introduced Jews to the distinction between the body and the soul as independent living entities. Thus, notions of a resurrection, and that the dead are suffering in Sheol while waiting for a Final Judgment, entered Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity. Since the justice of God, which is not in evidence in the present world where the wicked prosper and righteous suffer, is going to be fully operative at the Final Judgment, some Christians envisioned the necessity to have the Gospel preached to the dead so that they could repent and participate in the salvation made available through Christ. First Peter has Christ descending to Gehenah to preach to the dead (1 Pet. 4:6). The text specifically identifies the Nephilim (1 Pet. 3:19, comp. 2 Pet. 2:4), the giants who were the offspring of the sexual encounters of heavenly angels with earthly women. This development was the primary reason why God decided to destroy the world by water (Gen. 6:4). According to First Enoch, the Nephilim were destroyed by the flood and are being tortured in an underground prison until the Final Judgment (1 En. 9:18, see 2 Pet. 2:5; Jude 14; Rev. 20:7, 11-15). Jude fully identifies the source of this information about the prison where ungodly angels and their offspring are being kept until the Judgment. It comes from the book written by “Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam” (Jude 14).

The writers of the Old Testament were not existentialists who felt they had to face death. Their existential problem was not the need to face death. Their existential problem was the need to understand how God’s justice finds expression in the world. The prophetic announcements of “the restoration of the fortunes of Israel” (Ez. 11:17; 16:53-55; 28:25; 36:24; 37:12, 25; 39:25), or that “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2), were not primarily concerned to solve the problem of death, but the problem that in God’s world the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Their symbolic universe did not include a purposeless, nonsensical world without God. For them, atheism was not an option.

For some time already, human beings have been trying to find the way to overcome their mortality. For some today, death is only a barrier in life’s obstacle course which can be jumped over by bringing together large amounts of cash and cutting-edge technology. Claiming to provide victory over death, a company in California called Ambrosia offered to inject the blood of young people to slow down the process of aging. It was quite understandably depicted by many as capitalism functioning as a vampire, sucking blood full of youth and energy from the poor for the benefit of the super rich. In other words, it was another version of capitalism as a monster that extracts the natural resources of the third world for the enrichment of the first world’s elite and the appeasement of its lower classes.

Other enterprises have been somewhat more successful by the use of cryonics (from the Greek kruos = cold), building vaults in which the bodies of those who have made the proper financial arrangements are being kept frozen at -320 F (-190 C) until science discovers the way in which to cure the disease that caused their death. In The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia, Anya Bernstein gives a fascinating account of the ways in which both devout Russian Orthodox Christians and secular atheists have been theorizing and actually building enterprises to conquer death. The book opens reporting a rally in front of the statue of Karl Marx in Moscow. One of the many banners on display declared: “We Are for Immortality.” Bernstein quotes Anastasia Gacheva, the current leader of what has come to be described as Cosmism, giving a novel reason for the fall of the Soviet Union: its leaders failed to realize that utopias are incapable of overcoming the worst of all human misfortunes: mortality. Cosmism gets its name from the fact that when the dead are brought back to life by means of cryonics, the resulting problem of housing and food supplies will be solved by the colonization of the cosmos. Not unexpectedly, those promoting cryonics are characterized by their lack of interest in explaining the scientific basis of their medical theories. 

In a secular world, where everything is a matter of chance, the future features only death. Those of us living now live in the secular world of a post-modern culture. We have no other physical environment in which to live. And just as we keep a fond attachment to the place of our birth, we also find ourselves attached to our physical environment. I have a vivid memory of my visit to Mar Saba monastery in the Judean desert. It hangs on the cliffs of the Kidron wadi east of Jerusalem as it opens up near to the Dead Sea. I was taken there by a monk who every week trucked in provisions from the Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. It turned out that he was an American who, after having experimented with life in the fast lane in New York City, had converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and sought to escape from the world by becoming a monk in the Greek Quarter of Jerusalem. After telling me his life story, he confessed, “I have discovered that I brought New York City with me to the desert.” Paul had already discovered the problem. He realized that those who live “in Christ” also live “in the flesh,” in a “fallen” social world.

Unlike Unamuno’s situation, the existential problem facing us in the twenty-first century is not our mortality. The problem is our inability to make sense of life “in the flesh,” in our secular culture. Under these conditions, I find Paul’s understanding of the Gospel to be the one that can best speak to our modern, or post-modern, historical moment. Paul realized that there are two kinds of deaths: biological and eschatological. He made this distinction on the basis of his understanding of the significance of the death and the resurrection of Christ.

Faced with the Risen Christ, the members of the Jesus Movement had to re-evaluate their view of the death of Jesus as the tragic ending of the beautiful dream that had energized them. As followers of Jesus they thought he was the one chosen by God “to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). In other words, they thought he was the Messiah. When Jesus ended up being crucified on charges of sedition by a procurator responsible to Caesar, all his followers were totally disenchanted and thought the time they had spent following Jesus had been wasted. When they were confronted by the Risen Christ, they had to give to his death a new meaning. Some saw it as a ransom, others as a sacrifice, others as the apex of obedience. Paul saw it as absolutely linked to his resurrection. Jesus had been designated Son of God after having been raised by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:4). The whole life of Jesus, his birth and his death “in the flesh,” his resurrection “from the dead” by the power of the Holy Spirit, had been the work of God. By these means God had destroyed the power of “the rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of glory.” The rulers of this age are the “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers” and “the enemies” (1 Cor. 15:24-25) who did not know what they were doing when they crucified Jesus. They did not know “the secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 2:6-8). The resurrection of Christ was not the resuscitation of Jesus, but the establishment of a New Creation “in the Spirit.” 

In Paul’s apocalyptic horizon, the Day of the Lord had come by the death and the resurrection of Christ. God had done what the prophets had announced when they spoke of “That Day:” God had dramatically, personally, intervened in history. Unlike God’s interventions by means of locusts, drought, foreign armies, etc., this time his son had been born of a woman (Gal. 4:4), and when this sinless son was crucified by the “powers of the air,” their power in the fallen world which Satan ruled was broken. Then the power of the Spirit that had created the world in the beginning established a New Creation (2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17). This made it possible for women and men to terminate their slavery to “the rulers of this age” and a life in sin. They can now live by the power of the Gospel and be “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:16-18) by participating, through baptism (Rom. 6:6-11), in the death and the resurrection that destroyed the firm grip of one world and established a new world of life “in the Spirit.” Life “in the Spirit” is eschatological life. Those who have become creatures of the New Creation already live eschatologically while still living “in the flesh” (Rom. 8:11). They have died the eschatological death that Jesus died on the cross and have become a New Creation living “in the Spirit” at their baptism. At Christ’s Parousia those who have been living “in the Spirit,” whether dead or alive at the time makes no difference, will also receive a “Spirit body” like that of the Risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:44, 49).

For Paul, Jesus did not die so that those who believe in the power and the righteousness of God may not have to die. He died so that those who join him in “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) and die with him may also, like him, be raised to live by the power of the Spirit that is God’s creative agent. Like him, by the power of the Spirit they have overcome eschatological death, and live eschatological life already. Eschatological death is the result of the “entrance” of sin into the world that God had created (Rom. 5:12-14). When the Law of Moses “entered” the world, it was “ordained by angels through an intermediary” (Gal. 3:19). Even though the Jews thought that they could attain righteousness and live by it, the Law that was given through Moses was unable to give life to anyone (Gal. 3:21). The Jews should have known better and, like Abraham, believed God (Rom. 4:16; 9:31-32). In the fallen creation ruled by Satan, the law had become a power “working death” (Rom. 7:13); it had become “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) which activates God’s wrath (Rom. 4:15). Thus, Paul concluded his eulogy to the triumph of God over death by explaining that “the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56). In other words, the law of Moses has been giving sin, which entered the world when Adam opened the door, the power to kill eschatologically. Over those who had died eschatologically with Christ and now live “in Christ,” however, the law lost its power to condemn (Rom. 8:1). They have been “set free from the law of sin and death” by the power of “the law of the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:2).

According to Paul, those who now live “in Christ,” “in the Spirit,” still live “in the flesh;” therefore, they are still subject to biological death. But such death is, ultimately, inconsequential. Those who live “in the flesh” and “in Christ,” like the Risen Christ, live eschatologically. Biological death poses no threat at all. Paul characterizes the choice between biological life and biological death as a 50/50 proposition; both have advantages and disadvantages. To those who live “in Christ,” as Paul said, “to die [biologically] is gain” (Phil. 1:21) because of “the weakness of the flesh.” On the other hand, to live biologically “in the flesh” while living “in Christ” provides the joy of “fruitful labor” for Christ (Phil. 1:22).

The Gospel does not provide information about the future. The Gospel is “the power of God” to give eschatological life to those who, like Abraham, believe God (Rom. 1:16). In other words, it is the power that gives freedom from the eschatological death caused by sin and demanded by the law. These days full of the fear provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic have revived an existentialist confrontation with death and apocalyptic descriptions of a future in which death and the evil that empowers it have been conquered. The Gospel, however, is not about fear, death, and the future. It cannot ever be. The Gospel sparks faith in the God who is the source of all life and, like Paul argued, proclaims the righteousness of the God who destroyed the rule of Satan over a fallen world and created life “in the Spirit” by raising Christ from the dead. The Gospel sparks life and joy in those who believe in God’s righteousness. The Gospel is the power that gives eschatological life to those who have died with Christ and now live “in the Spirit,” “in Christ.”


Herold Weiss is professor of Religious Studies "emeritus" of Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN. His eighth book, The End of the Scroll: Biblical Apocalyptic Trajectories, will be published this May by Energion Publications. Several themes of this essay benefit from the research presented in the book.

Photo by Chris Buckwald on Unsplash


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