God does not like death

John 11

11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

11:2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

11:3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

11:6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

11:7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

11:20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.

11:21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

11:22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

11:23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.

11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

11:35 Jesus began to weep.

11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.

11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

RR Reno, editor of First Things writes

Rod Dreher, like many of my friends, has adopted the view that pro-life Christians are obligated to preserve life at any cost. This requires one to hold, as a matter of principle, that physical death is the greatest evil, since preventing death is the highest good. No ancient philosophers held such a view. Nor did the Old Testament prophets. Jesus certainly didn’t.

To know the context for this is to realize he is arguing that social distancing measures taken to saves lives in the middle of the coronavirus virus is intolerable, a giving into the irrational fear of death. As Christians we believe in eternal life so how can we close the churches and obey orders from governors and mayors to not meet in person?

 Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced. Yesterday, Governor Cuomo saw young people playing basketball in a New York City park. “It has to stop and it has to stop now,” he commanded. Everyone must live under death’s dominion.

Rod Dreher in response makes the case that being fearless against death is not the same as sacrificing others in this pursuit. Coronavirus is highly contagious and deadly. Saving the lives of others matters, even if we are to be sanguine for our own life. And Dreher raises the obvious point; that this sacrifice for life is not for any great cause. It’s simply to jump start the economy, the Dow. It’s to rebel against the inconvenience that (at least the middle and upper classes) are experiencing in social distancing.

A firefighter who runs into a building risking life to save another is a hero. A person upset at staying at home and therefore endangers the lives of others by ignoring social distancing, threatens the life of the other person. These are not the same thing. And we not only endanger others we add to the crashing of our medical system and those in the front lines of this pandemic.

As Rod Dreher writes

Look at what’s happening to New York City’s hospitals now, and try to maintain with a straight face that being told you can’t have a small dinner party amounts to the state making geldings of magazine editors. It’s just perverse.

Reno is trying to turn a basic public health measure, based on biology (this is a highly infectious virus) and the fact that New York City hospitals are engaged in a heroic struggle to save lives, even as the peak of the epidemic is likely three weeks off, into a moral and philosophical problem.

But let’s address the moral and philosophic problem. Is it the case that we are not to fear death, that Jesus had no interest in life for its own sake, given the prospects of eternal life?

In the lectionary this week, we have the story of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus who dies. This story has Jesus comforting the family by affirming eternal life. But at the same time John says he is troubled several times. And the most memorable line in response to Lazarus’ death and the shortest scripture we have is “And Jesus wept”  Something about this life really does matter to Jesus.

As Jesus says in Mark 12:27  God is the God of the living.

What could this mean? As a base line, we can affirm the value of this life and this world. It is not something to be held in juxtaposition to eternal life. When God created life in Genesis God said it was good.

As Divine Wisdom says in Proverbs 8

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;[e]
and I was daily his[f] delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

This life is a gift of God, not to be spurned as if eternal life trumps the life we are living now.

So how does one affirm eternal life and at the same time the value of life, which clearly Jesus did. Here’s one way

To go with David McReynolds, every human being is a unique personal universe of experience. A universe that can never be duplicated nor replaced. Every life experience, every set of relations, every event in such a life, every mannerism, every bit of joy and value is had by that person in the way they are that is unique to them.

And God derives joy from that experience of value in that person’s uniqueness. When that person dies, their life continues on, as a source of material God uses to build the world that God seeks. But then it is the objective content of the world as God is able to use, not an ongoing experiencing of the value of that life. So while our lives have eternal meaning and remain in God, God suffers genuine loss when we die.

That sounds poetic, but to borrow from process thought it does suggest that every event as much as it contributes to further events and to the degree they are objectified provides a permanent contribution to any kind of universe we would have and that could follow.

But life ongoing is more delightful to God than a life that was. Which is why in the end, the loss of life is a tragedy, no matter the age, the condition, the species to God. While eternal life is ours given the kind of universe we live in, the best response to God is to preserve our own life and other people’s lives. And to live those lives well and create the context in which all of us can live well into our full possibilities. That is the only means of giving meaning to eternal life.

The next best response to do remember those who have died with the sort of intimacy and care that God does.

In that, there is to me more Gospel in this Google ad, a genuine sense of what an individual life means, than any orthodoxy that would seek to be dismissive of our individual lives and life in general.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings



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