In his essay from The Inner Kingdom called “Go Joyfully: The Mystery of Death and Resurrection”, Kallistos Ware explains the contradicting or conflicting nature of death.
On the one hand, death is a tragedy, confounding the entire human race. It is the great enemy, the “last enemy” which is to be destroyed, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. It is the wretched “fruit” of Adam’s disobedience. Christ came for the sole purpose of destroying this death; he came to invade it from the inside out, thus rendering it powerless.
Death is the great enemy; and yet, as Ware argues, death is simultaneously a mysterious blessing which gives way to life anew. For instance: every new stage of life, Ware explains, involves a sort of metaphorical death to the self that opens up new beginnings:
Our earthly journey is an unceasing passover, a constant crossing over through death into new life. Between our initial birth and our eventual death, the whole course of our existence is made up of a series of lesser deaths and births… (p 27)
[A] death-life pattern is…apparent, in a somewhat different way, in the process of growing up. Repeatedly, something in us has to die so that we may pass on to the next stage of life. The transition from the baby to the child, from the child to the adolescent, from adolescent to the mature adult, involves at each juncture an inner death in order that something new may come alive…[I]f at any point we decline to accept the need for dying, we cannot develop into real persons. As George MacDonald says in his fantasy novel Lilith, “You will be dead so long as you refuse to die” (p 28)
Life in itself is a series of “deaths” and “resurrections”. This was Jesus’ point of course, when he told his disciples that one must “give up his life to save it”. Dying to the self strangely enough opens up new life and a new future.
But it is not simply “death to the self” that is a strange mercy. The even more fundamental reality of physical death is a divine blessing. But how so? Ware explains:
[Physical death], though not part of God’s original plan,…is nonetheless His gift, an expression of his mercy and compassion. For us humans to live unendingly in this fallen world, caught forever in the vicious cycle of boredom and sin, would have been a fate too terrible for us to endure; and so God has supplied us with a way of escape. He dissolves the union of soul and body, so that he may afterwards shape them anew, uniting them again at the bodily resurrection on the Last Day and so recreating them to fullness of life. He is like the potter whom Jeremiah watched: “So I went down tot he potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to Him” (18:4-5). The Divine Potter lays his hand on the vessel of our humanity, marred by sin, and he breaks it in pieces, so as to mold it again on his wheel and refashion it according to its first glory. Death serves in this way as the means of our restoration (p 31)
The human project, thus riddled with sin and marred, is subjected to death by God, not because he wants to destroy, but rather because he wants to recreate it anew. God “smashes” his pot, not in wrathful anger, but in view of a new hopeful reality.
This “new reality” is revealed through the death and resurrection of Christ. God the Son takes upon himself the flesh of marred mankind, is swallowed up into death in the crucifixion, and is afterward raised to new principle life without the corruption of sin and death. The death of Christ is the death of the old man. And the resurrection of Christ is the recreation of the new man. And when a man is saved, he participates in the death and resurrection of Christ, thus dying and rising, being “de-created” and recreated in Christ anew.
And so death, while the greatest enemy, is used by God’s power as a great gift! A divine blessing. Glory!