Death as a Divine Blessing

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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!

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How should Christians respond to Robin Williams’ death?

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As Christians, how then should we respond to this news that Robin Williams has committed suicide?

To begin, here are a few ways not to respond to new of his death:

Christians should never comment about how selfish suicide is. We should never comment about how Williams should’ve chosen joy over depression, as Matt Walsh so tactlessly and ignorantly suggested (source). We should never suppose that it was because of some secret sin that Williams couldn’t get over his depression, and chose to end his life. We shouldn’t even say that his suicide sent him straight to hell, as if there were any sin more grievous and deserving of hell than the next. 

So how should we then respond?

I believe that Christians of all people, should have a humble, loving, mournful and broken attitude toward this incident. And rather than making any type of comment about what he must have done wrong, or why he chose what he did, or why it was sinful, or selfish, or why we would’ve never done that, or why he could have chosen another path, our first response should simply be to mourn.

We should mourn that sin (rather than simply being bad choices we make) has so infected and affected our entire nature in such a way that it not only alters our soul, but our bodies and minds as well. 

As Christians, our worldview, and our theological grid, requires that we respond differently than anyone else to something like this. Because the Bible declares that no one is better than anyone else. All people are enslaved to sin, unable and unwilling to free themselves. Scripture declares that “no one is righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10), and that we are slaves to our sin (Rom 6:16, John 8:34). The Bible declares that we not only choose sinful things, but that we have been born with a sinful nature, deserving of wrath and hell (Eph 2:1-10). Even more than that, the scriptures tell us over and over that apart from God’s grace, we all will (not might, not maybe, but will) choose self-destructive, selfish, suicidal sins, and we all will die because of it (Rom 3:23).

Because of this, we aren’t any better than Williams. And so, we should mourn, pray, and be reminded of the fact that we have all chosen, in a thousand different ways, the same fate as Williams. We are all just as sinful, and all in need of Christ’s transforming grace. If we don’t respond this way, we are, in a subtle, small way, saying that we are, even if just a little bit, better than Robin Williams. This is simply not true. 

But more than this; because sin is not just something we do but is an infection that has invaded every part of our being, we must recognize that the fall affects not only our soul, or our will, but our bodies and brain. Sin has affect every part of our being, including our physiology — and part of this includes our brain, which in turn affects our mood, thoughts and reason. As one blogger once put it,

…the fall effects every area of life. We are usually fine admitting that the fall causes physical problems. Sure, if you are born disabled, that it’s not your fault but a result of original sin. But… when it comes to mental disorders or sexuality we suddenly become Pelagians. Depression can’t be inborn. Anxiety can’t be inborn. Homosexuality can’t be inborn. But if we truly believe that our birth was corrupted by the fall of man, why wouldn’t we acknowledge that these aspects of human nature have also been affected? Is the mind so divorced from the body that we are only affected outwardly, without any damage to the emotions? (source)

What a healthy view of human depravity! And in fact, the fall has affected every part of man. Yes, Adam (and all of us), when he chose to sin against God, died spiritually. But God also pronounced a judgment not just on the soul, but also the body, saying, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Our bodies are affected in such a way by the fall, that we are born into death. From the moment of our birth, our bodies decay and are corrupted. And this decay and corruption includes our brains and bodies. It affects our moods and thoughts.

All this to say, Robin Williams did not choose depression. In fact, from what I understand, he very much so wanted to be joyful. But because he was born into sin, the fall had affected him in such a way that spiraled him into depression, and tragically, to suicide. And while this suicide was a choice, and a choice for which he will answer, it was a choice warped and infected by sin. 

We must understand, the fall affects us all in all sorts of different ways. It affects our perception of reality, our will, our choices, and our moods which in turn leads us and propels us into irrational and sinful actions that are destructive and harmful. This is how deep and wide the fall has wrecked us. And this awful incident is one such case.

And because of this, Christians should react to Williams’ death with deep sorrow, and deep acknowledgement that we are all broken and sinful people, born into death, enslaved to sin. How else could it be otherwise? More than that though, Christians should react with prayer, knowing that apart from the gospel, we all will all choose death all the time.

We need the grace of God!