Published April 6, 2012
The true philosopher is always pursuing death and dying, Socrates said. It is at the core of philosophy because it is an inescapable part of the human experience. And throughout the ages, different faiths have dealt with death in different ways. For those of the Christian faith, death is not something to view with apathy or indifference, as the Stoics did; nor is it something to fear because it is the end of everything we know and love.
It is, in fact, a source of intense grief, as everyone who has lost a love one can testify; and the pathway to a new heaven and a new earth. Both can be true at the same time. Jesus wept over the death of his beloved friend Lazarus, even though Jesus knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ sweat was like great drops of blood, even though Jesus knew He would be raised from the dead.
Brokenness and sorrow, then, are an essential part of the Christian story; but it is hardly the full story. They eventually give way to glory.
C.S. Lewis captured this remarkable symmetry when he wrote that on the one hand death is the triumph of Satan and the punishment of the Fall even as the death of Christ is the remedy for the Fall. “It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon,” Lewis wrote, “it is … our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.”
For Lewis, “death is not only an enemy that defeats every human being,” Armand Nicholi, Jr. has written in The Question of God, “it is also the means that God uses to redeem us.”
It is never quite as neat and clean as this in real life, as Lewis himself discovered in the aftermath of the death of his wife (which he wrote about in his sometimes haunting book, A Grief Observed). As I was beginning my own journey of faith, which has involved its own struggles and doubts along the way, I was forcibly struck by this realization: Whatever one thinks of the Christian faith, its Savior has not asked us to endure anything He has not, having experienced pain many times beyond anything we can conceive. His crown is composed of thorns.
It is largely obscured these days, at least in the West, but it remains as central a truth of the Christian faith as there is—that the Lord is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief; that this world is not our home; and that the road that leads through suffering ends in glory. That is what the crucifixion and the resurrection are about.
“Is there in this place any relief for pilgrims that are weary and faint in the way?” asks John Bunyan’s main character in his allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. For those of us of the Christian faith, the answer is at the foot of the cross.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.