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Charismatics, Headaches and Healings

CharismaticWorship

Examining the role of divine healing in charismatic churches and the urgency to review, modify, or abandon this as a staged event.

If you attend almost any charismatic church meeting, you are sure to hear about supernatural healings. They are usually abstract ones such as headaches banished, a sore back relieved, a short leg lengthened, and many other unusual conditions cured. The majority cannot be scientifically proven because of the vague symptoms, but the person feels better. There are seldom any that can be empirically proven.

The practice of divine healings is typical of a charismatic liturgical experience. The charismatic movement, originally birthed from mainline denominations in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the 1960s, was originally assigned to those people deeply connected with the pentecostal wave but still attended their traditional churches. They were part of a theological influence that erupted through the continent emphasizing a mystic union with God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, subsequent speaking in tongues and an emphasis on the supernatural.

Those imbued with the pentecostal wave and still attending their Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist and other mainline churches tried to bring their spiritual awakening to their traditional brethren, but it did not succeed. The result was that many of these people voluntarily left or were forced out. As a consequence, these people formed their independent churches. One of their attributes, apart from their emphasis on the supernatural, is the autonomous nature and avoidance of denominational or sectarian features. Because of this, there is a wide range of expressions and practices within the charismatic movement. There is no key leader, church, or theologian that represents them. Dialogue and cooperation exist between these independent churches, but no desire to form a hierarchical structure.

One may think that the charismatic movement is a small slice of the religious pie, but this is not the case. It is one of the fastest growing segments of the christian faith in the world. In the United States alone, the Barna Group states that four out of every ten independent churches are charismatic based, and 46% of those who attend a protestant meeting are Charismatic. (1)https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-Charismatic#.Vc1JVB_iubk

Divine healings is part of the charismatic emphasis on the supernatural and the mystic christian life. It is an important part of their religious identity.

Problems with exhibitions of divine healings

However, there are serious problems with the mystic rite that the charismatic movement must address.

First of all, the public exhibition of divine healings strengthen public sentiment that those practising are radicalized religious fanatics. It scares the general populace more than attracts. This healing practice, which is perceived as a staged act rather than fact by most members of the public, also further alienates the christian faith from being a regular participant in public social dialogue.

Secondly, the staged process of divine healing undermines the credibility of the message. I don’t know how many times I have had public discussions where the faith discussion is quickly shut down because they think the whole church thing is a fraudulent process that is for the elderly, the mentally weak, or those who are easily deceived. They usually quote faith healers they have seen on television, the radio, or in print magazines to back up their refusal to discuss any matters of the christian faith.

This leads to a serious concern. Unless the various branches of the protestant churches seriously confront the problems of perceived fraud and lack of accountability in the practice of divine healing, then a serious public relations problem exists. The lack of discipline may lead to a tipping point; some abuse relating to divine intervention will spark the already existent anti-church sentiment and will set a precedent for government intervention. As a result, this will send a very bad message that the church, which is supposed to pursue and encourage moral excellence, is an institution that cannot govern itself, nor be considered reputable. Whose fault is that? Is it a war on the church or is it a backlash the church has created for itself?

The historic problem of supernaturalism

This is not the first time in history that an overemphasis on the supernatural within the christian community has caused problems.

Both Origen in the second and John Chrysostom in the fourth-century touched on it. They agreed that very few pious people would ever achieve the status of producing miracles.(2)Origen, Against Celsus. As found in The Writings of Origen. Translated by the Rev. Frederick Crombie. Vol. II. Origen Contra Celsum. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1872. Pg. 426. For Chrysostom see the footnote below Chrysostom especially did not want to attach miracles to the Christian identity. He felt that superstition and magic would be an obstacle to personal growth. He also stated that there was a certain danger of pride with those who were miracle workers and very much de-emphasized such a ministry because of this.(3) Homily on Matthew 9:32 See also: Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues which covers Chrysostom’s beliefs regarding miracles.

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century dwelt deeply on the topic of miracles and formulated the definition into various degrees. He cautions against improperly assigning a natural phenomenon as a miracle. One example he used was an eclipse. To the astronomer, it is part of a routine pattern, but to the thirteenth-century layman, it was out of the natural order and, therefore, a miracle. Aquinas simply assigns this as a wondrous event.

He describes miracles as something out of the natural order of nature, such as the sea temporarily parting so that people can walk through it. The more the event goes against the laws of nature, the greater the miracle. The healing of a blind person, paralysis, etc., are actions that nature cannot do, and, therefore, are categorically a miracle. Another kind of miracle is where God intervenes where nature could have done the same thing such as curing a fever, or bringing on rain. He deems these as a lesser miracle.(4)Thomas Aquinas. Contra Gentils. 101 “On Miracles.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#101

One must realize that Aquinas lived in an era where mystic christianity was in a heightened stature. He realized there was a fundamental problem and clearly wrote out basic principles for defining a miracle. Although his work is almost 800 years old, it still surpasses what the present charismatic community has in place today for defining a miracle – which is nothing.

The eighteenth-century English philosopher, David Hume, among others, noted that superstition and adherence to mysticism were too strong a social constant in his society. It permeated all the theaters of decision making. From this perspective he produced this powerful sweeping statement.

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events.(5)David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1777 with introduction, comparative tables of contents, and analytical index by L.A. Selby-Bigge. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm

He further added that miracles should not justify a system of faith.(6)IBID Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Miracles used to rationalize a charismatic church or christianity as an authentic representation of religion instead of reason delegitimizes such movements within the Canadian social mosaic. Any religious leadership that uses miracles to promote their brand may have short term gain by preaching to the choir, but in the long term, the public will be further disassociated.

Nor are most Charismatics aware that they are simply reinventing the wheel. The topic of divine healings, mysticism, and the supernatural were a central core of European society for centuries. It dominated the political and social landscape. William Lecky, in his book, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, described the circumstances in the 17th to 18th centuries as this:

Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.(7)William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888. Pg. 157

He saw no difference in the attitudes of either the Protestants or the Catholics on the subject.

The improper application of miracles and the supernatural was one of the factors that forced a social revolution that regaled against any perceived spiritual intervention. The desupernaturalizing also had another important factor. It deprived Church of their authority and transferred it to a new entity. As a consequence, it enabled society to establish a new set of laws, selection processes for civic leaders, systems of government, and a different framework for scientific exploration. This correction was an overreaction that downgraded the realm of miracles and supernatural into the place of myth; a piece of history that should remind present day charismatics to tread carefully.

There is also a theological and common sense problem. If a church has regular weekly healing meetings based on the premise that miracles will happen, then this means they have the ability to suspend the laws of nature for an hour or two every week. Such a proposition displays a predictable pattern of health recovery and, therefore, a normal procedure. Such a custom is not consistent with what constitutes a miracle. A miracle is something that cannot be controlled or predicted in any way. This is not a realistic premise to encourage or practice.

Building a proper framework

Miracles do happen but the definition should be purposely narrow and only be declared when something occurs that is obviously outside the laws of regular nature. The cure for a common cold, or a back feeling better are too subjective. An amputated arm that grew back, or somebody clinically defined as dead and then suddenly brought back to life while someone was praying over the coffin are miracles are of substance. However, I have never seen anything like this happen.

It is important that churches who emphasize faith healing have a clear policy in place. An independent third party must empirically prove any miracle. Therefore, meetings that encourage divine healings should state that only a health care professional declares whether a miracle has happened.

It would be difficult to ascribe something as spontaneous healing with many ailments. Diabetes, most cancers, multiple sclerosis, or many other afflictions are all conditions that can be tricky to declare healed. Some can heal through natural means or can even go in remission. They can hide for long periods of time and then surprisingly reappear. These states can lead to a false hope and potentially to a premature death because a sick person who believes that a divine intervention has occurred may fail to take prescribed therapies or refuse medical treatment.

All healings and miracles should be listed according to Aquinas’ system: wonders of nature, greater miracles and lesser miracles.

Some would counter that the positive affirmation of community prayer heals a broken spirit and can alleviate emotional suffering. This then can cross over into the bodily realm and help those with heightened sensitivities to physical pain.

Many divine healing services succeed in encouraging people by instilling a sense of hope. Hope is hard to grasp for those who continually struggle due to a physical malady, lack financial means for the most elementary of provisions such as medications, dental work, food, or employment, or hurting through a divorce, death, or many other reasons. These are situations where many have quietly given up on life and live in the shadows. Many testimonies in healing services attest to overcoming such obstacles and finding the experience as a place for a new kick-start in life.

The psychological help and inspiration of a divine hope appears to be a great argument for divine healing services. However, these aren’t miracles. They are words of encouragement. They are a divine wonder.

These last two arguments gloss over the serious trust broken by faith healers and ignores the ominous task of rebuilding it. Until the various branches of the protestant movement seriously address this subject, the Good News will remain stagnant or even regress in the hearts of the majority of North Americans.

References   [ + ]

Evangelicals in the Canadian Political Realm

How Evangelicals can and can’t contribute to the diverse Canadian social mosaic.

Many Evangelicals hold to an ideology that to bring about positive moral change in Canada is to directly influence those in power, and the values endorsed by the powerbrokers will trickle-down to every part of society.

In order to bring about this type of revision, the Christian movement needs leverage, clout and people power — a force that draws the attention of the key public decision makers, who then recognize the political necessity to change. If a maxim existed for such an approach, it would be, If you want God’s kingdom to have a strong influence on this land, learn to influence the key decision makers in all.

This immediately poses a number of questions. Two especially come to mind: is this trickle-down concept moral or the best methodology the Evangelical community can provide? And, are religious leaders properly equipped to delve into the political realm?

Religious Canadian leaders have successfully entered the political realm. Powerful voices in the such as J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, and William Aberhart have contributed with great success. Their experience has demonstrated lessons for others who follow. However, the line today between religious and civic leaders are drawn with little crossover. It is a new era where those Evangelicals entering today must be fully aware of what they are getting into. It can be done and is necessary, but most churches are not prepared, nor politically astute enough to provide the proper checks and balances.

Religious leaders can be exploited because of their lack of experience with the political system. David Kuo, former second in command to President Bush’s office admits to milking the religious right for their allegiance. In a Time Magazine article, he quoted Chuck Colson, once aide to President Richard Nixon, saying, “I arranged special briefings in the Roosevelt Room for religious leaders, ushered wide-eyed denominational leaders into the Oval Office for private sessions with the President,” and then Colson adds, “Of all the groups I dealt with, I found religious leaders the most naive about politics. Maybe that is because so many come from sheltered backgrounds, or perhaps it is the result of a mistaken perception of the demands of Christian charity … Or, most worrisome of all, they may simply like to be around power.”(1)David Kuo. Tempting Faith. And Inside Story of Political Seduction. New York: Free Press. 2006. Pg. 172

The late Chuck Colson, who was an important aide to President Nixon, and later a born again Christian, added that Christians must be engaged, but with eyes open, aware of the snares and to not be beholden to any political ideological alignment.(2)Charles Colson. Kingdoms in Conflict. New York: Harper PaperBacks. 1990. Pg. 477

No religious leader can remain altruistic. One of the key components of political involvement from a faith perspective is recognition that no matter how moral or pure our intentions are, the quest for power exists in every individual and must be publicly recognized.

Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to the concept of power and one-upmanship as being motivated by the ‘Drum Major Instinct’, and that no-one, including himself, is outside its influence.(3)http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/ If this is true, one of the key components of political involvement from a faith perspective is recognition that no matter how moral or pure our intentions are, the drum major instinct exists and must be publicly recognized.

If people or organizations from a faith perspective do not acknowledge the drum major instinct within their realm, along with the proper checks and balances to control, potential problems may arise in the future that not only defeats the aims of the political activist, but harms the corporate religion.

Another important point Canadian religious leaders must be mindful of is public fear that religious advocates would force their agenda. Preston Manning opined this at McGill University’s “Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy” conference held in 2002, “When advocates of faith-based positions convey the impression that they would force their positions on the rest of the population, if only they had sufficient power and influence to do so, is it any wonder that the rest of the population is reluctant to grant them standing and influence?”

From a Canadian standpoint, this fear is very ubiquitous and is found both in our creative literature and in politics. For example the well-known Canadian literary giant, Margaret Atwood, wrote a fictional novel, The Handmaiden, on what she thought could potentially happen if protestant fundamentalists took over the government — an event that she perceived would have catastrophic repercussions on the role of women in society.

The public ideological alignment of Evangelicals with the Conservative Party of Canada could especially have long-term negative damage. Although this party may best represent many Christian principles, it is still a political party, and any large political fallout with the public by way of hypocrisy, scandal, war or moral debate may cause a harsh public backlash against the Evangelical Church and foment publicly acceptable anti-Christian and Church rhetoric.

A closer look at Jesus teachings on leadership indicate that the trickle-down theory was antithetical to a message to the majority of people whom He served. He did not come to persuade the powers-to-be. He came directly to the disenfranchised and gave them hope.

Traditional Evangelicals may posit that the power Christians are to wield in this world is evangelism. Social reform is dependant and can only happen through widespread personal repentance and submittance to God. Although evangelism has a high importance, this is an incomplete answer that is over-simplistic.

Many belonging to the burgeoning charismatic movement would argue that power is to be defined in supernatural terms; it is to destroy the works of Satan. This too is not a consistent nor a comprehensive definition of power from a heavenly perspective.

Nor is it the Churches purpose to respresent, lead, and empower the oppressed and marginalized to overthrow tyrannical despots, or corrupt leadership. This is also a top-down strategy that is ineffective.

St. Francis of Assissi provided part of the answer when he wrote: “where there is hatred, let me sow Your love” which tends to go nicely together with Christ’s admonition, “Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either”. This may seem like such a cowardly withdrawal from conflict that allows for exploitation or abuse, but rather, it is breaking the cycle of absolute power. They are encouraging people not to be controlled by conventions of worldly power, but guided by a higher law of love and servanthood that is not subject to corruption, dishonesty, anger, bitterness or revenge.

Jesus described the heavenly definition of power as that of servanthood, “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.” And also, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”. His definition of power ascribed almost the exact opposite of what we instinctually believe it to be.

The idea of leadership from a heavenly perspective is about the person who is most willing to do whatever it costs for the betterment of another being and respects everyone as equal partners. In many circles this is called service. It is the opposite to pursuing power. Carl Jaspers, a humanist philosopher concluded this when he wrote, “Where love rules, there is no will to power and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”

There are many implications of holding onto such a philosophy, especially where faith and politics intertwine. First of all it changes the role of the Christian. Instead of the Christian standing aloof and judging against the world, the main purpose is helping others arrive at completeness in whatever area they lack, whether spiritual or physical.

It also avoids and corrects the idea that the Church and Christians want to lord over others and force their opinions.

The mission of helping others then becomes the message. People such as Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, and lesser-knowns such as Dr. Paul Brandt, a specialist in leprosy, the late Winnipeg Pastor and activist, Harry Lehotsky, and more whose mission to serve has naturally also became the message. These names are all a positive part of the public conscience and transcends racial, socio-economic, cultural and religious barriers.

The Church then becomes a center for serving those in need and constantly making adjustments as the needs arise. By doing this, the Church through service will become an active part of the Canadian mosaic rather than an outside bystander.■

References   [ + ]

Death, Religion and the Modern Man

A look at death from contemporary, religious, philosophical, and personal perspectives.

Death is the one question that modern science still has yet to answer in the most preliminary way. Religion answers questions about death, but this is largely ignored. Philosophy touches on the subject, but this falls short.

In modern western society, our thoughts on the subject are so thoroughly deficient, that we are not only unprepared, we emotionally flee.

It also produces many outcomes in the modern mind which are mainly on the subconscious level.

The fear of death highly influences our emotions and decision-making. Ernest Becker, contributor to the publication, Death: Current Perspectives, would prefer to use the word terror instead. Terror demonstrates how tightly gripped the subject of death is in all our decision making, and is not restricted by ethnic or socio-economic boundaries.(1) Edwin S. Schneidman, Ph.D., ed. Death: Current Perspectives, 3rd ed. NP: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1984. pg. 18

The fear of death is followed by the avoidance of death. David Gordon, author of Overcoming the Fear of Death, believes that avoidance permeates our lives.

“Our lives are poisoned by a fear of death, and much of our culture represents a response, however inadequate, to this fear. Most of us are afraid to contemplate our own ending, and when anything reminds us that we too shall die, we flee and turn our thoughts to happier matters.”(2) David Cole Gordon, Overcoming the Fear of Death. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1970. pg. 13

This dreadfulness is directly responsible for many mental illnesses. Noted Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg remarks:

“No one is free of the fear of death… the anxiety, neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerably number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate that ever present fear of death.”(3) IBID pg. 18

It has built some of the greatest monuments, produced incredible works of art, powerful works of literature, and marvels of engineering. The late controversial philosopher, writer, and political activist Arthur Koestler observed: “If the word death were absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist”.(4) http://www.trinity.edu/~mkearl/death-3.html

Our anxiety is so great that even the words death,, or died is avoided. A study of any newspaper on any given day demonstrates this. For example, my local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press’s November 25th, 2007, Obituary section lists seventeen notices with only four that included the words ‘died’, or ‘death’. The dominant words were ‘passing’, or ‘passing away’. This weakened version of death takes away the significance of the event.

One of our greatest apprehensions about death is being buried alive. Edgar Allan Poe, the revered horror writer of the middle 1800s, was consumed by the this. In his popular short story, The Premature Burial, he worked on this fear and that the idea “should be forced to slumber”, otherwise “they will devour us”.(5) The Premature Burial: 1850, http://eserver.org/books/poe/premature_burial.html Although his works are fictional, they may be representative of his life and his unfortunate early demise.

This theme was also in his Cask of Amontillado, where one of the central characters was tricked and sealed in an ancient cave, forced to resign to the reality of death while still conscious — a powerful and scary metaphor that has been a classic horror story over the centuries.

Countless western philosophers have attempted to address the meaning and purpose of death, such as Martin Heidegger, who concluded in the mid-1900s, “It is only in full… awareness of our own mortality that life can take on any purposive meaning.”(6) Paul Whittle, ed. Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers. London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd. 2004. pg. 151 This becomes more clearly defined in the teachings of Albert Camus, who had a major influence on the hippie generation. Camus taught that life is absurd and meaningless; any attempt to understand it is futile. He urged readers to revolt against the meaninglessness of death. His idea of revolt is to be aware of the crushing fate that awaits us, “but without the resignation that accompanies it”.(7) IBID. Whittle. Pg. 155 It is a pessimistic outlook on life that basically teaches that life is unfair and sad, but we must make the best of what we have, even if one has to pretend.

Another popular contemporary writer during Camus’s time, Aldous Huxley promoted that one should, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.”(8) http://www.huxley.net/ah/huxley_aldous.html Which he followed, writing to his attendants for LSD at the last moments of his life.(9) http://www.huxley.net/ah/huxley_aldous.html Death was an important part of his psyche, culminating in his final piece of literature entitled, Death and Shakespeare.

Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, who named his band from the inspiration of Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, was influenced by Huxley and also author William Blake, who wrote that the “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”(10) http://www.answers.com/topic/jim-morrison Morrison mysteriously died at the age of 27 due to heart failure — arguably his pursuit of happiness led to an over-indulgence in stimulants that cost him his life.

This representation of the 1960s promotes the idea that since death is inevitable, simply ignore this reality and live life to the utmost pleasure with few restrictions as possible because this is your one shot at life. This insatiable pursuit of happiness by Morrison and many contemporaries has been existent for at least 2,800 years. One of the first records of this wave of thought can found in writings as early as 800 BC. It was written in the Biblical book called Isaiah, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,”(11) Isaiah 22:13 which stressed the senselessness of life and any attempt to understand it was meaningless.

Ernest Hemingway, considered the heir apparent of Mark Twain as a literary American giant, based one of his foremost books, “The Sun also Rises”, from a reading of the 2,800 year old or so Book of Ecclesiastes. This book is found in the Bible. The unknown writer of Ecclesiastes parodied that all life lacked any meaning. Some book reviewers clearly correlate the analogy of Ecclesiastes with Hemingway’s philosophy on life:(12)http://www.allreaders.com/Topics/Info_11355.asp: a book review of the “Sun also Rises” by Michael JR Jose

“What evolves, then, over the course of Hemingway’s forty-year career as a writer is a comprehensive code for living which acknowledges death as the end point in life.  The characters to whom Hemingway is most sympathetic are those who exhibit grace under the pressure of an acute awareness of death. These characters usually live life in the present and live it to its fullest extent, enjoying the sensual pleasures that life has to offer; characters who are eating, drinking, and being merry with the knowledge that tomorrow they may die.”(13)http://www.people.vcu.edu/~bmangum/hemstories.htm

Hemingway celebrated life in the same way, and when he was unable to enjoy life any longer due to physical limitations in his early sixties, committed suicide.

Specialists in the realm of death and dying believe that the anxiety of death is only one of several features concerning death. Death Attitudes Among Mid-Life Women as found in the Journal of Death and Dying, has it broken into seven categories, death as:

  • a concern
  • anticipation
  • depression
  • loss
  • a physical reality
  • denial
  • and dimension of time.(14)OMEGA–Journal of Death and Dying

It correctly suggests that death is a complex subject. However, with the exception of the seventh category, they all relate to a form of anxiety and loss. It doesn’t go into the meaning or purpose of death itself.

Gregory Campbell III, has researched extensively on the subject and has observed some common trends:

“When analyzing the “over 50 death fear,” the students thought it was related to the fact they are so close to death the fear increases. The truth of the matter is the group of 30 to 50 year olds are the ones with the greatest fear of death. They have contributed their share of toil on the planet and now it is time for their reward (retirement, relaxation, etc.). To suddenly be confronted with death is a real tragedy. That is the responsible agent for the heightened fear. Also, as so aptly brought out in class, the individuals at this age oftentimes try for that one last fling in order to try to beat out the suddenly-realized approach of the end of their life. Men around the age of 40 may resort to affairs (to prove their vitality), major changes in lifestyle, daredevil acts, and other abrupt changes in behavior.”(15)http://www.deep-six.com/deathweb/page207.htm

“…wherever or however death comes, Americans try to handle it with cool, efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery or a summons from the divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death’s managers—the physicians, morticians and statisticians in charge of supervising nature’s planned obsolescence. To the nation that devised the disposable diaper, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste.”(16)IBID http://www.deep-six.com/deathweb/page207.htm

“…People are now relying less upon religion and must now rely upon themselves for death explanations. If one takes the Heaven and Hell concept away people will concentrate on this life rather than the afterlife. The focus will become the avoidance of death which leads to the problem Americans have with it.”(17)IBID http://www.deep-six.com/deathweb/page207.htm

These thoughts by Campbell reflect the important role of religion on the discussion of death. Most contemporary minds are unfamiliar with the fact that the traditional dominant western religions were formed and have evolved to resolve the tension of death and the afterlife. The next section deals with this aspect.

The Jewish writers, especially the Talmudic one provide the most detailed answers. Death is the strongest thing made by God and cannot be overcome.

“Ten strong things have been created in the world; a mountain is strong but iron can break it; iron is strong but fire can melt it; fire is strong but water can extinguish it; water is strong but clouds can bear it; clouds are strong but the wind can scatter them; wind is strong but the body can carry it (as breath); the body is strong but terror can break it; terror is strong but wine can drive it out; wine is strong but sleep can counteract it; death, however, is stronger than them all.”(18)A. Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, New York: Shocken Books, 1975. (Reprint of the 1949 edition). Pg. 73. The quotation is taken from Baba Batra 10a

The Jewish Sages speculated on death and gave important details on life and the hereafter. Questions such as, “is death the opposite of life?”, “how shall the body be re-formed?” “Will the body be clothed or naked when it first rises?” “What old corpus material is required to allow for resurrection?” “Will the corporal defects in this world be transferred to the next world?” “Who will be resurrected?” These were discussed in-depth.

In reference to the existence of the afterlife, the ancient Jews believed that death was not considered the opposite or end of life. Ephraim E. Urbach, a reputable scholar on Jewish thought, claims that the Jewish sages thought death to be the narcotinization of the power of life.(19)Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Trans. By Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Book I, pg. 216. See also Isaiah 14:9, 26:19, 53:5, 57:17, and Psalm 88:10 In other words death attempts to subjugate life to the lowest levels of existence but it does not have the ability to destroy it. A created life is a permanent entity.

The Talmud generally considered death to be an extreme enfeeblement of life, robbing life from most of its power. This is why the dead are sometimes called in Hebrew repha’im, that is, the weak.(20) IBID, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Pg. 216

Repha’im is a Hebrew word used primarily for those who have a disease or ill and in need of healing, and sometimes utilized, especially in the 8th century BC, to describe death.

Going back to the first century and into the time of Christ’s time on earth, one finds that the word death is oddly replaced by the word sleep.

Christ described the state of a dead girl as “sleeping”(21)Matthew 9:24—which evoked laughter from the audience that surrounded Him. Whether the use of sleep as a reference to death was not used often, or the general public was not familiar with it, or the people understood the term but believed its application to be for the imagination, such as Mary, the brother of Lazarus, who asserted that she knew that her brother would be raised on the last day—a time and place outside her lifetime and senses. Mary did not have any comprehension that Christ could and would raise Lazarus immediately.

The Apostle Paul also used the word ‘sleep’ instead of dead. He tried to posture this against those who believe death to be the terminal end of existence, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”(22) I Thessalonians 4:13

It is difficult to know why both Paul and Christ used the word sleep on numerous occasions instead of dead. This term confused even Christ’s followers when He discussed with them to go see Lazarus because he had “fallen asleep”. Christ had to further clarify His terminology and use the word “dead” in order for His disciples to understand.(23) See the Gospel of John, Chapter 11 for more info As previously stated, this phrase was newly coined to separate the thought of death as a terminal end than continued life in a weakened form. Perhaps the use of sleep was a Pharisaic distinctive that both Christ and Paul continued, or Paul had acquired directly from Christ’s teachings.

The Latin translators carefully captured this in their rendering of the controversial passage in Matthew 27:52 “and many of the bodies of the saints, who had fallen asleep”(24) Biblia Sacra: Vulgata Editionis. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons. ND. Pg. 23 referring to the death of others—sleep here is from dormio, which has the semantic range to not only mean sleep but also to be dormant, or inactive.

Any attempt to correlate sleep with death from a Talmudic perspective is difficult. The Talmud is quiet about the correlation of sleep and death in any significant way, only suggesting that sleep is a 1/60th experience of death.(25)IBID, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Pg. 222

Jewish thought refrained from defining death using the Greek dualistic model, that man is mortal concerning his body and immortal in reference to the mind.(26)IBID, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Pg. 222 Rather they preferred to believe that the soul, known in Hebrew as nepesh, is everything that a person is made of—the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is the complete product. Man has to await the resurrection on the last day to be restored to completeness.

One of the most difficult questions each one has to ask is, what happens when the body ceases to function? The best systematic literature at least from the Scripture can be found from Paul the Apostle, who outlined two stages of death and the hereafter. First, after one dies, there is a stasis: an incorporal static state awaiting the end of the world.

The second state is the resurrection from an inactive condition into a corporal being.

The time waiting between an incorporeal, unconscious state from death to resurrection, whether one day or a thousand years, may just feel momentary, as the dead are not governed by time.

This waiting state is a point of controversy within some theological circles, many theologians believe that when you die, there is no waiting time and you automatically begin the next life.

The Jewish writers, including those of the Bible, emphasize the resurrection of the dead over immortality of the soul. When we die, we temporarily remain in an inactive condition. We do not live in semi-form such as a ghost, or wander the earth as liberated spirit or go to another dimension.

The Jewish sages also discussed what dead bodily material should be available so that they will rise in the day of resurrection and believed it to be part of the spinal column named Luz.(27)IBID, Everyman’s Talmud, Pg. 363 It is unclear what part this exactly was but they thought it to be indestructible.

It is clear from the Sages that material from the original body is required for the resurrection.

One can speculate, similarly to the ancient Jewish sages, on how God will physically perform the resurrection. One could argue that the resurrection of the dead is the stimulation of a personal cell to reproduce and restore to its previous physical state. God, the ultimate scientist, only needs one cell to transform a person being from an inactive, weak state into a complete one again. Perhaps all our information about our physical selves and our thoughts are stored within the memory of each cell.

In the Bible, in an old writing called the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel had a dream about this very concept.(28) Ezekiel 37 He saw himself in the midst of a valley of human bones. God asked him in the dream if these bones can live and then the bones proceeded to reconnect, and build layer upon layer back into human form. He saw an army of people that came back to life. The description here sounds like cloning or something above this technology.

But this seems to be an oversimplification of a very difficult and vexing question from a scientific perspective.

Part of the problem of death, and the lack of definition thereof, reflects our finiteness. If we could define it, then we have some sort of mastery over it. But the lack demonstrates that we have no control, nor any comprehension of this power. Even as an overt Christian with hope of the resurrection, the lack of definition and control over our final destination is scary. It is hard to imagine how those with no concept with the hereafter deal with this.

As King David wrote over 2,900 years ago “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me”(29) Psalm 23:4 This passage exudes some confidence but fear as well. The “valley of the shadow of death” is not a nice place. It demonstrates that pain, suffering and insecurity are not removed from the religious vernacular when referenced to dying, but a confidence that this is only temporary and we will pass through to a better place. Even Christ, moments before being led away and the events unfolded for His crucifixion, was in angst, and wanted to refuse such an outcome.(30) Matthew 26:39

Another factor about death is its timing and nature. None of us know when and how we are going to die. Insurance companies have given proven statistics that detail the odds of when the typical person should live and die but it is too general to be a guideline on every individual’s specific demise. Some will die very early in life, while others very long and some in-between. Death is entirely not consistent, predictable or fair in its arrival.

Death is often described as a special function carried out by an angel. It is called the Angel of Death. Many movies have been created that demonstrate a connection with the Angel of Death such as “Final Destination”—a movie which suggests some people’s responses could passively evade it. The actual words “Angel of Death” only appears similarly once in the Bible,(31) I Chronicles 21:15 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ Θεὸς ἄγγελον εἰς ῾Ιερουσαλὴμ τοῦ ἐξολοθρεῦσαι αὐτήν (Septuagint) the other few times, it is a loose translation of the Greek word for destroyer, or slayer with no reference to angel.(32) I Cor 10:10, Hebrews 11:28 is ὀλοθρεύων The concept of the angel of death was probably evoked from a mystical-medieval-Christian legend.

Resurrection and oblivion has been in dispute for millenniums and societies have vacillated between these concepts throughout history. Israel during the time of Christ was deeply divided on the subject. On at least one occasion Jesus went out of his way intellectually to address it, “but regarding the fact that the dead rise again,” and then went on to say, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…”(33) Mark 12:26-27 These quotes offer two observations. First of all that the community Jesus spoke to were not convinced about the hereafter, and secondly, death is a transitory state.

The Apostle Paul used the controversial concept of eternal life to his political advantage while appearing before a hostile judicial court, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’(34)Acts 23:6 He knew that the Jewish assembly judging him was deeply divided on the subject and distracted them from his case. He succeeded and avoided prosecution. He also discussed the matter with the Roman Governor Festus, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”(35)Acts 26:8 The Governor replied about this statement, combined with a number of other comments Paul had made, that he had gone mad.

Obviously the whole Christian religious movement is based on Jesus rising and having mastery over all elements of death.(36)Romans 6:9 The Apostle Paul not only passionately tried to reinforce the point that Christ rose from the dead but to assert this, he had to convince a contemporary and skeptical mindset that a hereafter even exists, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.”(37) I Corinthians 15:16-17

The reality is we all have to die. It is not a nice experience for anyone, whether religious or not. But what we do here on earth determines one’s future state. It is the biggest question we all have to answer and it cannot be avoided. Those who do not, risk missing out on something much better. ■

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