Death: IV. Western Religious Thought

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Death in Biblical Thought

There is no "biblical view of death" as such. This lack of a single scriptural understanding of death is hardly surprising, given the fact that the Bible is sacred scripture for three world religions and that its contents were written and compiled over a period of a thousand years or more. But the history of literary and religious development embedded within the Bible itself does allow for a kind of "archaeology" of death in biblical thought. Though admittedly vastly over-simplified, the following narrative of the Bible's evolving views on death can be traced backward through their random branchings and read forward toward their studied convergences.

Put in its simplest terms, an ancient desert god named Yahweh came to be regarded not only as the national god of a holy nation, but ultimately as the one and only God of the universe. These momentous shifts in the biblical understanding of God were paralleled by remarkable changes in biblical views of death, beginning with the denial and concluding with the affirmation of individual postmortem existence.

THE HEBREW BIBLE. Hebrew religion emerged out of the tribal polytheisms of ancient Mesopotamia. The protagonists of Yahwism only gradually succeeded in establishing their deity as the national god of the various Semitic tribes that were finally welded together, during the latter half of the second millennium b.c.e., into the people known as the Israelites. A key weapon in their struggle to establish Yahweh's supremacy was the suppression of prevailing beliefs and practices dealing with death. In two very different responses to death, Mesopotamian culture had preserved primitive notions of life after death as a continuation of the life before death. On the one hand, mortuary cults affirmed a significant afterlife for the powerful and privileged who commanded the worship and fealty of the living. On the other hand, postmortem existence was limited to an awful under-world where the departed dead were shrouded in darkness and subsisted on clay. In either case, the realm of the dead was under the control of the gods of the underworld. For that reason, the champions of Yahwism denounced the polytheistic beliefs and practices of both the mortuary cults and the "house of dust."

Against the mortuary cults, the Yahwists presented a view of human nature and destiny that undercut all ancestor worship and necromancy. In the Yahwist creation myth, the protohuman couple was created from the soil and destined to return to the soil (Gen. 3:19). Human beings are material bodies animated by a life force (nephesh or ruach) residing in the breath or the blood. Death comes when the life force leaves the body and returns to Yahweh. Thus, a common fate awaits all persons upon death—master and slave, rich and poor, good and bad—all descend beneath the earth to the place of the dead called She'ol, where they continue a shadowy existence, but only for a brief period of time. This land of the dead was variously described as an awful pit shrouded in darkness or a walled city covered with dust. Although reminiscent of the Mesopotamian underworld, the Yahwist notion of She'ol excluded any divine ruler of the infernal regions. Neither a god of the underworld nor Yahweh himself was involved with the denizens of She'ol. Yahweh reigned supreme over the community of the living, meting out collective rewards and punishments only in the present life. In other words, mortality was accepted as a fact of life. Premature and violent deaths were feared as great evils and regarded as punishments for sin. As such, the untimely or agonizing death remained under the control of Yahweh (Isa. 45:7). But death at the end of a long and happy life was accepted, if not welcomed (Gen. 25:8; Job 5:26). What mattered were those things which survived the mortal individual: a good reputation (Prov. 10:7), male offspring (Isa. 56:3–5), the promised land (Gen. 48:21), and the God of Israel (Ps. 90).

Precisely this emphasis on present existence contributed to the eventual transformation of Yahwism. The naive assumption that Yahweh rewards the pious with prosperity and a long life while punishing the wicked with misfortune and a brief life was obviously contradicted by communal and individual experience. Especially the disasters that befell Israel between the eighth and the sixth centuries b.c.e. raised radical doubts about Yahweh's justice and omnipotence, because the entire social and religious order of Israel was disrupted and eventually destroyed.

This massive destruction evinced two distinctive responses. On the one hand, most of the great prophets of Israel responded to these dire circumstances by reaffirming collective retribution and promising collective restoration (Isa. 11:10–16; Ezek. 36:16–36). Some prophets moved beyond communal responsibility and punishment (Jer. 21:3), but their new emphasis on the individual only heightened the tension between divine power and justice in the face of innocent suffering (Job 10:2–9). On the other hand, an apocalyptic school of thought slowly emerged that anticipated a miraculous deliverance of the faithful living and dead at the end of time. Envisioned in this apocalyptic outlook was the final defeat of death itself, which had increasingly been personified as a destructive evil force. Thus, by the end of the second century b.c.e., two sharply contrasting views of death dominated the Hebraic worldview. The older notion that death marked the end of life remained the traditional view among those who came to be known as the Sadducees. The newer view that affirmed postmortem divine judgment and human resurrection flourished among such sectarian movements as the Pharisees and the Essenes. For these sectarians, the powers of death would eventually be overcome by the power of God.

THE INTERTESTAMENTAL LITERATURE. This sectarian transformation of the Hebraic view of death during the socalled intertestamental period was immense (ca. 200 b.c.e. to 50 c.e.). A number of disparate ideas were combined into a dramatically new eschatology. The Book of Daniel marked a watershed in Hebrew religious thought by promising Yahweh's final intervention in history to rescue his people from their enemies and to resurrect past generations from the dead to participate in this ultimate restoration. To be sure, this final restoration was limited to the nation of Israel. But, under the impact of speculative thought and foreign influences concerning life after death, the prospect of a final resurrection and judgment for all humankind appeared in the later apocalyptic literature, much of which is contained in the Apocrypha. In this apocalyptic literature, human consciousness and the life force were fused into an entity (psyche or pneuma) which, unlike the earlier conceptions of nephesh orruach, survived the cessation of bodily functions in some spiritual fashion. She'ol was reconceived as a holding place for the dead until their ultimate fate was decided at a final judgment. More significantly, She'ol was divided into compartments reflecting the moral character of the dead, wherein rewards and punishments were already meted out in anticipation of the catastrophic end of the existing world order (Enoch 22:9–14). Thus, death held no terror for the righteous. In fact, death through martyrdom was seen as a seal of divine favor (2 Macc. 6:30–31) and even premature death from serious illness freed the righteous from further suffering (Wisd. of Sol. 4:11). Death was only a threat and curse to the wicked. Reminiscent of the older Yahwist traditions, the apocalyptic emphasis remained largely on the collective aspects of human destiny, for it is the nations that are arraigned for the final judgment (2 Ezd. 7:32–38). The postmortem survival of the individual became an affirmation of faith within certain Jewish circles only following the shattering of the Jewish state in 70 c.e.

THE NEW TESTAMENT. Primitive Christianity emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic expectations of the catastrophic end of the existing world order and the final judgment of the living and the dead. These apocalyptic expectations had been joined in the popular imagination with the older prophetic Messianic traditions in which a divinely appointed and endowed figure would crush the enemies and restore the glories of Israel. So far as the New Testament Gospels allow for historical reconstruction, the message of Jesus centered in the nearness of the Day of the Lord, when the chosen people of Yahweh would be vindicated before the nations of the world. Jesus called his compatriots to prepare themselves for the Coming Judgment through repentance and obedience to the written and oral Law of God. But, unlike the earlier nationalistic preoccupations of Jewish apocalypticism, this newer eschatology emphasized the eternal destiny of individuals in accordance with their moral achievements (Matt. 25:40–46). After his death and resurrection, the followers of Jesus identified him as the promised Messiah who would restore the righteous and judge the wicked. This same "Christianized" apocalyptic tradition informs the Revelation to John, which so profoundly influenced later Christian views of human death and destiny. Here the "end of the world" was described in elaborate detail as a cataclysmic establishment of the millennial reign of Christ and the saints on earth, after which the righteous are rewarded with eternal life and the wicked are punished with eternal death. Thus, the earliest Christian view of life after death was heavily influenced by, but not identical with, Jewish apocalypticism. Jesus was heralded by his early followers as their resurrected Lord who would shortly return in supernatural power and glory to preside over the Final Judgment of the living and the dead.

A somewhat different interpretation of the message and mission of Jesus was offered by Paul in his outreach to a Gentile audience. Paul regarded the death of Christ as a divinely planned event to rescue humankind from enslavement to the demonic powers of evil and death that ruled the world. Although influenced by apocalyptic thought, Paul's interpretation of a divine Savior's death and resurrection involved an eschatology very different from the apocalyptic scheme of things. No longer was obedience to the Twofold Law the basis on which the living and the dead would be judged; instead, faith in the crucified and risen Lord became the crucial factor. The ritual of baptism, which reenacted the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, initiated believers into immortal life while still living in their material bodies. The baptized Christian, having become a new creation in Christo, had already passed from death to life. Thus, the imminent return of Christ and the end of the world held no fear for baptized believers, for their final judgment and destiny had already been settled.

With the Roman overthrow of the Jewish state in 70 c.e., the Mother Church of Jerusalem disappeared and eventually Pauline Christianity became the normative interpretation of Christ. Elements of the earlier apocalyptic eschatology were carried over into this form of faith. Christianity became a salvation religion centered in a Savior God who would shortly return to bring the existing world to a catastrophic end and to judge those who had oppressed the faithful. But the continuing delay of the second coming of Christ forced the Church to rethink its notions of eschatological fulfillment. The Church could no longer think of itself as an eschatological community awaiting the imminent return of their Lord. Rather, the Church developed a hierarchical structure and a sacramental system to shepherd believers through the perils and pitfalls of life from birth to death. Accordingly, Christ was reconceived as the heavenly mediator between God and humankind. Despite these doctrinal and ecclesiological developments, the apocalyptic vision of the catastrophic end of the world was retained, raising anew all sorts of problems about the status of the dead before the final day of resurrection and judgment. Over time, these problems were resolved in ever more vivid and complicated schemes of postmortem paradisal bliss for the saints and purgatorial torment for the sinners until the day of Final Judgment (Luke 16:19–26).

ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS. As noted above, the Bible is a diverse literature containing a variety of religious perspectives on death. Religious affirmation of the triumph of life over death is a common theme running through the whole of scripture, but how, where, and when this victory is won differs dramatically among biblical perspectives. For that reason, the Bible offers no consensus of direct guidelines on death and dying. Nevertheless some application of the biblical tradition to modern "end of life" ethical issues can be ventured.

1. Biblical views of death are greatly influenced by the wider cultural milieu. As human conditions and needs changed, so did prevailing religious beliefs and practices concerning death. Thus, the Bible itself seems to allow for changing definitions and responses to death in the light of new social conditions, scientific knowledge, and religious insights.

2. The biblical tradition's intimate connection between body and spirit is not only a mandate for medical care as treatment of the whole person but also grounds for regarding human life as more than biological functioning. While the Bible does not authoritatively establish when death occurs, it defines death as the separation of the spirit from the body. Thereby, the Bible provides indirect warrants for withholding or withdrawing extraordinary means of life support when the vital bond between body and spirit has been dissolved or destroyed.

3. The biblical tradition never accords absolute power or independent status to death. Death, whether viewed as a natural event or an evil force, is always subordinated to the power and purposes of God. While the Bible speaks of sin as both a cause and a consequence of death, even the death of the sinner remains under divine control and serves the divine will. God's sovereignty over death serves as a caution against simplistic religious warrants for directly or indirectly terminating the lives of the suffering.

4. Biblical support can be found both for death as a natural part of life and death as an evil power opposed to life. Those who regard death as an "enemy" that must be battled at all costs will find more support for their view in the New Testament. Those who see death as a "friend" that can be welcomed at the end of life will feel more kinship with the Hebrew Bible. But both Jewish and Christian scriptures regard untimely and violent deaths as evils to be avoided and enemies to be combatted by all legitimate means that do not compromise religious or moral duties. Of course, death by coercive martyrdom can be affirmed as a seal of great faith, and even premature death from debilitating illness can be welcomed by the believer as a deliverance from great suffering.

5. Taken as a whole, the Bible does not unambiguously affirm individual life after death. But where postmortem existence is affirmed in the Bible, the grounds are theological rather than anthropological. The individual's survival beyond death is a divine possibility rather than a human certainty. Immortal life is a "supernatural" endowment rather than a "natural" attribute. In other words, a belief in life after death is neither a given of human nature nor a constant of human culture. Thus, the idea of life after death cannot become an explicit warrant for public policies or ethical decisions regarding "end of life" issues in a pluralistic society.

Death in Systematic Religious Thought

The classical doctrines and rituals of Judaism and Christianity are no less complicated and diverse than their biblical backgrounds. Neither the Judaic nor the Christian tradition is monolithic. Both faiths have been developed over extended periods of time in response to changing historical circumstances and cultural influences. But these theological complexities can be simplified for purposes of comparing and contrasting their respective views of death. Just as there are elements of continuity and mutuality within the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, so are there broad similarities between Judaism and Christianity in their traditional beliefs and practices regarding death.

POSTBIBLICAL JEWISH BELIEFS AND PRACTICES. A long and slow transformation took place from the completion of the Hebrew Bible (ca. 200 b.c.e.) to the completion of the Talmud (ca. 500 c.e.), during which time biblical Hebraism emerged as rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud brought together eight hundred years of rabbinic commentary on scripture that was broadly categorized as halakhah (law) and haggadah (story), the former describing the obligations, the latter explaining the meaning of God's covenant with Israel. This massive compendium of rabbinic thought explicated the scripture's "moralization" of life and death in vast and vivid detail. For example, heaven (Gan Eden) and hell (Gehinnom) were each divided into five separate chambers, reflecting different levels of eternal rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked. Similarly, the rabbis described 903 forms of death. The hardest way of dying is by asthma and the easiest, which is reserved for the righteous, is "like drawing a hair from milk." Death following five days of illness was considered ordinary. Death after four days or less indicated increasing degrees of divine reprimand. Those who died before fifty were "cut off," sixty years was "ripe age," and above seventy was "old age." Despite all this moralizing about death, comparatively few rabbis held that death as such was the wages of sin. Against those who taught that Adam's sin brought death into the world, the majority of rabbis taught that Adam's mortality was given with his creation. Death was an integral part of the good world that God created in the beginning. Thus, sin hastens death but does not cause it in the first place.

In other words, only the timing and manner of death are affected by moral conditions. Acts of benevolence and confessions of sins can delay the hour of death as surely as sins of impurity and injustice can speed it. But there is no avoiding death once the angel of death receives the order from God. Given God's permission to destroy, the angel of death makes no distinction between good and bad, but wields the sword against royalty and commoner, old and young, pious and pagan, animal and human alike. While both the wicked and the righteous must die, their deaths are as different as their lives. The wicked perish to pay for their sins while the righteous die to be freed from their sins. Death is a punishment for the sins of the wicked but an atonement for the sins of the righteous. Put another way, the righteous are still alive even though dead, while the wicked are already dead though still alive.

When death occurs, the soul leaves the body with a silent cry that echoes from one end of the world to the other. The soul's departure from the body is marked by the absence of breathing, heartbeat, and pulse. The slightest sign of movement is an indication that death has not yet occurred. Where the soul goes was a matter of considerable dispute among the rabbis. Some taught that the soul sleeps until the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. Others believed that the soul passes into an interim state of consciousness and activity. But they all agreed that the body that remains must be treated with dignity and given a proper burial. Desecration of the body, such as mutilation or burial with missing body parts, is forbidden, and burial must be before nightfall if possible. Interment must be in the ground to fulfill the biblical mandate ("Dust you are and to dust you shall return") and to complete the atoning process ("May my death be an atonement for all my sins"). A speedy and simple burial also accorded with widespread popular beliefs that the soul is free to complete its journey to the other world only when the body has decomposed.

These beliefs about death were reflected in a number of customs and rituals surrounding the dying and mourning process. A dying person (goses) was given special consideration by loved ones who gave support and comfort during the last hours. The dying person was never to be left alone. Last wishes and spiritual advice were to be faithfully observed. When nearing the end, the dying were encouraged to make a confession such as the following: "I acknowledge unto Thee, O Lord my God, and God of my fathers, that both my cure and my death are in Thy hands. May it be Thy will to send me a perfect healing. Yet if my death be fully determined by Thee, I will in love accept it at Thy hand. O, may my death be an atonement for all my sins, iniquities, and transgressions of which I have been guilty against Thee." This confession was followed with the traditional Jewish affirmation of faith: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4).

When death had occurred, the eyes and mouth were closed by the eldest son or nearest relative. The arms were extended alongside the body, which was placed on the floor with the feet toward the door and covered by a sheet. A lighted candle was placed close to the head. Mirrors were turned to the wall or covered. Water in the death room was poured out, reflecting the ancient legend that the angel of death washes its bloody sword in nearby water. The windows of the death chamber were opened to allow the spirits to enter and depart. The dead body was never left alone, whether on weekdays or the Sabbath, until the funeral. Thus, the entire deathbed drama was structured to allow the dying to face the future realistically, yet within a reassuring framework of family and faith.

The theological and literary diversity of the talmudic period yielded two very different developments of the Jewish tradition during the Middle Ages (ca. 1100–1600). A mystical school emerged whose teachings concerning death and the afterlife went far beyond rabbinical Judaism. An emphasis on divine immanence and human transcendence lay at the heart of the Kabbalah, the most commonly used term for the esoteric teachings of medieval Judaism. Human life is the journey of the soul from God and back to God. During the interim period of life on earth and in the body, the soul must attain the "knowledge of the mysteries of the faith," which will purify and prepare it for its return to God. Since this esoteric knowledge is seldom learned in a single life, the soul transmigrates from one embodiment to another until all sins are purged and all duties fulfilled. In this mystical scheme of things, death is simply a threshold marking the passage from one life to another in the soul's ascent to God.

By contrast, a scholastic approach emerged, which codified talmudic beliefs and practices concerning death and dying. The greatest halakist of medieval Judaism was Rabbi Joseph Caro. His sixteenth-century work, Shulhan Arukh, became the authoritative code of Jewish law by synthesizing and reconciling the three giants of medieval halakhah—Isaac Alfasia, Moses Maimonides, and Asher B. Jehiel. Unlike Maimonides, who reinterpreted traditional Jewish teachings in Aristotelian terms, Caro did not subject Jewish law to speculative criticism. Rather, he brought order out of chaos by investigating each stage of development of every single law, finally arriving at a decisive interpretation and application of that law. His work has remained the indispensable guide to the development and interpretation of Jewish laws and customs for two millennia. Included in Shulhan Arukh are the detailed halakic rites and duties surrounding death, burial, and mourning observed throughout Orthodox Jewry to this day.

In the modern period, a variety of reform movements have modified many traditional Jewish beliefs and practices concerning death. Orthodox Jews have for the most part remained loyal to rabbinic eschatology, with its emphasis on the final resurrection, but they diverge on whether the resurrection awaits all humankind, the righteous of every age, or only the Jewish people. These otherworldly notions of Messianic redemption and divine judgment have largely faded into the background for Conservative Jewish thinkers. They interpret the Messianic Hope historically in terms of the restoration of the nation of Israel, and spiritually in terms of the immortality of the soul. References to the resurrection of the dead in Jewish rituals of death, burial, and mourning are retained, but the language of resurrection is assimilated to teachings about the immortality of the soul.

Reform Judaism has gone even further in rejecting doctrines of bodily resurrection and the Messianic Age. The "Pittsburgh Platform" of Reformed Judaism (1885) excluded all bodily notions of heaven and hell as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward. Indeed, some liberal Jewish thinkers have rejected the idea of individual immortality entirely, though they affirm the lasting value of each human life within the everlasting life of God. These reformulations of Jewish belief have also produced liberalizations in the areas of Jewish death, burial, and mourning rites. Curiously enough, this turn away from the otherworld and afterlife has fueled a profound concern for the salvation of humankind in the full reality of their historical existence. Thus, many Reformed Jews have returned full cycle to the essentially "humanistic" outlook of the great prophets of ancient Israel.

POSTBIBLICAL CHRISTIAN BELIEFS AND PRACTICES. The traditional Christian understanding of death developed largely in response to two challenges facing the Church at the close of the first century. Internally, the delay of the second coming of Christ forced Christian thinkers to deal with the state of the soul between death and resurrection. For the most part, primitive Christians believed that the dead slept until the Last Day, at which time they would be resurrected from the grave to receive their everlasting rewards or punishments. But, as this period of time lengthened, questions about the interim between individual death and universal judgment became ever more pressing. Externally, the pervasive view of death in Hellenistic religion and philosophy called for some theological response. The Greeks believed that the immortal soul is released from its bodily entrapment by death. This understanding of death was so widespread that some Christian assimilation of the soul's immortality and the body's inferiority was inevitable. Taken together over time, the delay of the return of Christ and the appropriation of Greek ideas of immortality fostered an elaborate system of Christian beliefs and practices concerning the active life of the soul during the period between one's death and the general resurrection at the end of the age. In time, this new eschatology displaced the apocalyptic vision of the Last Days, which vision survived for the most part in millenarian or chiliastic sects, who looked forward to the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The church fathers adopted many of the categories of Greek philosophy but retained most of the substance of Pauline Christianity. They affirmed the immortality of the soul but rejected the ultimate separability of soul and body, along with all Hellenistic notions of reincarnation and immediate judgment. The soul is the vivifying principle and as such is incomplete without a body. Indeed, had Adam and Eve not sinned, humankind never would have experienced death. But all must suffer the separation of soul and body in death as punishment for their sins. Their souls, however, cannot perish because they are immortal. Therefore, these souls must eventually be reunited with "the dust of bodies long dead" (Augustine) in order to receive their final inheritance of everlasting salvation or eternal damnation. Surprisingly, there was little speculation among the church fathers about this interim between individual death and general resurrection. Since the soul is immaterial during this period, the dead could experience no sense of place or time, no awareness of comfort or pain, until the resurrection.

Given its finality, death thus became a decisive moment in the soul's destiny. The hour of death sealed the fate of the saved and damned alike. Those who died with their sins forgiven were destined for heaven's bliss. Those who died "while yet in their sins" were condemned to hell's agony. This emphasis on penance in relation to God's mercy and judgment fueled the more elaborate view of heaven, hell, and purgatory that characterized medieval Christianity. The materials for that view were already available in the earlier periods, but an adequate conceptual framework was lacking. The notion of a fire that cleanses the righteous and consumes the wicked at the final resurrection belonged to the earliest biblical traditions. Pushing this purgation of sins back from the final judgment into the interim period after death was encouraged by pietistic and penitential practices. Prayers to the saints and masses for the dead whose sins require expiation implied an active existence for souls following death and suggested a postmortem purgation of sins. But these implications were not fully worked out until the High Middle Ages (1200–1500).

Drawing on Aristotelian philosophy, Thomas Aquinas worked out an eschatology that combined an active spiritual afterlife with the traditional biblical notions of a general resurrection and last judgment. While the soul actualizes the body as its matter, it contains within itself to a degree all the perfections of physical and spiritual existence. Thus, the infliction of punishment or the bestowal of reward on the soul begins immediately after its separation from the body. But neither ultimate happiness nor ultimate misery is possible for a disembodied soul and, therefore, both must await the reunion of soul and body at the resurrection. Moreover, the soul that is ultimately rewarded must be entirely purified, either during or after this life. In other words, the existence of purgatory was a logical correlate of the immortal soul and the sacrament of penance, which requires contrition and satisfaction for all sins committed after baptism.

This thirteenth-century theological synthesis ineluctably shifted the emphasis to the individual's judgment at death rather than the universal judgment of humankind at the final resurrection of the dead. The Church's official view retained the two judgments, but in popular belief and practice they were in effect merged into one. People simply went to heaven, hell, or purgatory at the moment of death. Accordingly, the hour of death became overloaded with urgency. Dying in a state of grace meant eternal salvation, in a state of sin, eternal damnation, while dying with unconfessed sin required purgatorial cleansing. Thus, dying became more important than living. This focus on death was most obvious in the medieval Ars moriendi art of dying manuals that gave step-by-step advice to the dying and to the persons attending the dying to ensure a "good death." Of greater significance was the increasing importance of the sacrament of extreme unction, which was administered to the dying for all sins of sight, hearing, smell, speech, touch, and action. For those believers who died ill-prepared, there were masses for the dead and indulgences for the remission of sin for those in purgatory. In other words, a whole arsenal of beliefs and practices were mobilized against the terror of dying outside the state of grace.

What was developed in the thirteenth century as gifts of divine grace became in the fourteenth and fifteenth century marks of human folly. Or so the Protestant reformers claimed. Abuses surrounding the sacraments and indulgences for the dying were rife in the late medieval Church. These abuses were a precipitating cause of the sixteenth-century reform movements that swept both church and society. In point of fact, neither Luther nor Calvin broke with the fundamental worldview of medieval Christianity. Both challenged current beliefs and practices from within the medieval tradition. Thus, with regard to eschatology, the reformers retained the concept of the soul's immortality and eternal destiny. But they both undercut the entire penitential system with a different understanding of divine mercy and justice. The blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers. Thus, medieval notions of a purgatorial state and a treasury of merits fell to the ground because these practices compromised the sole ground of salvation in Christ through faith. What remained for the reformers was an affirmation of the imperishable soul, which immediately enters its eternal reward or punishment upon separation from the body in death. The older idea of a general resurrection and judgment at the End of the Age was retained, but this last state of the soul only ratifies and perfects the fate of the saved and the damned at death.

In the modern world, mainline Catholic theologians have for the most part remained faithful to the position of Thomas Aquinas. The lurid images and frantic piety surrounding death and the afterlife in the Middle Ages have long since been rejected by educated Catholics. But the devout Catholic can still face the enemy of death armed with the traditional sacramental graces and doctrinal truths of life everlasting. To be sure, some contemporary Catholic theologians interpret these traditional beliefs and practices in symbolic rather than literal terms. For them, the experience of death is viewed as pilgrimage in faith rather than punishment for sin. Death is seen as "the law of human growth," whereby each stage of growth requires a tearing away from previous environments, which have become like so many prisons. In death, one's own body, like the mother's body at birth, is abandoned so that personal growth may continue. Alternatively, death allows the soul to enter into a new allembracing unity. At death the soul is freed from the limitation of being related to one particular human body and becomes related to the whole universe. The pouring out of the self at death leads to a pan-cosmic level of personal and communal existence. But for the most part, contemporary Roman Catholics simply "look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come," in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Modern Protestant theologians have been even more innovative than their Catholic counterparts. To be sure, mainline Protestants have followed the guidelines laid down by the Reformers. They have combined an emphasis on postmortem rewards and punishments for the soul at death with some notion or another of a Final Consummation of the Age. But a growing freedom from ecclesiastical authority and biblical literalism allowed for a wide range of Protestant theological innovations. These new theologies were usually developed in response to the challenges of modern science and in partnership with one or another modern philosophy. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the Christian faith was interpreted within such diverse philosophical frameworks as rationalism, romanticism, empiricism, existentialism, and process thought. Not surprisingly, each philosophical theology has dealt with the problem of death and the afterlife in its own distinctive way. These liberal theological experiments share certain convictions about life after death. They reject apocalyptic schemes of history and literalistic views of the afterlife. They empty the afterlife of all ideas of eternal torment, preferring instead to speak of either the total annihilation or eventual salvation of the wicked. But their concrete notions of eternal life run the gamut from the soul's immaterial existence in heaven to the self's authentic existence while on earth. Despite these wide-ranging theological reflections on death, most present-day Protestants hold to the idea of death as the soul's passage to its immortal destiny, either in eternal communion with or eternal separation from God and the people of God.

ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS. The long histories of Judaism and Christianity reveal disagreements within as well as differences between these religious traditions. And yet there are striking parallels between the ways they deal with death over the centuries. Of course, both traditions come out of the same Hebraic background and confront the same broad cultural challenges. But of greater importance is the fact that both traditions are preoccupied with the issue of theodicy. There must be some ultimate justification of the brute fact that the righteous suffer and die along with the wicked. The stubbornly moral character of the Judaic and Christian traditions militates against either indiscriminate immortality or universal annihilation. Thus, for all their differences, Judaism and Christianity are bound together by their efforts to reconcile ethics and eschatology. Not surprisingly, Judaism and Christianity respond in similar ways to a number of "end of life" ethical issues.

1. For the most part, Judaism and Christianity traditionally define death as the moment the spirit leaves the body. The accepted signs of the spirit's departure are the absence of breathing, heartbeat, and pulse. But there is nothing in these theological traditions that directly rules out more precise empirical signs of death, such as a flat brain wave. Most Christian theologians, and many Jewish thinkers, have accepted a brain-oriented definition of death, but some, especially within Orthodox Judaism, oppose such a definition, focusing instead on breathing as the definitive indicator of life. Some contemporary theologians are openly embracing higher-brain oriented definitions of death as modern equivalents of the departure of the spirit from the body.

2. Regardless of the etiology of death, the Jewish and Christian traditions regard death as an evil to be endured rather than a good to be embraced. Though death is inevitable, it is an event to be held at bay by every possible and honorable means that is not excessively burdensome or morally ambiguous. Therefore, most traditional Jews and Christians are categorically opposed to suicide and active euthanasia, or "mercy killing." Since martyrdom is not considered suicide, choosing death over life in service to one's faith or for the sake of others is allowable if it cannot be avoided in an honorable way.

3. Although all must die, not all deaths are the same in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Clearly, there are better and worse ways of dying. The best of deaths is the death of a person at peace with God who is "full of years," relatively free of pain, and surrounded by loved ones. The worst of deaths is to die "before your time," in rebellion against God, and alienated from family and friends. Recognition of these different ways of dying lends at least indirect religious sanctions to modern-day concerns about the "good death." There are no clear-cut religious obligations to prolong the dying process by extraordinarily burdensome means of life support. Indeed, the moral permissibility of withholding or withdrawing heroic means of life support from the terminally ill enjoys wide support among contemporary Jews and Christians alike, even though some Jewish scholars, particularly among the Orthodox, prefer to provide support, whenever possible, until the patient is moribund.

4. For both Jews and Christians, death is a reality that cannot be ignored or wished away. Whether death comes slowly or suddenly, the worst time to deal with death is after it happens. Believers should be prepared to deal with the heartache and havoc it brings before illness or tragedy strikes. We are ready to live only when we are prepared to die. While such preparation need not require the cultivated preoccupation with death of the medieval Ars moriendi, it should include a recognition of human mortality and an acceptance of human limits. In principle, such preparation might include the execution of advanced directives regarding terminal care.

5. Although the soul is infinitely more valuable than the body, the bodies of the dead deserve to be treated with care and love. For traditional Jews, such respect for the human body ordinarily excludes mutilation of the body, although sanctions against autopsies and dissection may yield to the superior value of protecting life or punishing crime. Some contemporary Jewish thinkers extend this overriding obligation to preserve life to the justification of organ harvesting for transplantation. Despite centuries of theological opposition, traditional Christians have reconciled themselves to the legitimacy of anatomical dissection and organ harvesting in the interests of science and medicine, perhaps reflecting the Christian view that the resurrected body is a new creation of God. But more liberal Jews and Christians are untroubled by any of these postmortem procedures, provided they do not disgrace the corpse or disturb the family.

6. Both the Jewish and Christian emphasis on death is, in reality, the obverse of an even greater emphasis on life. At best, death serves as a motive for a creative and responsible life. At worst, death looms as a menace to a courageous and generous life. Either way, death lends an urgency to life that would be utterly lacking without it. Death enhances rather than cheapens the value of life.

7. For both Jews and Christians, there is hope that death does not have the final word in human experience. For many, death is a corridor that leads to a life free of sorrow, suffering, and separation. For others, death is powerless to cut off the faithful from the life of the community and the life of God. On either reckoning, death is incorporated as a meaningful stage in the life cycle. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions, strengthened by centuries of suffering and surviving, provide a variety of ways of affirming life in the face of death.

lonnie d. kliever (1995)

bibliography revised

SEE ALSO: Anthropology and Bioethics; Authority in Religious Traditions; Autonomy; Body: Cultural and Religious Perspectives; Care; Christianity, Bioethics in; Compassionate Love; Grief and Bereavement; Harm; Holocaust; Human Dignity; Infanticide; Islam, Bioethics in; Judaism, Bioethics in; Life; Life, Quality of; Life Sustaining Treatment and Euthanasia; Literature and Healthcare; Narrative; Palliative Care and Hospice; Pediatrics, Intensive Care in; Right to Die, Policy and Law; Suicide; Triage; Value and Valuation; Virtue and Character;Warfare; and other Death subentries



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