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The perspective of death and dying has changed with changing times. Today people view death in a very different way as compared to the ancient times. Christianity has had a positive influence towards this change and has made it easier for the dying and the bereaved. It has given them hope.
In modern Christianity, death is a passage from the mortal earthly life to eternal life that lasts forever and ever. The dying process enables the transition of the soul from the mortal and earthly body to the immortal world. Therefore, death and dying is necessary passage for humanity for it to gain the eternal life. It is a gain that whose absence would mean absence of eternal life.
Death is separation of the soul from the mortal body. The body is left behind and people on earth perform rituals to send the body back to where it came from, the earth. The soul is freed from the body and it rises to heaven where it either lives forever or is condemned to eternal suffering. This is determined by the deeds of the person when on earth.
The righteous are rewarded with everlasting life while the evil are condemned to eternal suffering. This is well elaborated in the bible as an explanation of the reward to the righteous and the justices that will be accorded to the evil. In his work, Barry terms death as a horrible reality (2).
Death is an enemy that every human being has to face at the end of his/her journey on earth. Fear and resistance therefore characterize the dying moment of many as they try to fight off this inevitable enemy. Death was not in God’s plan when he created the first man.
When God created Adam and Eve, his ultimate plan for them was immortality. Disobedience from the first man and the woman is the source of this enemy to humanity (Good News Bible, Gen 3). Therefore, death is not a friend but an enemy to humanity. It originated from the first sin that man committed on earth.
Death is a punishment that God used on our first parents for their disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Another perspective of death is illustrated in the book of Romans that states that, “the body is dead because of sin” (Good News Bible, Rom 8:10). After the first sin at the beginning of the earth, God started to see the human body as dead, which could only be liberated by salvation of the soul.
On the other hand, some people may view death as a friend. It does not only relieve them of their mortal bodies that cause them sufferings, but also acts as a bridge to eternal life. In one of his letters as he battled with terminal cancer, Wangerin noted, “death is not the enemy but a chance for Jesus to shine” (1).
It is through death that Jesus is glorified. Were it not through the death of Christ the world would still be carrying the burden of sin. The atonement of sin is through the death of Christ. Through this perspective death becomes a friend to Christians whose sins are forgiven through this death of God’s only son.
Mythology and Legend of Death
Various societies have various myths to explain the source of death on earth. For example, in most of Australian clans, death is presented as, “the punishment for human failure to complete an assignment or achieve a goal assigned by the gods” (Heinz 343). However, Christians cite sin as the source of death. Death, according to Christians originated from disobedience of our first parents.
When Adam and Eve were given the Garden of Eden, God forbid them from eating from the tree of knowledge (Good News Bible, Gen 2). However, the serpent deceived the woman and this led to a series of sins. It is from these sins that death came to existence.
From that day onwards, the human body is perceived as dead because of sins. In the Bible, the first death is that of Abel who died in the hands of his brother Cain (Good News Bible, Gen 4). Out of jealousy, Cain killed his brother Abel. This shows that death originated from sin.
The death of Christ carries a great significance in the Christians’ perception of death; Jesus Christ faced death and defeated it by resurrecting after the third day. He became the liberator of Christians from eternal death and a source of hope that there is life after death.
Fear characterizes a dying person. The question is why people fear death instead of welcoming it. Fear is seen in people who have been ill for a very long time. They do not see this as a chance to relive them of the pain they have gone through. Instead, they try to cling to the elusive body in vain.
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In his work, Wangerin tells of his experience during his ailing moments. He knew he was dying and he even referred to death as a friend. However, when the pain became unbearable and he felt he was at the dying point, he lost his self-control and even insulted the nurses (Wangerin 1).
Although the bible assures Christians of life after death, nobody is a hundred percent sure that the promised afterlife exists. This makes them unwilling to go and face the unknown in the strange land. Anxiety fills their hearts, even the hearts of the righteous ones.
A dying person needs total support and assurance from those close to him/her. Their presence matters so much to the dying as they no longer feel alone in that journey to the unknown land. Christians have been able to establish this and have become of great assistance to their dying family members and friends.
This is by sitting with them on their deathbeds, holding their hands and giving them words of assurance until it is over. In the earlier times, death was associated with bad omen. Dying people were isolated from the health ones, as they would make them unclean.
This practice subjected people to great fear of death even when healthy, as they knew what would become of them when death came knocking. Christianity has however eased this by eliminating the ungodly beliefs.
In Gethsemane, Jesus also experienced a moment of fear. Although He was willing to die for the sins of humanity, He could not help but feel sorrow that crushed him to a point of losing hope. Since he knew his mission on earth, he managed to overcome this fear and offer Himself as a living sacrifice for human sins.
After the third day, He defeated death and rose to heaven. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a source of great hope for Christians. It is an assurance that there is life after death. Therefore, Christians are able to face death with more courage as compared to non-Christians.
Ceremony and Rituals Surrounding Death
Death brings with it sorrow. When a person dies, a big gap is left in the hearts and in the house of the bereaved. Different people have different ways of mourning the death of their loved ones. On individual level, especially to close relatives such as spouses, siblings or parents, death leaves a big gap in their hearts and lives.
The deceased might be the sole breadwinner and this leaves them unsure of what lies ahead. Individually, the bereaved undergo a period of grief. Crying is a good therapy for a mourning person. When Jesus knew that Lazarus had died, he mourned with weeping.
The mourning process is a journey. “It is a journey from initial pain of parting, towards healing and reconciliation with our loss” (Fordick and Emerson 276). The healing process takes time and the events that take place during this journey make it easier be it a short or a long journey. Support from family becomes of great importance during this moment of sorrow.
Christian family has realized the secret behind making this journey shorter. This is through consolation and prayers. Christians support each other by providing company, encouraging words and praying for each other. This has made the mourning time easy and the bereaved adapt fast to their changed status.
In most cases, people mourn the death of their beloved by telling and retelling their story (Arthur, Paul, and Austin 27). This is where the family and friends come in. They listen to these stories and offer their insight and consoling words. This lightens the bereaved burden making the healing process easy and fast. They also heal through attending fellowships and church services that provide consolation through the word of God.
Different groups have different ways of escorting their dead. In ancient times, it was a taboo to encounter the dead. The burial ceremonies were therefore short, mostly performed by priests, but not by the family members. Death to them came with many misfortunes. They had to perform cleansing rituals after burying their dead. They also had to carry out sacrifices to appease the dead to stop them from haunting them. Christianity has changed all this.
Christians do not perceive death as a misfortune. Instead, the life of the deceased is celebrated during the mourning period and during the funeral (Bowker and John 92). The Bible has given Christians great hope that, after death there is a better life that awaits them. Christians’ funerals are therefore colorful as they celebrate the life lived by the dead.
They also preach the gospel of life after death that was made possible by the death of Christ on the cross. Different denominations in the Christians fraternity have different believes of what happens after death. They therefore carry out various rituals before and after death.
Catholics believe that if a person dies before receiving the sacrament of baptism, the person goes to hell because of the venial sin. Therefore, if a person nears death it is advisable to baptize him/her before he/she dies. They also believe that if one dies with venial sin they are destined for purgatory. It is in purgatory where they undergo purification and later joins the righteous in heaven.
Therefore, after death, Catholics hold prayers for the dead to release their souls from purgatory. Protestants do not have these believes. Instead, with the permission of the dying, they pray for them to be saved from the sinful world and have their names written in the book of life. After death, they therefore celebrate their lives by comparing them with that of Jesus.
Death as a Gain
Death in Christ is a gain in the view of modern Christianity. Those who dedicate their lives to Christ will receive their share of eternal life after death. To this group, death is a gain. The Holy Spirit has described death for the righteous ones using nice words.
These words include departure in peace, taking rest and many more. On the other hand, those who die with a burden of sins are subjected to the second death or life in hell where they suffer until eternity.
The modern Christianity has teachings on life after death. It also teaches that it is through death that humans undergo transition from their mortal bodies to the immortal soul. This belief in life after death is a great source of hope that enables the dying to have courage to face death and overcome fear that comes with it.
Christians have a reason to celebrate life as dying in Christ is a gain rather than a loss. Although dying is accompanied with fear, the hope that there is life after the darkness of death overcomes all this and finally the dying can undergo the transition with hope.
Arthur, Berger, Paul, Badham, and Austin, Kutscher. Perspectives on Death and Dying: Cross-Cultural and Multidisciplinary Views. Philadelphia: Charles Press 1989.
Barry, Arthur. What About Death and Dying. New York: Library of Congress publishers, 1922.
Bowker, John. The Meanings of Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Fordick, John, and Emerson, Harry. A Guide to Understanding the Bible. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956.
Heinz, Donald. “The last passage: Recovering a death of our own.” The Journal of American Folklore 113. 449 (2000): 342-344.
The United Bible Societies. Good News Bible, 1994.
Wangerin, Walt. “A chronicle of hopeful dying.” Christianity Today Magazine 20 Feb 2010: 1-3.