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What Is Death?

Peter Gurry
October 11, 2021

Do you remember how you learned the Alphabet? A, B, C, D… and so on, right? At some point, you probably had a nice picture book to help you out: “A” is for apple you dutifully learned. “B” is for ball. “C” is for cat.

The acrostic wasn’t always so cute. In seventeenth-century New England, A was not for apple. No, you’d learn “A” is for Adam along with the couplet, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Yes, “C” is for Cat, but the poem went, “The cat doth play, and after slay.” It’s darker, isn’t it?

By the time you get to “G,” you’re learning that “As runs the [hour] glass, man’s life doth pass.” “T” is not for toy or tricycle but for “Time,” which “cuts down all, both great and small.” By the time you get to X the point has been made: “Xerxes the great did die, and so must you and I.”

These dour little couplets are from the New England Primer, one of the most famous books printed in the American colonies—a book used to teach countless children to read.

Can you imagine if an elementary school tried to use these today? Parents would revolt and say these are too morose and morbid for children. But I wonder if they weren’t onto something back then when they began teaching children about the reality of death early on.

Today, we don’t much like to talk about death. We prefer to avoid, ignore, and deny it. But we can’t. In a three-part series of blog posts for Shepherds and Scholars, I want to look squarely at death and answer three key questions from Genesis 5: (1) What is it? (2) What causes it? and (3) What, if anything, can be done about it?

Let’s begin with the nature of death. Is death great and terrible, or is it simply part of life? It is perhaps even a positive good as it’s portrayed in The Lion King’s opening song, the “Circle of Life.” Are we all just “on the endless round,” “the path unwinding”? Is death simply part of the inevitability of it all?

First, death is universal.

The first thing to say about death is really the most obvious: it’s universal. Frankly, I don’t think you need the Bible to tell you this. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian to believe it. There is the old joke that only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Recently I came across a riff on this: Death and taxes are inevitable, but death doesn’t repeat itself.

Behind those jokes lies a serious point. Death is universal and inevitable. All of us will experience it at some point—no exceptions.

The Bible makes this clear. In Genesis 5, there’s quite a lot of death. In fact, the most notable phrase in the whole chapter is the one that gets repeated eight times: “and then he died.” As the New England Primer said, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” No exceptions.

This is one thing that makes our society’s deafening silence about death so astonishing. Think about how much energy and effort we put into thinking about other things that are far less certain. We expend enormous energy planning and thinking about our careers, our marriages, our children, our retirement, and our savings. And yet none of these have outcomes half as certain as death. Your marriage is not as certain as death. Nor is your job. Your children’s success or failure isn’t as certain. Death is. Death will come. And when it does, it outweighs every other circumstance of your life. Nothing will change your life as much as death and yet nothing is as certain as your death.

Second, death is personal.

Death isn’t only a universal experience. It is also inescapably personal. And this separates it from most other experiences in life. Unlike cheering for your favorite sports team, watching the election results, or getting a promotion, our death is something we must experience for ourselves—and all by ourselves.

No one makes this point better than the film-maker Woody Allen who once quipped, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” Once again, the joke gets at something very serious, doesn’t it? Of course, Allen will have to be there for his own death. I can’t die for you, and you can’t die for me. You must die your own death; I must die mine.

Again, we see this in Genesis 5. Though God had promised death to Adam for eating the fruit (Gen. 2:17), death was not limited to him. Adam dies, yes. But then Seth dies. And he dies his death. Enosh dies. And he dies his death. Kenan dies and he dies his death. And on and on. When Enoch escapes death, he is the exception that proves the rule.

Finally, death is bad.

Death is both universal and personal. And since it’s universal, it’s tempting to think that it’s also normal, not a bug so much as a feature of this software we call life. Many people—not just The Lion King—have taken this view through the ages.

Some think that death is merely non-existence. You did not exist before you were born, they say, and you will simply return to non-existence when you die. From this, they conclude that death isn’t really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, no one dreads their non-existence before birth, so we need not dread our non-existence after life either.

The fatal flaw, if you’ll pardon the pun, is, of course, that all-important part in the middle: life. Experiencing life changes everything about death. After all, it’s one thing to say that non-existence doesn’t matter when you’ve never experienced life; it’s quite another to experience life and then have it taken away. Unless you think that life itself is bad, you must conclude that death is bad, since life and death are opposites. Anything else is literally suicidal logic.

We see this, too, in Genesis 5. A genealogy might seem like skim-worthy material made to skip by as fast as you can. But don’t. The genealogy found in this chapter is unique. What’s unique is the constant refrain that marks each person in the list: “When so-and-so had lived so many years, he fathered such-and-such. He lived after that so many years and had other sons and daughters. Thus, all the days of so-and-so were so many years, and he died.” Over and over, a man lived for so long and he died. And his son died. And his son also died. Moses wants us to feel the weight and finality of it. We’re supposed to affirm the wrongness of death.

I think most of us, if we let ourselves really think about it, know this truth. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “No life that breathes with human breath, has truly ever long’d for death.” I think he’s right. If we know the goodness of life, we must affirm that death is bad.

Someone more recent who makes the same point is Peter Thiel. He is a billionaire who made his money investing in tech companies. Thiel founded PayPal and then sold it for a large sum. He was also one of the first to invest in Facebook. He’s considered something of a guru for spotting promising young tech companies.

A few years ago, Thiel did an interview in Silicon Valley and, surprisingly, the topic of conversation was death. Thiel—visionary that he is—has set his sights on trying to get us to live longer; in fact, he wants to literally beat death. Forbes magazine writer reflected on the interview this way:

“I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death,” [said Thiel.] The line drew laughter, but one got the feeling the joke was unintentional. For Thiel, life is a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. Therefore death is a problem, and as he says there are three main ways of approaching it. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

I think Thiel is right. Death is universal, personal, and bad. When it comes to death, we have three options: you either accept it, deny it, or fight it. Modern Western society works hard to deny it. Others try to accept it as somehow natural to life. But we know deep down that neither option works. The only option, then, is to fight it like Thiel. The question is how we do that. To understand that, we must first understand where death came from in the first place—something Genesis has a lot to say about.

Look for parts two and three of this series on “Death’s Refrain” at the Shepherds and Scholars blog in the coming weeks.

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children, two cats, and a tortoise. They are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church. He has been known to enjoy cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.

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