It is perhaps fitting that man’s rebellion against God was triggered by a lie concerning death: “You will not die.” This lie pitted absolutely God against Satan, the Source of life against the Abominable Worm. God said “in the day that you eat [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall die.” And Satan responded, “You will not die.”
Of course, we all know who was telling the truth. For we all know that, indeed, because of sin, we shall die. We shall die. Each and every one of us shall die. But even though we know this absolute truth, how many of us actually face head-on this horrible reality? And yes, it is truly a horrible reality. Though there is nothing more certain in life than death, many of us spend a great deal of time in what Pascal called divertissement, avoiding the contemplation of our own ultimate end.
Certainly there are moments when we are confronted absolutely by the horror of death. When we suffer through the death of a loved one, for example. Or walk alongside someone suffering a life-threatening illness or accident. Or now, as we are all in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. And these moments can be like punches in the gut. The entire focus of our lives narrows to a critical point, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. In these moments, we are forced to ponder: why am I here? What is this strange life all about? Why am I made to suffer so much? And after it is all over here, what’s next? Does anything come next?
But these moments do not last. Perhaps cannot last. For who can sustain such a laser focus; such inquisitive clarity? And how easy it is to return again to our dull toil, forgetting or ignoring or avoiding the fate of all people: you shall die. Yes, surely you shall die. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.
Thankfully, though, we can also be shaken out of our slumber by our greatest writers, who through art and imagination have the capacity to reveal the true horror and certainty of death. One thinks of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich, perhaps the most luminous portrayal of a man’s confrontation with his own death. In the case of Ivan Illyich, it was only by peering into the face of death that Illyich was able to perceive he had lived as a walking cadaver all along; that through sin, he was dead to life and grace, pursing banal pleasure and niceties. It was only by looking through the other end of the telescope that he saw a new hope for himself and his family, the hope of grace and new life.
Think also of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose protagonist ponders “To be or not to be,” at once a contemplation of suicide, but also the contemplation of the grave and what, if anything, lies beyond the grave:
To die, to sleep/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/Must give us pause. There’s the respect/That makes calamity of so long life.
Yes, yes, indeed, there is the rub. In the “sleep of death,” what comes? Nightmares? Miseries? Nothing? In Hamlet, we encounter the height of despair. The despair not only of living, but of dying. In a sense, the inverse of Saint Paul’s exclamation “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For Hamlet, to live is horrible, to die…yet more horrible still?
And then we have Poe, that great American master of death. Perhaps most topical for us in the midst of a global pandemic is his eerie, “The Masque of the Red Death.” In characteristic fashion, Poe sets the scene in his opening lines:
The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal or hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood.
But while the “Red Death” spread and ravaged the outside world, not all gave it heed. For,
[T]he Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and lighthearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.
For six months Prince Prospero locked himself in his castle with his friends. And while the “pestilence raged” outside his walls, he provided all manner of divertissement within, including “buffoons,” “improvisatori,” “ballet dancers,” “musicians,” and “wine.” Prince Prospero believed that the “outside world could take care of itself.” Meanwhile, “it was folly to grieve or to think.”Ah, yes. Folly to “grieve or to think.” As the outside world seems to scream, “Prince Prospero, you shall die! Yes, surely you shall die!” He seems to respond, “I will not die.” But of course, Prince Prospero can no more fend off death than the rest of us. He is like the rich man in Luke’s Gospel who pulled down his barns and built bigger ones to store his wealth and then says to himself “ease, eat, drink, be merry.” Alas and alack, the rich man will soon think, for God says to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.”And Prospero’s soul too shall be demanded of him, because, unbeknownst to him, Death is one of his party guests. Uninvited but ubiquitous, nonetheless. Present and demanding his life.“You shall not die.” A lie at the foundation of all the Great Deceiver’s lies. And yet, in the great Gospel reversal, even the Liar’s words bear a deeper truth, as St. Paul reminds us: the “wages of sin is death,” but “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Death? Yes, surely death, but also life; eternal resurrected life in Christ Jesus.
Thus we need no longer fear death, run from death, hide from death, or ignore death. Like the monks who placed skulls on their desks, may we too remind ourselves of the sting of death, which is sin, but “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jeffrey Wald’s writing has previously appeared in places such as Dappled Things, Touchstone, and Genealogies of Modernity.