There Are Worse Things Than Death: An Easter Reflection

Christians "read" the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a variety of ways and have done so from the earliest days of the faith. But one thing that all of those various understandings share is that in raising Jesus from the dead, God was in some way demonstrating approval for all that Jesus taught, did, and exemplified during his life and ministry.

The world condemned to death Jesus' message and practices of reconciliation and radical love, which were rightly seen as a threat to its own way of doing things. In raising Jesus from the dead, however, God overrules the world's "no" with a much more powerful "yes." In the resurrection, the world is shown that its brokenness does not have the last word, that the beauty of love that is God's desire for creation ultimately triumphs even when we do our best to kill it dead, and that everything Jesus did during his life to invite humanity into that vision and way of life -- despite seeming to have been shown to be an illusion when he was executed -- was true.

And the truth of Jesus' life that God vindicates includes Jesus' death.

Christian tradition asserts that Jesus went "willingly" to his death. As with interpretations of the resurrection, theologians have also made sense of Jesus' acceptance of death in many different ways over time. They all agree, though, that Jesus could have turned away. He certainly had the power to do so. And it isn't as if he didn't realize what was coming: in great anguish, it is said, he prayed to be released from the sequence of events that were so clearly leading to his execution (Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42). But he did not want to be released from it if that would mean betraying the mission. He didn't want to live if that would undermine what he was all about -- being the living, embodied divine invitation to a new and better way of life in love.

Jesus' death is central to the Christian faith. It means many things. But one thing that it means and that I sometimes think we don't focus on enough is that Jesus' death reminds us that there are sometimes worse things than death. It's an oversimplification but still true to say that, for Jesus, betraying the divine mission he was charged with would have been worse than death. Allowing the powerful to silence the work he and his disciples were doing by giving it up would have been worse than death. Turning away from love and from the God of love would have been worse than death.

Death is an evil. Violent death is particularly evil and where it is preventable should obviously be prevented. Yet, death is also an evil none of us can escape. We spend an awful lot of time, money, and energy trying, however. We find ourselves going to great lengths to ward off aging and death. We tend to think of death as something unnatural, rather than as inevitable. We often make dying invisible by forcing it take place in hospitals and nursing homes. As Ann Neumann and others have made so clear, we tend to take a "treat at all costs" approach to the terminally ill that seeks to deny death in ways that sometimes wind up being cruel and inhumane. And as religion scholar Kate Bowler has reminded us in reflecting with deep insight upon her devastating cancer diagnosis, there is an incredible and seemingly paradoxical life-giving power in coming to some kind of terms with death, even while never fully "accepting" it. Yet, very few of us today are able to speak of what it might mean to die a "good death," as our not-so-distant forebears did, let alone sing praises to "Sister Bodily Death," as the great St. Francis of Assisi did in his Canticle of the Sun.

Jesus' death reminds us that, while death is dreadful and a real ground for fear, there are worse things than death. Turning away from a life of meaning, mission and vision, or being so preoccupied with avoiding death that in our anxiety we forget to really live and what it is that makes life really worth living, or seeking to prolong life with so much zeal that the life one lives becomes a torment, would all be examples of that.

And Jesus' resurrection reminds us that death never has the last word. God, the God of life, promises to bring new life out of death, even out of what seems to be final death -- out of what has been dead and buried for three days -- in ways we cannot imagine and in forms we will never expect.