“Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
There is no explaining away the fear of death. Philosophers, theologians and pop psychologists have all tried, but the fear persists unabated. Its presence is dark, mysterious and utterly personal.
For some, death is an obscenity and they’re at a loss to even consider its possibility. For the fortunate few, the fear of death eventually loses its sting. I’ve observed this myself in some elderly people I’ve known and in a younger friend with cancer who approached his death with peace and equanimity. I’m in the muddled middle on this one, as mentioned in the previous post. I am not afraid of weighty reflection on my eventual demise, but I’m not at ease with it either. I worry that the conflict that smolders within me compromises my ability to make right decisions about how I respond to and treat my cancer. I feel simultaneously the push and pull between letting God’s will for my life to be exercised freely and seeking medical intervention for what appears to be an incurable but treatable disease.
The question that was posed in my previous post—Why keep going back for more care when I feel so conflicted about it?—is not likely to be resolved by my writing about it. This is one occasion when my mind simply cannot plumb the depths of my soul. I am like most people in that I possess a passionate love of life, and I don’t want it thwarted by disappointment, pain and death. My earthy nature is not easily managed…and yet I try.
This being Holy Week, I’m spending time considering once again the passion of Jesus Christ. I have read closely the gospel passages of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there, immediately before he was handed over to the Roman authorities, that Jesus agonized for hours over his fate. This is the only occasion in his life that we observe Jesus to be afraid of anything. He gave God one last chance to change his mind about his plan for salvation. Jesus may well have been afraid of death and dying at this moment, but his physical suffering was subsumed by fear of separation—however temporary—from his Father. This was the thought that caused him to literally sweat blood. His fear bordered on terror.
The cup from which Jesus must drink is not just his own sorrow but the sorrow of the whole human race. It is a cup full of physical, mental and spiritual anguish. It is the cup of starvation, torture, loneliness, bitterness, rejection, abandonment and despair. It is the cup that the prophet Isaiah called “the cup of God’s wrath.” It’s no wonder that even Jesus recoiled from it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to understand in his own life and death what it meant to drink this cup to the dregs. The German Lutheran theologian and pastor has poignantly written that because of our spiritual shortsightedness, we tend to pay more attention to dying than to death.
“We’re more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the last enemy. There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection,” Bonhoeffer wrote.
For the Christian, death is not an end but a beginning. This is what we celebrate on Easter morning. After his agony in the garden, Jesus went on to suffer one of the cruelest, most humiliating deaths recorded in human history, and to die broken and defeated. The light of the world was extinguished. Darkness overcame the face of the earth. But then…resurrection! God made good on his pledge of victory over death. Christ is risen, and new life reigns.
So what does all this mean for me? Merely everything, especially as it relates to my fear of death. It is faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes for creation. It is in the resurrection that I find real hope. After a bodily death Jesus experienced bodily life, and will live in human form for all eternity. And here’s the real mind-blower: so will I. Regardless of the time, place and reason, my death will not be the end of me. In God’s good time, I will be raised from the grave and will live again incorruptibly in bodily form. Rather than giving up on me and all those who come to know and love him, God will remake us all. What amazing grace.
This is a robust, orthodox understanding of what the resurrection of Christ represents. My faith in this Biblical narrative comes naturally. If so, then why should anyone—say me, in particular—ever choose to doubt the promises made to us in Scripture? Why should I persist in, much less admit to my fear of death? What’s with all that?
Indeed. About the best I can say in my defense is that I am weak. And I am weakest when I am most absorbed in the potentialities of medicine.
Having worked as a medical journalist for many years, I know something about its seductive power. In the absence of a religious worldview, there’s no reason not to make an idol of medicine. The consumption of medical care in this country is seemingly unquenchable because of the faith we have placed in it and the ministrations of its priesthood. Medicine is an idol because it appears to have the power to confer immortality. It ascribes to itself spiritual qualities--most notably hope--that belong to God alone. It is a value system that is fundamentally at odds with the values of God’s kingdom.
This clash is not absolute, however. I would never argue that vaccinations for children are wrong or refuse an annual physical with my GP. Much of healthcare is a great blessing. On my cancer journey, I’ve returned for care repeatedly because my doctors have something valuable to offer, however imperfectly they may provide it. It would be foolhardy for me to not have metastases surgically removed as an outpatient, for example. More problematic have been the radiation and immunotherapy regimens I’ve endured, and may face again. I don’t expect to avoid the moral and spiritual conundrum of healthcare decision-making in the future. If we live long enough, none of us will.
Because I possess an Easter faith, I am not captive to my fear of death. I am delivered from it even when it has me in its grip. I look to Jesus in the garden and am reminded that my dread is not unnatural nor more than I can bear. God will take care of things, however much I doubt that at times. I know him to be trustworthy. The same cannot be said for all things medical. There will always be ambiguity, error and carelessness in how it is administered. But medicine, too, is under the sovereign rule of the one sometimes known as the Great Physician. He is the King, the lover of my soul and the comforter of all my grief. It is in the light of his resurrection that I live today and into all eternity.