Nothing says Lent like a good book on death.
So, as a sort of Lenten discipline I’m going to be blogging through Richard Beck’s latest book The Slavery of Death. There are two reasons why I want to blog through the book:
- Re-reading and summarizing each chapter will help me to process the content of the book and reflect a little bit on how it relates to my own life.
- I am loving this book and think that it’s well worth a read or, at the very least, more exposure. So if you’re not going to read the book then hopefully these posts serve as a small window into his ideas which, I think, are absolutely worth reflecting on.
If you’ve never read Richard Beck, you should. He’s a psychologist who also happens to have a passion for theology so much of his writing deals with the intersection of these two disciplines. You can familiarize yourself with his thinking by reading his blog which can be found here.
So, onto the goods.
The Slavery of Death begins with a challenge to reconsider how we view the relationship between sin and death. Traditionally for Protestants sin came first and is what corrupted God’s good creation and so led to death. This idea, that death is a consequence of sin, is reinforced by the account of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent exile and separation from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3). Paul seems to affirm this idea in Romans when he famously declares that the “…wages of sin is death” (6:23).
As I mentioned above, if you’re a Protestant you are more than likely familiar with this way of thinking. Interestingly, however, the Eastern Orthodox church tends to emphasize death as the center of the human predicament. For our brothers and sisters in the Eastern church sin is a result of our slavery to the fear of death. A great deal of Beck’s project in this book aims to reclaim the Eastern perspective on this issue and to shed light on many of the passages in the Bible that are usually neglected by Protestants–those that seem to affirm the notion that death, rather than sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. Take a look at these passages for instance:
- 1 Cor. 15:24-26 — Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
- Rev. 20:13-14a — The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
- Romans 7:24 — What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
- Hebrews 2:14-15 — Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
In each of these passages death seems to be showcased as the main enemy of humanity. In 1 Corinthians death is the “last enemy to be destroyed” before God becomes all in all. In Revelation, death and Hades are the last things to be thrown into the lake of fire. In Romans, Paul attributes his struggles with sin to the fact that he has a body that is subject to death. The author of Hebrews understands salvation as a liberation from the “fear of death.”
Rather than do away with the Protestant formulation (sin leads to death) and replace it with the Eastern formulation (death leads to sin), Beck is aiming to give us a more balanced perspective, one that will allow us to make more sense of the wealth of biblical material that speaks of death as humanity’s main problem. In his own words:
The Bible presents us with a dense and complex causal matrix in which sin, death, and the devil all mutually interact. Consequently, an exclusive focus on sin tends to oversimplify the dynamics of our moral struggles. I argue that a fuller analysis is critical as it will present us with a clearer picture of Christian virtue–love in particular. By exposing the dynamics of “the devil’s work” in our lives, works produced by the “slavery to the fear of death” [Hebrews 2:15], we will be better positioned to resist the satanic influences in our lives, better equipped to do battle with the principalities and powers of darkness, and better able to love as Christ loved us.
It’s no surprise that when you begin to reconsider the foundation of the problem then how we understand the solution changes as well. Thus, salvation becomes more about liberation from our fear of death rather than exclusively focused on the forgiveness of sin. Beck: “Salvation…involves liberation from this fear [of death]. Salvation is emancipation for those who have been enslaved all of their lives by the fear of death. Salvation is deliverance that sets us free from this power of the devil.”
As it turns out, there has been a great deal of ink spilled in the field of psychology over the wealth of negative behaviors that result from our fear of death. This is why I find Beck’s perspective so illuminating: he puts psychology and theology in dialogue with each other and the results are more than interesting.
Coming Next: Ancestral Sin or Original Sin?