Lent and Death

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 DeathThere are two reasons why I want to blog through the book:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?


The Ordinary Radicals

Jamie Moffett has recently come out with a documentary that follows Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw on their Jesus for President tour that took place earlier this year. The movie essentially tells stories of regular people who have decided to embody the politics of Jesus and live as “Ordinary Radicals.” If you’ve read J4P then it’s a great one to watch simply because you get to put a face to some of the stories that were told in the book. It proposes a lot of great ideas and tangible ways we can live as loving representatives of the Kingdom of God. I do have one objection to the movie and the “Jesus for President” movement as a whole. This movement has begun in reaction to the church’s over-emphasis (I emphasize “over” simply because I believe a healthy emphasis is good) on the redemption of the soul when it comes to salvation. Basically, it’s a group of people who were tired of hearing Christians talk about just going to heaven after we die as opposed to doing something here and now or bringing God’s Kingdom to “earth as it is in heaven.”

I agree that this overemphasis does miss a huge part of what Jesus came to do. Jesus entered into the world to redeem every aspect of humanity. He desires to heal us physically, emotionally, intellectually, sexually, financially, and yes, spiritually. To overemphasize just the spiritual aspect of Jesus’ healing is to miss the rest. But the pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme within the Jesus for President movement. This, I believe, is clearly illustrated by a quote from The Ordinary Radicals film itself. It’s a quote from a guy named Zack Exley, a secular progressive attempting to work with the J4P movement in hopes of making amends with the religious community and working together towards a common goal. Here’s the quote:

“I heard this guy…give this sermon about who’s in and who’s out. Who’s going to heaven and who’s not. And he went through every single passage that said anything about heaven and it was pretty clear–we’re not going to heaven. Jesus is coming here. Heaven is coming to earth. Now they don’t care about converting people. They just care about building this wonderful, beautiful community.

The J4P movement has slid from one extreme to the other and lost sight of sound scriptural theology. It seems very obvious to me that the New Testament emphasizes the need for conversion. There needs to be some sort of spiritual awakening that takes place in order to be saved. The book of Acts is a story of a group of believers proclaiming the gospel message (and living it out by sharing, serving, and loving the community) so that those who didn’t know Jesus would come to know him.

Jesus himself says in Matthew 7:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”

Prophesying, driving out demons, and performing many miracles in Jesus’ name. All very honorable acts. But the deciding factor is whether or not these people knew Jesus. This is what we need to be praying for. That we would truly know Jesus. That we would personally experience Jesus face to face. And that those we come in contact with would experience him as well. Yes, let’s serve those around us and love them with our actions, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” as we show people that Jesus wants to meet every one of their needs, including their physical ones. But when all is said and done, what matters is whether or not we have a relationship with him. A deep, intimate, love relationship.

Anywho, a fair bit of thought stirring has occured within my mind since watching the film so I’ll go ahead and extend it as a recommendation.

Here’s the trailer just to wet your appetite: