Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24
1:13 God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.
1:14 For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth.
1:15 For righteousness is immortal.
2:23 For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity,
2:24 but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.
The above passage showed up in the Revised Common Lectionary for this past Sunday. It comes from one of the texts that are not generally viewed as canonical by Protestants, but it struck me as worthy of some notice and seems to me to be thoroughly compatible with New Testament teaching.
In the New Testament, death is more of a theological category than a physical state. What we call physical death is there called, for the most part, sleep. Jesus said to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, and I go to wake him up from his sleep.” When they responded by saying sympathetically that if he was sleeping he might soon recover, he explained to them what he meant, that Lazarus was dead. Similarly, the first martyr, Stephen, after praying that wonderfully compact prayer for his enemies, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” (thus making himself in one moment both their accuser and their advocate), and another for himself, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” is said by the narrator that “he fell asleep.” Likewise Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica, in one of the earliest of the New Testament writings, “I would not have you ignorant, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others who have no hope.” So physical death is, as one gospel singer has put it, “no big deal.” It is also, from the perspective of faith, a temporary arrangement, an interruption and an annoyance to be sure.
So ultimately, as St Paul says, “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” He sees this as part of the redemption of the entire physical universe, as the new creation supersedes the old. But for the present, we also see that from a faith perspective death is conquered, as those who are redeemed are said to have passed from death to life. Death here is not a final destination to be dreaded, but a current condition to be overcome. It is the wages paid by sin, earned by those who remain subject to sin’s law. The free gift of God is eternal life, and this life is not merely the hope of an extended timeline; it is a present reality. We are, I have written elsewhere, something like spiritual amphibians. We live both in time and in eternity, and in the realm of the infinite we have access to all times and places; though we often return to the mud-hole which is our familiar home. The abundant life promised us in Christ, the righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit which is the substance of the kingdom of God, partake of this higher nature, this higher life where death has no sway. The eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans even suggests that participation in this higher life, the life in the Spirit, can transform even our physical existence.
Christian doctrine makes the claim that death has been conquered and overcome; certainly it is the testimony of the apostles, and of generations of martyrs, that fear of death has been destroyed as a motivating factor for the believer. Hence early Christians tended the sick, not worried about becoming sick themselves; partly because they believed in a God who could heal, but partly because they had already forfeited their lives and lived only in the one who brought them life. Death had no dominion over them, therefore they could face it with calm assurance.