Our fundamental anxiety concerns our desistance. The transition from life to death, from being to non-being, befuddles us–or, at least, perturbs us. The opaque veil, through which none can peer and at which every gaze ends, pricks our heart like no other human experience. Every death reminds us of our own mortality. It’s as though another’s passing allows us to experience through sympathetic mediation the pangs of death itself, a deep unsettling of life’s ostensible stability and a reminder of our fundamental fragility. Like a vapor are we, and no clearer presentation of that reality exists than a corpse presented before us. A fitting capstone (or gravestone, as it were).
It’s been asserted that religion is predominantly concerned with banishing the specter of death that hangs over every human consciousness. Religion is nothing more than a balm, then, meant to soothe our anxious hearts and provide peace and confidence as one walks step by step toward the grave. It’s certainly true that, like a hammer, religions can be (and have been) used for whatever purpose somebody deems appropriate. This is the case not only at the institutional level (where most conspirator’s conspiracies concerning cabals are located) but also at the individual level. Individuals have individualized psychological and moral reasons for participating in religious activities; whether it is for most people on account of anxiety concerning death is a matter of empirical buttressing rather than bald assertion. Indeed, there a number of other, more effective panaceas with respect to this anxiety: alcohol, obsessive fitness, mind-numbing scrolling online. Nevertheless, if it is demonstrably (empirically) false that “most people participate in religion because they are scared of death,” then what are the other motivations? Could it be that one is convinced of that religion’s claims?
Christianity has a certain catena of post-mortem doctrines, most particularly with respect to the resurrection and judgment of the dead. That is to say, that which tends to separate an expressly “Christian” doctrine of death from a non-Christian iteration is the centrality of the judgment seat of Christ, entailing therefore that death is not the ultimate cessation–a resurrection is necessary, whether to life or to judgment. Such is, at least, the form of the doctrine; its details and intricacies appear in dialectic synthesis as our context develops.
Undergirding the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is the eschatological hope of creation, which has been supposed (in my estimation, convincingly argued) to be the preeminent doctrine, to which all others must be directed. The disposition to view all things in light of their consummation leads us to view them with the proper weight and perspective. What, then, is the eschatological hope in regard to death?
Every sensible systematic answer begins first with the biblical text, treating the holy text as such. Where are the most helpful passages pertaining to this problem? 1 Corinthians 15 and 16, Romans 8, Revelation 22, 1 Thessalonians 4, Matthew 25, to name a few from the New Testament. From the Old, Joel 2 and the last four chapters of Isaiah speak directly to the “Day of the Lord.”
However, the most evocative passage that comes to my mind is Isaiah 25-27, especially that first chapter. In a passage pregnant with apocalyptic imagery (see 27.1: “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”), the author speaks of the Day of the Lord as the day of the Lord’s people’s vindication. The enemies of the covenant people will be trampled, their strongholds torn asunder, and the people of the earth will dwell in peace and security. The day of the judgment of god is also the day of the healing of the nations (cp. Ezek. 47.12, Rev. 22.2). Isaiah pictures the Lord “swallowing up on this mountain” (the metaphorical Zion, where god will dwell with his people) death, much how the fish “swallows up” Jonah (cf. Jonah 1.17) and how the Lord “destroys/swallows up” (by permitting the Accuser to run his course against) Job (cf. Job 2.17).
God’s people look forward to his return, so that he will judge the nations and establish his kingdom forever. When the Lord’s temple encompasses the earth, metaphorically represented by the outrageous measurements given in Ezekiel 40-48, god will dwell with his people (Ezek. 48.35). “The last enemy to be defeated is death,” and god will swallow up this foe and plunge it into the abyss. What’s left will be nothing but feasts, freedom, and peace on the mountain of god.