Death as Transition Eternalized Time and Eroded Eternity

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The Hebrew Scriptures say little about what can be expected after death. They speak of sheol, the world of the dead, as a shadow world where one does not praise God.375 The hope for an individual eternal life is a rather late phenomenon.376 In the New Testament, the theme of resurrection is discussed in light of Jesus' resurrection. The experience of the Resurrection of Jesus does not immediately trigger the individualistic interpretation "if he, then also I." Far more important was the fact that God did not allow the shame of Jesus' horrible death to persist. The Resurrection means that God did justice. Luke presents this testimonial in Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:22—36). It takes considerable theological reflection in or der to arrive, like Paul, at the insight that the Resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of a new order has significance for the death of the individual and that its goal is "that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28).

This theology makes it possible to see the biological span of individual life embedded in a larger context. The time of earthly life stands in relation to eternity. That this relation has been foundational for centuries and has been expressed in various ways was shown clearly on pp. 37—41. In such a worldview, death is not the last stop, but rather an intermediate stage and the entrance into a new phase of being.

The connection to eternity relativizes the significance of time in at least two ways, in both cases in two respects. First, the perspective of eternity has the power to relativize the suffering in time. It fulfills a consoling function that can inspire a serene calm, but also can evoke a mindless submissiveness or carelessness. Karl Marx rightly inveighed against the latter form of consolation when he criticized religion as the opium of the people. Second, the perspective of eternity can relativize the merits and good things of life through the knowledge that all things, all knowledge, and all efforts are temporary. When nothing in this world can be the ultimate, but rather, at the most, the penultimate, power structures are seen in a different light. When, from the perspective of eternity, the temporary nature of all hierarchies becomes clear, this can encourage people to be more radical in their critique of society and more daring in trying out alternatives. However, such a perspective of eternity can also be misused repressively in the attempt to grant existing hierarchies eternal and divine sanction or to force human beings, under threat of eternal punishment, to render blind obedience.

The conception of death as transition to something else thus relativizes the importance of life by placing it in a larger context. It therefore makes the event of transition an important happening, for which the individual must prepare and which the community must surround with appropriate rituals.

The notion of death as transition, however, also tends to reduce the significance of death itself. It does this in a way that separates it from Pauline thought. One could say that here a popularized interpretation of Pauline theology comes to fruition that tries to circumvent death rather than suffer it. This interpretation was supported by the Greek idea of the mortal body and the immortal soul and by dualist thoughts in Gnosticism. The body indeed dies, but the soul escapes death, so to speak, through the back door. The notion of the immortality of the soul is incompatible with Pauline theology because, in the final analysis, it does not take death seriously.377 Whoever does not take death seriously is also unable to take the death of death seriously, that is, Christ's resurrection—which, for Paul, is the center of all

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