The Aestheticism of the Christian “Death”
He came upon a cluster of miners’ bodies, eighteen of them bunched together in a group. Some lay curled up on their sides, others huddled on their knees. They had apparently suffocated, their faces frozen in expressions of agony.
Death, given its uncertainties and emotionally charged nature, is a difficult topic to write on. This essay itself arose only after I came across a story of horrifically killed miners. The miners were working under terrible conditions, for a meager living, when an explosion trapped them inside the collapsed mine.
Many of my close friends have also felt death in their lives. Some have reflected on it extensively. One, Karl, spoke about the pain of death and our longing for the day when it would be no more (“Emily, Andy, and Dad”). Others have known friends, parents, brothers, and sisters die.
Despite this essay’s title, I will not pretend that death as we know it is an aesthetic experience, that it is anything other than awful. We all shed tears because of death. Yet, as this essay will explore, Christianity offers comfort and even great beauty in its perspective of “death.” So the hope of this essay is this: that both secular and Christian audiences find commonality in the comfort of beauty for ashes. This is why we explore aestheticism in the Christian “death.” Scripture writes to those of us who mourn that we are blessed, for we will be comforted. In exploring Christian “death,” I hope we will see that the Lord meant what he said.
In thinking about this topic, I kept returning to the description of the miners’ bodies. They were “huddling on their knees” with “their faces frozen in expressions of agony.” The ugliness of this scene is complete. I began writing this essay in an effort to find a transcending, aesthetic comfort in something where none seemed to possibly exist. But comfort was found. Let us begin at the beginning.
Close Reading: Body and Breath
Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. – Genesis 2:7
While the body is vital for human meaning, the earthly body’s loss itself is less consequential. The Bible tells us that when God created Adam out of dust from the ground, Adam had not yet become a “living creature.” His body, already made, was perfect and ready, but it was not alive. It was only when God breathed the “breath of life” into his nostrils that Adam became living. In other words, if we split this verse into two chronological halves, the first being “The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground,” and pause, then at this point, the perfect earthly body is not yet alive, is not yet Adam as a living being. His essence is still missing.
The second half of the verse, “[The LORD God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature,” is where Adam comes alive. This “breath” of life may seem like a mythic construct until one considers that in ancient Hebrew, “breath” or ruach also translated today into “spirit.” To be a living creature, then, Adam needs both body and spirit, but the body itself is not Adam’s entirety, not his essence. The body itself was never alive. Important as the earthly body may be for life and existence, its loss may not be as final as it once seemed.
Additionally, the New Testament introduces a notion of past and future bodies, and strengthens the dichotomy between a spirit of life and a body of dust. 2 Corinthians 5 declares our earthly bodies to be an “earthly tent” in which we “groan” and are “burdened.” In comparison, our heavenly bodies in the new creation will be like an eternal house, a building, built again by God. The passage also describes both the earthly and the new bodies as “clothes” we wear to “not be found naked.”
Immortality of the Spirit
Returning briefly to Genesis, we find that the “breath of life” came from God Himself. The Bible makes the astonishing proclamation that the spirit of life animating humankind came from God’s own breath: “The LORD God breathed into his nostrils.” In other words, our essence, the spirit that brings our bodies to life, is God’s. Housed in dust, we do not belong to ourselves–this is a deeply Christian belief: “Through him all things were made, without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3), “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Knowing what we know now, it may be helpful to speculate here as to what “death” really is. If the earthly body of dust was always unalive, and if the animating spirit of life came as a part of God, and still belongs to God, then we can reasonably conclude that “death” is simply the spirit of life departing from its “tent,” taking off its “clothes.” Where our/God’s spirit goes upon departure is another story, but we know that God’s spirit of life will never die; such a concept would be an oxymoron. If death is the absence of God’s spirit of life, i.e., during the body of dust, then how can death exist when the spirit of life is present? To use a crude analogy, death will disperse before life like darkness before light; with one present, the other must be absent. Our essence is Life itself, and Life itself (not “life” as we know it) does not die because it is Life: “. . . so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). God must be Life itself, and so much more.
Joy in the Resurrection of the Body
While comfort may be taken in the immortality of the spirit, Christianity offers even more reason for joy. 2 Corinthians 5 declares that the earthly bodies we so cherish today are like mere “tents” compared to the eternal houses we will have in the new creation. At that time, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). This is good because the Bible also emphasizes the paramount importance of humanity being embodied: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27), “We do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:4), “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Without bodies, mankind is not fully created in the image of God. Perhaps most importantly, the Lord himself came, lived, died, and was resurrected in human bodily form. In light of humanity’s coming bodily form, the loss of the earthly body may not seem awful anymore.
Beauty, Comfort, and Joy
Returning to the miners, we see now that we who mourn have indeed been comforted. Recall that the miners were “huddling on their knees” with “their faces frozen in expressions of agony.” The ugliness of this scene is wiped away by the Christian interpretation of “death.” The bodies of dust are only discarded clothes, expired tents, and they will return to dust, as they should. These bodies are not the miners anymore; the true miners have departed to ultimately assume their true bodies, with true names, in their true home.
There remains a final point to be made, one that follows our line of reasoning. We have seen that “death” is not death, and that “life” is not life. This changes the meaning of what we see around us today, in what we know as “life.” At the very least, it means that our concept of suffering needs to be rethought. One of the main grievances charged against God is His allowance of suffering, despite being good and loving. But what we know as life is like the dreamy blink of an eye compared to the eternity of true life. Does not the meaning of suffering change when its duration is shown to be nothing in the grand scheme of things? Chief among suffering is “death,” or what we think is the cessation of life, consciousness, and the destruction of a person. If “death” is not in fact death, and, as we shall see in the next section, if it was never meant to be death, then the meaning of human suffering must change dramatically.
And the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ – Genesis 3:22
Just as important, the earthly bodily death seems to have always been part of God’s perfect plan. After the human separation from God, God says that if man eats from the tree of life, he will “live forever.” This implies that previously, even before the Fall, man in his earthly bodily form was not immortal. A pre-Fall immortality would not make sense, both given scientific evidence, and, as Ichthus alumnus Stephen Mackereth put it, because this would require “so many protections placed around [humans] as to require modifications to the laws of physics. It appears that it would take nothing short of a new heavens and a new earth, so to speak, if one were to accommodate such deathless men.”
Another close reading of Genesis supports this. After Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, God condemns them. Eve will experience great pain during childbirth, and Adam will toil in the fields for food, until he returns to the ground, for dust he is, and to dust he will return (Genesis 3:19). God does not condemn either Eve or Adam to a new death; there is no new death sentence imposed upon Adam and Eve after the Fall, implying that their earthly bodies were always going to die.
Scholars have argued that the Fall complicated the earthly death from its original purpose, but did not engender death. In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes two kinds of bodies, one animated by soul, and another imperishable body animated by spirit. The original Greek is complicated, so we will not address it here. Basically, the purpose of earthly death all along was to make way for immortality. Earthly bodies would grow and mature into the new bodies of the new creation — the imperishable bodies animated by spirit. “Death” was a kind of metamorphosis all along that changed a human body-equivalent caterpillar into a butterfly. Scholars such as James Barr have argued that the God’s post-Fall command of “to dust you will return” is “a punishment pertaining to the futility of Man’s work as a consequence of sin, [and] not the introduction of biological death to the world” (Mackereth 4). The Fall did not engender “death,” and “death” was never meant to be death, but a necessary means for spiritual maturation to become bodily transformation.
Beauty from Dust
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
– Psalm 139:14
Even without our transformed bodies, our earthly ones still seem wondrous. What the Bible describes as mere “tents” are to us astonishing perfections of movement, thinking, feeling, and life, It speaks to the characteristic glory of God that all human bodily existence as we know it can be crafted from dust. What we sweep out of our houses, what is the multitude of the Earth — God seems to always prefer using that which is most humble. Instead of gold, or titanium, or all the gems from all the world to embody His image-bearers, God chose dust.
But we live within a nudge of pH, salinity, temperature. Our bodies of dust are plainly fragile, and if they ever meant anything, it is that they were meant to be temporary (hence the “tent” language from the New Testament). The embodiment in dust exemplifies the transience of Earthly existence, which underscores both our true home in the new creation and our true task in the meanwhile: loving God, clinging not to dust, renouncing idols. The earthly embodiment has been aptly described as living in a hotel room. Why do we spend time and energy decorating an impermanent life with idols when we will only be here a little while? We should be focused on doing God’s work.
Rulers of ages past searched widely for elixirs that would bring them everlasting lives of dust – immortality in the worst place, at the wrong time. If our own bodies are made from dust, then the machinations of our worldly idols must be dust of dust. Cling not to dust, the message is obvious.
Out of the Cave
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” – 1 Corinthians 2:9
If dust could be so fearfully and wonderfully made into bodies, then the new creation must exist outside our current conceptions of fear and wonder. Our true home, where we reside in our true bodies, must seem as reality is to the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave.
No one explains better than C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle:
When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door.
Death is not death, and life is not life. Until the day arrives when life becomes life, let us be comforted by the beauty of the good and loving Lord. Let us seek Him, clinging not to dust, but to the everlasting.
- David Bandurski, Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 112.
- Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:1-5: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
- Stephen Mackereth, “A Religious Animal?”, (Cambridge: The Harvard Ichthus, 2013), 3.
- 1 Corinthians 15:44-55: “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
Henry Li ’16 concentrates in History and Literature & East Asian Studies, lives in Leverett House, and is the managing editor for the Ichthus.
Reposted from The Harvard Ichthus’ blog.