Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A theology on physical death in relation to the problem of evil

This is an extract from my essay that examines the relationship between creation and eschatology. I really like the concluding phrase: "...physical death is good only as far as the resurrected life allows it to be":
The fundamental theological conundrum of physical death is of theodicy. And theodicy is essentially the justification of the Creator’s justice and love vis-à-vis the creature’s liberty and emancipation. A robust theodicy does not prioritise one at the cost of the other, and so jeopardize the tension between the two. However, to understand death through the Creator-creature tension poses a problem to our understanding of the creation and the eschaton. Is creation merely mechanical, like the 18th century deists’ analogy of the universe as a gigantic clock and hyper-Calvinism’s notion of double predestination, where everything—including creature’s liberty—is divinely dictated? If not, will the eschaton mark the end of liberty when all creatures cannot but to respond to God against their will?

My suggestion to deal with this problem is by understanding the issue through the three-phases eschatological hermeneutic. If death is located within the narrative that God is actively participating throughout the process of structuring history to its finality from within history, then death has a significant function.

Physical death, as we know from Gen. 3 and 1 Cor. 15.21-26, is not the natural product of the act of creation. The first humans were created with “contingent immortality.” As Erickson explains, “They could have lived forever, but it was not certain that they would. Upon sinning they lost that status.”[1] Then came the divine ordinance of physical death (Gen. 3.19).[2] However, the in-breaking of the eschatological future into history reveals that death’s ordinance is not only a punishment but also a part of the process of structuring the creation into the eschaton. This can only be so through the perichoretic relationship among the three-phases in eschatology. Physical death is an act of eschatological creation. It is ordained to punish as well as to reconcile. At the eschaton, through death and resurrection, the creation’s properties such as its liberty and emancipation are preserved. Simply said, death is evil, and yet it is necessary. Further explication follows.

There is no doubt that God, in his sovereign freedom, able to bring a mechanistic creation into being if he chose to. However, God has chosen a greater good: he structured the element of liberty, his own divine attribute, into the creation. And with liberty, came the risk of the Fall. And when the Fall took place, instead of wiping out the creation out of divine justice, physical death was instituted. Through this necessary evil, the creation was structured to its next phase of eschatological creation, one step nearer to its eschatological order. God’s justice and love necessitate the physical death of humanity so that through it the creation is liberated to its eschatological future in its post-Fall state.

In this way, the Fall of the creation is necessary for the eschaton. For without the Fall, there is no physical death. Without physical death, the Creator’s justice and love, and the creature’s liberty and emancipation remain irreconcilable.

However, if God instituted only physical death without also instituting physical resurrection, the former will be final and so defeats death’s own institution as a necessity for the greater good. While death justifies both the Creator’s justice and love, and the creature’s liberty and emancipation, the resurrection justifies death. Ludwig Feuerbach sees life after death as the expression of the individual’s ego.[3] In other words, death is, to him, the final determinant of life; immortality thus became a wishful slave, while death became the master. The creation-eschaton narrative says otherwise; death does not deserve such a pristine pedestal.

There is simply no other way to structure the primordial chaos into the eschatological orderly future (that consists of both the justifications of the Creator’s and creatures’ properties) than through the necessity of the Fall, physical death and physical resurrection. Therefore death and resurrection are non-negligible. They are experiences that are intrinsic in the orchestrating of the creation from chaos into the orderly eschaton.

Going against Feuerbach, the inevitability of death must be acknowledged in the face of everlasting life. Physical death and eternal life are reconciled through eschatology. It is said that death distinguishes us from gods.[4] Yet it is also death that liberates us to be translated into God through resurrection. “We believe in God the Eschatos, but of the Eschaton only that it is creation’s translation into him.”[5] Death is necessary for life, and yet it is life that legitimates death’s necessity. Death when seen through the relationship between creation and eschatology illuminates well Paul’s sentiment, “to die is gain.”[6] (This proposal contrasts Louis Berkhof’s notion that death is the “culmination of the chastisements God uses to sanctify his people.”[7] (The exceptional assumption of Enoch and Elijah remained unexplainable. Yet their experiences do not serve as the overarching pattern for humanity and so do not disrupt the general pattern of God’s activity in the creation and the eschaton. In the same way, the longevity of the ancient patriarchs does not have any bearing on much shorter lifespan experienced by humanity at current times.) Hence, physical death is good only as far as the resurrected life allows it to be.

[1] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (USA: Baker, 1998), p.1177.
[2] Roland Chia, Theology II: Eschatology lecture note 2, p.6-7.
[3] Van A. Harvey, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ludwig-feuerbach/#Lif, paragraph 6 (accessed 20 May 2010).
[4] Roland Chia, Theology II: Eschatology lecture note 2, p.2-3..
[5] Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.167.
[6] Philippians 1.21.
[7] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (USA: Baker, 1998), p.1179.

1 comment:

reasonable said...

In addition to the alleged assumption of Enoch & Elijah (& Mary the mother of God according to Roman Catholicism), there is also the exception of those people who are alive when Jesus returns, according to the Apostle Paul's claims (or hypothesis). Those (at least the Christians) who are alive (at the time when Jesus returns) would be changed at an instance. They need not go through physical death (in the normal sense of the word) to be transformed into the glorious body or "resurrection-body".

With such examples, it may mean that death is not an absolute necessity for resurrection. An experimental thought: If the Fall is historical, then God might be able to achieve the resurrection stage (the eschaton) at a time much closer to the time of Fall, before any of the first human beings need to suffer physical death.