Death and the Church, Part II

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In a previous essay, “Death and the Church,” I wrote that the local congregation needs to address the end of life and its attendant issues. Given our secular culture’s confusing responses to suffering and death—death is either the ultimate human foe to be conquered at any cost, or is preferable to a “diminished quality of life”—many believers are co-opting a worldview that runs contrary to historic Christianity. While we are most appreciative of the fine and informative work of ministries such as The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, the “think tank” cannot replace the local parish as the center of Christian education. In other words, bioethics (especially issues of death and dying) must be mainstreamed from the academy to the pulpit and pew. This will obviously require a fair bit of intentionality.

I envision such an engagement taking place in a multi-week Sunday School class that would include adults as well as older youth. Since death is not merely a singular event but one that affects families and communities, it should be discussed in a forum that mirrors this reality. Over this month-long period, practical issues such as responsible “death preparation” and ministry to the dying should be addressed. However, antecedent to thoughtful and significant praxis, there should be a solid biblical and theological foundation. Thus, the first few weeks of this curriculum should seek to equip members with the tools needed to develop a Scripturally-formed perspective on the subject. In this essay, I unpack one of these foundational tools for developing such a curriculum and will return to explore subsequent issues for leading this kind of a Sunday school class in future posts.

Building Bridges

A number of years ago, New Testament scholar Grant Osborne wrote that a sermon (and obviously a lesson) should be a “bridge-building” exercise “that unites the ancient world of the text with the modern world of the congregation.”[1] Without connecting these two contexts, the Bible will largely be viewed as a “parallel universe” to vexing contemporary issues. It is God’s truth, to be sure, but merely one that runs alongside twenty-first century realities instead of providing a worldview framework in which they are wisely encompassed.[2] Consequently, the first sessions of such a class must have a two-fold purpose: 1) Cite concrete, contemporary examples that illustrate the culture’s prevailing “dance with death” (as noted in the first paragraph); and 2) Propose some Scripturally-derived fundamental theological themes that need to be raised in these real-life situations. Let me suggest what this might look like.

In my own bioethical presentations to church groups, I have introduced the secular side of suffering and death with a power-point slide of Brittany Maynard, who in her struggle with terminal cancer famously articulated these very American-sounding words: “I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve the choice? . . . Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?”[3] I have emphasized key phrases in this statement (e.g., “death with dignity,” “who has the right,” “I don’t deserve this choice”) that seem innocuous to many but fundamentally express a non-Christian view of the issue. This illustration is not given in any way to demean the subject or minimize her intense suffering but rather to call attention to a perspective that is easily embraced by U.S. believers. On the other side of the spectrum, I show a slide featuring Time magazine’s “2045” cover story that calls attention to the transhumanist agenda to preserve youth and technologically defeat death.[4]

I then ask class members to voice statements and/or examples of where they have encountered these viewpoints, perhaps even as their own.[5] Using power-point slides, again, I call attention to the “hidden worldviews” that lay under the surface of these diverse understandings: secularism, individualism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism, and pragmatism/utilitarianism—all of which are in direct conflict with biblical faith.[6] (Not surprisingly, I have found our lay people—and pastors—woefully ignorant of the conceptual models that subtly entice them).

After setting out the contemporary milieu, I spend some time walking my fellow Christians through the basic parameters of a Christian worldview. I do this in a couple of ways. First, I rehearse the biblical narrative (Gen. 1–Rev. 22) of creation-fall-redemption-consummation that in turn sets out some core theological beliefs that constitute historic Christianity. Second, transitioning to some basic bioethical principles that should guide believers in addressing suffering and death, I discuss John Kilner’s well-known triad of God-centeredness, reality-boundedness, and love impelled.[7] This is illustrated by a survey of the healing of Lazarus (John 11). In this familiar biblical story, we see these principles clearly expressed:

  1. The starting place for our attitudes/actions about suffering and death is found in the triune God, who in the person of Jesus demonstrates that he, not us, owns the “right” in this matter. It is his creation, and early or unnecessary death should be opposed. One should note that suffering can also have a character-shaping value (Rom 5:3–40) that is not recognizable by those obsessed with a pain-free existence.
  2. While Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the latter will surely die again. Such is reality until the final resurrection. Consequently, our “cures” will only be temporary, and physical death cannot be eradicated in this life.
  3. This (temporary) healing is solely prompted by genuine, selfless love, not by grandiose visions of power and technological control.

While I do cite biblical verses that are commonly used to address suffering and death (e.g., Heb 9:27), my major concern is to enable parishioners to think theologically in a manner that both shapes a Scriptural “wisdom” as well as addresses the present state of the discussion that was hardly in the purview of the ancient writers.

Clearly, this first lesson can be challenging—for the participant as well as the teacher. However, it is a necessary foundation for the subsequent, “practical” sessions in which we propose congregational strategies that can both address a preparation for death and ministries for the dying.

Continue reading this series: Part III, Part IV


[1] Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1991), 339.

[2] This development of a biblical “wisdom” regarding bioethical issues is at the heart of the recent publication, Why the Church Needs Bioethics, edited by John Kilner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[3] Brittany Maynard, “My Right to Death with Dignity at 29,” CNN, November 2, 2014, (accessed January 18, 2017), emphasis added.

[4] Lev Grossman’s cover story in the February 21, 2011 issue of Time: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal” (February 21, 2011,,9171,2048299,00.html [accessed January 18, 2017.])

[5] Following Miriam L. Charter, this interactive component will be more fully implemented in later lessons: a “Problem Based Learning” (PBL) approach. See Miriam L. Charter, “Wisdom from Education,” in Kilner, Why the Church Needs Bioethics, 279–299.

[6] These “Hidden Worldviews” are helpfully explained in the work by the same name, authored by Steve Wilkins and Mark Sanford (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

[7] John Kilner, Life on the Line (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 13–29.