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New Horizons

A Christian Response to Death

Carl R. Trueman

One of the most striking and memorable of William Blake’s many wonderful paintings is The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve. Here the artist imagines the moment when Adam and Eve find the corpse of Abel, the first victim not simply of murder but of fratricide.

To the left, Cain, terrified either by what he has done or the fact that he has been discovered, flees the scene, his head surrounded by fire, symbolizing judgment, and the background—a dark, volcanic sky—intensifying this. To the right, a horrified Adam stares in disbelief and accusation at his fleeing son. And in front of Adam, Eve bows in disconsolate despair over Abel’s body. Her face is hidden, but that simply enhances the agony of the moment: Blake knew that a mother’s grief in such circumstances transcends any artist’s ability to give it expression. The hiddenness of her tears reveals the depth of her agony.

The painting is, of course, a work of the poet’s imagination. The Bible does not record the pain and sorrow that Adam and Eve must have felt when they realized Abel was dead.  Though death was an intrusion into God’s created order, Moses does not care to delineate the emotional pain and confusion of this, the first murder, and of these, the first parents. As Blake knew that Eve’s heartbreak was revealed more dramatically by hiding her face, so Genesis does not domesticate the moment by verbalizing it.

Grieving in the Face of Death

I have thought about Genesis a lot during the past few months because Moses’s narrative of Creation and Fall has to be foundational to any Christian response to the coronavirus. Yet, in this context, what has come to strike me most about the early chapters is what is absent, what is not mentioned: grieving in the face of death. It is not that grief would not have been there—Blake’s picture surely captures something of what Eve must have felt. It is the fact that Moses chose to omit it.

Why? Well, any answer inevitably involves speculation, but perhaps a later chapter provides a clue: Genesis 23, particularly verse 2. It is there that we find the first account of weeping in the face of death when we are told that Abraham mourned and wept over the death of his beloved wife, Sarah.

This is striking. Genesis casts a veil over the agony of Adam and Eve when Abel is torn from them, and yet here Abraham, the father of the faithful, the man to whom the great promise of God’s covenant love to his people is made, is seen lamenting for his departed wife.

In context, this might seem odd. Adam and Eve know what they have lost in their expulsion from the garden. The promise given to them is one that is arguably quite vague and certainly somewhat experientially muted in comparison to the judgment that has fallen upon them and of which they would be reminded every day. In contrast, Abraham knows that God has promised to make his seed a light to all the nations. And in the aftermath of Genesis 22, he knows that God is powerful, mysterious, and will care for him and his offspring even in situations that are about as dark and confusing as is possible to imagine. And, yet, he is the first man described as crying and mourning over the death of a loved one.

That Moses chose this moment to point to this basic element of human existence—that death wreaks havoc not just on the one who dies but also on those left behind—is very significant. In doing so, he not only underlines the fact that the gospel promise does not take away the pain of death; he also subtly suggests that the gospel promise may actually intensify it.

This is an important lesson for Christians to learn. I have encountered many Christians who struggle to know how to respond to death. Everyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that the situation involves agony and painful emptiness. And, yet, there is often a nagging thought in our minds that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, that we believe in the resurrection and the life everlasting, and that we should therefore not feel the pain of loss and the bleakness of bereavement, particularly if the person died in Christ. The most tragic examples of this are those funerals where the broken-hearted greet people with forced smiles and barely contained tears, doubly tormented by their loss and by the guilt that they experience in feeling that loss.

Yet, the Genesis narrative is the first sign that this is not the case, that the promise does not cancel out death but rather sets it in a context that makes its immediate impact more devastating. As Abraham mourns Sarah, he of all people on the face of the earth knows that this situation should not be, that his love should not have been thus torn from his arms, and that he should not be having to face the future without her.

The Mystery of Christ’s Tears

What we see in Abraham is only intensified and made yet more counterintuitive in the Lord Jesus Christ. As he stands at the tomb of Lazarus, having just declared that he is himself the resurrection and the life, Christ weeps. If it is odd that the first act of mourning recorded in Scripture is that of the recipient of the covenant promise, how much more mysterious and perhaps even disturbing is it that the one who is the very fulfilment of that promise weeps at the tomb of his friend?

While the mystery of Christ’s tears surely surpasses human finite understanding, one thing is clear: the promise does not cancel the present pain of death or circumvent grieving and lamentation. In fact, the path from Abraham to Christ strongly suggests the opposite, that knowledge of the promise and the final victory of God over death actually makes the reality of death that much more devastating because death is that which should never have been. Abraham knows something of what God must do to right the wrong of death. Jesus knows exactly what God must do to right the wrong of death. And, in both cases, they are therefore aware of the full tragedy of the fallen human condition.

What lesson might we draw from this? Perhaps the most obvious is that we should not seek to sentimentalize or rationalize death in some vain effort to make it make sense. It defies such categories. It is an alien, unwanted intruder into this world, turning what was meant to be a paradise into a vale of tears. We should never pretend otherwise.

We should therefore grieve the loss of loved ones. It is good to have happy memories of those who have died. It is appropriate to remember with gratitude the joy they brought us and the wisdom they imparted. But their deaths cannot be canceled out by “celebrations of life” whose ultimate purpose seems to be to distract the bereaved from the full horror of what has happened.

Yet, as Paul says, we grieve but not as those without hope. Even as he wept at the tomb, Christ knew what he was about to do. He did not stand passive in his sorrow but rather pointed by his words and then action toward the glorious hope of the resurrection. And therein lies the task of the church: she is to help her members understand the true horror of death and never sentimentalize or pretend that such does not exist—that would be an unrealistic, false, and thus disastrous strategy. But, while giving death its due, she must not stop there but point her people to the promise of the empty tomb and the final resurrection. That is a hard balance, particularly when most of us tend toward doom and gloom or Pollyannaish optimism. But the figures of Abraham and, above all, Christ surely require that such balance be struck. Ours is not the despair of Eve in Blake’s painting. It is both more painful and yet paradoxically more hopeful. 

The author is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. New Horizons, July 2020.

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