Why does anyone have to die?
The obvious answer is that all people must ultimately die. The joyful celebration of birth is always shadowed by the grim reality of death. For every new human life that appears, a corresponding grave will be dug. The end of life is a surety, and it is guaranteed that each will have a trajectory of its own.
But the general and abstract acceptance of death is not what really troubles us. It is the death of someone who matters, someone we have come to love and value. It is the death of a cherished person that tears at our hearts and causes us to ask,
Why this one? Does this death mean something?
We look for meaning in death because we have a difficult time believing that death just happens. We project intentions and purposes onto God in order to explain why our loved one left us too soon, why thousands were swept away by natural disasters, why a person who has contributed generously to others would suffer a wasting disease and then disappear from our midst. We look for answers when we experience these losses, and the rationales offered by well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people do not generally bring comfort.
It is common for people of faith to attempt theological responses to these questions. Some of these answers suggest things about God that might cause us to wonder if this God is different than Jesus described as the one “who so loved the world” (John 3:16), or as the one characterized in First John as the very essence of love (1 John 4:7-8). We sometimes hear of a God who allows a beloved child to die so that the family will learn some important lessons, or that the death of thousands by tsunami or earthquake is a result of God’s retributive wrath, or that God has in mind a greater good that requires the taking of a human life. These responses are often the product of a narrative that is unable to tolerate mystery or to accept the randomness of evil and suffering.
In Luke chapter 13 there is a scene involving some people who ask Jesus about the deaths of some local Jews—one violent episode that occurred at the hands of the local Roman governor, and another tragic accident involving the collapse of a tower. Jesus’ response suggests that his questioners were looking for the meaning behind the tragedies:
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? . . . Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:2-4)
Jesus refuses to assign to these losses the deeper meaning that his questioners desire. He merely tells them, in effect, that they too should watch their steps.
It is difficult for us to imagine that the God of the Bible—the God who is filled with love and mission and purpose—would allow anything to occur without reason. After all, either God is in control or he is not. All things must have meaning, otherwise we would be living in a random, chaotic universe, and our lives—lives that we have come to believe are precious to God—are subject to forces that are not God. We have trouble with this, and so we should. Rarely can we get away from the conviction that the cause of something has to be related to its meaning.
That people will one day die is a scientific certainty that we can affirm. It is the art that confounds us—in the deaths that matter to us, there has to be some kind of meaning.
There is a theme that the Bible appears to embrace: We humans live in a dangerous, broken world. The desire of God—that all of creation would live in open, unhindered relationship with him—has been countered by humanity’s preference for other things. By our own devices we have opened ourselves to all that the forces of the universe can deliver: Natural disasters, hostile environs, the horrors of human sin, the fear of death. In the end we find only the conviction that this state of affairs is not as it should be. There is clearly something wrong with the world.
When it comes to Jesus, the question of his death has fueled theological debates for centuries. The death of one so important, one so pivotal in our perception of human history, cannot easily be explained away as another random and tragic occurrence, especially since there is resurrection to follow. We long for reasons and our reasons craft our theologies about what it means to find the new life that we believe defines us as the people of God. What we conclude about this particular death matters because it speaks significantly about how we see the character of God, his mission in the world, and his destiny for the human race and all of creation.
Holy Week is a time when we reimagine the story in fresh and new ways and rehearse it within our ancient traditions. My hope is that we would continue to wonder and marvel at this great mystery that we have come to call The Atonement, seeing it not merely as a theological concept but also as a living reality that defies our categories and unravels our attempts at simplification. It is also a story that must continue to be told.
(This is an excerpt from Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Faith, to be released in late 2012 (Wipf and Stock Publishers)