The risk of idolatry when it comes to death

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I wrote here, that seeking to subdue COVID-19 did not amount to idolatry but was in fact a legitimate following of the Creation mandate.  This attracted a lot of debate. Surprisingly, so far I’ve not had anyone interact with my exposition of Scripture. Rather, people have focused on seeking to argue that the Government are being idolatrous and hubristic by talking about defeating COVID-19.

It seems that the problem is this.  We struggle when someone says “I don’t think your critique of culture and idolatry is right.”  We take that to mean that someone is defending the culture, not just finding points of helpful contact with it but treating it as completely god and healthy. I hope that by now, regular readers of my blog will have discovered that I don’t see our society as free from sin and idolatry.  I have talked often enough about the idols we face.

The two relevant questions are these. First of all, does the attempt to defeat COVID-19 indicate an idolatrous belief that we can beat death?  My answer to that is “No. It simply suggests the quite reasonable belief that we can defeat a specific virus.”  The second question is “Does that mean that our society is free from any idolatry around the question of death.”

My answer to that question is again “No.”  If you were to have read my blog (including the old version) over the past few years or heard me preach then you will have frequently seen me coming back to two themes.

The first theme is that

“The things we fear and the things we falsely put our trust in are the things that become our idols.”

The second theme is that

“Death does not have to have the last word.”

That’s because there is a lot of fear and therefore a lot of idolatry around the issue of death. Does our society really have a dominant belief that we can defeat death?  I don’t think there is such an idolatry. There may be the optimism of youth which makes young people think death is such a long way off so as to make them invincible now but that is not the same thing. There may be confidence in the ability of medicine to prolong life, to give us a better quality of life and to combat a wide range of diseases but again I don’t think people are saying death is inevitable.

What I do think is the case is that people are scared of dying. This is because they have no hope beyond the grave.  Therefore their twin fears are about the process of dying of intense, inescapable suffering and of what if anything lies the other side of death.  The result of that is that quite often people simply don’t want to talk about death. They push it to the back of their minds. They try to find ways in their funerals and grieving of sanitising it. Indeed, as I observed previously on this site, the COVID-19 restrictions on who could be present at the hospital and who could attend a funeral have viciously exposed the full horror, loneliness and ugliness of death. 

So, we try to avoid talking about death. We do try to prolong life as long as possible and we try to find meaning in the here and now, filling our days with entertainment or setting ourselves projects. In a world where we have lost our belief in physical resurrection, the best that we can hope for is that our name and our fame will live on after us. The book of Ecclesiastes deals firmly with this false hope.

It is not that we think we can avoid death, it is that we hope to delay its inevitability. I think this is similar to the response of the demons at Gadarene in Matthew 8. They knew a judgement day was coming but thought Jesus had turned up early. They asked to be sent into the pigs not to avoid their final judgement but to delay it. I think we tend towards the same attitude. We know death will come but we don’t want it to happen yet. I suspect that’s why we can distinguish between the benefits of investing in medical treatment and the sheer nuttiness of those who arrange to have their bodies or brains cryogenically frozen.

Just one more point about our attitude to death. There has been some discussion in recent years about whether our culture is more about guilt and punishment or honour or shame. I think our attitude to death shows that shame plays a significant role as well as guilt. Our fear of dying includes the fear of experiencing shame as we are seen to deteriorate and suffer in public.

This is why the Gospel brings hope to dying people, afraid of death. It tells us that we are in fact already dead in our sin.  It points us to the one who died in our place for our sin. Jesus dealt with our guilt and bore our shame. It tells us that death does not have the last word. It is an already defeated idol. Christ has risen from the grave and we are raised with him.

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