They were on their way up to
, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. Mark 10 v32 Jerusalem
For all animals and plants, death is inescapable; they – we – are subject to death. Not that most of them know they will die: it’s only we humans, as far as we know, that have any consciousness of the inevitability of death for themselves and their companions. That consciousness sometimes takes the shine off human life, because we don’t want to lose what gives us the opportunity of being happy, of being makarios. The religious idea of a life after death suggests that we can escape from death in all its finality. But to say that belief in a life after death is important to you is to admit that you are living under the dominion of death. Overcoming the dominion of death does not mean escaping death and living somewhere else for ever. It means accepting that your death will indeed mean your permanent extinction as an individual, while not being depressed or daunted by that knowledge. It means living well because living well makes you blessed, makarios, here and now, not because you hope for a reward after death. It means living your life as if it had significance in the great sweep of time. It means not allowing the quest to delay death for as long as possible to become the dominating obsession of your life. It means putting the emphasis on living boldly rather than on surviving safely. The moment when it became clear that Jesus had overcome the dominion of death was not when he was raised from the dead, as the gospels recount; it was when he set off towards
and practically certain arrest and execution. Jerusalem
Because we are learning to overcome the dominion of death every time we act boldly or take a risk, overcoming the dominion of death is something that we can be doing all through our lives. It’s an activity, not an achievement done once and for all; nor is it something we can leave until the last moments of our lives. It is in fact a way of living. Even so, there are some experiences that bring the question of the dominion of death into sharp focus. To come face to face with your own death can be a life-transforming experience, assuming you live through it; it’s hard for life to be quite the same again. In the classic American novella The Red Badge of Courage, the boy who has volunteered as a soldier and struggled with cowardice in the face of life-threatening danger returns from a battlefield where his mettle has been tested, and the author comments: ‘He had been to touch the great death, and found, that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.’ It is part of the perennial attraction of the violence of war that it offers this opportunity. But so do less destructive voluntary experiences, for example mountaineering and other dangerous sports, as well as other life-threatening situations.
Maybe if our lives were valuable only to ourselves we’d have less of a problem with facing down the dominion of death; we might go to war, or get involved in gang violence or climb Everest or speed on a motorbike without worrying very much. There are those who do these things, and not infrequently they are able to do so because they don’t feel loved by anyone who would care very much if their lives were lost. Wonderful as it is to feel loved, that sense can sometimes be so overpowering as to stand in the way of our ability to challenge the dominion of death. That’s why the love we know others feel towards us needs to be not too possessive. Overcoming the dominion of death also means overcoming the sense that our own lives would fall apart or lose their meaning if someone we loved were to die. Not only is that important for our own self-protection, it is also important for those we love because they need the ability to overcome the dominion of death for themselves, in their own way. The love that makes space for separation by death is a very special, valuable, unselfish kind of love.
As well as being something that can be done all through life, overcoming the dominion of death is important as we approach its end. A pastor may say to a dying person, ‘Go forth, Christian soul, on your journey from this world.’ This ancient formula giving permission and encouragement to let go of life is not callous; rather it is a reminder that dying is sometimes not easy to do. Of course with or without our participation death will come eventually; but if we have the opportunity of doing so, we might be grateful that we can have a hand in its coming, that dying is something we can do, not just something that happens to us. Even at this last moment, we can find ourselves having to overcome being dominated by the apprehension of death in order to allow ourselves to go deliberately and boldly from this world into oblivion.
A number of things may help us to do this. First, having lived boldly during our active lives may have given us the habit of boldness and the ability to seize opportunities; conversely, deathbed regrets about things not done or fears surrendered to may result from a habit of simply waiting for things to happen to us, including, now, death. Second, if we are able to trust those who will go on living to do so successfully without us, the burden of worrying about them may be lifted from our shoulders; often this requires us to acknowledge the maturity and strength of people we have loved since they were children. And third, having no fear of the state of being dead is vital. Religion has generally used the fear of what might happen to us when we are dead as a potent means of encouraging conformity and orthodoxy. Whatever the ultimate source of this belief in life after death, there’s no denying that it has made it harder for many dying people to overcome the dominion of death in their last hours. There is in truth nothing to fear about the state of being dead; nothing at all. Many people now dead overcame the dominion of death; so can we. And we can start now.