Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne addresses an article by Andrew Riggio, in which Riggio questions the thought processes of a man named Paul Lord who thanked God for saving him from a tornado that struck in Oklahoma, killing several (including 3 young girls) but sparing him. Noticing that (unsurprisingly) the comments have exploded into a sprawling mess, Coyne pulls out a few for special attention including this one:
Kleb • 22 hrs ago
Wooooooow. Bitter much? The author’s argument presupposes that from God’s point of view death is bad. People of “true faith”, as his last sentence mentions, are equally grateful to God for His providence in death as in life. Look at the great heroes in Christianity. When they died they weren’t bawling and begging God to spare them, they were profoundly relieved to be joining Him and, at the same time, deeply grateful for the ride they had been on in this world. From a Christian perspective, then, there is no inconsistency here. The survivor is grateful for the life God has given him here, as he should be, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t also looking forward to meeting the Lord.
Whoa! Should we be grateful to God for asking 6 million Jews to join Him during the Holocaust?
Seeing this reminded me of something I read a while ago in John Aberth’s great book Plagues in World History. Faced with the crushing mortality and morbidity of the First Plague (the Justinian plague that ran from roughly 541 to 750 CE), Christian preachers responded the only way that they could, from the pulpit. In reply to the bubonic scourge, Aberth notes this particular line of thinking:
By the seventh century, sermon cycles were being compiled to be recited on a regular basis whenever plague struck a region as part of the Church’s now standard response to urge its flock to repent in the face of God’s wrathful chastisement; this at least is the overarching theme of four homilies composed at this time in Toledo, Spain, which, as expected, are replete with quotations from the Old Testament. Yet, one sermon, the third in the series, adopts a strikingly different tone by employing the carrot rather than the stick […]. In a remarkable passage, one that seems to be inspired by the New Testament, in particular the letters of St. Paul, the preacher now dangles the promise of immortality during the Christian afterlife or resurrection in order to help his listeners conquer their fear of imminent death from the “groin disease”:
But what should we say? You who take fright at this blow (not because you fear the uncertainty of slavery, but because you fear death, that is, you show yourselves to be terrified), oh that you would be able to change life into something better, and not only that you could not be frightened by approaching death, but rather that you would desire to come to death. When we die, we are carried by death to immortality. Eternal life cannot approach unless one passes away from here. Death is not an end, but a transition from this temporary life to eternal life. Who would not hurry to go to better things? Who would not long to be changed more quickly and reformed into the likeness of Christ and the dignity of celestial grace? Who would not long to cross over to rest, and see the face of his king, whom he had honored in life, in glory? And if Christ our king now summons us to see him, why do we not embrace death, through which we are carried to the eternal shrine? For unless we have made the passage through death, we cannot see the face of Christ our king.
Kleb the commenter has one thing right: a belief that death is acceptable and even preferable to this life, whether from God’s point of view or from the worshipper’s, is certainly not a new phenomenon. I wonder at the power this line of thinking must have held when those who contemplated it were faced with a disease that can kill 60-90% of those it infects and may have wiped out as many as 25 million during the Justinian plague alone. In the mean time, though, I’ll be thankful for the efforts of modern medicine and science which have brought the plague to its knees. (Even if we are on the verge of squandering that advantage and resurrecting the plague’s power through antibiotic abuse, but that’s an entirely different post).