(an excerpt from The Promise of Despair)
It was already fifteen minutes past his bedtime when he asked me the question. The question had its origins in the nightmares my son Owen had had months earlier. Back then, trying to comfort him in the midst of his fear, I had explained that though his nightmares seemed powerful and able to get him, they could not; they could not because Jesus had him. I explained that when Jesus went to the cross and overcame death with life, death was beaten. I showed Owen a picture of his baptism and explained that when he went under the water he was given over to death, but when he came out of the water he was given over to Jesus who brings life out of the dark waters of death.
Though death was still powerfully in the world and could scare us with nightmares and trick us into doing bad things, it could not determine our destiny, for Jesus had swum deeply in the dark waters of death for the sake of bringing life out of them. So I explained that whenever he was scared of a nightmare he could say a little mantra I made up, “Death can’t get me, because Jesus has got me.” Now, Owen was only three when I explained this to him (I agree it may have been a little much). But he seemed to get it. Seeing the newly white streaks in the chin hair of our black lab, Owen asked what they meant. When we explained that the white hair meant Kirby was getting older, Owen asked, “What happens then?” Pushing us to every next scenario, we finally explained that Kirby, our dog, will eventually die. Owen just shook his head and said, “I don’t want that. I don’t want death to have Kirby.”
Weeks later on a family walk Owen tripped, skinning his knee. As he fought back tears, we asked him if he was OK. Looking at us intensely and pointing to his red knee he said, “Yes, but death hurt me; death made me bleed.” So it was no surprise when he asked me this question. It was already past his bedtime and Owen was filled with many questions. So as I hurried to tuck him in, Owen asked, “Daddy, will death ever fall in love?” Recognizing that this was an important question, but also not sure if it was another tactic to stall his inevitable bedtime, I responded, “Yes, Owen, death will fall in love and when it does love will destroy death, and death will be no more. Now go to sleep. Good night.” And I walked out.
But Owen had stumbled upon it. This question (“Will death ever fall in love?”) was the most fundamental of all questions—the question, in many ways, that the whole universe rests upon. Is there an answer to death? Is love or death stronger? Will death ever not be? Will death itself ever be transformed? And how? These are the most essential of questions; the whole of existence is caught up in them. There is no one in the world who doesn’t bump up against them.
The church has spent way too much time giving answers that avoid this question, thinking it possesses some kind of truth to fight for, some kind of meaning, authority, belonging, and identity that can shield people from the reality of the monster of death. We have given our attention to other questions when the very questions of the universe, the very questions of our being, are lying in our laps. In quiet moments, in moments of great joy, in moments of great fear, in moments of great transition, where the present slips into the past, we can hear the question bubbling up from our very being, “Will death ever fall in love? Or is death, in its many faces, all there is?” Our very beings yearn for life and love, but there is so much death around us (lost jobs, lost love, deep fear, and brokenness), and even if we can avoid it all, we know that no one gets through this life alive. So will death ever fall in love? Is there something more than death? Is love able to conquer death?
Love is only able to conquer death if love goes through death. Love is only able to conquer death by dying. Or to say it another way, love is only love if it is found next to death, if it is found next to darkness, yearning, and brokenness.
Love exposes death, shakes it out from its hidden places. To love is to enter death. To love is to bind yourself so completely to another that their very being puts parts of yours to death. It is to open our beings to the ways the monster of death confronts them, to wrap our beings together in vulnerability to death. Love is born through death. Love is to be together through the storms of existence.
So to say that God is love is to say that God knows death. If the monster is in the world, if death takes four-year-olds in a cancer ward and fathers as they watch their sons play baseball, if death promises to take us, if we wrestle with it even now, then God can only love us if God meets us in death. And God must seek us in death, for God desires the love of relationship, because God honors relationship. To encounter God in the fullness of love is to encounter God alongside and through death. There is no other way. Love outside death is only sentimentality, a cheap illusion, and only mutual denial-based affirmation.
Love outside death is for Hallmark. I can’t love my wife unless I’m willing to see and join her in those broken places of yearning, loss, and suffering that she knows. I can’t love her if I refuse to see her alongside and through these places where the stench of death is real. God cannot be love unless God willingly enters death. God cannot be with us and for us unless God allows death to be wrapped around God’s own being.
The Incarnation, we confess, is God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is God (God!) entering a world where death reigns. God becomes human in Jesus Christ, meaning that all that is true for humanity becomes true for God. No human being can escape the monster of death, so God must die. Incarnation leads to crucifixion.
God now becoming human means God must die! The church worships a dead God—or better, a God who knows death by being overtaken by death for the sake of love.
It was this very reality that Paul held on to: “I choose to know only Christ and him crucified.” He refused to separate Christ and him crucified; to know Jesus is to know him through death, for to know him through death is to know him as the fullness of a God of love. There is no Christ without his cross, for without the cross there is no answer to the question, “Will death ever fall in love?” Without the cross there can be no love stronger than death, for God has not entered our reality; God cannot be with us unless God is with us in death, for death is our ultimate destiny.
Without the cross Christianity cannot face death and therefore can only be in the business of delusional, sentimental Hallmark positivity. Christianity, for Paul, is at its very core about a God who enters death. In a world that knows death, hyperpositivity has no correlation with reality; the church is meaningless because it cannot face reality. It cannot face death. Instead, as we see in Paul, the church should be the community that proclaims to the world that God knows death by loving the world—by entering the world’s many deaths through the cross of Christ.