“Let the pulpit proclaim the good news that God is alive, and has nowhere more clearly proved it than at Calvary, where Jesus Christ brought death to death.”
At least one good word can be said for modern existentialism. It is the only philosophy that has seriously grappled with death. Traditional philosophies, materialistic and idealistic, probed the secrets of heaven and earth, but the fact that a man must die never engaged their serious interest. For all its epistemological interest in the question of how man can have knowledge, modern philosophy never showed any real interest in knowing what it means that even a modern man must die.
Death, of course, is universal. The ultimate statistic, as G. B. Shaw said, is the same: one out of one dies. Death is every man’s problem.
There is a lot of death-talk in modern conversation. It is a difficult subject to avoid. There is war in Viet Nam. We live in the nuclear age with its frightening possibility of large-scale death through nuclear warfare. At least two hundred thousand people died recently in the violent revolution in Indonesia. Millions are threatened by death through starvation in the Far East. It is difficult not to talk about this. It is even harder not to think about it. And to all this grist for death-talk is now added the thought of the death of God.
At the same time, we try to cover up the idea of death and ignore it as truly as the traditional philosophers did. The subject is excluded from “polite conversation.” Funerals are conducted as privately and unobtrusively as possible, as if not to disturb the public peace. We conceal the prospect of death from the person who does not know he is on his deathbed. Before we bury the dead, we make them look as alive as possible. And only the gravediggers actually see the dust return to the dust.
Is death a part of life? Sartre says death is absurd, an irrational something that renders life itself irrational. Therefore, he says, we ought not to think about it. Heidegger gives the opposite answer: Death is an essential strand in the fabric of life. To think about death, he says, is part of living.
This ambiguity characterizes every man’s thought about death, and particularly about his own death. He tries constantly not to think about death; yet it pervades and haunts his every conscious and unconscious experience. So we engage in a lot of death-talk, and yet seek to banish the thought of death by a sheer act of will.
Death is a part of life as we know life. It is folly to ignore it—or rather, to try to ignore it. Must we then live under its gloomy and inescapable shadow?
The Christian knows better. He knows that God has entered our human life and existence in Jesus Christ, and that there is the possibility of a kind of life in which death is not ignored but defeated. The Christian therefore sings, not as one who is “singing in the rain,” but as one who, though he knows he must die, knows of “death’s destruction,” of the “death of death.” It is not God but death that has died. Of this he sings. The Christian disowns the gloomy belief that death is an essential strand in the pattern of life, as if there could not be one without the other. In the name of his biblical faith he joyfully rejects the existentialists’ idea that death is a part of existence. The Christian regards death as an alien element in life, an outside intrusion brought into human life through sin. He gains this idea about death, not from a reading of human existence and experience, but from revelation. As an outside intrusion into human life, the mystery of death, he realizes, must also be disclosed from the outside, from a divine revelation.
The existentialist, the professional, or the amateur who simply thinks about his own death can never decipher the mystery of death or indeed the mystery of life; for he runs the two together, and interprets one in terms of the other. He therefore inevitably ends with the death of life, and finally with the death of God himself. (Is it not the existential theologian who started our current death-of-God talk?)
The Christian speaks not of the death of life but of the death of death. He sees, through the existence of Jesus Christ, that death is foreign to life and can be eliminated from life. Death can be evacuated from the premises of human existence, since it has no natural right to be.
The death of death! For what more could men hope? What higher or greater joy could be brought into human existence? What greater thing could the scientist hope to achieve? He now strives to produce life. But that is not a real problem for any living man. His problem is how to retain life. Nor is it a real problem for a society seeking ways and means to halt a population explosion. The death of death—this is mankind’s greatest need, and greatest hope.
If, as the existentialist says, death is part of life, something with which we have to live (!), then both life and death are an absurd irrationality out of which none of us can make any sense.
But the Christian believes in the death of death. Is not this also incomprehensible? If death is the end—and in the profound biblical (not superficial) sense, it is—does it make any sense to believe in the end of the end? Is not this Christian belief as incomprehensible as the existentialist’s “life which is death” or as Kant’s antinomies of reason?
Indeed, it is incomprehensible. Yet it is not absurd; rather, it is something devoutly to be desired. The death of death is indeed incomprehensible. Its truth therefore cannot be discovered by man within the limits of his own existence. The knowledge that death itself has died can be gained only through divine revelation. That death cannot ultimately destroy life but is defeated through death itself is a truth that can be made known to us only by God himself. That the ultimate statistic is not the equation of life and death so that one out of one dies is not given us to discover. The death of death is incomprehensible, for it is accomplished through death itself, the death of the Son of God.
It is not God who has died. Just how indeed could our existentialist theologians have lifted themselves out of their skins and leaped out of and above their existence to discover the death of God? Would to God they had remained within existence, for it is within our human existence that the Son of God died, and only in this sense is it permissible to speak of the death of God. By this death of the Son of God for the sins of mankind, death was defeated, death as the end result of sin was ended. By this death, he who had the power of death, even the devil, was destroyed, and Christ now delivers those who all their lifetime lived in the bondage of the fear of death.
This is the message of Good Friday: Through the death of the Son of God, death has itself met death. Death, which is ultimately hell, has been conquered by him who on Calvary experienced the whole of hell and of death in his human existence, crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Why? Death has questions but—as the existentialist also knows—death gives no answers. No answer came to the dying Christ. But because he died, we know the answer to his “Why,” the meaning of his death. His death on the cross was the death of death. Incomprehensible, yes. Absurd? No—unless life itself is absurd.
The declaration that death is not the final answer, that it does not stand in an equation with life, that it is not of the fabric of human existence but a foreign element, defeated, itself put to death, does not await the resurrection, which bespeaks the dimensions of an eternal life in which there is no death. The sign that death is defeated and has met its own end in death, is given within our death-ridden existence. While Christ yet hangs on the instrument of his death, from the cross itself comes the sign of death’s defeat. While still on the cross, the dying Son of God declares his victory. Death does not take him, but he in death cries out with the loud voice of strength, “It is finished.” Death is finished. Death cannot take him, for it is the dying Christ himself who gives up his spirit, and by his own act bows his head, and by his own decision commends his spirit to God. “Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” His life is not taken from him; rather, he himself on a note of triumph gives up his spirit to God.
This the Christian can understand. Even the godly Old Testament saint could understand this. The old patriarch Jacob did not capitulate to death. Only after he had finished blessing his sons did he himself gather his feet into his bed and give up his spirit to God. And David, even while he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, knew that ahead was a future in which he would dwell in the house of the Lord forever—and behind him a goodness and mercy that followed him.
And this the New Testament saints also knew and understood. Simeon needed but one look at his infant Lord to be able to pray, “Now let thy servant depart in peace … for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Paul could wish to die since that would be far better, for he would then be with Christ; but even if death had to wait he could live happily, because his life was hid with God in Christ. To mention but one more, Stephen, while the stones of death destroyed him, was touched by that death of death which is the glory of the Resurrection; he prayed for those who destroyed him and commended his spirit into the hands of God. The Christian can say, “Death, be not proud.” Who can be proud in defeat? Death—not God—has died!
With all our death-talk, let the Church also talk about death; but let it say the right thing. What the world, and the Church itself, needs to hear is not the theologian who mumbles in his teacups or shouts from the headlines that God is dead. The world has enough gloom, enough stupidity, enough bad news. On Good Friday of 1966, let the Good News be sounded and proclaimed in every Christian pulpit, the Good News—without which all other good news is ultimately meaningless—that God is alive and has nowhere more clearly proved it than at Calvary, where he brought death to death.
The ultimate statistic, the ultimate truth and meaning about our life and our human existence, is not that one out of one dies. If it were, then life and death would indeed be an equation. But life and death are not equal. And the ultimate statistic that discloses the ultimate truth about our existence is that “one died for all,” that they who live should so truly live that even though they die, through the death of the Son of God “yet shall they live.”
“It sure was crazy.” With these words Maurice Michels, a Pasadena truck driver with seven stitches in his head, described his experience when forty to fifty young Negroes pulled him out of his truck in Watts and worked him over.
And crazy it was, crazy all around. Seventeen-year-old Sam Henry Fullerton, the confessed murderer of another truck driver, Larry Gomez, said he killed him because “I wanted to be the big man.” He now is the big man. He got his man, and he got his name in the newspapers. But he is sorry for what he is, “sorry I shot that white dude.”
And who was “white dude” Larry Gomez? A man who delivered bottled drinking water to the people of Watts, had once studied for the priesthood, was the father of five, and was an ardent civil rights advocate. After he was shot he begged for help in four doorways, received none, and died in the street.
It sure was crazy. And the violent and hateful irrationality for which Watts has become a worldwide symbol will only be heightened if Fullerton’s act of murder is clouded over by an appeal to the unfavorable environment in which he lived. No amount of environmental provocation can obscure the fact that murder is immoral as well as irrational. The deed by which Fullerton became a “big man”—destroying another man—is a moral offense. The economic and sociological climate that is Watts does not make it anything less. A white man’s life is as valuable as a Negro’s, and murder is murder regardless of color. If public reaction in either the white or the Negro community obscures this, then it will be time to say again, “It sure was crazy.”
On the other hand, it will be no mark of intelligence for the white community and the City Council of Los Angeles to pretend that Watts is not there. To think of the area again only when it commands attention by violence will be folly. The guns of last August have been heard again. And one need not be a prophet, or even the son of a prophet, to realize that they may be heard still another time, unless both the white and the Negro communities are willing to act.
A Regrettable Spectacle
In recent years much has been said in these pages about the improved climate of evangelical understanding and cooperation. But some deep and disturbing divisions remain. Sometimes the ugliness that survives in certain fundamentalist circles gains notice even in the secular press, as when Time magazine recently reported attitudes at Bob Jones University toward Billy Graham’s crusade in Greenville.
We have no desire to embarrass Bob Jones University; its spokesmen are able to do that for themselves. Nor are we minded to read the Bob Joneses—Bob Sr., Bob Jr., and Bob III—out of the kingdom of grace. In years past this writer handled promotion for a city-wide Life Begins campaign in Chicago at which Bob Sr. was a featured speaker, and from classroom days he remembers several transfer students from Bob Jones University as gifted scholars who were too discerning to believe everything that passes for truth even on a Christian college campus. But we think the most lamentable thing about the Greenville situation was the spectacle of an evangelical spokesman leading with his chin. It revives all the odium that has been attached to fundamentalism by those who dismiss it as an emotional mentality. The suggested mock prayer against Graham (see page 45) proves nothing so much as the need of real prayer—of continuing prayer—that the unity of evangelical Christians may be apparent.
We rejoice in the 7,300 who made decisions for Christ in the Greenville crusade, and we trust that the stronger grip on spiritual realities will bring a new day of Christian devotion to the Piedmont area.
Auca Spears Flash Again
Ten years ago five young men were speared to death by Auca Indians in Ecuador. These martyrs died as they sought vainly to reach a savage tribe with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Since then four of the five surviving members of that band that killed these missionaries have become Christians. A small community of about eighty Aucas has been established, a majority of whom are following Jesus Christ.
Rachel Saint, sister of one of the dead missionaries, has continued working with these Indians and as a member of the Wycliffe Bible Translators has translated portions of the Scriptures into the Auca tongue. Yet even now, the spears of unredeemed and savage Aucas flash again. A little group of Auca believers who went out to take the Gospel to relatives found the bodies of loved ones, speared and decaying. The message never got through.
At a time when young people are looking for causes with which to identify themselves, they should not overlook those other sheep for whom Christ also died or the opportunity to hazard their lives in taking his message to the dark places of the earth.
The Anne Sullivan Centennial
One of the greatest of all teaching achievements was the work of Anne Sullivan, the 100th anniversary of whose birth on April 14, 1866, will be recognized by the Anne Sullivan Centennial Commemoration, sponsored by the Perkins School for the Blind in Water-town, Massachusetts, and the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn, New York. Few teachers have more faithfully exemplified the selflessness at the heart of their noble profession than did Anne Sullivan. Perhaps the greatest tribute ever paid her was that of her world-famous pupil, Helen Keller, who said she “gave me my soul.”
Deaf-blind persons (and there are more than 5,000 in this country alone) are shut off from meaningful communication with the world around them. Nothing about God and the great truths of Scripture, nothing of human thought and learning or of the beauties of nature can be known by them unless the gate to their minds and hearts is unlocked. Anne Sullivan devoted her life to unlocking that gate for Helen Keller and for many others similarly afflicted.
Though America is beset by moral and social problems, it has its brighter aspects, such as the growing concern for the mentally retarded, for the victims of incurable diseases, and also for the deal-blind, who, because of Anne Sullivan’s devoted labors, may be delivered from their terrible isolation.
New Way To Religious Unity
Out of New York last week came the proposal by Dr. Ernest R. Palen of the Middle Collegiate Church that Protestants and Roman Catholics join Jews in observing Saturday instead of Sunday as the day of worship. Dr. Palen, who for twenty-live years was a member of the board of education of the Reformed Church in America and has also been a director of the Protestant Council of the City of New York, hailed his own proposal as promising “the longest stride toward religious unity that our civilization has yet known.”
The basic question remains, however, not which day but which Lord. If the theology behind the day is insignificant, then the day is inconsequential—and so is worship; so that a shift from Sunday to Saturday simply to appease the idol of “religious unity” must be offensive to devout Jews and Christians alike. If Christ is risen, he is Lord of all the days. Worship on both Saturdays and Sundays on that premise, by both Christians and Jews, would be a step in the right direction.
A Grim Fairy Tale
We rubbed our eyes in incredulity when we read the text of Robert Theobald’s address, “New Technologies and Institutional Changes,” delivered at the February meeting of the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches in Louisville, Kentucky. It contained this statement: “… everybody is entitled as an absolute constitutional right to a guaranteed income, sufficient to live with dignity. At a time when the machines can turn out enough production for everybody it is no longer necessary to force people into factories, or into offices, or into jobs unless they want to carry out this type of activity. I am not arguing that they should receive as much as somebody who does a job but I do believe everybody is entitled to enough money to live with dignity. This is the way to abolish poverty, and it seems to me that this step is long overdue.”
Doubtless all men want to live with dignity, and more and more of them hope to find it without work. Will dignity include a compact or a Cadillac? A black and white or a color TV? An efficiency apartment or a three-bedroom detached house in suburbia? Will it be found in the wintry wind of the Dakotas or the balmy breezes of Florida?
We note with relief that the NCC General Board in adopting its statement on “Christian Concern and Responsibility for Economic Life in a Rapidly Changing Technological Society” said: “Work, understood as creative and responsible participation in useful, meaningful and compensated activity, is both a right and a need of all men.… Talk of the abolition of human work is presently a pure fantasy.”
We took our feet off: the desk, stopped sipping coffee, and returned to our toil. The framers of the Constitution of the United States somehow neglected to mention our “absolute right to a guaranteed income.” As a matter of fact, there is good reason to be highly suspicious of absolute rights claimed in ecclesiastical gatherings. Talk of the abolition of human work is presently—and we think permanently—“a pure fantasy.”
Where Faith Must Stand
At the heart of the Christian faith is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. And because we learn about Christ in the Scriptures, we must always be acutely sensitive to anything that downgrades the biblical record.
The Bible gives us God’s direct and explicit revelation, which speaks to each generation. By his Spirit, God put into the mouths of his prophets words that are ageless in truth and changeless in their message of redemption in Christ. “Because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21, RSV), the Scriptures speak with an incomparable power and authority.
To his detractors, Christ said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46, 47). Moreover, all through the Old Testament there is the note of authority in “The Lord spoke unto me …,” “Thus saith the Lord …,” and similar affirmations that bring faith and confidence to us today. Our Lord’s assertion about the law and the prophets—“I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17)—is not debatable. Nor are the prophecies of the men of God debatable. Some have been fulfilled; others yet remain to be fulfilled.
As the Old Testament writers spoke as they were “moved by the Holy Spirit,” so did those of the New. Paul’s claim of divine inspiration is clear: “I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12).
The further men get away from the Holy Scriptures, the further they get from the Christ of those Scriptures. And the more they insist that only scholars can understand the Bible, the further they get from the Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible.
The Church And The Totalitarian State
Recently the Reverend Gordon K. Chapman retired after forty-four years as a Presbyterian missionary in Japan. A staunch evangelical and a distinguished missionary, he was also editor-in-chief of The Japan Christian Yearbook. In retirement this indefatigable worker remains in Japan on what hardly seems to be a retirement schedule. Along with our congratulations goes appreciation for his penetrating analysis of the relation of the Japanese churches to a totalitarian regime.
Before and during World War II the performance of Shinto rites was required of Christians in Japan, and some argued that it was only a patriotic exercise that did not compromise Christian conscience. As late as 1963 Mr. Chapman reviewed that episode in Japanese church life. He wrote: Early Christians when faced with a totalitarian regime asked a simple question, “Is anything being offered to Caesar—divine names, redemptive acts, offerings, prayers, obeisance—which is due to God alone?” Surely every Christian knows that “the State is not absolute or final, but ordained of God as his servant for certain temporal purposes.… The Christian is not to render unto Caesar what belongs to God alone.… When the State demands what is due to God alone, it has transgressed its limits, … it becomes the tangible embodiment of Satanic power.” In Japan some Christians “saw the issue in the above light and were not deceived by the specious arguments of the State, even though their refusal to comply involved them in imprisonment.”
The best insurance against totalitarianism of any kind—be it that of Hitler, Mao, or Castro—is separation of church and state, plus a Church willing to speak up when Caesar’s law conflicts with God’s law, saying, “we must obey God rather than men”; a Church willing to pay whatever price is demanded for this obedience—persecution, imprisonment, or death.
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