Death, Where Is Your Sting?
Death is not as brutally present to us as it was in Jesus' time, but all Christians know Christ's victory is earth-shattering.
Stop anybody on the street and ask for a one-sentence definition of Christianity, and you’re apt to hear something along these lines: "Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins." But it doesn't take much reading in the works of the early Christians to realize that they were focused on something beyond that which resulted from the Cross and Resurrection. The empty tomb means something for all of us. Christ's victory has rescued us from death.
We should probably give that a capital D, for we find New Testament and later writers treating Death almost as a personification of the malice of the Evil One. The letter to the Hebrews explains that the Evil One has always kept the human race in bondage through our fear of death. Jesus took on our human form so that he could go into death, so that "through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil" (Heb. 2:14). St. Paul explains that when Jesus nailed our debt to the cross, he "disarmed the principalities and powers," mocking them publicly--and triumphing over them (Col. 2:14-15). The demonic claim on our souls and our imprisonment in death as the fitting wage of sin were overthrown.
St. Paul cites the prophet Isaiah's prediction that one day Death would be swallowed up forever (Is. 25:8). He then ridicules this fallen enemy: "O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?"(l Cor. 15:54).
We don't feel as shadowed by Death's hovering presence as our forebears did. Now we scarcely begrudge Death, reasoning that "everybody's gotta go sometime." And Death reciprocates, as a rule, behaving circumspectly and waiting to harvest those who have completed a long life, often doing so in sterile, private settings. For these and other reasons Death is not as brutally present as it once was.
There are tragic exceptions to that general rule, as my family and every other family knows. But these tragedies are in part so shocking because they are so unexpected.
In centuries past Death was everywhere, wild and profligate, snatching away children in kitchen fires, young men in hunting accidents, babies and mothers together in childbed. A broken limb, badly set, could lead to the grave. A fever could steal overnight, not just one child, but all the children in a home. The cities were impossibly crowded--ancient Antioch housed more people per acre than Manhattan, yet without modern high-rises--and correspondingly filled with crime, vermin, and disease. Buildings were prone to collapse, and fires leapt from one rickety structure to the next. Cities were also unimaginably filthy. The single most important element in extending human life on earth is improved sanitation.
Today researchers give American newborns a life espectancy nearing 80, and predict that half of them will see their nineties. But throughout most of human history, a newborn's life expectancy ranged between 20 and 30 years. (This doesn't mean, by the way, that a person was elderly at 25. An uninterrupted life would still extend naturally to 70 or 80 years, as Psalm 90:10 notes. But so many lives were interrupted that the average was driven down.)
Virtually every family buried some of their children. As recently as 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe could evoke sympathy for Uncle Tom's tears at being torn from his children by reminding readers that they had shed similar tears "into the coffin where lay your first-born son" and "when you heard rhe cries of your dying babe." Not if, but when.
At the time Christ came, Death lingered close at every elbow. Everyone had lost many whom they depended on and cherished. This is why the most stirring claim about Christ's work was that Death had been vanquished. When Christ was crucified, he went into the realm of Death and destroyed its power, then rose to life again. With himself he freed all those who were held captive, like the freeing of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The Greek biblical word for salvation, soteria, captures this sense: it means rescued from danger, freed from slavery, restored to freedom, "saved" as in "saved from drowning."
This was astoundingly good news. Death, once fearsome, was now proved a puny weakling. Christians' contempt of death was so well-known in the Roman Empire that St. Athanasius could use it as proof of Christ’s Resurrection. In his treatise "On the Incarnation" (around AD 320), he wrote, "Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing."