As many of you know I was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer in late 2009 called, Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (sarcoma); or, DSRCT. By God’s grace that unsurvivable cancer was survived, and I remain alive to this moment. Death is an unrelenting equalizer that is respecter of no person; except Jesus Christ. Death is something we all have intimate knowledge of; some more than others. Some of us have been radically impressed with our own immortality and come out the other side; by God’s mercy. Death seeks nothing else but our demise; the squalid push into the abyss of non-being. But for Christians we have a hope, a hope in Jesus Christ that places death into the realm, in an ultimate sense, of something that has been conquered; conquered by the indestructible life of God in Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, the indestructible God made Himself vulnerable to the frailties of our humanity by becoming human for us in Jesus Christ. In this subsistence, one that he owns for now and all eternity, he faced this scourge of suffering and absence, and in the process put death to death. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul notes, death remains ‘the last enemy,’ but indeed, it is an enemy, that in an ultimate frame, no longer has sting. This isn’t to recognize that death isn’t an enemy any longer, indeed it is!; but it is to recognize that for the Christian we can boldly say, in its face, UP YOURS! But it isn’t just the Christian’s capacity to bodaciously stand up to death, and say SUCK IT, it is tempered by the sober reality that we still yet grieve in its ugly and ostensibly ferocious tilt.
Terry Eagleton, who I think is either an atheist/agnostic, or a Catholic (he definitely once was an atheist, and he seems to still have that sense in some of his writing), in his new book Radical Sacrifice has this to say about the Christian conception of death:
The Christian belief is that in tit-for-tat, handy-dandyish style, the Resurrection in turn brings death to nothing. Its intimidating power, like that of some ranting despot, is unmasked as bogus. No doubt there is something a touch too cavalier about Albert Camus’s comment in The Myth of Sisyphus that there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn; but it is true even so that wit, satire and mockery are resources to be stored against one’s mortal ruin. Like the Law, death is an imperious, enigmatic, implacable power which threatens to reduce the human subject to so much dross, confronting it with the paltriness of its own existence and violently breaching its identity and autonomy. If the Law, along with the sin it unwittingly fosters, are for St Paul what brings death into the world, it is also an image of that mortality; and in the apostle’s view the two are vanquished together in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is death not abolished but transformed, reinterpreted, refashioned and so objectively no longer to be feared – however much, like children terrified by a bogeyman they know to be an illusion, we persist in doing so.
Christianity may debunk death, but it also regards it as an abomination. It is abhorrent because it involves an irreparable loss, and thus confronts us with too little; but also because it expose us to an intolerable jouissance, and thus to too much. St Paul has no doubt in his First Letter to the Corinthians that death is the enemy of humanity, one which is outflanked and defeated not by vigorous combat but by being boldly embraced. The theologian Herbert McCabe speaks bluntly of death as ‘an outrage’. There is no way in which we can prove equal to its crazed immoderateness. Like the Freudian superego, its demands are absurdly extreme. Like the superego, too, it lacks the good sense to recognise that we are scarcely capable of acceding to them.
For the Christian Gospel, death is to be accepted but not endorsed. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel speaks of a ‘non-capitulating acceptance’ of it. We should not allow its two-a-penny nature to blunt our sense of its importunity, like respectable citizens who turn an embarrassed blind eye to some piece of Dadaist lunacy in their midst. It is violent, excessive and unmannerly, tearing us from our loved ones and consigning our projects contemptuously to the dust. The fact that it is also natural – the way the species bears in upon the individual, as Marx comments – is no consolation. Typhoid is natural. If we ought freely to submit to death’s indignity, it is not because there is anything in the least tolerable about it, but because to do so involves a form of self-giving, which is also the most estimable way to live.
I was scared, to the point of being pushed beyond a ‘normal’ range of anxiety, the whole time I was infected with the death of my cancer. I knew that I would be in the presence of my Lord, soon and very soon; at least that is was what the prognosis said. I also knew that the Lord I served is the firstborn from the dead, and that if He wanted to give me a taste of the eschatological now, He could; He could heal me; and He did!
One thing I never thought was that death was ‘natural.’ Death is only natural for those without eyes of faith. The death of Christ tells us that death is anything but natural; it tells us that what God has ultimately deemed as natural—both as protos and eschatos—is eternal life and reconciled bliss with Him. This is what pressed upon me in my cancer. I knew death was not natural, and in that sense it remains ‘the last enemy.’ It is its unnaturalness that presses us up against the naturalness of God’s triune life. There is a sense of bleak forsakenness attendant in death that seems to rip asunder the fabric of life itself; i.e. God’s triune life. We hear this shriek of unnaturalness in Jesus’s final death cry on the cross eloi, eloi lama sabachtani ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Life is God’s life; life is what God has given us from Himself in the Grace of His life in Jesus Christ. To be slung into the Athanasian non-being flings us into a seeming pit where all that is natural is being disintegrated and dissolved into nothingness. Herein, death’s unnaturalness is seen for what it is in the very death of God become human, in Christ. I felt this unnaturalness, we all at various levels feel this unnaturalness, only to be reminded, as Christians, that those are only the real-life death shrieks of a forsakenness already unbegotten for us in the only begotten life for us in God’s Son. This isn’t to minimize the utter loss of death and its total dread; indeed, it is to fully acknowledge and interpret that in the light of Jesus Christ.
Did Jesus’s death only ‘reinterpret’ death for us, as Eagleton suggests? No, I don’t think so. Death has actually been vanquished by Christ entering into its non-beingness and subverting it by the being of His indestructible life; the life He has eternally shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit’s koinonia.
 Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 1133, 1140, 1148.