Happiness, Death, Anxiety, Resurrection – IV: The Apostle Paul
Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beames of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee
On fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee. – John Donne
Over the last few posts (first, second, and third) I’ve been tracing a trajectory concerning the classical question of ethics. I have not, in this tracing, attempted to argue a historical development so much as to indicate some of my own ponderings as I’ve read various classical and biblical authors. Plato and Aristotle passed along much wisdom in their respective attempts to answer the question of what constitutes the good life. In particular, their deconstructions of the usual candidates for the good life—wealth, honor, power—as well as their respective arguments that the good life consists in obtaining that which is ultimately and stably good (Plato) and being oneself integrally good (Aristotle). Yet, I have not found resources in their thought sufficient to deal with that great challenge posed by Koheleth: death.
The issue is not simply that death needs to be conquered because it poses the ultimate threat to life. Death does not merely come at the end; it defrauds the living of life—life laundering, as it were, from the beginning: “Let the day perish on which I was born,” Job lamented, “For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:3, 25). Death needs to die not simply so that the living may live on, but so that the living may truly live now. This message is, of course, all over the New Testament: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” our Lord declares (Jn 10:10). But the logic of the resurrection is perhaps most explicitly worked out in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (first in our canon, that is; it was most likely his second letter, but that need not detain us here).
Resurrection and Christian Freedom
There’s an old saying, variously repeated by philosophers and theologians alike, that life must be lived moving forward, but can only be understood looking backward. I think something similar might be said of Paul’s letter to Corinth. One has to read it moving forward, but upon reaching the climax of the letter’s argument in chapter 15, one comes to understand so much the better by looking backward.
Read backwards, the argumentative thread runs something like this:
(1) Christ has been raised as the first fruits of those who are conquered by death (1 Cor. 15:1-28), and has thus inaugurated the age of the Spirit (1 Cor. 15:42-56).
(2) The “spiritual person”—i.e. one living in the age of the Spirit—is ultimately characterized by the perfection of Christian maturity, namely, love (1 Cor. 12:1, 31-13:13).
(3) The Christian life—i.e. life in the Spirit—lived in pursuit that maturity, is free, in a very special sense, from the world (from rights and privileges- 9:12-23, 8:1-12; from the great drivers of human enterprise– 7:25, 29-35; from basic biological drives- 6:9-20, 5:1-3; and from perennial societal problems- 1:11-17, 3:1-4, 18-23) in order to be truly for the world.
Notice the thrust of the argument, then, when read backwards in light of the resurrection: the resurrection of Christ, applied by the Spirit to the follower of Christ, brings that follower to the fullness of love, wherein consists their freedom from all that the kingdom of death uses to enslave humanity. Put another way, on account of Christ’s resurrection (and all that it entails, including the Spirit’s now working in us both to will and to do), the Christian is free to love with a love that conquers by service (4:1).
It is this special kind of freedom that answers Koheleth’s problem. Death, where is your sting?
It is precisely in our giving of ourselves for the good of others that we find death’s dark shadow dispersed in the light of love. Death, we might say, works its grip around us as we work our grip around our life in this present age. Death is not simply the cessation of our life, but its poisoning. So long as we feel the need to grasp our life, so long as we see others, society, and nature as so many threats to that grip, our love dwindles, our life dries up.
Christians can live “as if we have not” (7:29-31), because in fact we have all! One of the highwater marks of the letter comes in the astounding pronouncement of 3:21-22 : “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
Those living post resurrectionem Christi, Paul says, have been given the end-view. The resurrection of Christ, being worked in us by the mission of the Spirit, endows those followers of Christ with a special kind of freedom while in this world. They still participate in its relationships, communities, and nations, in its buying and selling, in its pleasures and sorrows—and do so with thanksgiving. But the Christian is not determined by them; they no longer tyrannize.
The Christian no longer needs to stand up for her rights; she is free to lay herself down. The Christian no longer need reach out to grasp; he is free to extend his hand to give. The Christian is free to pursue the perfection of love.
And, to bring it all back around, this perfection of love consists finally in union with the one stable Good—answering Plato’s insights. That is, the perfection of a Christian just is that Christian’s being made a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 2:4). Further, it is in the perfection of love that the Christian is integrally good—Aristotle’s virtuous person. Therefore, the insights of Plato and Aristotle fully flower, and the problem of Koheleth is answered, in the resurrection of Christ.
“Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25)
 By the use of this phrase I do not intend to invoke any of the varied, and sometimes condemned, uses of the phrase found in church history. I intend simply to indicate that time period after the resurrection of Christ and before his return, into which Christ himself said the Spirit would be sent in a new way (e.g. John 14:16-17, 16:7 and Acts 2:33).