Our understanding of death affects the way we live in the present.
Published on: 10-18-2023
Leo Tolstoy suffered an existential crisis in his 50s that brought him to the brink of suicide. The Russian author took advantage of this dramatic moment to write one of his most impressive works: A Confession (1882). In his book he details the doubts, uncertainties, fears, and hopes of his heart, while at the same time exposing the reasons he fell into the crisis of faith that came close to ending his life.
During this experience Tolstoy asked himself what he called “the biggest question.”
“My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the [heart] of every man . . . a question without an answer to which one cannot live. . . . It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? . . . Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ ”1
Alongside the existential anguish of facing the total absence of meaning, this quote refers to death, that enemy of humanity that not only puts a time limit on one’s existence but also raises a whole series of questions. In addition to the perplexity that death generates in all those who dwell on it, I am interested in the relationship that Tolstoy establishes between death and our way of living life today: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”
Indeed, the understanding we have about the state of the dead is closely interrelated with who we are now and how we experience our reality. In this sense it goes far beyond knowing whether those who have died are now in heaven or hell or sleeping until Jesus returns.
Therefore, let us first address the concept of death, and then analyze the way in which the concept we have about it can change the perspective of our life today.
When Christians try to understand the concept of death, the starting point is the biblical record of the creation of life—since we intuitively consider death as the cessation of life. Referring back to the creation of humans in Genesis helps us to know how the human being was formed: dust of the earth + breath of life = living being (Gen. 2:7; Job 33:4).
The biblical record also reveals to us that there was an original design for our existence.
This original design includes the possibility of having an eternal existence, as opposed to the immortality of the soul.2 The idea of God’s original design implies that the human being is not an accident. We are not destined to be born, suffer, and then disappear forever. Furthermore, in this original design our material body was designed as an inseparable component of our existence.3
By conceiving of the human being as an inseparable whole (there is no “soul” that has life apart from the body),4 we understand that death does not separate the body from an immortal soul. Rather, death is the ultimate end of all life; no function of human life survives death.
Impact in Our Daily Living
The biblical record shows that our anatomy is adapted to that original design: “male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). In this sense the body and its anatomy is as transcendent as the “inner life” (mind and spirit), not only to preserve the present life but also to transcend to eternal life (the undeserved gift of God’s grace).
Today, on the other hand, society views the body as a malleable and adaptable element that can be altered to transform our inner life. Do we feel the effects of aging on our appearance? No problem. Nothing that a couple of facelifts or cosmetic surgeries cannot remedy. Not satisfied with our gender? A “sex change,” or biological alteration surgery, can fix that. But just as a couple of cosmetic surgeries cannot stop biological deterioration or make us immortal, mutilating the body will not alter the original design of our sexuality either, a design that is written in our DNA.
Thus, the Bible affirms that a correct understanding of death (the future reality that awaits us all, unless Christ returns first) leads us to appreciate and value our present life. And that appreciation and valuing involves not only making peace with the body God has given us as part of His original design, but also respecting that original plan by caring for our body and strengthening it, as a way to protect and promote our overall well-being. We live in a world of sin and suffer in our body, soul, and spirit, but very soon God will eradicate death from the universe (1 Cor. 15:26; Rev. 20:14; 21:8). At Christ’s second coming, for all those of us who have lived according to this hope in communion with Jesus, God will finally transform our body, bringing it to the perfection of the original design. Then pain, sickness, and death will no longer be able to harm our eternal existence. While we await that glorious moment, we can find life, fulfillment, and integral well-being by respecting and caring for that original design.
1 Leo Tolstoy, A Confession (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005), p. 21.
2 Humanity received life from God, but humans have no life in themselves (Acts 17:25, 28; Col. 1:16, 17).
3 Scripture teaches that each human being is an indivisible unit. Body, soul, and spirit function in close cooperation, revealing an intensely interdependent relationship between a person’s spiritual, mental, and physical faculties (Luke 1:46, 47; Matt. 10:28; 1 Cor. 7:34; 1 Thess. 5:23).
4 The spirit (ruach in the Old Testament and pneuma in the New Testament) returns to the Lord at death but has no life or conscious existence of its own independent of the body (Ps. 146:4; Eccl. 12:7; Job 34:14; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59