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Death: The Decisive Act of Human Freedom



The beauty of life lies in the fact that life always gives a second chance. A chance to rewrite our errors, a chance to love instead of hate, a chance to live anew again. The beauty of life comes in the beauty of the morn, the assurance of something new as the new day ushers in. What could not be done yesterday, can be done today; what remained unfinished yesterday can be completed today. That daily renewal and hope brings spice to life and makes life interesting.

With death, we see the opposite of all that life gives to us. Death stripes us of all things that brings renewal and regeneration. It comes and steals all the hopes of tomorrow and gives a definite stop to any chance of regrowth. Death is the terminus of life and the beauty that goes with life.

The Christian Hope

Christianity however gives us hope that life is not completely over with death, and that there is the continuation of life after death although the way, nature and manner it manifests differs from that which we experience here and now.

For us Christians, life is not ended in death but life is changed. Life is changed from mortal living to immortal life. This immortal life is made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in him and through him that we share in the immortal life of the Trinity. Thus from a theological perspective, death is the final point of the human person’s individual history. What follows is the reign and era of God which will be shared with us who will be privileged to be counted worthy.

Even with the assurance of eternal life, the phenomenon of death is still shocking and dreadful to humans thus the question of its necessity or importance still rings loudly at every experience of it. The stillness and silence that separates death and the future hope of resurrection; and the presumed length of the time between the end of mortal life and eternal life is so long and distant. Why should we experience death in the first place?


What the Old Testament says about Death

The principal destination for that answer will be the Old Testament and precisely the Book of Genesis. The Yahwist Account of creation, the narrative of the fall, and God’s judgment of Adam and Eve present a seeming answer to the question of the why of death.

God in settling Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden gave them a specific instruction; he said: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it, you are doomed to die.” (Gen 2:17). Did Adam and eat ate of the tree? Yes, they both ate of the tree of good and evil. Did God made do his promise? Yes. For God said: “With the sweat of your face you will eat your bread until you return to ground, the ground which you were taken, for you are dust and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). For scripture scholars, this is an express statement resulting from the disobedience of Adam and Eve; sin is thus the reason for death.

Present also in the Old Testament are traces of death seen as a necessary end of the human person due to his nature. The entire fifth chapter of Genesis expressed death as a normal terminus of life, thus after an advanced number of years, individuals pass out of life. This notion is strongly expressed in the wisdom literatures. There, life is just a journey that will come to an end. Nothing such as sin is attached to the end of life. It is seen as a fixed phenomenon that all must definitely succumb to.

New Testament Formulation

The New Testament beginning with the Gospels expressed the unity between sin and death. This is seen in the reflection of the redemptive meaning of the death of Jesus. The theme of sacrificial theology, Jesus as the lamb that takes away the sins of the world is clearly pronounced. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, he has overcome the power of sin and death that has held us captives.

Pauline writings and the other writings in the New Testament expounded this idea in various ways. This is seen in the concepts of sin, grace, salvation, redemption, and human fallen condition. With the writings of the New Testament we gained insights into the mystery of Christ’s death, sin and human life. Here, we saw the concepts of body, soul and spirit; their unity and their separation as regards mortal life, death and eternal life.

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Theology of Death

Theology and theologians through the ages have also built on the resources of the Old and New Testaments, accepting the notion that death is as a result of sin. However, theologians did not just rest on this notion, they have diversify their efforts and resources in exploring death in all its entirety.

The principal concerns of theology are the relation of death as a universal human phenomenon to the mystery of sin on the one hand; and to the redemptive mystery of the death of Jesus on the other hand. In attempting to shed light on these relations, contemporary theology commonly is convinced that the handbook definition of death as the separation of body and soul says far too little. It is likewise convinced that, though Scripture and the magisterium teach that there is a connection between sin and death, it is far from adequate to see death merely as a punishment for sin.

It is widely accepted by theologians that death for human beings is not merely something that happens to a person from the outside, but is a distinctively human act related to the peculiar nature of human existence. The nature of the human person as immortal already suggests the inclination to decline and decay. Daily we move towards death, it is not new or foreign to our being.

As the final moment of a free, personal history, death is seen as the decisive act of human freedom in which the person can either accept or reject the mystery of God and thereby put the final seal on his or her personal history and destiny. Death is thus said to be a necessary event for humans, the capitulating event of our free choice to opt for God or not. It is only through death that this choice for God is finalize and decisively made.


Karl Rahner has argued that it is not the mere fact of death that is caused by sin, but the present way in which we experience death as a mystery of darkness and threat. This is the most daunting feeling that sends chill down our spine. This mystery of darkness and threat cannot be solely attached to death in itself but more to the evil of sin.

If sin distorts and darkens all our experience in life, it is consistent that it distorts and darkens our final experience in death. If presently the horror of sin and its consequences overshadows us, how much more will it weigh us down in death? Sin itself is a state darkness, thus it is made more vivid in death. This is the dread that we face in death.

To overcome the darkness and dread of death and to also see death outside the prevalent definition of it as the recompense for sins, we are encouraged to live out our lives in such a way that sin does not have dominion over us. This way of life presents death in a less dreadful manner, for then, death is seen as the passage to life and happiness in God. Here, we are no longer taken by death, but through death we direct our free act of choice, making the fundamental option for God.

The free act by which we give ourselves over into the hands of God’s love and mercy is the central mystery of the theology of death; it is the way in which believers enter fully into the dying of Christ. Seen in this way, the basic mystery of death is already anticipated throughout life in the “little dying” by which we give ourselves over to others and to God in charity.

As an act of human freedom, the moment of death is also seen as the moment of purgation and judgment. Some theologians hold that purgation takes place fully in the moment of death; others hold that it may be thought of as extended in a process that gradually penetrates to all levels of our being.

Death though may be seen as the result of sin, however the reality of death goes deeper than punishment for sins. Death is an opening, an opportunity and a period of freewill. In death, the mortal body is lost. A spiritual element endowed with consciousness and will survives the death of the human person. This spiritual element we call the soul.

The soul is the immortal entity that enters fully into the loving company of God, the angels and the saints. The soul acquires the immortal body; it sustains and continues life in eternity.

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