In Christ and the Meaning of Life, Helmut Thielicke tells the story of a young flier who reached out to pick a bouquet of lilacs and uncovered the half-decayed body of a soldier beneath the bush: “He drew back in horror, not because he had never seen a dead man before—he drew back because of the screaming contradiction between the dead man and the flowering bush.”
Thielicke notes that the soldier’s reaction would have been different if the man had come upon a dead and faded lilac bush instead: “A blooming lilac bush will one day become a withered lilac bush—this is really nothing more than the operation of the rhythm of life—but that a man should be lying there in a decayed condition, this was something that simply did not fit, and that’s why he winced at the sight of it.”
We can only understand the mystery of death if we see it through the lens of Adam’s rebellion against God. We are pilgrims who traverse an “empire of ruins” with death as our fellow traveler. Unable to rid ourselves of this cheerless companion, we attempt to rehabilitate it instead, treating death as if it were a neighbor and not a trespasser.
We clothe it in our best dress and apply make-up to its waxen features. Laid out before us in stiff repose, death looks as if it were merely asleep and if we do not look too carefully, we can almost convince ourselves that it has a beating heart within its breast and warm blood pulsing through its veins. We whisper to ourselves that it is not as alien as it first appeared. But this fool’s dream vanishes the minute we attempt to embrace death, finding that it repays our kiss with only sorrow and loss.
Death is not a natural stage in the cycle of human development. Death is a curse. The presence of death is an intrusion. It is “natural” only to the extent that nature itself suffers from the stroke that fell upon Adam as a consequence for his sin. Nature endures death but not willingly. It groans in protest, loathing the bondage to decay which death has brought upon it and yearning for “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Death is “the last enemy,” a tyrant who acts on sin’s behalf and whose sway over us was finally broken at the cross but will only be fully realized at the resurrection (Rom. 5:21; 1 Cor. 15:26).
Death is our enemy but, like the law, it is also a schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. Death’s hard lesson exposes the true nature of sin. Indeed, the law and death are strange allies in this mysterious work. In the hands of God both act as a goad, puncturing our denial and prodding us to turn to Christ for relief from death’s sting.