Death is a truth we’re hard-pressed to grasp. Even for the Christian, death’s entrance into our lives has the power, as Thomas Aquinas observed, to “stun the human mind” (2). No matter the person or situation, the knowledge that one is dying may be the single greatest confrontation we face. It’s the great leveler of our lives. In Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers, this confrontation visits the deathbed of an elderly clockmaker:
When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart. When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay. (33–34)
Reality demands a person recognize they’re dying, and then asks them to respond.
In Dying and the Virtues, Matthew Levering has written a remarkable new volume attempting to retrieve and uncover Christianity’s resources on dying. Not to be confused with an attempt of works-righteousness to make us more presentable to God in our death, Levering presents these resources as virtues:
These virtues, given by God, inscribe a Godward and utterly God-dependent mode of living in Christ, as members of his body. As we will see, these virtues exhibit that “it is not only the cross of Christ that makes ultimate sense of human death,” without which dying would be merely “the great wrecking ball that destroys everything.” (4)
Levering—chair of theology at Mundelein Seminary—deftly explores nine virtues: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage. The book is sweeping in nature, addressing how the Christian is eternally held in the love of God, our culture’s desire to place the individual at the center of death, and how dying in Christ can and should lead to grateful living.
Fear of Dying
When it comes to death and dying, the question that weighs heavy on most is, “When and how will it happen to me?” The potential suffering we may have to endure produces a reasonable fear in all of us. It leads us to wonder about fundamental aspects of our relationship to God. To this point, one of the most intriguing sections in Dying and the Virtues is Levering’s opening chapter on Job. When we encounter extreme loss or our own mortality in potential death, the kind of suffering Job faced, what do we actually fear the most?
Levering convincingly argues that what Job fears more than anything else isn’t the loss of his family, his possessions, or even his health, but the greater potential of being abandoned and lost to God. Eternal annihilation strikes terror in his heart. He fears God will not remember him or continue to love him after his death:
My contention is that Job challenges God precisely on the grounds that it would be unloving and unjust for God to annihilate (or to permit to be annihilated) a human being such as Job, who obeys God and who yearns for an ongoing relationship with God. (14)
Matthew Levering explores nine key virtues that we need to die (and live) well: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage.
Retrieving and engaging a variety of biblical, theological, historical, and medical resources, Levering journeys through the various stages and challenges of the dying process, beginning with the fear of annihilation and continuing through repentance and gratitude, suffering and hope, before arriving finally at the courage needed to say goodbye to one’s familiar world.
Grounded in readings of Scripture, the theological tradition, and contemporary culture, Dying and the Virtues shows how these nine virtues unite us with God, the One who alone can conquer death.
If we view dying as an area where we need to trust God more, then we must know that no matter what suffering we may face, or what death we may endure, God will hold us in love and raise us to new life in his kingdom. Job’s question is our question in so many ways: “If I die, Lord, will you remember me? Will you raise me up again to be with you?” If the answer is a resounding yes, than our approach to our own dying and death may radically change.
Dying is an invitation to trust the love of God in the face of life’s greatest uncertainty.
Levering concludes that even in Job’s extreme situation, God has revealed enough to Job to alleviate his deepest fear:
God’s response to Job indicates that God, as the all-powerful Giver of life, can be counted upon to order things in such a way that brings forth the joy of those who love him. Proclaiming his power to create and sustain all things, God implies that he should be trusted to sustain Job’s life after death rather than annihilating Job; but Job will have to take this on trust or faith. (26)
Dying, then, is an invitation to trust the love of God in the face of life’s greatest uncertainty.
Our culture’s current approach to dying seems to be producing a growing acceptance of the view of annihilation—that on the other side of death there is nothing. If this were true, then of course the process of dying would take on an entirely different function. Inevitably, this outlook leads to the individual being placed at the center of his or her own dying. Our relationship to God in our dying is replaced by a higher view of ourselves instead.
Naturally, what is most important to the individual becomes central in the dying process. This begins to become apparent when we examine the “bucket list” approach to dying, or when we reflect back on our lives from our deathbeds.
Dying and Repentance
Levering argues that penitence must be cultivated in dying. We tend to remember a specific version of our life stories when we’re facing death. We celebrate them with our loved ones, and in many ways, rightly so.
But Levering calls us to also remember, “When in the dying process we remember our history, however, we find it to be gravely distorted by sin. Our primary task, therefore, must be repentance” (65).
Dying itself is a way to model the life of Jesus.
Levering discusses the death of Stephen in Acts 7 in an illuminating way to encourage us not only to look forward in our death with Jesus in view, but also to look back on the whole of our lives, good and bad, with Jesus in view. We’re free then to not gloss over the difficult parts of our lives or our painful histories.
The pictorial slideshows of funerals don’t have to only include the happy moments. Christians in death can rightly view the whole of their lives with Jesus at the center, growing in virtue and character while dying.
Spiritual Benefits of Dying
Dying itself is in fact a way to model the life of Jesus.
For Levering, Jesus’s death is a “new exodus.” God leads the people of Israel out of certain death in Egypt through the blood of Passover, and brings them on “a journey to the Promised Land that involves death” (123). The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land, but we know full well the journey will be difficult and deadly. Levering concludes:
In my view, this already tells us something about why it is that we die even after Christ died: there must be something about the journey of dying that is important for us spiritually, in preparing us for the promised land (eternal life). (123)
It can’t be overstated how important this idea is for the Christian church to recover. Our evangelical tradition has at times tended to focus solely on the gift of eternal life on the other side of death, without thinking well enough about the real spiritual task of dying. This makes it possible for the dying to be easily forgotten or pushed to the margins of our churches. Levering makes this point clearly:
Christians cannot treat dying persons as though they are forgotten or unimportant in the current of life. . . . Once people fall out of the stream of active life, out of the economic and political currents that fuel the powerful of this world, we are apt to forget about them or to pretend that they no longer exist. (109)
Essentially, there is something spiritually necessary for us to experience in our journey of dying. When we embrace and include those who are dying, we see new vistas of Christian virtue. Faith, hope, and love take on new depth and meaning when demonstrated by a dying believer. Penitence, gratitude, and solidarity restore us relationally and provide a gateway for Christian fellowship. Humility, surrender, and courage prepare the dying Christian to die well while growing in trust that God will eternally hold them in his love.
Dying and the Virtues is a meaningful work that should be widely read in seminaries and churches. While theologically rigorous and dense, it provides poignant cultural analysis and practical application. Protestants will no doubt disagree at times with Levering, a Roman Catholic. However, this book deserves a place in all of our lives, encouraging us to see our own future dying as the venue in which spiritual growth can make “dying an act of grateful living” (164).