During a time when death is on nearly everyone's mind, Scott Hahn's new book Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus Road) couldn't have been published at a better time. The smell of fear in the air is nearly palpable at times; we are all terrified of contracting COVID-19. But not just contracting it -- we are afraid to die from it. In the wake of this horrible virus, we are all becoming acquainted with the age-old fear of death. Many of us are afraid to die. Many of us are afraid to consider what will follow in the wake of our deaths. But Scott Hahn reminds us that as Christians, we have nothing to fear. There is hope to be found in our deaths -- hope of eternal life, hope of reunion with our loved ones, hope of an eternity with God. Scott Hahn reminds us that we do not need to be afraid.
The goal of Hope to Die is twofold. First, Hahn wants to demonstrate how Christianity revolutionized man's conception of death, making it a beginning rather than an ending, in light of the resurrection of Christ. Second, he wants to advocate that as often as possible, Christians should choose burial over cremation as the more fitting way to handle the bodies of the deceased. But these two goals are connected. If Christ revolutionized death and paved the way for the resurrection of the body at the end of time, then how we treat our bodies matter, including how we treat our deceased bodies. The body that we've been given, the body that allows us to experience life, the body that is home to our soul is the same body that will be resurrected, only better. It is good, and it is a gift, and it deserves to be treated with respect. But our culture no longer sees bodies in this way, and they certainly don't consider death to be a beginning, a birth into new life.
Scott Hahn dedicates the first part of his book to exploring the biblical roots for our beliefs regarding death and the resurrection. He delves into the Creation account, explaining man's gift of life -- both physical (bios) and spiritual (zoe). Man was created in the image of God, and while he is alive in the same sense that all animals are alive, he also possesses another type of life -- divine life bestowed on him by God Himself. And with the Fall, man forfeits both forms of life and becomes enslaved to two types of death. All men will undergo physical death -- the separation of his body and soul -- but from Adam and Eve on, all men are also born spiritually dead, lacking the sanctifying grace and divine life that they possessed before the fall. This lack of spiritual life is what we call original sin.
In the Scriptures, Jesus speaks of two resurrections that relate to the two types of life and death mentioned above -- a physical resurrection of the body that will happen in the future, as well as a spiritual resurrection that God has already offered through Baptism. We all have the opportunity to be spiritually resurrected by being baptized, at which point the spiritual life that we lost at the Fall of man is restored to us. But that is not all there is to our resurrection. At some point in the future, we will all have our bodies resurrected, and for those who already have spiritual life within them, also glorified. Jesus came to offer both kinds of life, but we must accept one -- spiritual life in Baptism -- before we can be given the second- physical life at the resurrection of the body.
Scott Hahn explores what was made possible by Christ's death and resurrection. In His death, Christ drew all mankind into Himself and offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice in atonement for our sins. Three days later, when Jesus rose from the dead, we rose with Him. And the means to attaining that resurrection? The Eucharist. When we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the resurrected, glorified body of Christ, who suffered, died, and rose from the dead. As Scott Hahn writes, "The Resurrection renders his body into something that is now distributable ... to be resurrected on the last day” (78). And the Catechism supports that claim, asserting that when we consume the Eucharist, our earthly bodies are given the hope of resurrection in Christ (CCC 1000).
In the past, it would have been unthinkable to intentionally destroy something that had been touched by grace and destined for the glory of the resurrection, so cremation was not practiced among Christians. This changed at the beginning of the 20th century, in the wake of atheistic modernism and postmodernism. The world wanted to rid itself of God, but without Him, death once again became something to fear, or at the very least, something to detest. It was the ultimate failure, where one could no longer exercise control over matter and had failed to prosper through his own efforts.
The continued practice of burying the dead among Christians is a visible reminder of the connection between the living and the dead. The dead reside close to us, and we are encouraged to regularly pray for them. The Church stresses the preference for burial, but permits cremation. It does require that the ashes remain together and that they be buried in a church cemetery or similar location. Cremation teaches us falsehoods about the body and the faith, suggesting that the body is disposable and is just matter once the soul has left it, but that is simply not true.
Our culture considers the body a burden -- it gets sick and old; it dies; it’s not fast enough, or pretty enough, or strong enough. It considers our bodies a barrier -- we can’t fully communicate ourselves to others and we don’t understand other people. But it’s meant to be a bridge, drawing together the physical and the spiritual. Our bodies reveal ourselves to others, but they also reveal something about God. Our bodies are the union of the spiritual and the physical, the material and the divine. They have been touched by sanctifying grace and filled with the divine life in the Eucharist. Something that has been touched by the divine, that has been made holy, should not be burned. It should be treated with respect.
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If we bury our bodies, we are reminding the world that we are not done with them. Death is not the end. It is a new beginning, our birth into eternal life with God. If we bury our bodies, we are reminding the world that we don't need to be afraid of death, but we should recognize it for what it is, the door that leads to eternity. And that's what the world needs to hear right now -- it needs to hear exactly what Scott Hahn is saying in Hope to Die, and I am grateful to him for having said it because I needed the reminder too.
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Copyright 2020 Shannon Whitmore
About the Author
Shannon Whitmore currently lives in northwestern Virginia with her husband, Andrew, and their two children, John and Felicity. When she is not caring for her children, Shannon enjoys writing for her blog, Love in the Little Things, reading fiction, and working in youth ministry. She has experience serving in the areas of youth ministry, religious education, sacramental preparation, and marriage enrichment.