Disenchantment, Death and Hope

Something is happening to how Christians relate to death, especially progressive, liberal Christians.

There's a famous text about death and hope in 1 Thessalonians 4.13:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 
Christians do not grieve in the face of death as others do, Paul says, because Christians have hope in the resurrection. But it seems, more and more, that many Christians are grieving as those who "have no hope," especially progressive, liberal Christians.

In countless talks with Christians who have lost their faith, or who are on the edge of losing their faith, I've observed that death is increasingly triggering massive faith crises among believers. Especially the death of children, teenagers, young adults, and even those in middle age. When death comes to anyone who has not lived into old age trust and faith in God is increasingly shaken.

Something about our relationship to death has changed, and this seems to be a modern phenomenon. To be sure, death has always been a challenge to faith. But for most of Christian history, the faithful have turned toward God and the hope of the resurrection for solace in the face of grief. Today, many believers don't turn toward God for comfort, we turn away from God with angry accusations.

In fact, the reigning pastoral advice in our churches is to avoid all mention of heaven in comforting the bereaved. To mention heaven to the grieving is increasingly taboo, and often described as hurtful and harmful. To be clear, I've seen the consolations of heaven deployed clumsily, too hastily, and too tritely, in ways that, yes, have been hurtful and harmful. Still, it's getting to the point where any mention of heaven is considered problematic and unhelpful. Again, in the face of death it seems Christians are increasingly grieving as if they had no hope.


First, as I have written about before, the modern world has has drastically changed our relationship with death. Two examples illustrate this. First, our relationship to our food has changed. Rarely to we see or participate in the killing and the blood that brings protein to our tables. Second, modern medicine has made the prospect of living to a ripe old age a real possibility for most of us. For generations in the West life expectancies have been steadily rising. Consequently, any death that comes before our sixties or seventies appears to us as accidental, as if some cosmic agreement between us and God has been broken. In short, modern medicine has caused us to feel entitled in regards to our life span. To die "early" or "prematurely" is now an existential shock, a cosmic effrontery, God reneging on an agreement we felt we had. And this existential shock triggers faith crises, accusations directed toward God about why a person died, especially if they died young.

In short, one reason death is increasingly triggering faith problems--causing us to walk away from God in anger rather than toward God for comfort--is how death is no longer experienced as a regular feature of daily life. Death is now experienced as an intrusive, unexpected shock. Consequently, we've lost a degree of stoic equanimity that our forbears once possessed in the face of death.

But beyond our altered relationship with death, there is a second reason why it seems many Christians are grieving without hope.

Above I said that I think progressive, liberal Christians seem particularly vulnerable to faith crises in the face of death. The reason for this is that many progressive, liberal Christians struggle with disenchantment. Many liberal, progressive Christians report doubts and skepticism about the supernatural, the miraculous, the spiritual, and the metaphysical aspects of the faith. Experiencing and expressing these doubts is almost a definition of what it means to be a liberal, progressive Christian. As Peter Rollins puts it, for these disenchanted Christians "to believe is human to doubt, divine."

Unfortunately, however, belief in the resurrection and heaven are a part of the supernatural, "enchanted" worldview that many liberal, progressive Christians have doubts about. Consequently, many liberal, progressive Christians are grieving without hope because they don't actually have hope, or at least they entertain serious doubts about the reality of the hope.

In short, pervasive disenchantment among Christians has altered our relationship with death. Doubts about the afterlife have undermined Christian hope. No wonder mentions of heaven are increasingly ineffective, and even insulting.

In the disenchanted Christian experience the only comfort we are allowed to offer each other is therapeutic. We can listen to each other. Sit in silence with each other. Carry each other. Be there for each other.

But we cannot offer hope.

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