Thursday, February 16, 2012

Who Is Afraid of Death?

We saw that in the classical criticism of Jesus' behavior in Gethsemane, critics contrast the behavior of Jesus with the behavior of Socrates.

Socrates, the Critic's Hero

Consider again Plato’s account of Socrates so-called courage. Realize this: as Plato tells the story in Phaedo, he is attempting to prove Socrates’ doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The execution of Socrates is prime material for his argument.

To Socrates and Plato, the body is a prison for the soul. The body tends to corrupt the soul. Socrates hopes for the purification of his soul by separating it from his body. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. The philosopher longs for the purification of the soul from the body which can be hoped for in death.

That is why Socrates is not complaining at his impending death. During bodily life, the philosopher attempts to effect the separation of the soul from the body as far as possible by philosophy. The philosopher not only practices for death; the philosopher practices death. All this is the classical basis of a saying we often hear when someone dies: “He’s in a better place.”

If that’s true, fine.

Creation Is Good

But for Jesus, the body is not the corrupter of the soul. The material world, just by being material, is not evil. When God created earth and the things in it, He kept saying it was good. (Genesis 1)

Incarnation is Good

When the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, who lived with the Father and Spirit from eternity, became a man by being conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and being born a man, born under the law, and being fully human as you and I are, that incarnation, that being made flesh did not corrupt the holy soul of Christ. (John 1) Our being human, our being partly material is not what is corrupting our souls.

Not Death, but Ongoing Destruction

Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body and cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28 (NKJV). Jesus did not share the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul. He taught the soul’s destruction in hell. This is destruction not only of the body but of the soul.

This destruction is not annihilation of the soul, as if the soul then no longer exists and feels nothing. Hell goes on and on, and the destruction of the soul in hell goes on and on. Jesus spoke repeatedly of hell fire and the everlasting fire. Look again through your Bibles on the topic if hell, and you will find that it is not the prophets or the Old Testament that reveal hell. Jesus is the revealer of hell. Socrates did not face that. Jesus did.

Living and Dying in Denial

The pain of the soul’s destruction was too much for Socrates to even consider. Instead of facing it and finding strength to face it, Socrates denied it. He lived and died in denial. Like the thousand ways we poor sinners self-medicate our pain and depression (alcohol, illicit sex, wealth, fame, power, drugs, etc.), Socrates self-medicated with philosophy. He prescribed that medication for Plato, and Plato prescribes that medication for you and me.

Medicated and Unmedicated Death

Once we know this, the comparison of Socrates and Jesus reaches the heights of dramatic irony. Socrates died by medication, hemlock, while Jesus, the Great Physician, refused medication as he was dying by crucifixion. “Then they gave Him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it.” Mark 15:23 enski says,

Myrrh was added to the wine in order to give it a stupefying effect. This was not an evidence of mercy on the part of the executioners; it was quite the opposite, for it was intended to make their labor of crucifying easier. A man who had been heavily doped with this drink could be easily handled. After one taste of this Jesus refused to drink more of this stupefying drink, and the imperfect [tense of the original Greek word] reads as though he was repeatedly urged to drink and as repeatedly refused. He intended to go through the final ordeal with a perfectly clear mind; he intended to endure all without avoiding a single agony.

Critics say Christianity is opium for the masses. Of course those in opium dens believe opium is everywhere. Of course the self-medicating accuse the Great Physician of medicating. Once more, accusers see their own faults in others.

A Slick Cop Out

Socrates self-medicated with a philosophy of denial, a doctrine of the immorality of the soul, a dualistic dogma of the soul as inherently good and the body as inherently evil. What a cop out. What a slick way to avoid responsibility for what we do. Instead of saying, “The Devil made me do it,” just say, “The body made me do it.”

In contrast, Jesus created the material world and called it good (Genesis 1), and Jesus became man (John 1). He saw nothing inherently evil in matter or the body. He saw the danger of the destruction of both the body and the soul in hell. Jesus faced all this while Socrates denied it. Socrates made a life’s work of cowardly denial.

Real Heroism

There is a difference between fear and cowardice. Ask a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. You’re an idiot if you are not afraid. A person who does not know the danger is not afraid, but that is not bravery or courage. That is ignorance. Jesus knew enough to be afraid, and was heroic enough to face it. Like every good soldier, He was brave for his buddies — you and me.

So Jesus faced not only death, but the ongoing destruction of both the body and the soul in hell. And still there are two more things He faced that Socrates did not: my sin, and God's wrath on sin.

Socrates did not believe in God's wrath on sin, but Jesus preached it, and faced it. He faced it for me, if we wish to speak of heroes.

Jesus not only faced my sin, but He bore it. What is the sense of this word, "bore?" How did he bear my sins? We will look at that in future posts, but for now we know this much; we know two things: 
  • Whatever the bearing of our sin by Jesus means, in no sense did Socrates bear our sin.
  • The bearing of our sin by Jesus is a small matter only if we think our sin is a small matter.
Those who think Socrates such a hero and Jesus a coward say, by taking that position, that their sin is little. Vanity lies at the root of criticizing Christ.


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