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Topic: Eikon

Dying and Embodiment: The Body in Late Stages of Life

June 8, 2021
By David W. Jones

Editor’s note: the following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

It is not an unfair generalization to say that most people do not like to think or talk about death and dying. Indeed, doing so seems morbid or even macabre. In the modern context, most people rarely witness death and dying, as less than 20 percent of individuals in the United States die at home in the presence of family (this figure was nearly 90 percent at the turn of the twentieth century). Yet, Scripture encourages Christians to engage in introspection about death and dying (cf. Ps. 90:10–12) and the Bible teaches that living and making plans without considering the imminence of death is foolish (cf. Luke 12:16–21; James 4:13–15). Given the inevitability of death, as well as the aforementioned scriptural exhortations, we must learn — or perhaps relearn — to talk and to think about death and dying, and to do so well.

One of the consequences of our reticence to talk about death and dying is that many Christians do not have the theological categories and tools needed to think well about the human body in the late stages of life. Indeed, two common errors related to the body can be seen when believers talk about death and dying. First, some maintain that there exists an absolute moral obligation to extend physical life — that is, to keep the body alive — for as long as is technologically possible. Although this may sound altruistic, it runs the risk of confusing the always-moral divine duty to protect life (cf. Ps. 82:3–4), with the sometimes-sinful human desire to avoid death (cf. Heb. 2:15). While protecting life and avoiding death are not always (or even usually) at odds, when physical life is unduly treasured it can become an idol, which may result in prolonged bodily suffering of one who is irretrievably dying. For believers, death ought not be a technological fight to the finish, but a hopeful resting in Jesus.

A second error related to the body that arises in discussions about death and dying is the notion that the physical body is just a prosthesis used by the real self. This idea, which has gnostic origins, bifurcates the material and spiritual aspects of human beings, rooting one’s identity in the soul or spirit. This is surely an error, however, for Scripture teaches that human beings are psychosomatic in nature, consisting of a body-soul complex (cf. Gen. 2:7; Matt. 10:28). Indeed, by divine design man is a unity of material and immaterial components. It is true that human bodies decay because of sin, eventually resulting in the body and soul being separated at death. This division, however, is unnatural and is, as Paul wrote, equivalent to being “found naked” or “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5:3–4). The prospect of the separation of body and soul ought to cause human beings to long for a resurrected and renewed body “not made with hands . . . [a] habitation which is from heaven” (2 Cor. 5:1–2). The physical body, then, ought not to be viewed as an inconvenient appendage, but as an eternal component of the real self.

Observe that these two misconceptions about the body are essentially opposing errors, for the first idolizes the physical body when it is alive, while the second neglects the physical body when it is dead. Clearly, then, when considering the body in late stages of life, Christians ought to avoid these two mistakes; yet, how can we think and talk well about dying and embodiment? Since death is a unique and varied event, it is difficult to articulate a comprehensive moral framework of dying and embodiment, as there are many variables in each instance of death. However, just as we have identified two general errors to avoid when speaking about dying and embodiment, so we can identify two broad principles to consider when thinking about the body in late stages of life. These principles are basic and foundational and, as such, can each be applied in individual instances of death and dying, regardless of the practical and moral complexities present in a given scenario.

When considering the body in late stages of life, we must first remember that all human beings are made in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26–27). The image of God is a complex theological topic; yet, for the purposes of considering dying and embodiment, we can make the following observation: Since man is a composite unity of body and soul, it may be that in some non-essential way, in part, mankind bears the image of God in a corporal sense. Genesis records that a man found guilty of murder shall forfeit his own life, for, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). Note that the rationale for capital punishment in this passage is the fact that man is made in the image of God. Since man “cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28), the aspect of the image of God appealed to here must, at a minimum, involve the physical body. Such a substantive view of the image of God is surely not comprehensive; however, in the late stages of life we dare not overlook the teaching that, in part, the image of God involves the physical body.

Second, in thinking and talking about dying and embodiment, we must consider that human life, which is sacred, is a stewardship from God. Human life is unique, valuable, and irreplaceable once taken or forfeited. Furthermore, the sanctity of human life was magnified by the incarnation of Christ. Stewardship of the body, then, for which God will hold mankind accountable, entails the idea that life is sacred (cf. Rom. 14:7–8). This means we must protect life and ought not take steps to hasten death. Yet, as was previously discussed, this does not mean that we must prolong life at all costs, nor does it rule out voluntarily laying down one’s life, as did Christ. What is more, we should note that the sanctity of life that we steward is not contingent upon the quality of life but the presence of life. While it is true that the “outward man is perishing” (2 Cor. 4:16), which is often evident in late stages of life, we must keep in mind that human beings never cease to be image bearers of God, nor does human life ever cease to be sacred.

So, as we consider dying and embodiment, we must avoid the twin errors of overvaluing or undervaluing the physical body. In dealing with the host of complex issues that may arise related to the body in late stages of life, we must allow our actions to be governed by the biblical teachings that man is made in the image of God, which includes the body, and our stewardship of human life, which is always sacred. Finally, we must remember that Jesus’ incarnation, death, burial, and bodily resurrection made possible the redemption of mankind. Scripture reports that this redemption includes man’s physical body (cf. Rom. 8:23), which was purchased by Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 6:20), is now a “member of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15), is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), and will one day be transformed into the glorious likeness of Christ’s risen body (cf. Rom. 8:11, 29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:10, 21; Col. 3:1–4; 2 Thess. 2:14; 1 John 3:2).

David W. Jones is Professor of Christian Ethics, Senior Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, and Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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