When I started working in ministry in the mid-seventies, a friend and I decided to spend our summer weekends watching the movies of the great Swedish moviemaker Ingmar Bergman. There is very little to cheer for in his movies and they are very introspective, reflecting on the anxiety, angst, and depression of life, before grappling with the meaninglessness of life and death. His movie The Seventh Seal is among his most depressing. A victorious knight is returning home from the Crusades and looking forward to seeing his loved ones again. However, when he gets back to Europe, the plague is in full swing. Even though he escaped death in many battles in foreign places, he feels certain that he is going to die from the plague. The fearless knight meets Death, and proposes that they play a game of chess. If the knight wins, Death will allow him to travel home. Alas, the game is a draw and we watch the knight join the caravan of the dying.
This week, there was an article in the Asbury Park Press in which political leaders suggested there should be a day of mourning when the US reaches 100,000 people who have died from the Coronavirus. The angel of death seems to be almost invincible as the number of dying climbs higher, and more and more people seem to be joining Bergman’s caravan of the dead.
We as a country have been spared from the highest number of deaths predicted back in March, but the loss of 100,000 people is devastating. In the global context of crises throughout history, nations have lost hundreds and thousands and millions of people. The two world wars that were fought in Europe crippled countries such as Poland, Russia, Germany, and England. The Jewish people lost six million people in the Holocaust, and nations such as Biafra, Eritrea, Sudan, and Rwanda lost millions from war and ethnic cleansing.
Who is this angel of death that carries us from the world of living into another world? Greek mythology had Thanatos as the angel of death and Roman mythology had Mors (also known as Letum). The Jewish Torah and Christian Bible see death’s introduction to humanity as a result of the first couple’s sin. God tells Adam and Eve, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” The angel of death destroys the Egyptians in the book of Genesis and in 2 Samuel, King David sees that the angel has killed 70,000 people in one day as it approaches the city of Jerusalem. David pleads with the angel, and it stops at the threshing floor of a man named Araunah.
The great British poet John Donne wrote the poem “Death Be Not Proud.”
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
John Donne was one of the most prolific metaphysical poets. These poets often showed their reader new perspective by using philosophy, religion, and art in unexpected ways. Donne could write this poem because he was a Christian minister who believed that Christ has triumphed over death. The triumph of Jesus was not only for him, but for all humanity. Apostle Paul writes, “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death is your victory? Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57) In the last book of the Bible, we read these words: “Then death and Hades were thrown in the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” (Revelation 20:14)
The Christian hymnody is focused on Christ and His resurrection, even though it seemed like the angel of death was winning when we celebrated Easter this year. In one of the Easter hymns, Christian Gellert wrote, “Jesus lives and so shall I, death thy sting is gone forever, He shall raise me with the last, Jesus is my hope and trust.”
I do not know how many people will ultimately die from this virus. Unless the Lord Jesus Christ comes soon, all of us shall die when the bell tolls for us. Death is a certain thing for humans—there is a reason we are sometimes called mortals, or those who are subject to death. However, the death or end of our mortal lives is not the end for us. We believe that the same Holy Spirit who brought the Lord Jesus Christ back from death will bring our mortal bodies back to life and we shall be with Jesus Christ forever.