How to speak into our culture’s confusion about death

October 29, 2018

American culture has a conflicted relationship to death. Maybe that’s because most Americans don’t have to think about it very often.

Death is less visible than it used to be. It comes most often to people in their 70s or 80s. It typically happens in sanitized, professionalized institutions most people rarely visit. You might live well into adulthood, even most of your life, without an up-close-and-personal encounter with death.

This buffer between the average American and the prospect of death is an illusion, of course. Death is no less inevitable now than when life expectancy was in the 30s and everyone died in their own beds. But precisely because it is often ignorable, when death does impose itself the common responses are confusing and even contradictory. It’s common to fight off death with everything we can muster, on one hand. Then once a death has occurred, it’s common to shrug off death as if there’s nothing to see here.

Fighting off death

Americans invest a staggering amount of resources in the attempt to hold death back. In Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande reflects on how the incredible capabilities of modern medicine shape the way we think about, confront, and ultimately experience death. Doctors are trained to approach diseases as problems to be solved, to throw everything they have at what isn’t yet curable, and to extend life however possible. They’re so good at solving these problems that doctors and patients alike cling to the hope that there is always something more to be done. Some new experimental drug to try out. A new surgical procedure to perform. Another specialist to weigh in.

As a result of this hope, Gawande says, “we’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets—and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near certainty that those tickets will not win” (Being Mortal, 171-72). In fact, one quarter of Medicare spending goes to “the 5 percent of patients who are in the final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in their last couple of months that is of little apparent benefit” (Being Mortal, 153).

This common approach to end-of-life care points to the cost we’re paying for all the benefits we’ve received from medicine’s ability to make life longer and more comfortable. Our success in treating a wide variety of once-fatal problems has blinded us to the fact that you have to die of something. Every time we cure one disease another will eventually rise to take its place. Because death is no disease to be eliminated. It’s the inevitable end to every human life.

Shrugging off death

So on one hand in American culture there’s a tendency to fend off death at all costs. On the other hand, when someone actually dies, there’s another tendency that pulls in the opposite direction. Sometimes we shrug death off as if it’s something less than a devastating tragedy. Just one of those things. Nothing to see here.

For example, think about the way many American funerary customs blind us to the ugliness and finality of death. In 1963 investigative journalist Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a satirical send-up of the American funeral industry. Studying trade magazines with names like Mortuary Management, Mitford found a startling range of products for the dead marketed with qualities desired by the living. Whether burial clothing, caskets, cemetery plots or whatever else, “the emphasis is on the same desirable qualities that we have been schooled to look for in our daily search for excellence: comfort, durability, beauty, craftmanship.”

In American culture, it’s normal to put clothes on our dead as if they are alive. It’s normal to place our dead in soft and sturdy coffins for comfort and protection as if they are alive. It’s normal to manipulate their bodies and cover them in makeup and even set their faces with pleasant expressions so they look like they’re alive. But underneath the appeal to comfort and preservation is a denial of the fundamental separation that has taken place. Behind the quest for a lifelike appearance is an attempt to deny the deathly reality.

Facing up to death in Christ

These books on end-of-life care and funerary practices offer just a couple examples of a much wider phenomenon. Ours is a culture in denial. This denial leads to disorientation when death comes close. And in that confusion Christians have a powerful opportunity for a clarifying witness.

As Christians we face what we face in Christ. He is our orientation to the world. We view death as we view life—looking to his example, listening to his words, hoping in his work.

That means we know we should know better than to shrug death off as if it’s not terrible, even through some sort of solidarity with the promise of heaven. Yes, of course, it’s right that a Christian who has died in faith is in a better place. Paul tells us that to die is gain (Phil. 1:21), that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). This is true and wonderful. But this same Paul also called death our final enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) and told us we’re still waiting till that enemy is made a footstool for Jesus’ feet.

Even more to the point, think of Jesus’ own posture toward death when he approached the grave of his friend Lazarus. He didn’t tell Mary and Martha to remember he’s in a better place. He didn’t come to Bethany for a funeral “celebration.” Jesus wept. The text says he was deeply moved, even angry. He knew he would give Lazarus life again, but still he experienced the truth about death. Jesus’ example gives us permission to grieve this awful reality and absolutely no incentive to suppress any of it.

Facing death in Christ also means we should know better than to try to fight it off ourselves. I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek medical interventions where we can. Thank God for what modern medicine has done to make our lives longer and more comfortable. By all means, use this gift. But the Bible tells us to be honest with ourselves and with each other. We’re told to remember that all flesh is like grass. At our most glorious, we’re like flowers in a field, blooming brilliantly just before we wither and fall (Isa. 40:6-8). We’re told to number our days as the path to wisdom (Psa. 90:12). No medical intervention can change what it means to be mortal in this fallen world.

In Christ, all our focus hinges on the only intervention that brings any true comfort in life and in death: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It’s all in Hebrews 2: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (2:14-15).

We have no chance to fight off death for ourselves. In Christ we don’t have to try. This battle is not ours to fight. He has made our enemy his enemy, and he has conquered for us.

In Christ we’re set free to speak with clarity into our culture’s confusion about death. And the truth about death gives us a rock-solid platform from which to offer the hope of the gospel. Yes, death really is terrible. No, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. But Jesus and all in him is yours for the taking.

Matthew McCullough

Matt McCullough serves as a pastor of Edgefield Church. Before joining with Edgefield, he helped to plant Trinity Church near Vanderbilt University and served as pastor for ten years. He and his wife Lindsey first moved to Nashville for graduate school at Vanderbilt, where he completed a PhD in American … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24