I said before (Death 1) that death is something Christians have claimed far too much certainty about. Whatever we might claim to know, and on whatever grounds, we just do not know what it’s like to die because we haven’t done it yet. (Do not challenge that too quickly; part of what I am assuming is that death comes once and is permanent [Hebrews 9:27], and anything that is otherwise is something else. So, if you think you’ve been there, I’m assuming that, at the most, you had a brief and hazy look.)
How did it start? That’s another thing we can say more about than we know. Death happened before there were humans (all those fossils), so we cannot say in any simple, literal sense that there was no death till after humans sinned. Science has taken that away from theology. Whatever we might try to say about the relation between the first sin and the fact that people die on the basis of Genesis 3 and Romans 5, one thing is certain: that first sin quickly made killers out of humans (Genesis 4:8). There’s a certainty.
Another certainty about death from the Bible is that it is not as overwhelmingly significant as it seems. Death can be a metaphor for the now-normal human state of alienation from God (Romans 8:6; Ephesians 2:1) and for the eternal state of those who remain in that alienation (Revelation 20:14), and the metaphor surpasses the literal. Physical death is of less significance, we are promised and warned, than continuing in that metaphorical “death,” in, that is, alienation from God (Romans 8:10; Matthew 10:28). And, by extension, suffering, life’s reminders of death, is likewise relativized (Romans 8:18). Trying to figure out what Genesis 3 says about death may be a way of giving death more credit than it has coming to it. The relativization of death in the face of eternity is part of what we bring along when we read Genesis 3 within our knowledge of what else is in the Bible.
That “death” metaphor becomes most powerful in the face of life — life, that is, at its liveliest, this side of that first sin. Truth, here, is in the hands of the despairing. The liveliness of life so often comes down to the despairing attempt to escape the pulling of the divided self or the perpetual embarrassment of those who are like the emperor in the tale, but in reverse: clothed but feeling naked. Here I’m thinking back to my post on Nakedness. Havel’s story about the weather reporter, quoted there, could go on to how that embarrassing experience might have continued for that lady. If she is like some of us, she laughs about it now. But she may also be like those who can feel stuck there, inflating how foolish others think she is and how inept the experience proves she is.
So, with nakedness and death and whatnot, we can have a stack of metaphors, all for the odd place where we are now, after the Fall, outside Eden — all more acutely felt when the liveliness / busyness slows down. “Since I walked through that puddle, my shoes don’t fit. They feel like they’re somebody else’s.” “I keep running into something in my heart (or head) that feels like eternity, and I can’t figure out how it got there. It certainly doesn’t fit with what else is there” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).