The Dead Live Among Us

April 6th, 2018 by

Death raises many questions for the living. Will the dead get their same body back in the resurrection? Can we communicate with the dead? Are the dead in pain? Where are the dead? Are the dead in some sense “alive” in some way? Do the dead exist among us? In his presentation given to a room full of analytic theologians, psychology students, and pastoral trainees Dr. Tommy Givens provided some answers to these questions.

Givens began by pointing out a problem present within modern Christianity – the belief that there is a “thick wall” that divides the living from the dead. (Although Givens did not point this out it should be said that this “thick wall” may not be a problem for all Christians given that it seems absent in some forms of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It is also absent in some Christian communities in the global south.) Because modern western Christians tend to think of a “thick wall” we struggle with certain pastoral questions, like “where is my loved one when they die?” Since spatial dimensions can’t be predicated of souls, technically our loved one’s aren’t located anywhere. And assuming the dead aren’t in an already resurrected state, its difficult to say that our “dead” are “living” in some way in location. Yet, this is precisely what the Bible, according to Givens, wants to affirm: the dead are alive and present among us in some way.

In order to motivate this claim Givens turned to the Old Testament concept of life and death. According to certain passages of the OT it seems like “life” and “death” are powers or forces. If someone is alive, then they have the power of life or vitality in them. If someone is dead or dying, then they have the power of decay at work in them. According to this paradigm, humans have both the power of life and death at work in them. Furthermore, according to this paradigm, the power of “life” or “death” could still be at work through a person even through their biological life has expired. How is this the case? Well it seems as though an individual’s power of “life” or “death” can continue in what Givens called “the intergenerational life.” This “intergenerational life” consists of the legacy of our name and other people’s memories of us. Thus, even when we have biologically expired, our intergenerational life continues to be at work among the living.

This is not necessarily an odd idea. People often say things like, “grandpa is gone, but he will live on in our memories.” But typically, most people mean this metaphorically. Grandpa isn’t actually living in our memories. When we say things like this we mean that even though Grandpa himself is gone, memories of him have a real tangible effect in the world. Yet, Givens thinks this is not how the Bible speaks about people living on through their names and in memories. The Bible seems to indicate that the name and memory of a dead person constitutes the presence of that person among the living in a more real way.

 These are all very interesting ideas – ideas that deserve careful reflection because they have significant pastoral and social import. The pastoral implications for end-of-life pastoral care are pretty obvious. A pastor can comfort the dead’s loved ones by reminding them that their deceased loved one continues to make a real impact on the world even after their biological life has expired. The social import of these concepts are also significant (these were hinted at in Givens’s talk). Ideological figures who wreaked havoc upon particular cultures still have a real impact upon culture even after their biological life has expired. The “ghosts” of tyrants still haunt the world even after these tyrants die. These “ghosts” need to be dealt with or else their powers of decay will continue to be active in the world.

As I said above, what Givens has presented to us has very practical import. Yet, if I understood Givens correctly he does not think that the Bible is simply talking about some sort of non-personal presence of the dead among us in virtue of the effects that the now deceased person continues to have even after they have died. Givens seems to want to say that “intergenerational life” just is life. It is not life in a merely metaphorical sense and it is not life to some lesser degree than conscious life. To have an impact on the world through our name and memories of us just is to live on after death. When saying that name and memory constitute real life, it should go without saying, that Givens does not mean a denial of the resurrection in any robust physical sense. Givens was very clear, resurrection is the end which awaits us. However, I wonder (apparently several people in the audience also wondered) if saying that “intergenerational life” just is life makes the resurrection superfluous. If, living on in the memories of loved ones and my name having tangible effects in the world just constitutes real life, then it seems as though I (or a loved one or even Jesus) could live on without being resurrected. It seems to me that one way to get around this problematic implication would be to deny that “intergenerational life” is real “life.” But taking this route would simply mean denying everything that Givens had presented. Another option, one which I think is more faithful to Given’s view, is to say that intergenerational life is “real life” but that it is a sub-optimal form of living. That is, it is good to live on intergenerationally, but it is better to live intergenerationally and physically in a resurrected body. By claiming that intergenerational life is a sub-optimal way of living Givens would be able to escape the accusation that he has made resurrection superfluous and he would be able to keep the notion that the dead really live among us in their name and legacy.

Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.

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