Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch19:1:Changing Christian attitudes toward death

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Changing Christian attitudes toward death

Changing Christian attitudes toward death

A good deal has been written recently about the abrupt and surprising reorientation of the Christian church in the second century. At that time the attitude of the Christians to this world and the next suddenly and completely changed. So complete was this change of outlook and belief and so different was the resulting church from the apostolic one that the radical Dutch and German schools of church history were able to maintain that the primitive Christian church had never really existed, but was just an idealized reconstruction made in retrospect! One of the most instructive aspects of that change is the attitude of the church writers toward death. If we compare, say, Ignatius of Antioch with St. Basil on this subject, we find that the two men have absolutely nothing in common. Ignatius, who lived in the first and early second centuries, is straining every nerve to get to the other side. Any fame he might leave behind him as a saint or a martyr—any help he might give the church as its best-informed bishop—is no concern of his. As far as this world is concerned, he has lost all interest, every speck of it. Food and drink and the pleasure of life have ceased to exist for him: "I no longer wish to live after the manner of men," he writes to the Romans. "Believe me, I am sincere in this."2 Though he is quite aware that no man on earth could do the church as much good as he by continuing to live, he is nonetheless resolved not to linger here below for another moment if by any means short of suicide he can leave it. For Ignatius, the only reality is on the other side, and there is nothing metaphysical or abstract about it.

But consider St. Basil, the great theologian of the fourth century. Among his numerous surviving letters are a pair written to console friends of his for the loss of a child.3 These consolations read exactly like those of the pagan classical writers: The usual commonplaces about the inevitability of death and the shortness and misery of life do not attempt to hide the conviction that death is after all the supreme evil. But for a few scattered and conventional biblical terms, the letters might have all been written by Cicero, and some of them betray not the slightest trace of any Christian influence. What had happened to the faith? I grant you the consolatio was a well-established literary genre in the schools, but Basil is writing to his dearest Christian friends to give them what comfort he can as a bishop—surely, if he had more to give them he would. When the great Boethius in the sixth century was condemned to die, it was not religion but Dame Philosophy who brought him consolation in the death cell, and the famous essay she dictated on that melancholy occasion is not to be distinguished from the writings of a typical heathen philosopher in style, vocabulary, mood, or thought. Eventually the Christians ended up fearing death more anxiously than ever the pagans had. According to F. J. E. Raby, by the end of the Middle Ages "it now became a pious exercise to meditate on every ghastly detail which the imagination could add to the picture of the Passion," the individual identifying himself as much as possible with the suffering.4 "For the medieval Christian," writes Raby, "the Day of Judgment was almost wholly a day of terror," and "this same sense of terror is expressed in the . . . Mass for the Dead. . . . The recurring refrain in this noble prose adds to the sense of fear and apprehension."5 This Raby finds to be in complete contrast to "the joy and comfort of the early church."6 And so we see, when revelation ceased, the Christians went back to thinking about death exactly as the pagans do. That is neither surprising nor reprehensible, but it does offer us a good test for a true and prophetic religion. For such a religion must surely be one in which the early rather than the later Christian view of death prevails, and such a view has always characterized the Latter-day Saints.[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 19, references silently removed—consult original for citations.