The Denial of Death and the Eschaton
Jordan Bauer, RN MS CHPN, PhD Student, Saint Louis University
In her seminal work, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduces the five stages of grief that continue to serve as the language with which hospice care clinicians discuss the process of grief observed in their patients. Among those five stages is that of denial. In her description of denial, however, Kubler-Ross categorizes the faithful Christian approach to death as itself as the denial of the actuality of death by emphasizing immortality. In portraying Christian faith as a denial, Kubler-Ross exposes a key limit of secular understanding concerning the tragedy of death in the Christian mindset. The risk of perpetuating such a distorted understanding of Christian theology in the clinical encounter threatens to undermine genuine grief and understanding of death and dying for the Christian patient. Further, it obscures a genuine Christian witness of hope in the Resurrection. In the first section of this paper, I describe Kubler-Ross’s interpretation of Christian faith through her interviews with dying patients. I then turn to the dynamic Christian belief concerning death and dying found in the field of eschatology. I rely first on a brief scriptural depiction of death and then on a diversity of Christian sources such as Thomas Aquinas, Oscar Cullman, Alexander Schmemann and Joseph Ratzinger. What these sources have in common is their affirmation of the goodness of the body and of creation, the tragedy of death, and the hopeful mystery of the Resurrection. These themes reveal the core of Christian theology surrounding death as the pioneering work of Christ who entered into death on our account rather than on a fixation with immortality. The reality of this faith should be incorporated into genuine Christian grief support and end of life decision making, not as a denial of death but as a faith that takes it head on.