Death is a Vapor

"You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away." -James 4:14

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Nearly 60,000,000 people die every year on planet Earth. This is one of the things that makes human beings so bewildering. I'm not talking about the fact that they die, but the fact that they take so little time to consider death.

Human beings will do nearly anything to avert their eyes from death; it's a pathological and universal impulse. You can think about it abstractly and in others, but try to turn your mind to the thought that your body will one day decompose—that your brain, your heart, your skin, your muscles will sprout mold and shrivel up and return to dust—and you will encounter a powerful hesitance.

But the fact remains: Our mortal bodies hold onto the flickering heartbeat of life like a spring tulip holds onto its blooms—vanishingly. And in the end, all of our efforts to avert our eyes from death and decay will fail. Some day, whether near or far, death will step in front of you and hold your gaze. All your strategies to avoid it and ignore it will fail. It will take you in its teeth and clamp down. You will bleed blood and feel that helplessness common to mortal creatures.

Death may catch up with you as you look down on a hospital bed, clutching a hand that isn't clutching yours. It might stare back at you in a mirror; you might see it in your own eyes. Maybe it will be the phone ringing with news of a friend and the drunk driver who didn't stop at the red light.

In that moment you will see what you had been trying not to see since your parents first sat you down and told you that grandpa had gone to heaven. Everything Adam. Everything rotting. Everything bending towards terminal illnesses and stark hospital beds and intravenous streams of chemicals keeping bodies clinging to life. We're seeds that germinated in cliff cracks; we're the helium in a popped balloon on a breezy day. This world is awash with death. Saturated by it, stewing in it. Death is the rule. Corruption is law.

Life, James wrote, is a vapor.

But there is a paradox here, something we may be missing; life is a vapor—but only under the Sun. If the world is just spinning stuff, if it's just atoms and electrons and energy and space, then yes, life is less than a vapor. If stuff is all there is, then life barely registers on the timeline. You'll need a 10,000-power microscope to catch a glimpse of it.

But if all of that is a shadow of the Real, then maybe death is the real divergence. Maybe grief is the real outlier. Maybe we're seeing wrong. Maybe our eye sockets are occupied by near-sighted eyes. Maybe we need new ones. Maybe we're actually not all that good at seeing what is passing and what is permanent and knowing the difference between the two.

Flannery O'Connor—a woman whose nose propped up no rose colored glasses, I can assure you—saw clear through the dark and into the real world. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, "For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws."

Ah, now there's an idea! There's a thought! What if death is the vapor? What if Jesus didn't take the rules of reality over his knee and break them when he spun death into reverse? What if Christ came, not to suspend the rules, but to restore them? What if he wasn't suspending the law when he conjured up wine where there was water and seeing where there was blindness and living children from dead ones? What if he was putting it all back in order? Maybe we go to the Gospels with this fixed notion that resurrection is unnatural when it's really death that is so unnatural?

What we need is a better reckoning of what is and what is not the most real world. We need a better reckoning of what is inevitable and what is fleeting, of what is emerging and what is retreating. See, if we would climb into Jesus' eyes and look out over the landscape of reality in the direction he's aiming them from the Father's right hand, we would see a horizon approaching where death breathes its last, where, as the Apostle wrote, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For 'God has put all things in subjection under his feet.'"

If I'm reading my Bible right, creation isn't really dying so much as waiting. It's groaning in its waiting, yes. You can hear its sad sighing in every stillborn child and influenza epidemic, but it will sing with joy long after the sighs are forgotten. Death is fleeing and it is fleeting because Christ has conquered and he is conquering. Life is a vapor for a moment, but death is a vapor forever

So yes, we bloom in bodies cursed and feel the magnet-pull of the grave (Those 6-foot holes have their own gravity, don't they?). Yes, we suck breath into asthmatic lungs. Yes we sometimes grow tumors in our brains and blockages in our arteries, but if we listen to the song Scripture's singing, this sighing and dying creation is really leaning into New Creation. Death gets some verses, but life takes the chorus. The word of resurrection is quivering on the tip of Jesus' tongue, ready to split air and atom like a trumpet-blast; ready to rend the heavens and make it all new.

And so we shout with the Psalmist, "Teach me to number my days!" But we look into our mortal futures and we lean over our friends' coffins and whisper, "Teach me to number death's days!"