Do not invite death by the error of your life,
nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death,
and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist,
and the generative forces of the world are wholesome,
and there is no destructive poison in them;
and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away,
and they made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his party.
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades. Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts. When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back. “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry,
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
nor regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture,
that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hope for the wages of holiness,
nor discern the prize for blameless souls; for God created man for incorruption,
and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his party experience it. (Wisdom 1:12-2:24)
Periodically, some editor or TV journalist will emit a startled report to the effect that religion in America still hasn’t died. This is, of course, news only to journalists who inhabit the rarified atmosphere of the chattering classes and who therefore don’t often stop listening to themselves long enough to hear what real people are saying. But to anyone with even a passing understanding of American culture, it is obvious that, so far from being a religious desert, it is much more accurate to describe America as a religious jungle.
Note that I say “religious”, not necessarily “Christian”. For in fact a great deal of the upsurge in religious belief in America is a sort of buttercup-twirling nature worship which speaks with vague sentimentality about our relationship to “Mother Earth” and which casts fond and longing glances to the “olden times” before bad old Christianity came along and spoiled everything. Such a view of things, while absurd history, is nonetheless asserted everywhere in stories. One can, for example, easily get the impression from films like Dragonheart and Pocahontas that pre-Christian paganism was an utterly jolly thing. The pre-Christian world of these myths is a world of buffed-out-yet-sensitive men living in a matriarchal, earth-affirming culture of powerful women healers in touch with their sexuality who intuitively grasp the rhythms of nature as they rejoice in the simple pleasures of wine, love and song. The coming of Christianity into such a world is invariably portrayed as an invasion of upstart ignoramuses, brutish killjoys and rapacious exploiters into a party of wise and noble elders. Who needs the Christian God and his Heaven when you have the happiness of water and rock, of sunshine, of singing bird and all the joys of earth?
Nonetheless, Christianity tells us that this mythical view of paganism is indeed mythical. And this, not because this mythic paganism is utterly wrong, but because it is not right enough. For though it sees the goodness of the creation, it fails (as Paul warns in Roman 1) to see in that created goodness the Uncreated Goodness of the Creator. Thus blinded, such a pagan therefore urges us to make the earth enough to satisfy our human hearts–hearts which cannot rest with anything less than the Infinite God.
The dream of making earth enough is a very ancient one. Beginning with the fall of Adam, the constant theme of human history is, in essence, the struggle between the desire for mere earth and the call to look beyond the earth to Heaven. The path which lies before those who choose the former has never been more accurately sketched than by the second chapter of Wisdom.
Wisdom 2 charts the inevitable logic of placing all your eggs in an earthly basket. It shows not only what happens to those who do so, it shows what they must do to others as well if they remain consistent with their first principles and don’t repent. The chapter is prefaced by Wisdom 1:16, which bluntly tells us that the author is describing those who “made a covenant” with death. What does he mean?
He means, in essence, that to pin your hopes on this world is to book a ticket on the Titanic. She’s big. She’s beautiful. She’s going to die. There is not a thing you are looking at now that is not going to be dead or broken. Yet, knowing this, paganism still casts its hopes on creation rather than Creator and covers up the despair of the world with gassy philosophy. The despairing worldlings of verses 1-9 essentially say “I don’t know if there’s life after death so I’m dead certain there’s no life after death. I don’t know where I come from or why I’m here but I do know the world is a tough place and sex and song are really nice. So whoever gets the gold gets the goods. Let’s rock and roll!”
Now “getting the gold” is not a pretty business. It demands certain…. compromises. But if you’ve chosen to live in a universe of despair in which God is nowhere in sight, it soon becomes fairly easy to make such compromises. And so the logic continues. “Let us oppress the needy just man.” Fat lot of good his justice ever did him, the dumb sap! And so the one dedicated to the world gets the worldly goods and loses his soul in the process.
But conscience continues to prick him. And he resents it. So the logic continues through the rest of the chapter: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings.” The commitment to despair becomes a rooted life principle and one to which the worldly will sacrifice anything, including another person and especially another person whose life highlights his despair. “After all,” they cynically observe, “If the just one be the Son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes” (v. 18; Matt. 27:43).
Jesus is the ultimate Just Man and the Son of God. And God did deliver him. But he delivered him through death, not from it. This is what so confused and frightened the disciples in the gospels. They thought that maybe, at long last, God would fulfill the dream of making earth enough for us, with Jesus as a political ruler and them at his right and left hands. But God did not do so, for we, being in the image of God, are too much for earth. And so Jesus made a better way and transformed death from the hole the worldling thought it was into a door to a universe of Joy.
“Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan,” said Chesterton, “is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Pagan pleasures are ultimately tragic because they exist in a universe of despair. Christian tragedy, even the tragedy of the Cross, is ultimately glorious because it exists, as Tolkien said, in a universe of “joy, joy poignant as grief beyond the walls of the world.”