The Civilisation of Death

“Adam himself was to bring both death and life into the world through wise judgment.”

The view that the death and resurrection of Christ purchased back for us the innocence (and innocent world) of Genesis 1 seems extremely childish to me now. How did we miss the fact that the Old Testament is filled to overflow with deaths and resurrections, personal, familial, national and imperial? There was no death before sin, but the scenario deliberately set up by God in Genesis was to bring Adam to a point of making a wise judgment. He was to crush the head of the serpent. In a sense, he was to kill death. His obedience would guarantee future life, but his obedience itself was a form of death. Obeying God is a daily dying, but as Paul understood, it was a dying so that there might be rejoicing on the other side. Obedience is a death that makes a judgment call to purchase, nay, miraculously create, new life. The original creation was set up, wound up, to go somewhere better, to be something greater.

Peter Leithart gave some lectures on the writings of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in 2008:

In Rosenstock-Huessy’s view, the once-for-all event of all once-for-all events is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“The crucifixion and the last judgment would not be known today as everyday occurrences in our lives if they had not occurred one-for-all with terrific majesty.” The whole experience of death and resurrection is something that Jesus plants into human history, and then reproduces in countless ways.

“In the crucifixion, with the accompanying darkness, the rending of the curtain in the temple, etc, that which is to happen finally has happened once already. For the faithful, the second coming of Christ as judge really began with His first coming. The crucifixion judges us all because we know that we would have behaved like Pilate or Gamaliel or Peter or Judas or the soldiers. The last judgment will make known publicly what those who have died with their first Brother already experience daily: that our Maker remains our Judge.”

Because of what Jesus’ death and resurrection bring into human history, this is the beginning of what Rosenstock-Huessy calls “the Christian era.” It is a new epoch of human history. It is an irreversible epoch of human history. Once the Christian era begins, you can try to leave it, but you are still borrowing what it provided for you. You still remain, he says, “a man of Jesus.” You can either resent the fact that Jesus is your Master, as Nietzsche did, or you can submit to it and be content with being “Jesus’ man.” Those are the only two options in the Christian era.

But it is the once-for-all event of the cross which has made possible the experience of repeated deaths-and-resurrections in life. Rosenstock-Huessy is not just talking about the resurrection of our bodies from the dead. He does believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and of humanity at the last day. But he says that the death and resurrection of Jesus, planted into humanity, makes death and resurrection a daily occurrence for men, and a civilisational occurrence in the history of the world.

How is death and resurrection a daily occurrence? One premise that is found all the way through Rosenstock-Huessy’s work is that life means vulnerability, life means suffering. To live means to experience shock, to experience failure. Human beings are always being torn in pieces. We are always being torn apart. We always have conflicting demands placed on us. People place conflicting demands on us. Our own conscience places conflicting demands on us. And many of these conflicting demands are equally valid and yet we have to make a choice. So we are constantly faced with these kinds of existential crises.

What Jesus provides in His death and resurrection is not just the idea that these experiences lead to life, but the reality that these experiences of being torn, of suffering, and dying and putting away the old are gateways to new life. The cross becomes the gateway to renewal. That is the reality that Jesus planted in human history.

In 1946, in “The Christian Future,” Rosenstock-Huessy describes a time in his own life some twenty years earlier when he felt like he was experiencing the cross. He writes, “I felt that I was undergoing a real crucifixion. I was deprived of all my powers, virtually paralysed, yet I came back to life again a changed man. What saved me was that I could look back to the supreme events of Jesus’ life and recognise my own small eclipse in His great suffering. That enabled me to wait in complete faith for resurrection to follow crucifixion in my experience. Ever since then it seemed foolish to doubt the historical reality of the original crucifixion and resurrection.” That is an interesting existential argument for the resurrection: “I am convinced of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection because I know what it’s like to die and rise again.”

This is the possibility opened for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Death ceases to be something to be avoided, something to be bypassed, something to be ignored. Instead, death becomes something to be anticipated and accepted as something that has a positive value for life. The death that he is talking about is a death to anything that has gripped us, any form of life that we have been living (such as an earlier occupation, or an earlier stage of life such as singleness, divorce, or death of a spouse). All these can be embraced as pathways to new life instead of as things that bring an end to your life.

One of the ways in which Rosentock-Huessy expresses this is in Christianity’s capacity to slough off old gods through Jesus’ revelation of the living God in His death and resurrection. The living God is not the God who is timeless but the God who endures through death — through every death, every epoch of history — into new life.

By “gods,” he means any power that dominates us, any power that poses to us a question of life and death. But Jesus shows us that we can die to these gods and still have new life. He says, “By learning to anticipate the inevitable end which the pagan fights off, man has robbed death of its paralysing gloom. Anticipating the worst, he can bury his dead in time. A pagan was ready enough to die physically for his family, temple, guild, nation or race, but these he held to be immortal and therefore without flaw. He could not admit the necessity of letting them die when the time had come, hence all went down together.” What Christianity reveals is the possibility of giving up even these deepest loyalties, these temporary “gods,” and still hoping for something new.

You might devote yourself for a considerable period of your life to the pursuit of money. It dominates you. You do what your pursuit demands you to do. What happens when there is a financial crisis? Can you find a new life on the other side of that. Rosenstock-Huessy says, Christianity says, “Yes, you can! There is life on the other side, beyond the death of the old god, the life of the living God who endures all crises, all death-and-resurrection experiences.”

Anticipating death is one of the particular virtues of Christian civiliation. The civilisation is not set up to keep death at bay, but rather its pattern of life is set up to anticipate death and to embrace deaths of various sorts in recognition that those deaths are going to lead to resurrections.

“Christianity is not a decadent worship of death for its own sake, (as someone like Nietzsche would say) but the discovery that including death in life is the secret of the fullness of life.” Monks and hermits, for example, die before their deaths. They die to their families, they die to any pursuits they might have had outside of the monastery, but their existence proves that death is an essential element of living. In fact, death is its sharpest ingredient. Any father, manager or teacher has to practice resignation and let the young learn by doing things he could do better himself. That’s a kind of death, for he knows that one day he must die and they must take his place. That is anticipating death. Christianity gives us the assurance that this is possible. If people don’t anticipate death, then the various tearings in life make us vulnerable to all kinds of evils. [1]

Some more thoughts:

This is the essence of Covenant succession, and this generational succession was built into the Creation. The genealogies matter. Adam, as father, manager and teacher, was to anticipate death, not ignore it or avoid it. He was to pass sentence, avenge his “church” and execute judgment upon sin for the sake of his future offspring — embodied in the Mother of all Living.

The sentence was death. Adam was to administer the curse delegated to him by God upon the serpent. Adam himself was to bring both death and life into the world through this wise judgment. But Adam failed. The Bible gives us a Messianic line from Adam to Jesus. The same test is played out over and over, in persons, families, nations and empires — and even Covenants. All bodies, all Tabernacles, wax old and pass away, and so do the old gods, the old satans.

But the living God is always doing something new. He implants Himself into the history. Israel sins and God gets torn up over it. Yahweh makes Himself vulnerable, a Tabernacle, a house designed to die. Yahweh tears Israel up and then brings her out of the grave, but, unlike Adam, He understands that this can only be accomplished if He goes through it with her.

As a new Adam, Jesus brought death and life into the world — death for the serpent, and life for us. But we are not sky-watching, heaven-pining pietistic gnostics. The ascended Jesus is still, by His Spirit, Emmanuel: God here with us.

This new commission is also a succession, a new history, a new conquest. Jesus has a lot to teach us along the way as He makes us as wise concerning good and evil as He is. And He is building an entire worldful of such people, a civilisation of self-sacrifice, passing sentence upon death, with death, until death is destroyed. As Christians become more and more “epistemologically self-aware,” obedience-as-Covenant-tool becomes the foundation of civilisation, the process of resurrecting the nations, until the Church itself is the Mother of All the Living. This is the postmillennial hope. [2]

[1] Biblical Horizons conference lectures are available from
[2] On the Roman church’s failure to understand this process, see Prisoners of the Future.

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