Ephraim Radner

This article explores the meaning of mortality defined as a fundamental quality of human existence, in its scriptural, premodern, and modern Christian understandings. While the scriptural description of a basic human liability to death was both definitive for Christian self-understanding for almost two millennia, it was sufficiently unelaborated as to provide room for alternative readings of mortality’s essential qualification of human nature and thus destiny: is human liability to death an intrinsic aspect of that created nature (i.e. from God), or something historically contingent and thus extrinsic to that nature, i.e. through the Fall? While different answers were given to these questions, the pre-modern classical Christian tradition held the two readings together in seeing mortality as shaping a human life of genealogical commitment and humility, joined to the expectation of post-mortem judgment leading to punishment or reward. The article describes this pre-modern practical understanding of mortality, viewed as revelatory of God’s nature, as well as the transformation of this perspective brought by scientific, medical, and political changes in modernity. These changes led to radical shifts in how one understood mortality’s intrinsic and/or extrinsic character, with creation, Fall, and redemption displaced as key elements in mortality’s significance and replaced with the causative presuppositions and possibilities of contemporary materialist and idealist monist metaphysics, exemplified here by transhumanist and posthumanist outlooks and programmes. While current historical dynamics may have created a new climate of receptivity for classical views of mortality, contemporary Christianity remains mostly uncertain as to the meaning of mortality and as to its place in essentially defining human life in relation to God.

1 The problem of definition

The term ‘mortality’ is a substantive noun tied to the adjective ‘mortal’, and makes a theological appearance in English in the sixteenth century. Tyndale uses the adjective in just such a substantival fashion in his translation of 1 Cor 15:53: ‘When this corruptible hath put on incorruptibilite / and this mortall hath put on immortalite’ (Tyndale 1534). In parallel to ‘corruptible’, ‘mortal’ is a quality of existence.

It is in this sense that ‘mortality’ will be used in this article, rather than as a kind of gerund synonymous with ‘dying’, a common modern usage in which ‘mortality’ is something we approach temporally rather than defining our temporality itself (Nuland 2009: 8). Mortality as a punctiliar event is a common medical usage, as in ‘rates of mortality’, or more broadly the phenomenon of death (Kübler-Ross and Kessler 2012). The distinction between condition and event is often blurred in written discussions. It becomes clearer in the contemporary shift of academic interest away from the limited character of human life to an examination of the death process, that is, to the physical process of human disappearance and decomposition (Nuland 2009). This shift has given rise to its own cultural outlook, sometimes called ‘the death awareness movement’ (section 5.2) which can rightly be seen as an effort to retrieve the traditional understanding of ‘mortality’ as ‘natural’ condition, now purified of its mostly religious confusions, in the form of a modern Epicureanism, sometimes coloured by Buddhist intuitions (section 5.1.3; Bregman 2003; 2018; Gawande 2016; Tisdale 2018).

As understood here, ‘mortality’ engages the quality or set of qualities that inform our existence: and ‘existence’ presumes ‘life’. Mortality, then, is essentially a kind of life, not a kind of death (except insofar as death presumes life also). Mortality, on this reading, is a vivified and vivifying reality that permeates human life: ‘Nor dread, nor hope attend A dying animal; A man awaits his end Dreading and hoping all’ (Yeats 2008: 241). As an essential aspect of life, mortality is not just a human reality, but one shared with other living beings, and contrasted with the ‘inert’ passivity of matter. While simple matter may degrade, it cannot, like living beings, engage in that constant interchange of elements with its environment and internal theatre known as ‘metabolism’, such that life is always ‘making itself’. In Hans Jonas’ definition, mortality as a quality of metabolic life is marked, in higher organisms, by an unresolved tension between the press for self-ordered survival and the ‘burden’ of uncertainty in the face of unpredictable challenges to survival, including a self-conscious ageing process that has an established terminus. It is in this tension that the reality of ‘value’ emerges as a human good, as well as an understanding of its inbuilt limits, even while the tension’s irresolution is ‘mitigated’ generationally (through procreation) and culturally (including corporate religious practice) (Jonas 1996).

Mortality, then, can be defined in terms of a striving life (in the philosophical sense of a conatus [Garrett 2002]) that anticipates its own termination. At the same time, mortality is thereby bound to the quality of ‘beginning’: unasked for, but discovered and grown into. This ties mortality to natality as essentially as it does to death, so that the term refers to the character of a human life taken as a whole, in both biological and social terms. Traditionally, mortality is thereby viewed as definitive of human history in its temporal reach, as noted in the so-called Gospel according to the Egyptians, quoted by Clement of Alexandria:

When Salome asked [Jesus], 'How long will death prevail?' the Lord replied 'For as long as you women bear children.' But he did not say this because life is evil or the creation wicked; instead he was teaching the natural succession of things; for everything degenerates after coming into being. (Clement of Alexandria 2014: 118)

Contemporary evolutionary versions of this theme have seen mortality as founding the possibility of population growth and extension, as well as its sustainability, with both nineteenth- and twentieth-century Darwinians stressing the ‘usefulness’ of limited human existence for the survival of the species (Sumner 1816; Brandon 1966: 228; Oslington 2017). ‘We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life’ (Nuland 2009: 267). The natural world, including the life that is in it, is here defined by its own revolutions of death and life, as in an enclosed system wherein our inescapable liability to death is self-referential. But with or without God as a factor, this notion of mortality as tied to life-extension opens to a wider reality of non-individualistic views of ‘life’ itself. This is an explanatory trajectory applied to the emergence of belief in the resurrection within Israel, whereby family and kindred becomes the vehicle for individual survival (Levenson 2006). But it is an intuition shared among many peoples throughout history.

The tight interface between mortality and corporate life extension has led some scholars to assert that after-life beliefs of some kind have been universally held, at least until the modern era. Annihilationism – the belief that death simply brings a complete and irreversible end to human life – is thus viewed as a kind of attitudinal perversion of recent vintage. But it should be noted that annihilationism also has a minor place in the Christian tradition, which indicates the way that mortality is, at least in this tradition, more essentially tied to a certain understanding of God than to theories, whether ancient or modern, regarding the nature of matter and spirit (Kraemer 2000). It is true that, for most premodern cultures, death is seen as a ‘gateway’, with varying views of the afterlife and with varying views of the nature of what moves through the gate (souls, spirits, transfigured flesh). But a distinguishing feature of both Judaism and Christianity is their insistence that the sole power over life and death is the creator God. The issue of annihilation, then, is always subordinate, logically, and ontologically, to that of creation, which renders even the final disappearance of an individual something that is in fact reversible in theory. When annihilationism emerged as a distinct, if mostly marginal, Christian doctrine (see section 4.1), it did so as a deduction from the supposed character of God and viewed annihilation as a kind of grace (e.g. liberation from horror, now and in the age to come).

Life as God’s to give and take, with or without an after-life, is arguably the fundamental conviction that mortality’s assertion supports in both Jewish and Christian theology. The conviction’s scriptural basis can be found in the originating stories of creation – ‘dust from dust’ – which is then elaborated in, for example, Job, the Psalms, and finally the New Testament, as in Jas 4:13–14, which still speaks of human ‘life’ (zoe) as intrinsically evanescent or ‘vanishing’ (aphanziomene) (Eckardt 1972). Philosophical speculations on the metaphysics of spirit and matter eventually complicated this broad scriptural picture. The issue of ‘immortality’ of, for example, the soul, and of elaborated aspects of the soul’s afterlife – sleep, punishment, purgation (in Christianity especially, but also in Judaism) – becomes doctrinally and devotionally important. These matters coloured approaches to mortality over the centuries, mostly by narrowing its concern to the act or process of dying and death itself (Kalantzis and Levering 2018). But, in fact, many of these speculative elements can be theologically distracting from the meaning of mortality, which circumscribes the given reality of life and its contents in relation to God, with or without the assertion of immortality (section 2.3).

When articulated in terms of the corporate character of mortal existence, the conviction that ‘life is God’s’ unfolds mostly within the realm of quotidian choices and habits, which are thereby eternally validated by their God-given possibility. In psychological terms, death is ‘the one fact of my life which is not relative but absolute and my awareness of this gives my existence and what I do each hour an absolute quality’. This is a prominent theme in both Talmudic and Christian discussion: mortality describes what life is, and its meaning orders how life is lived (May 1958: 90; Spero 1980: 314).

It is important, then, to distinguish traditional ‘cultures of mortality’ – societies or groups for whom mortality determines their understanding of life – from what some commentators have dubbed as today’s ‘culture of death’ (John Paul II 1995). In the latter, the emphasis on human productivity purportedly devalues the unborn, the ill, disabled, and elderly and thereby encourages practices like abortion and euthanasia. A culture of mortality instead focuses on procreating, tending, hoping, remembering, grieving, regretting, and trusting; and, within a Christian context, trusting God especially. The fullness of the Christian life is thus ethically and devotionally founded on mortality. Given the general belief in God’s creative action continuing to take place after a creature’s death, this ethical and devotional life is also linked to a wider sense of existence that somehow is divinely established after biological death. This latter sensibility, however, is consequential rather than determinative of mortality in Christian terms, and the remainder of this article will therefore focus on mortality’s vivifying character and various developments of this basic outlook.

2 Scriptural descriptions and parameters of mortality

2.1 The protological description of mortality in biblical narrative

Mortality as a characteristic that conditions human beings is laid out in the creation account of Genesis 1–3 (Westermann 1984). All Jewish and Christian thinking about mortality is founded upon and derives from elements in this account. Precisely because no death is actually reported until Abel’s in Genesis 4, it is proper to see the creation story itself as, in a general way, initiating a grammar of life and death rather than describing death itself. Salient features in the account are the ‘tree of life’ (2:9); a divine warning against eating from this tree (2:17) with a condition (‘you will die’); the human choice to enact the condition, that is, to disobey the divine command; (3:6) and the final assertion of that condition’s now settled form: the human being’s return to dust, and the divine determination to prevent humans eating of the tree of life (3:19, 24).

What is clear from these elements is that human persons, outside Eden, are now bound to death somehow, having to die, and just this prediction, as enunciated by God, is what constitutes from now on the character of human life (Westermann 1984: 184, 222–225). Other elements are then attached to this character that take on aspects of mortality: the often painful bonds of human relationship between women and men; the suffering tied to childbirth; the burden of labour that consumes life until life disappears (3:16–19). Finally, the shape of this existence is summed up in the name given to the woman, ‘Eve’ or ‘mother of all the living’ (3:20) which ties the aspects of ‘living under the promise of death’ back to the original vocation of the human being to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28). Likewise, as a kind of integrative theme, the determination to death is twinned with ‘knowledge’ (of good and evil [2:17]) as if wisdom itself is linked to mortality, understood as a condition out of which reflection arises, something spoken of in e.g. Ecclesiastes (Segal 2004: 86). In particular, the new human understanding of their ‘nakedness’ seems to imply both personal and procreative vulnerability. These elements are important to note because they describe mortality as intimately as does the terminus of death itself. Because of this, religious appraisals of mortality, as they developed historically, will take different ethical stances with respect to these aspects of human life – labour, procreation, sexuality, birth, human desire, knowledge itself – evaluating them according to the diverse criteria by which the condition of mortality itself is judged (see section 4).

There are fundamental narrative and perhaps logical puzzles and lacunae in the story as well. One set touches on the original status of mortality in God’s creative purposes, and the other on the particular character of mortality’s present experience. Both are related, but distinct. With respect to mortality’s original status, the story seems to indicate that eating of the tree of life and living forever was not a part of the original human couple’s experience (3:22). Does that imply that Adam and Eve would have died ‘anyway’, whether obedient or disobedient, and thus that they were ‘created mortal’ in the fundamental and experienced sense of being ‘liable to death’? On the other hand, the actual predictive clarity of their death seems bound up with actions taken in response to the serpent’s deception, actions driven by vague sentiments of attraction (the beauty of the fruit). In this case, death’s certainty seems to be the consequence of negative forces both external (e.g. Satan, fallen angels, other agents of evil) and internal (e.g. distracting passions) to the human being. Viewed from another angle, God’s determination to drive Adam and Eve from the garden links the predictive fulfilment of their mortal condition to divine decision. Finally, does the procreative project that ends the story (3:16; 4:1) differ from that which begins it (1:28)? In that case, mortality is itself either irrelevant to original human vocation, or was always a part of it somehow.

Later theologians will wrestle with these kinds of questions, coming up sometimes with quite different answers, mostly of a speculative nature. On a practical level, however, many will adopt the anti-protological – one might call it ‘realist’ or ‘non-speculative’ – attitude to mortality, such as is stated in the Talmud, with its warning against thinking too much about the ‘before creation’ and ‘after the world’ (Talmud: Hag. 11b:6; 2:11b.7; The Talmud links such intellectual modesty to the honouring of a person’s Maker. This practical attitude is also one that reflects mortality’s own limiting force: to be mortal involves an accepted ignorance about these matters.

2.2 Comparisons with other non-Christian narratives about human liability to death

From James George Frazer (1913–1924) to Alan Segal (2004), comparative study of conceptions of immortality has proven more interesting a topic than mortality itself, and the latter has been comparatively engaged only as a logical or narrative stepping stone to the former. This is a curious intellectual development: modern scholars see the assumption that death is ‘natural’ and probably final as a ‘progressive’ or civilized outlook, moving beyond the anxious fantasies of an invisible world of spirits, gods, forces, obstacles, sorcerers and witches, that somehow trap us in death ‘from the outside’ as it were. These fantasies are fundamentally ‘savage’ ideas, according to Frazer, and reflect the corporate psychological fragility of peoples of the past (or perhaps present). Yet, even though contemporary scholars tend to maintain their embrace of the progressive-positivist view of death, negative evaluations of past ‘myths’ are no longer acceptable. Intellectually, we move today in an arena in which anxiety is welcome and answers are forbidden. It is a theologically merciless terrain.

More popular Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about death are notoriously ill-defined, in a way that contrasts with their more philosophical counterparts, though even the latter’s precision often seems constrained by the larger religious uncertainties of the surrounding culture. In general, human life was seen as bounded by death, and deathly experience was at best an attenuated and indistinct existence, ghostly and wretchedly diminished (Vermeule 1979; Burkert 1985: 190–215). While ‘immortality’ was often (though not always) granted to certain gods, human beings were seen as confined to a transitory existence whose passing constituted the greatest loss imaginable. That ancient philosophers would attempt to mitigate these expectations, with theories that ranged from annihilation to materialist or pneumatic universalism (Long 2019), seemed to do little to banish their fundamental energies, ones generally shared across human cultures.

Within the non-Western cultures of North America (Boas 1917), Africa (Abrahamsson 1951), and more widely (Thompson 1955–1958: 216–217), mortality was always seen as caused by some particular agent, and in that sense externally imposed – through a trick, a failure, a mistaken bargain, a punishment for dishonouring a deity, a defeat, a determined survival mode for an overpopulated earth. These various causes were all tied to a party other than human beings – a god, usually, directly or through a messenger; or at the hands of a malevolent power; or if through some human mistake, an error embraced in the face of an external challenge. Extrinsically originated mortality of this kind (in contrast to the intrinsically-located nature of mortality within the original human constitution, as in Judaism and Christianity [section 3.1]) is actually hard to disentangle from the brute experience of limitation’s intractability, and hence colours mortality in a special emotional way, giving rise to frustration, failure, anger, and resignation.

Taking this wider material more generally, and looking specifically at the Near Eastern context (Segal 2004), we can say that all examples share an acceptance of mortality’s givenness, less something to be explained than to be lived with. Sumerian/Akkadian notions include that of human beings created (from earth) to be the slaves of the gods, and bearing features frivolously given them by these higher beings – including the perverting aspects of disease and ageing. The link between mortality and slavery is important, as in the Genesis protology, in the way that it infuses mortality’s meaning with imposed labour and suffering in a context of subservience and often arbitrary purpose. Imposition and frustration are thereby seen as colouring the character of human life, and this is ingredient to mortality in a deep way. So, in Egyptian attitudes, there are intimations of a timeless realm of life outside this world (inhabited by gods), in relation to which mortal human life is a sub-reality. In this framework, is death ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’? At any rate, the earthly realm is one subject to assault (e.g. by the god Set), as from outside, from which springs death (Brandon 1966: 219–220). The culture of personification, into which death is thus inserted, leaves human beings as victims of some higher conflict, the dynamics of which are simply embedded in reality, intractably and pointlessly.

Thus, although there are various ancient Near Eastern origin stories with respect to death, there is, as in the classic epic of Gilgamesh, also a clear sense of death as an historical surd. ‘The life thou seekest thou wilt not find; (for) when the gods created mankind, They allotted death to mankind. (But) life they retained in their keeping.’ Still, death is now ordered to a certain kind of blessing: ‘Let thy raiment be clean. Thy head be washed, (and) thyself bathed in water. Cherish the little one holding thy hand, (And) let thy wife rejoice in thy bosom. This is the lot of mankind’ (Brandon 1966: 223). Here the character of mortality, in its aspect of conditioning actual forms of life, surfaces. There are further Near Eastern texts that, in ways similar to other cultures, recount stories of lost opportunities of human beings to achieve immortality. But these only presume the natural character – in the sense of intrinsic order to human existence – of dying as a baseline, from which a certain kind of life emerges.

While human createdness appears as a passing element in this broad collection, it is rarely anchored in an absolute way with a personified Creator. Hence, while mortality is a central object of interest and concern in these non-biblical traditions, it appears less as a fundamental definer of human existence morally, and more an attribute of an existence that itself is without any clear absolute value. Human beings and gods exist in often random, if just as often dangerous and impinging, relationship. This marks the fundamental distinction from Jewish and Christian scripturally based discussions, where the ‘very good’ of creation by the One God (Gen 1:31) determines, not so much the relative experience of mortality – this is generally shared among all traditions – as that experience’s essential meaning as being exhaustively tied to human identity and dependent solely upon God.

2.3 Scriptural description: endings, beginnings, and their existential value

One of the core themes of the biblical account of human creation is that of dependence upon God. Questions of origination and termination, beginnings and endings, are a common feature in all human self-reflection, but in Genesis are identified as divinely definitive of human meaning. The creature-Creator relationship is one of complete asymmetry, bound to God’s comprehensive initiative in bringing creatures into being. The asymmetrical relationship frames experienced limitation as itself a necessary and defining aspect of giftedness. The surd of death in the scriptural accounts is as prominent as in other religious traditions; but it is transposed, because of the creature-Creator relationship, into its own revelatory element. ‘There is no God beside me’ (Isa 45:21); ‘I make peace and create evil’ (Isa 45:7); ‘I kill and I make alive’ (Deut 32:29); I am the God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Rom 4:17 RSV). While hardly mimetically detailed images of God, these descriptions are nonetheless meant to be true renderings of God, in a way that positively illuminates human existence. In this sense, mortality is ingredient of the ‘very good’ of creation, whatever its exact origins. Judaism quite explicitly took hold of this indication of the divine goodness of death – a founding authority being Rabbi Meir in the second century CE, who pronounced, ‘And, behold, it was very good; and behold, death was very good’ – and reflected on it with moral depth and nuance (Genesis Rabbah 9:5; see 1939).

But this ‘very good’ is linked to created existence more generally, and here the elements of the creation story noted above (procreation, difficult love, toil) come into play. Mortality is not only bound to these elements, but informs them: social existence, in its generative and burdensome forms, becomes the realm of ‘the good’, even as that good is always bounded and often difficult. When Christianity – which generally avoided R. Meir’s explicit judgment – places at the centre of its faith a crucified redeemer, born, matured, and then dead at the hands of other human beings, and then orders sanctified existence in the form of this redemptive crucifixion – ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34) – it places mortality in the paradoxical position of moral burden clothed with transfiguring gift.

2.4 Questions left open by the narrative

The biblical account leaves unresolved the metaphysical nature of human creation. The story ties death to the material of creation: from dust and to dust. Yet the fact that the story also describes human creation (and that of other beings) in terms of a divine breath (Gen 6:17; 7:22) that does not figure clearly in the quality of death, has given rise to uncertainties about the actual object of mortality: body, soul/spirit, life (cf. Eccl 3:21). Complex theories on the part of Christian theologians about the constitution of human life and identity have engaged these categories, often drawing on non-Christian philosophical reflections (Peters 1967). Making use of quite technical and often confusing vocabulary, these efforts have also provided diverse frameworks in which to define or place mortality. These include limiting mortality to only one feature of such composites (e.g. only the body is mortal, whatever its destiny for resurrection, but not the soul, which is instead ‘immortal’). In fact, though, antique conceptions were themselves various and not always distinct, in principle, from what were to become Christian claims. This includes even ideas of resurrection (Endsjø 2009; Songe-Møller 2009; Mutie 2013; Usacheva, Ulrich, and Bhayro 2020).

The creation account also raises questions about the first cause of death. Thus, the story does not clarify the intentional origins of death, as lying with God or with a malevolent being like the Serpent (or Devil as he was later viewed); nor does it lay out, more narrowly, that death’s efficient causal origin, whether by a previous disaster among the heavenly beings, or human choice or disobedience (all later theories). Various theological perspectives were able to hold pieces of all of these theories simultaneously, in fact, but that in turn left the matter somewhat confused.

One key conviction, that remained mostly firm within all speculative frameworks, was that a human being is divinely placed in the world, and to that extent, morally bound to that world during life, accepted to its full natural extent. Suicide has been universally rejected across the Christian tradition until recently (Hecht 2013). Theodical challenges, however, were to arise in the face of this conviction, especially in the modern era.

3 Two Christian approaches to mortality

These questions permit two main Christian theoretical traditions on mortality to emerge, both bound up with concerns about resurrection and human immortality as possibility and promise (Stendahl 1965; Wolfson 1965; Cullmann 1965; Ziegler 2001).

3.1 Intrinsicism and the minor tradition: mortality as a divinely created and permanent feature of human existence

Judaism’s receipt of a tradition that saw death as part of the ‘very good’ of creation (see section 2.3 above) was interpreted variously, mostly in theodical terms: death must end an earthly (and difficult) existence so that a better heavenly one can take its place; death can bring an end to wicked persons; death can bring an end to struggle against evil; death can give God rest from rebellious creatures; death is simply the description of human creation – limitedness – and a limited Adam is a created good from God (Gen Rabbah 9:5–14; see Midrash Rabbah 1939: 66–70). And while there is rabbinic speculation as to whether or not God might have created Adam without death, the weight of opinion falls on death, and thus mortality as intrinsic to human creation. Later Islam seems in line with this (Sūrah Al-Mulk 67:2; Sūrah Al-Hijr 15:23; The Holy Quran; see 1991: 1781, 716), emphasizing death as itself a divine creation that simply falls within the ambit of divine absolute sovereignty.

It seems as if at least some early Christians shared similar views, in this case emphasizing God’s power in creating mortal human beings as proof of God’s power to resurrect them. The third-century Christian apologist Minucius Felix puts forward what he takes to be obvious truths regarding the intrinsically mortal nature of human beings, in an overlap between Jewish and pagan beliefs:

But who is so foolish or so brutish as to dare to deny that man, as he could first of all be formed by God, so can again be re-formed; that he is nothing after death, and that he was nothing before he began to exist; and as from nothing it was possible for him to be born, so from nothing it may be possible for him to be restored? (Octavian 3; see 1855: 194 [vol. 4])

Most famously, Athanasius, in his early fourth-century classic work On the Incarnation (3 and 4), lays out the premise for God’s saving mission in Christ, which is the ‘mortal’ (thnetos) and ‘corruptible’ (phthartos) ‘nature’ (physis) of human beings. This natural human being, created ex nihilo, whose promise of unending life was thwarted by the divine gift of free choice, was hurtling downwards into nothingness, and would have simply disappeared apart from a mercifully recreating divine initiative (Athanasius 1953b: 27–30). Athanasius was perhaps also reshaping local Egyptian ideas here, but there was nothing eccentric in his general assertion of natural mortality (Zecher 2014).

The conviction regarding mortality as intrinsic to human nature is complicated by varying views regarding the ontology of the soul, which was often, though hardly always defined in immortalist terms (Bovon 2010). Yet it is possible – though difficult – to hold a functionally intrinsicist view while also maintaining a commitment to some form of spiritual immortality. Augustine’s thinking unfolded on the cusp of this view. His early commitment to the ‘immortality of the soul’ was not something he ever discarded (Augustine of Hippo 1947a; 1947b; Mourant 1969; Fleteren 2006–2010), but long scriptural reflection and personal experience led him to reformulate his integral conception of human lives with more emphasis upon their highly conditioned, and thus limited, destinies linked to mortal bodies. He came to argue that original human beings – Adam and Eve – had an ‘animal body’, subject to deterioration (and thus death, in the downward motion identified by Athanasius). But they were promised a transformation of bodily existence from animal to ‘spiritual’ – and quickly too – conditioned by their obedience to God; having disobeyed, this natural deteriorating tendency was left to take over, and the promised transformation was put off until human beings went through the tendency’s complete breadth of corruption and finally death itself. Death was not originally seen as a ‘good’ passageway to spiritual transformation, as in R. Meir’s outlook (Augustine of Hippo 2002: 453–454).

While Augustine sees the dynamic or potential of natural degradation as inbuilt in the human constitution, he does not speak of ‘mortality’ itself as an original condition that is somehow ‘felt’, though he does admit that Adam and Eve’s original happiness was only ‘relative’ because they were ignorant of what would come. Thus their faith was not yet fully formed or deep enough as with the saints who persevere through adversity and suffering (2002: 441–442).

The intrinsicist view must grapple with the patent scriptural linkage of death to sin and to the devil, as noted in Paul’s letter to the Romans especially (Rom 5; cf. Heb 2:15). But it can do so by, for instance, explaining the connection, not in terms of a satanic invention of death, but of death’s postlapsarian ‘domination’ (as opposed to its quiescent characterization) of human life, lodging that life in the realm of ‘fear’ and its corrupting toxins (Athanasius 1953b: 29; 1953a: 159).

The intrinsicist view was rarely rejected outright in the later Christian tradition, and in fact hovered consistently in the background as at least a kind of metaphysical presupposition that shaped quotidian attitudes. But intrinsicism’s explicit theological elaboration awaited early modernity.

3.2 Extrinsicism and the major tradition: mortality as an external imposition on human life

The fact that Augustine’s views could be taken in two directions alerts us to the continuity of the intrinsicist and extrinsicist views: they should not be arrayed against each other. They tend to be more a matter of emphasis with certain ethical and devotional perspectives in consequence. Still, there is a difference.

The extrinsicist view emphasizes death as something that comes from without, much as more diverse cultural attitudes have expressed it: from demons, the devil, and so on. These powerful realities, as explications develop, then migrate to the choices of the first human beings themselves, such that the ‘extrinsic’ origin of death is seen as the human choice itself, confected in the moment, and left unexplained (as in many non-Christian accounts), or subject to intricate examinations of the status of human free will.

In early Christian extrinsicist accounts – like those of Tatian, Theophilous, and Irenaeus – voluntary human causality is explained in developmental terms: the ‘infantile’, immature Adam, could have chosen rightly and grown into a full-fledged immortal existence (Weaver 1983: 190–192). In these discussions, death is not ‘originally’ decreed or created by God, but tied to contingent historical events, e.g. the Fall and its consequences, and thus amenable to redemptive removal. This perspective marks the major (if itself quite varied) tradition, in both East and West. While it is mostly congruent with Augustine’s notion of an originally unimpeded movement from less developed to more spiritual bodies, a movement short-circuited by sin, the extrinsicist aspects are more definitive here.

Further, while this early approach is not clear as to whether mortality is ‘natural’, its major lines were clarified to eliminate any notion of absolute created limitations as a divinely ordered good. Gregory of Nyssa offers a clear example of this, in for example his discussion of the death of infants (1893: 372–381). The ‘natural’ state of human creation is ‘natural’, in that human created life – in essence ‘intellectual’ and bound to soul – simply is the partaking in the light or life of God. Created life is identical, as it were, to a god-ward orientation of something that is not God. By definition, then, mortality constitutes a contradiction of God’s creative purpose. Indeed, sin brings in death as an alienation from God, a turning away, and as such is ‘unnatural’, a perversion of nature now shared through the procreative and maturing process. This is quite distinct from Augustine’s narrow linkage of original sin with the act of sexual union, because for Gregory, while children are born pure, the entire process of living in the world complicates matters, and furthers human alienation from the divine light. The point here is that mortality is not a created good, though it is otherwise conceived in relation to history (contingent, conditional, etc.), which is itself marked by tendencies of death and disappearance.

One cannot, therefore, differentiate between intrinsicist and extrinsicist views of mortality simply on the basis of contrasting views regarding the consequences of original sin (actual guilt vs. ‘mutability’). Western and Eastern views on this question, however distinct, tend nonetheless to agree on the basic conviction that mortality itself, in its experiential press, is the unnatural result of some original ‘fall’ or perversion of humankind (Weatherby 1988).

Thus, Aquinas is quite clear that, from one perspective, Adam’s innocent created state was not ‘immortal’ in a natural sense, but was granted by the ‘efficient’ causality of God’s grace acting on the soul, which in turn preserved the body’s existence indefinitely even as Adam remained obedient (Summa Theologica [ST] I.97.a1–2; 1922: 335–338). Yet he has little interest in the purely natural character of mortality because, in fact, it was never experienced as such by Adam until his disobedience: ‘man was impassible, both in soul and body, as he was likewise immortal; for he could curb his passion, as he could avoid death, so long as he refrained from sin’ (ST I.97.a2; 1922). Since the very purpose of God’s creation was the experience of human immortality, the presupposition of mortality, however metaphysically justified, is irrelevant to divine science and functions only as a consequence to the external force of sin, a lens for adjudicating the value of this or that human act in light of its contribution to the divine end of immortal life with God. In this general framework as adopted before and after Aquinas, and including Eastern theologians with whatever distinct metaphysics, mortality has small scope for positive evaluation except as a location for the kind of life and death that procures entrance into immortality (Condon 2019). Already by the third century, then, there is the primary established Christian tradition that, while a universal aspect of human existence, mortal life is essentially a determinative prelude to something better that leaves mortality behind (Cyprian 1883: 469–475).

4 Classical and modern applications of the two approaches

The contrast in intrinsicist and extrinsicist approaches, to reiterate, is not contradictory with respect to human experience. Not least because of the authoritative Pauline assertion linking death and sin (Rom 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:56; cf. Jas 1:15): for intrinsicist and extrinsicist views, the present existence characterized by both sin and death is universal. Debates over ‘original sin’ and its propagation, especially as they have developed in more modern East-West arguments, can cloud this common experiential assertion. In many ways, Origen and Augustine end up in the same practical space with respect to the intractably demeaning character of present existence (Weaver 1983: 195–196). That said, a baseline of mortality or immortality will press in diverse directions of ethical evaluation and order, that is, of the ‘goods’ of this life.

Both traditions work themselves out differently in pre-modern and modern Christianity.

4.1 Premodern

From a Christian perspective, any notion of mortality as a basic constituent of human life presupposes a dualist ontology that distinguishes between God and creation. Pragmatically (as contrasted with theoretically), the intrinsicist and extrinsicist traditions are held together in a balance, largely because both share a common dualist – in terms of Creator and creature – metaphysical framework. Though there are diverse explications of how God and creature relate in a detailed way, both outlooks agree that a differentiated divine/human ontology determines human existence essentially. Here the ex nihilo claims of early Christianity are determinative (Hubler 1995; Robinette 2011). Short of a pantheist or perhaps vague panentheist set of commitments, intrinsicist and extrinsicist views of mortality – mortality as purposefully created by God or as the consequence of some negative contingency – both assert the infinite qualitative and substantive distinction between Creator and creature, with mortality as lodged definitively in creaturely existence. Hence, for both traditions, ‘dying’ as a quality of existence stamps the relationship of creature to God in a fundamental fashion, and so exposes that relationship in an ineluctable and always epiphanic fashion.

To be sure, the issue of ‘afterlife’ seems to be approached differently depending on intrinsicist and extrinsicist views: how to maintain continuity of identity with respect to dead or decomposed or ‘vanished’ bodies (Olson 2013)? The spiritualizing tendencies of extrinsicist perspectives made ‘soul’ life determinative, and because souls were often viewed as essentially immortal in contrast to matter, they were not subject to ‘soul death’.

By early modernity, the topic had become lively, and included the early modern debates in Europe over Christian ‘Mortalism’ (Ball 2008; Burns 2015) – a confused category defined more by its opponents than by its adherents. These debates seemed to focus on the ontology of the soul. ‘Mortalist’ positions, emergent certainly by the sixteenth century, included claims to ‘soul-death’ and even ‘annihilation’, to ‘soul sleep’, and sometimes to soul ‘union’ (and hence depersonalization) with God. Opponents of (the various kinds of) mortalism saw the claims to ‘soul death’ or ‘soul sleep’ before resurrection as a materialist heresy, and just these worries were to fuel a later orthodox drift into the insistent extrinsicism of the nineteenth century

4.1.1 The question of orthodoxy

Intrinsicist and extrinsicist intuitions or tendencies did not, however, line up with standard claims to orthodoxy. Luther could affirm the possibility of soul-sleep, even as he insisted on the post-death continuity of the soul (Burns 2015: 28–32). Calvin could attack notions of soul-sleep, even as he insisted on the natural mortality of the soul (Burns 2015: 12). Furthermore, mortalism’s diverse claims were pragmatically less problematic at the time than the debate indicated: the mortalists’ claims were aimed initially at questions about purgatory perhaps, as well as, later, at God’s justice in punishment. These were ‘afterlife’ issues, rather than creation issues. Both mortalist and purportedly orthodox views were both empowered by robust views of ex nihilo creation – only God maintains continuity of identity or person across the chasm of death in any case, in a way analogous to creation (or identical to it – a view that leads to occasionalist metaphysics [Jolley 1998]). So, we can read Paul’s distinction of earthly and heavenly bodies (1 Cor 15:40–49) as in part a claim about the primacy of divine creation vis a vis human identity. A Christian vision of human mortality, in all of its forms, depended on the ex nihilo character of creation as part of a far-reaching vision.

Practical emphases do differ, however, between intrinsicist and extrinsicist views, though not in an exclusive fashion.

4.1.2 Intrinsicist mortal relations

Intrinsicism shapes the response to relational decisions and sentiments in the form of popular concerns with the boundedness of life:

Before the modern era, and still well into it for many, the personal existence of most Christians was shaped according to the economy of life-stages, with well-socialized perceptions of the right ordering of sequential periods of development, from birth to death (Hanawalt 1986; Youngs 2006). Expectations of bodily form and experience, learning, clothing, behaviour, relationships, and duties were all laid out in association with these stages. While the particular contours of the life-cycle – differently expressed in its details within diverse cultures and times – are of great interest to social historians, it is easy to miss their shared overall form as fundamentally constituted by the claim of mortality: developmental stages and their forms are important for mapping time-limited existences. Each of the stages, after all, and many of their details, are strictly coordinated with religious observances whose tenor is oriented to the vulnerable gift of life from God and its transient character, which determine, especially among the laity, the shape of prayer and energy.

Prayers and rituals for passage from one stage to another – tied to birth, baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, and so on to death and burial, and far beyond (as with masses for the dead, including self and family) – were obviously critical. But analogous devotions accompanied every aspect of daily life, from planting, harvesting and selling, to production and consumption. All these prayers and in some cases formal liturgies, were orientated to matters of basic survival in the face of natural or social threats, to genealogical concerns (family, children, generations) and, finally, often to the procreative hope tied up with these relations. Much of these devotional postures were informed by an ethical humility in the face of love, loss, and historical uncertainty, expressed in terms of penitence, petition, and trust. All this embodies the reality of mortality in a practical fashion.

Despite the millennium-long theologically dominant monastic stream, then, the church’s life was structured according to the values and goods that emerged from a mortal existence. These values were promoted through ritual, preaching, and discipline, and formed the basic texture of human life (Daniell 1999; Binski 2001; Rubin 2009). They were expressed in the broad application of Old Testament scriptural texts to teaching and homiletics, as well as in the rise of the cult of saints, whose strength as mediators was mostly this-worldly and geared to the needs of these areas of life (Muir 1997).

Thomas Cranmer’s Great Litany (1544), which was then included in the Book of Common Prayer, remains one of the ongoing witnesses to this stable and universal Christian outlook, built upon translated medieval texts and sixteenth-century composition, whose Protestant register did little to obscure the deep continuities in attitudes to mortality that existed with earlier outlooks (Cummings 2011: 41–45). The Litany’s petitions cover the full gamut of daily life in its frequently assaulted and difficult forms, from personal relations and family, to natural disasters and disease, to agriculture, to civil order. Furthermore, these prayers include all social ranks and ages, moving from birth to death. The sweep of mortality and its stamp upon the breadth of life founds any petition to God in this regard.

This venerable outlook is again on display in the Book of Common Prayer’s order for the ‘Visitation of the Sick’, where the priest addresses the ill person, ‘Derely beloved, know this: that almightie God is the Lord of lyfe and death, and over all thinges to them perteyning, as youth, strength, health, age, weakenes, and sickenesse’ (Cummings 2011: 74). In the same vein, the burial service itself, granted its purging of certain previously traditional details relating to the afterlife, is insistent on pressing an intrinsicist attitude, beginning with quotes from, for example, Job 1:21, and adding the now famous phrase of mortality’s claim upon human existence, ‘In the mideste of lyfe we bee in death: of whom may we seke for succour, but of thee, O Lord’ (Cummings 2011: 82). At the committal of the ‘corps’ to the ground, dirt is scattered upon it with words asserting divine creative sovereignty:

‘asshes to asshes, dust to dust, in sure and certayne hope of resurreccion to eternal lyfe, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shal chaunge our vyle bodye, that it maye bee lyke to his glorious bodye, according to the mightie working wherby he is hable to subdue all thinges to himselfe’. (Cummings 2011: 82–83)

In all this, the Book of Common Prayer simply applies an earlier medieval petition to its streamlined Protestant vision, continuous in its popular intrinsicist emphases.

4.1.3 Extrinsicist moral demands

While intrinsicism focuses upon the character of human existence in its experienced forms, extrinsicist attitudes emphasize the evaluative character of the decisions made within our mortal framework. Future divine judgment, with its outcomes of reward and punishment, provide an overarching context of eternal existence, with its impending consequences, and these presuppose mortality as a kind of transitory moment, though one fraught with everlasting importance. This moral framework, ordered to divine judgment, becomes a dominant motive informing the extrinsicist account of mortality even among modern critical interpreters of the Bible who worked with ideas of cultural development (Ewald 1888). Extrinsicist assumptions in fact coexist with a sense of mortality’s defining character, and only in modernity do the two orientations tend to pull apart. Thus, even in the Book of Common Prayer, while human life is rendered in terms of ‘dust to dust’ in the Burial service, this vision is preceded by a distinction between the ‘soul’ of a person that God ‘takes’ and the body that is left behind to be reconstituted at the resurrection (Cummings 2011: 82).

The soul-body dichotomy, the first element presuming (in the views of many) immortality and the second a mortal aspect, is one means by which extrinsicism holds sway, arguably from New Testament times, across the centuries. The body becomes the main locus of limitation, and the soul stands as the body’s bearer of immortal meaning, for good or ill. Thus, in the Book of Common Prayers ‘Visitation of the Sick’, illness (and hence mortal corruption) is explained in terms of almost exhaustive extrinsicist terms: sickness is either ‘certaynlye’ ‘god’s visitacion’, or the ‘decayed’ result of ‘the fraud and malice of the devyl’ and a human being’s ‘owne carnal wyl’, much as in the standard reading of Genesis 3 (Cummings 2011: 74–76). At death, the ‘soul’ ‘departs from the body’, to be ‘presented’ to God for judgment and bearing, as it were, the marks, good or ill, made upon it by limited mortal existence, itself a kind of extrinsic force exerted on spirit. Yet it is that immortal soul, not the body itself (which disappears and is then remade), that seems to carry human identity with it

The body, of course, is not irrelevant. In Christian thinking, in both elite and vernacular forms, the body is both essential in determining the soul’s destiny, but also, in its resurrected restoration, maintaining the soul’s integrity as an immortal substance (Williamson, Shippey, and Karras 2017: 243–249). Still, in its theological elaboration, the soul’s immortal character, reunited (or not as later developments suggested was more rational) with its transfigured resurrected body, settles into eternal punishment or the beatific vision, both of which trade on extrinsicist notions of mortal existence (Feser 2018: 88–101).

While these are afterlife issues, their projective demand upon earthly existence tended to ramp up the value of mortal goods in a certain way, inflating both their governing influence on the future, but also thus their difficult loss in existential terms. As with the inflation of Eucharist piety in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which could tend to lessen the attraction of frequent communion or of communion at all, so the expansion of afterlife concerns based on this-worldly action and events could also render human (mortal) existence increasingly burdensome and, in terms of meaning, something to be escaped (McManners 1999: 432; Jacob 2002: 60).

Joined to the burgeoning theodical concerns of early modernity, one response to this sense of the evanescent value of mortal existence came to involve more and more explicit assertions of the human being’s essential immortality, in the form of pneumatic existence (Radner 2019). The long Christian tradition, dating back at least to the early church (in both East and West), that encouraged seeing the death of loved ones as a blessing because it granted relief from earthly misery and temptation, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, enabled the attractions of ‘heaven’ to overshadow the value of mortal life (Graves 1846: 372–381; Springer 1898; Douglas 1974; Spence 2015: 9–30). The focus on the ‘heavenly home’ was not the only extrinsicist trajectory, however. By the mid-twentieth century, certain streams of renewed Reformation theology, informed by the Biblical Theology movement, pressed their extrinsicist convictions in terms of a more personified ‘death the enemy’ argument, that emphasized the this-worldly hope and struggle of faith (Cullmann 1965: 9–53; Aulén 2010). Thus, the extrinsicist revaluation was complex, and could move in both materialist and idealist directions.

4.1.4 Reminders of death

Worries over the value of a mortal life, thus, develop in various directions as modernity itself evolves. But both intrinsicist and extrinsicist views together inform the various versions of the memento mori tradition (whether so-named) of preparative life in the shadow of death, and the moral demands of this kind of life (O’Connor 1942). Human life – whatever its origin or final promise – is ‘mortal’ in a way that demands that it be inevitably experienced in certain ways, morally ordered in certain ways, and consequently suffered in certain ways. Although strong distinctions have been made in the theology of pre- and post-Reformation artes moriendi (manuals guiding the preparation for death) – for example between a medieval attitude of ‘uncertainty’ about salvation and a Reformation attitude of confidence – both Catholic and early Protestant artes finally focus their reflection upon Christ’s Passion as a conduit to a this-worldly refashioned faith (Reinis 2016). In this common vision, a deeper experience of mortal limits provides for each tradition the means by which God’s grace is perceived and assimilated (Levering 2018). The artes moriendi tradition, while it begins to attenuate by the eighteenth century, nonetheless remained strong in Christian circles, through the nineteenth century, as much through continued use of manuals, including those of an earlier century, as through publicized accounts of ‘good deaths’ which rely on ‘good lives’, however short (e.g. of children) or constrained (Janeway 1815; Jalland 1996: 17–38). We see this in the popular genre of missionary lives (Church Missionary Society 1842–1950). And while intrinsicist and extrinsicist views of mortality – often only unconscious – can tug in different directions, both are tethered to a life given by God, and hence both liable and open to divinely creative ordering and accountability.

4.1.5 Scripture and criticism

It is important to recognize how the scriptural narrative itself upholds and suffuses both intrinsicism and extrinsicism, and its canonical breadth maintains an insoluble link between the two; for the dissolution of this link, and indeed of the ordering force of mortality in Christian thinking in modernity, is a major conceptual and practical force in undermining mortality’s essential role in defining the specifically religious character of human life.

The unintegrated character of scriptural descriptions of human creation, spirit, flesh, family, toil, lifespan, and destiny gave rise to diverse theological theories about what a ‘human being’ is. But the canonical conjoining of these descriptions meant that none of these theories could quite escape their provisionality and mutual interdependence. The uncertainty of the bible’s claims about human destiny left that destiny, in evaluative experiential terms, vulnerable; even while the consistent biblical insistence on divine creative sovereignty subordinated that vulnerability to God’s grace in an invariable fashion. God’s character might be diversely described, but that this character was determining (and thus intrinsically limiting) for all aspects of human existence was uniformly accepted, no matter how the nature of the human body and soul was conceived or how the scope of human willing was traced. Patriarchal narratives, psalms, ‘Deuteronomistic history’, wisdom literature – all are taken up in the prophetic corpus that shapes the messianic history that the New Testament mirrors, a history, after all, whose central symbolic paradigms are cross, resurrection, and cataclysmic judgment.

As the scriptures themselves become subject to the practices of historical critique, from the eighteenth century on, in such a way as to pull apart its texts and assign them to separated periods, cultures, and attitudes, mortality’s defining status was destabilized for Christian theology, and finally for popular understanding. If, for instance, a literary-historical wedge is placed between purported patriarchal, or Davidic or other ‘ancient Israelite’ concepts of birth and death, and those of a later post-Exilic and New Testament era – what became a dominant history-of-religions approach to the biblical text – then the very category of mortality, in scriptural terms, is handed over to anthropological processes which, by the nature of the case, are disentangled from any comprehensive divine ordering and distinction. Either mortality’s creational or ontological meaning becomes subject to a theory of progressive knowledge (which will move, generally, in an idealist/immortalist direction, bound to notions of ‘spiritual religion’), or it is abandoned altogether (Smith 1881: 272–274; 1895: 63–64; 1889: 82–131; Knibb 1989; Bryan 2011: 9–18). This historical trajectory is important to note since it underscores how modern biblical criticism and religious self-understanding are intimately bound to one another.

4.1.6 Mortality as revelation

The scriptural context and articulation of the church’s pragmatic balance between intrinsicist and extrinsicist views also underscores the way that mortality is, in traditional Christian terms, a revelatory quality within human existence, something that is oriented towards uncovering the primacy of God’s person and character. Some modern theologians and philosophers have mined this line of thinking deeply. Much of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy was informed, in a unique and radical way, by an affirmation and examination of intrinsic human mortality, which formed the basis of his phenomenological analysis (Heidegger 2010; 2014). Though himself decidedly non-Christian and even atheistic in his approach, other phenomenologists like Edith Stein (intrinsicist) adapted the phenomenological method either to traditional theistic or Christian categories; or, like Michel Henry (extrinsicist) arrived at substantive Christian claims through the method itself, identifying revelatory aspects of God’s creative action within the experience of mortal limitation (Stein 2003; Calcagno 2008; Henry 2003). Rudolf Bultmann, a towering figure in New Testament scholarship, took up some of Heidegger’s categories and applied them hermeneutically to his historical-critical analysis of early Christianity, distinguishing a range of contextually-driven attitudes towards temporal limits in Jesus’ and the early church’s teachings, and integrating them theologically through a core extrinsicist vision explicated within the Lutheran category of ‘faith’ (Bultmann 1951; 1984). In English Christianity, the influential theologian and literary moralist Donald M. Mackinnon, offered an oblique approach to through the categories of tragedy and the Cross (1974).

These efforts, are, arguably, less ‘modern’ than re-framed vestiges of early-modern natural theology. They have taken up the latter’s interest in the revelatory character of human and created existence as lodged within a theodical challenge (the ‘origin of evil’), but with a greater sophistication (Paley 1822: 327–335; Young 1985; Brooke 1992). Theodicy has, indeed, proved a contemporary version of a now frequently maligned discipline that, in the past, examined the finite contours of creation as a means of defining their divine origins. And phenomenology of this kind represents a scripturally and dogmatically stunted version of traditional Christian themes.

Mortality’s articulation – whether in its intrinsicist or extrinsicist description – is a way of stating the infinitely asymmetrical relationship of Creator and creature. Mortality, in both its theoretical forms, is thus constitutive of classical Christian faith. Scripture holds the two sides together (vs. the early modern/modern wedge between them), not so much in a balance as in a constantly shifting dynamism of interest in divine creative purpose and obedience.

4.2 Modernity

4.2.1 Modern destabilization

The pragmatic balance between intrinsicism and extrinsicism is unsettled, in the modern era, for a variety of reasons: Naturalistic dichotomies

Changing attitudes to death in early and later modernity in the West have been well studied (Davies 2005). Some of the fundamental theology grounding these changes has been less fully investigated. One key issue were the growing questions about the nature of revelation itself, which touch on both scripture and the shape of the Creator/creature relationship. This is a complicated story that involves at root, with respect to mortality, the latter’s theological subjection to an analytic critique that replaces the religious intrinsic/extrinsic dynamic with a naturalistic version of the binary: intrinsicism is increasingly reduced to biology (or physics), and extrinsicism is defined in social-ethical terms, and thus amenable to social change. We can see this already in the seventeenth century with figures like Henry More and Leibniz, from a more or less committed Christian perspective but driven decidedly to the frameworks of natural philosophy (Henry 1986; Kulstad 1991; Roinila 2016). This shift can be seen in some of the mortalist tendencies of the period, responding to questions of power and theodicy with increasingly materialist tools (e.g. Hobbes).

But a wedge between intrinsic and extrinsic is now set in place, with the first stage of modern thinking leaning to the side of natural immortality, and later moving to intrinsic mortality, but each perspective now deprived of its transcendent dependence upon the creating God more and more. This, in turn, opens the theological door to more pantheistic or more annihilationist-materialist attitudes. This wedge was noted by the great nineteenth-century Christian mathematician George Gabriel Stokes in 1889 (himself an ardent intrinsicist for mostly naturalistic reasons) who insisted that only a scriptural notion of the creating God – who also so acts in resurrection – provides a sufficient alternative to the consequences of, what he now views as decoupled alternatives of a vague spiritualism and reductionist materialism (Stokes 1889: 823–830). Extrinsicists (in George Gabriel Stokes’ view, spiritualists) pressed their case most assertively out of a sense that only a vision of ‘natural’ immortality can uphold moral responsibility in light of a future judgment and eternal punishment, while intrinsicists moved more steadily in the direction of annihilationism and its ability to protect God’s justice and perhaps even benevolence. Universalists come in both forms, and the rise of the theory of evolution provides a way to bridge the two on the basis of historicist developmentalism (perhaps including that of God’s own being), whereby the intrinsically mortal grows into immortality in a comprehensive fashion (Raven 1927).

Positivistic/materialist science can in fact go in different directions on the topic of mortality, but deprived of the creating God – mortality’s Christian anchor and purpose – mortality becomes, once again, a surd without clear substance outside of anxiety. Hans Jonas’ definition of life as that which is dependent on self-generated activity reframes the extrinsicist moral burdens in a crushingly self-referential manner. This proves a dynamic that underlies Ivan Illich’s critique of the late modern fetish of life that is placed at the mercy of institutional mechanistic manipulation, where life is ‘managed’ as an artefact outside of the more mysterious givenness of birth and death (Jonas 1996: 88; Illich 1992b: 218–231, 230).

By c. 1900, with advent of the Great Health Transition which sees a doubling in the average human life span and a sequestering of the experience of mortality to predominantly one stage of life (senility) (Riley 1989; 2001), the consistent burden of biological intrinsicism is mitigated, and experiments in extrinsic reformation, especially politically, receive proportionately new weight (Stone 1978). Discussions of life-span extension are today numerous, along with debates about the biological possibility for this (Dong, Milholland, and Vijg 2016; Barbi et al. 2018; Sinclair and LaPlante 2019).

Hope for significant life-extension comes, however, with related disappointments on a mass scale, even as the intractable reality of senile intrinsicism presses with a kind of unprepared-for brutality (Firestone 2018). While the late twentieth century brings a new sense of ‘predictable death’ – and thus a re-rooting of mortality as a human self-definition – that death is now tied to old age in a way that is informed by medical and social practice, rather than by theological awareness, and the former’s pinched political vulnerabilities have left mortality as a contested and mostly failed object of management, and thus one of often deeply frustrating dread (Moorman 2020). Furthermore, the senilization of death has also led to an easier sequestration of its public encounter in many contemporary societies. Some of these dynamics inform a dominant evaluation of mortality’s place in modern culture, that has come under the rubric ‘the denial of death’ (Becker 1973). The ‘denial of death thesis’ was a mostly psychological theory about modern culture, buttressed by historical and sociological accounts of modernity’s entrenched cultural death-avoidance (Aries 1991; Willmott 2000). Denial of death

Whether these dynamics have really mitigated mortality’s culture-informing power, however, is unclear. The ‘denial of death’ theory itself has come under robust critique (Bayatrizi 2008), mostly given the reality of today’s new informational and visual access to images of death through broadcast and digital media. These new media, so the critique goes, have routinely disseminated highly publicized encounters with sudden and violent death, sometimes ‘real’ and sometimes fictional (as in TV dramas and gaming) expanding the social awareness of mortality rather than impeding it.

If ‘denial of death’ is taken in terms of cultural meaning rather than quantified visual encounter, however, the thesis may still stand. The widespread and temporally unrelenting experience of physically proximate dying, which universally dominated all human societies until recently, has not yet unravelled even in the face of a recent coronavirus pandemic which reimposed sequestration with great discipline and breadth. What has changed instead is the way such a universal encounter is articulated. Here, Illich’s analysis of ‘lives’ as managed artefacts seems persuasive (Illich 1992a), and it is this analysis that seems to inform contemporary critics of modern death-denial.

In Zohreh Bayatrizi’s view, ‘ordering’ of death is a universal cultural motive, but with varying forms, and contemporary ‘scientific objectification’ of death is but one of these. ‘Thus, death – like sexuality – has undergone a double process of gradual disappearance from everyday lived experiences in the public sphere and reappearance as a proliferating subject of scientific, statistical, medical, sociological, and actuarial discourses. Accordingly, public rituals […] have been replaced by media advertising […] on how to reduce or avoid the risk of death’ from this or that medical condition of life-style (Bayatrizi 2008: 6). Mortality is certainly still a defining 'condition' in this contemporary case; but the condition itself is so stripped of transcendent connection as arguably to be of a different category from the past: mortality is no longer tied to life at all; it is de-vivified, something that very precisely contradicts its long-established meaning in whatever diverse religious contexts, Christian or otherwise.

Here, the shift seems decisive. Both intrinsicism and extrinsicism, then, may well continue to inform notions of mortality, but no longer according to the pre-modern aspects of generative genealogy and future punishment and reward. The phenomenon of death, subjected to new forms of analytic study, squeezes out the qualitative aspect of mortality, and instead demands self-constructed attitudes in the face of one’s inevitable demise. A new range of popular publications point to this cultural dynamic (Ehrenreich 2018). They also, however, underline how mortality, even if religiously evacuated, retains its demands on life-ordering, however vague and desultory. While the medicalization of death as a biological process remains the main framework today for articulating mortality – mortality as a punctiliar event and death-statistic – and hence obscures it as a window onto the richness of created life, authors of self-help responses to mortality assiduously attempt to provide lists of life-habits that are appropriately reflective of limited life-spans (Burkeman 2021).

4.2.2 Beyond the human

Classical Christian thought thus has little cultural room for engagement with mortality, except on non-scriptural terms. This is illustrated by the rise of several novel views of the human based on contemporary monistic presuppositions (scientific/social-scientific). Transhumanism

Transhumanism is a progressivist vision of human existence that builds upon the consequences of human instrumental intelligence to envision and aim at a different kind of organism or entity relative to current human experience. In its most common historical grounding, the transhumanist outlook has been fuelled by the experience of various kinds of technological development, centred around both biomedicine and computational physics (More and Vita-More 2013). These developments have encouraged, to use the medical analogy, a shift in the conception human life from its being subject at best to the goal of restitutio ad integrum (provisional healing and wholeness) to one of transformatio ad optimum (theoretically open-ended improvement or enhancement). At its most expansive, transhumanism aims at the complete transformation of the human being into either a new species or a new reality through, for example, medical intervention, genetic engineering, cybernetic control of human thought processes, or a combination of all of these.

Doctrinally, transhumanism has nothing to do with Christian commitments to the Creator-creature framework, and on many counts contradicts it. Nonetheless, some Christian thinkers, including on a popular level, have explicitly taken up transhumanist ideals. Drawing on the evolutionary theorizing of the twentieth-century Jesuit palaeontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin (1959), for example, and on astrophysical probability theory, mathematicians and physicists Frank Tipler and John Barrow theorized a ‘point’ in the distant future when intelligence in its working forms will, in effect, subsume all reality. In a well-known summary, they write, ‘intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, will never die out’ (Barrow and Tipler 1986: 23). Tipler would explicitly press the notion of ‘immortality’ this implied (1994), and popularizers of Tipler’s thought have drawn the conclusion that ‘mortality’ is but an ‘undesired accident’, and ‘we are beginning to see that, after all, our bodies and minds are just machines that can be fixed, improved and re-engineered once we develop the needed knowledge and tools’ (Prisco 2020: 276).

The developmental panentheism, even pantheism, implied (and sometimes made explicit) in religious transhumanism especially is a part of its popular attraction, but also a major object of its rejection by classical Christian critics (Göcke 2019; Damour 2016). Likewise, transhumanism’s logical relegation of human sin, because necessary for the attainment of the ideal, has struck many theologians as problematic. But both tendencies were already in place in earlier Christian developmental visions (cf. Raven 1927), and remain embedded in modern attitudes. Furthermore, both the medical consequences supporting the transhumanist ideal and the technological tools underlying them are generally, if usually unreflectively, embraced by Christians insofar as they are informed by a host of shared cultural values and habits, as Illich pointed out. Transhumanism in fact has superficial overlaps with fundamental Christian extrinsicist intuitions – mortality as an ill to be overcome – that inevitably confuse Christian discernment on the topic. Posthumanism

The term ‘posthumanism’ is ambiguous. It can refer to the endpoint of the transhumanist logic of entity-transformation. But posthumanism is a category that is also used to identify a critical program that seeks to relocate human self-reflection in a radically relativized and non-anthropocentric naturalist framework. Mostly ethically and politically ordered, critical posthumanism would define human beings as only one element within the complex of geological or cosmic reality, equivalent, in the end, to any other element. In many ways, this outlook embraces an intrinsicist judgment, placing human life within the shared limits of all matter. While the logic might be nihilist, the motivation is ethical, e.g. on matters of climate change, biodiversity, sustainable economics, food production and consumption, and procreation. This latter purpose creates a metaphysical tension that is often resolved in favour of the pan(en)theistic metaphysics of transhumanism (Miah 2008; Gordijn and Chadwick 2009; Nayar 2013). Modern monistic metaphysics

Both transhumanism and posthumanism (in the terms’ most common usage) rely on various versions of a monistic framework – one materialist (and hence manipulatable for the end of infinitely extended material existence), another idealist in its moral ends, and another simply naturalistically nihilistic in presuming the egalitarian destructibility of all reality and thus the fundamental indistinguishability between life and death (Cunningham 2016). Just as in traditional Christian thought, where intrinsicism and extrinsicism have dynamically co-habited popular faith and practice, these various forms of secular monism have their own versions of practically overlapping intrinsicist and extrinsicist presuppositions, translated into mostly materialist categories (Lykke 2021). Modern metaphysical speculation here, though applying a range of earlier philosophical tools, stands in some contrast to classical Judeo-Christian warnings regarding the dangers of such reflection, dangers identifiable precisely through mortality’s defining power.

5 Mortality in contemporary Christianity

5.1 Contemporary Christian views

Contemporary Christian views of mortality, in the midst of these developments, come in at least three forms:

5.1.1 Self-conscious classicism

In general, Catholic theology has been more committed to the intellectual investigation of the traditional categories related to mortality. This is true of the Thomistic tradition especially, given its elaborated concern with causality, substance, nature, and the soul-body composite. In this context, the intrinsicist and extrinsicist dynamic maintains a vital interest (Owens 1985: 100–126). Some Protestants, especially within the Lutheran tradition, have also attempted to rearticulate the compelling character of this dynamic (Forde 1997); likewise Reformed theologians, for example, the early Jürgen Moltmann (1974). These trajectories of discussion, however, are less about mortality itself, than about key Christian theological loci like Christology, but their insistence on engaging the limits of natural theology inevitably roam into central aspects of mortal existence. A few Protestant thinkers, like the contemporary Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings, have sought explicitly to commend the classic interplay of intrinsicist and extrinsicist views of mortality as a central Christian conviction (2020). Likewise, Kelly Kapic has explored with some accessible pointedness the character of human limits, ones bound up with mortality (2022). While this work has garnered interest, it is not clear if this marks the beginning of a revival of traditional Christian views of mortality within contemporary Protestant Christianity, or constitutes a momentary cultural idiosyncrasy.

One might have imagined that classic views would at least still permeate Christian worship and liturgy. This is true only to some extent. As the liturgical scholar Paul P. J. Sheppy notes, while the Eucharistic liturgy has obvious references to death and resurrection, and evening prayers often refer, in a figural way, to dying, these have taken on an abstracted theological character, and ‘much of this focus is distanced, so that the worshipper is unlikely to think of her or his death on these occasions other than in pietistic terms’ (Sheppy 2017: 49). Ecclesial traditions that involve the regular reading of the Psalms, or the Rosary will likewise provide worshippers repeated encounters with Scriptural reflection on mortality, but participation in these devotions has drastically attenuated in modern times. The common practice in some urban centres of offering, on Ash Wednesday, the day’s symbol of mortality – ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’ – in the form of ‘ashes-to-go’, distributed in ‘coffee shops’ and train stations and sidewalks to passers-by or through chance ‘encounters’ (AshesToGo n.d.), indicates a thin line between evangelically unsettling a death-and church-forgetting culture and trivializing the reality of death itself in its substantive Christian understanding. At the least, such practices testify to the fading of Christian liturgy as a formative power with respect to mortality.

There has been deliberate pushback to this kind of drift. The Reformed pastoral theologian John Swinton, among others, has put together a body of reflection that seeks to reframe positively the value of temporality as a vessel for divine encounter and compassion, in a way that also involves liturgy (Swinton 2007; 2016). Some of the purposes of these efforts are political and personal both, challenging common habits of marginalizing and degrading the integrity of the physically, mentally, and developmentally disabled. Swinton’s work takes aim quite precisely at the theodical issues wrapped up in mortality, some of which derive from modern forgetfulness of the character of mortal life itself.

5.1.2 Reframing classic views in terms of novel metaphysics

More formal modern theological engagements with mortality, however, have tended towards explicitly monistic claims which either accede to materialist assumptions or settle for vague idealist ones, as Stokes suggested (section Both trajectories move from a general conviction regarding spiritual immortality to a hope in the everlasting character of some kind of material substance in its universal substratum. One can trace some of this development by looking at the shift, by the mid-twentieth century, of idealist construals of immortality to materialist ones. This is clearly on view in something like the Ingersoll Lectures on Human Immortality of Harvard (Vetter 2022), of which Oscar Cullmann’s famous 1955 lecture formed a part. Early lecturers were mostly of an extrinsicist orientation, both idealist and materialist; but one sees a decided shift towards a mostly physicalist intrinsicism, though one often in search of a certain ethical idealism that might somehow overcome obvious biological limits. In its more contemporary mode, idealist extrinsicism also survives in the form of ethical or political values and attitudes, merged with a transfigured materialism, wherein cosmic matter’s inherent complexity encloses certain values. In practice, these latter outlooks reduce (Keller and Rubenstein 2017) themselves to diverse political commitments, including the acceptance (or advocacy) of euthanasia (Bregman 2011).

5.1.3 Descriptive psychology

Besides these metaphysical approaches to mortality, one can also note a quite different Christian retreat into descriptive concerns with human subjectivity (phenomenological analysis), whose popular forms are mostly psychological, therapeutic, and spiritual/ascetic (Doka and Morgan 2017). The renewed interest in ‘lament’, within biblical studies, personal prayer, and social justice, touches on a number of key aspects of mortality, as laid out by earlier traditions, but it does so in ways that themselves tend to avoid the actual nature of mortal human creaturehood in its limitations and its goods, focusing instead on ways of navigating theodical concerns in politics, pastoral care, or piety (Card 2005; Bier and Bulkeley 2014; Brueggemann 2014; Eldkun 2021; Travis 2021).

In this descriptive context, Christian devotion has tended to rely on secular writings about mortality, like those of Nuland or Gawande, mediated by pastoral encouragements regarding loss and grief (Kübler-Ross 1969). These should not be minimized in their influence, for their combination often engenders approaches to mortality of an intrinsicist orientation that, while they attract many Christians, are more Epicurean, Stoic or Buddhist in their pragmatic virtues than classically Christian (Daily Stoic n.d.). Furthermore, these approaches represent a movement within the Christian church that, while acknowledging mortality straightforwardly, deliberately constricts rather than expands its theological reflection.

5.2 Consequences

5.2.1 Confusion and exhaustion

These various contemporary Christian responses to mortality are often held simultaneously, serially, or in a disordered frame by individual believers and their communities, a confusion that has rendered mortality an obscured quality of life, only sometimes acknowledged, but rarely informative of human nature let alone revelatory of divine being and character. The so-called ‘Death Awareness Movement’ is an example of this tendency to limit morality’s explanatory reach. Identifiable within preaching and pastoral care, as well as in Christian cultural commentary, the outlook (not really a movement in an organized way) openly affirms the intractability of death and dying, but without offering any robust theological framework for understanding its meaning or recognizing its ordering forms with respect to purposeful human life (Bregman 2003). The outlook, mostly evident as an unconscious assertion, is one that grants the reality of just living and then just dying its own intrinsic value, stripped of contextual or teleological purpose. As a theological conclusion, ‘death awareness’ of this kind can provide a powerful claim about the absolute character of God, but only by making mortality less a revelation than the penultimate exhaustion of creation before God (Jackson 1998), the flip side of transhumanism’s developmental hopes.

Contemporary theological discussions about mortality remain rare. The muffling of mortality in much contemporary Christian discourse, even when the focus is upon death and dying, is intimately tied to the dissolution of classical Christianity, with its central convictions regarding divine creation, grace, and revelation, and is thus coupled with the dissolution of a range of pragmatic attitudes informed by mortality involving familial relations, toil, and prayer (section 4.1), whose changed understanding and place become a mirror of the profound alterations taking place in contemporary Christian self-definition (Radner 2016). The rapidly embraced practice, including by Christians, of legalized medically-assisted suicide, permitted on the basis of adjudicated levels of physical (and now psychological) ‘pain’ – forms of suffering once defined positively in terms of their essential role in embracing mortal goods – stands as a drastic example of these alterations (Bekos 2019).

5.2.2 The uncertain place of mortality as an ongoing Christian conviction

Recently articulated pressures on communal survival (e.g. climate change and disease) and recognition of the inadequacies of contemporary social reward systems (e.g. bounded and contested resources) have perhaps opened up a new receptivity to pre-modern intrinsicism: ‘we will all die’. At the same time, the now deeply rooted moral/political suspicion of pre-modern forms of extrinsicism – for example, the reality of human sin’s embeddedness – limits the classical form’s application. One must also ask if intrinsicism can survive as a nourishing self-understanding apart from the valuing of the specific mortal goods and their relationship to God (e.g. the gift of procreation in its miraculous fragility) that earlier sustained it. Mortality, classically conceived, is not reducible to the fact that we all die, but rather is a way of life with God, given that we all die. Contemporary forms of intrinsicism (affirming the immovable limits of matter) and extrinsicism (blaming the drag of social distortions and the delay in technological development) have mostly negative evaluations of mortal goods, and this negative judgment is increasingly shared by many Christians. Thus, mortality’s usefulness to Christian self-understanding remains uncertain.

‘If death exists, God exists’, writes Conor Cunningham in concluding an effort of retrieval within the classical Christian tradition regarding mortality (2016: 148). Cunningham’s claim reflects a deeply rooted Christian insight that a few other Christian theologians have quietly pressed (Damour 2016). The lived framework for grasping this conclusion, upheld by thick theological and philosophical reflection and by habituated social practice, has, however, been dismantled in many key respects. All human beings die; but mortality describes the life of God’s creatures. A sense of the richness of mortality as a moral and social scaffold (‘burden and blessing’, in Jonas’ phrase [1996]), one that engages natality and limits, ethical purpose and enjoyment, remains for some, including Jonas himself, at best a lively vestige. But these elements of mortality’s frame are also ones now identified in the shadow of their dismissal as having a final, divine purpose, that permits their patient embrace.

‘Mortal goods’, of the kind enumerated in the thankful and desperate petitions of the faithful over the centuries and which constitute the actual substance of any robust Christian understanding of mortality – that for which we live these short years – have given way to unachievable immortal goods (ideals), and debased potential goods (frustrated pleasures). Contemporary attempts to get beyond this reduction remain unproved.


Copyright Ephraim Radner (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bayatrizi, Zohreh. 2008. Life Sentences: The Modern Ordering of Mortality. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
    • Behr, John, and Conor Cunningham (eds). 2016. The Role of Death in Life: A Multidisciplinary Examination of the Relationships Between Life and Death. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co.
    • Bregman, Lucy. 2011. Preaching Death: The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
    • Kalantzis, George, and Matthew Levering (eds). 2018. Christian Dying: Witnesses from the Tradition. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
    • Radner, Ephraim. 2016. A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
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