The Theological Consequences Of Euphemisms
Some euphemisms, though, can have significant theological consequences. Consider death. I don’t know for certain what the most commonly used euphemism for death is amongst British Christians, but from personal experience I guess it’s either the secular favourite, “s/he passed away”, or one of the “gone to” variations: “gone to be with the Lord”, “gone to heaven”, “gone to glory” or “gone home”. And each of these expressions, however innocently used, contains and communicates an implicit theology of death - in several cases, a demonstrably unbiblical one. So every time we tell people in our churches that someone has died using one of these phrases, we risk reinforcing an inaccurate view of death that our churches may be at risk of swallowing, and our wider communities might never even think to question.
“Passed away” is obvious. Human beings do not “pass away” at death; that view is either pantheistic (the soul disappears into the ether, somewhere, and becomes one with creation) or materialistic (there never was a soul in the first place, so the entire human self has now ceased), but certainly not Christian. The quasi-Christian alternatives, however, are not always that much better. I can’t think of any biblical support, for example, for the idea that a recently deceased person is now “in glory”; New Testament writers talk like that about the resurrected state in the new creation, but not about the intermediate state between death and resurrection. (The faithful dead are not “walking on golden streets”, either). The same could be said of “going home”: paradise is not the final “home” of the Christian, and in the one passage where Paul addresses the issue in detail, he speaks of the resurrection body as his future “house” as opposed to the “tent” he lives in now (2 Cor 5:1-10). Perhaps to the consternation of all “How Great Thou Art” fans, Christ does not come to the earth to “take me home” with him to heaven.
I’m not even sure the scriptures talk about us “going to heaven” when we die, either. They do on one occasion speak of us “going to be with Jesus” (Phil 1:23), so that one is perfectly biblical, but the state of “being with the Lord forever” only really kicks in after Christ has returned (1 Thess 4:17). And I can’t think of a single text that talks about “heaven” as a destination for the Christian. (Have I missed one? The final line of “Away in a Manger” doesn’t count.) So many of the most popular Christian euphemisms for death are slightly off-key at best, and reflective of dualistic, world-denying theology at worst.
Interestingly, Jesus and the early Christians used a euphemism for death that avoids all of these difficulties, and in fact points forward very powerfully to the fact that the intermediate state, in which the body and the soul are temporarily separated, is just that: an intermediate state, to be followed by something else. They spoke, quite simply, of people “falling asleep”. What an inspired phrase! It is metaphorically appropriate: sleeping people do look rather like they are dead. It is gentle and inoffensive. It avoids being upsetting to those who have recently been bereaved. It is flexible, allowing clever theological puns like “Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead!” (Eph 5:14). And most brilliantly, it points unambiguously to the fact that those who are currently sleeping will one day wake up. There is a resurrection coming, it says, and those who believe death is the end are backing the wrong horse. People sleep now, because it’s night time - but the morning is coming, the birds are starting to stir, the milk floats are out and about, and the coffee is percolating. As they say in The Lion King: “I know that the night must end. I know that the sun will rise; I know that the clouds must clear, and that the sun will shine.” Resurrection is coming, those who are asleep are going to wake up soon, and it’s good to have euphemisms that reflect that.
The only problem is, it’s a bit confusing (cf. John 11:13). If I say “my wife just fell asleep”, how do you know whether I mean it literally or euphemistically? (That said, I guess other euphemisms suffer from this too; what do you do if it turns out someone really does want to visit the smallest room in your house, which happens to be your baby’s bedroom?) One biblical alternative avoids this problem by adding further words for clarity – “then David slept with his fathers” – but that sounds to me uncomfortably like “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, and may not catch on either. So “falling asleep” is biblical, and powerful, but it does run the risk of being baffling to the uninitiated.
Not half as baffling as “kicking the bucket”, though.
Andrew is the author of several books including, most recently, If God, Then What?.