Toward An Adventist Theology Of Health (6) On Death

Nothing seems more easy to be defined than death. According to a common technical description, death is the permanent cessation of all vital functions. This short and unequivocal definition has nevertheless the inconvenience of not giving us the true dimension and real meaning of what death implies. In thinking of death we are in fact pushed to think it all through: the nature of our origin, the concreteness our corporeal destiny, the sense of our temporal fragility, the true consistency of our relational vocation, the paradox of our heterogeneous humanity. Not one, but many questions. And some are insoluble. Questions which generate deeper questions. What is death? Is it possible to know what it is? What do we really think about when we think of death? And what kind of thinking is this? How does the death of human beings relate to the death of other living entities? Is human death simply and ultimately a matter of biology? If not, on what basis should it be defined? While considering all these questions and, after recognizing the complexity that death implies, we will try to approach it from three different perspectives: philosophical, medical and cultural.

  1. Philosophical

Death marks the end of life. But it is also a phenomenon of life. We could reformulate Descartes’ motto in this sense, “I am, therefore I die” — for the simple reason that our life will come to an end, our existence is finite. Such thinking points to the indelible mark of one’s mortality. We ordinarily view death as the final cessation of our being, hence the finishing off of all that was once possible. In death, time ceases — I come to an end, I am no longer here, when I die. The present vanishes in the passing of our having-been. At its most bleak, death is the final termination of all activity, of time and life as such.

But philosophy has also tried to think of death in more paradoxical ways. Heidegger, for instance, presents a radically different interpretation. In Being and Time death does not simply mean the end of existence. In recognizing the undeniable certainty of one’s death something else is revealed, something more fundamental. One of Heidegger’s aims is to formulate a more authentic mode of relating to death that goes beyond understanding death as the annihilation of all possibilities. This “more authentic” relation is a “being-toward-death” which Heidegger calls a “running ahead [Vorlaufen]”. Because death will always come to me in the future, my anticipation in the present makes me, so to speak, ahead of myself. I am thrown to the certainty of my own death, Heidegger would say. Insofar as I exist, I am running ahead of myself, because I am related to a future dying that is always a “not yet”. “I will die, therefore I am”, to reformulate Descartes once again. Because I relate to the possibility of my death with resolute certainty, because what I can be most certain of in the world is that I will some day die, I am always already a being that is a being-toward-death. According to Heidegger, this being-toward-death is precisely what makes my being possible, for death is the most extreme possibility of my existence, my “ownmost potentiality of being [das eigenste Seinkönnen]”, “I myself am in that I will die.” At stake for Heidegger, then, is to conceptualize death not as pure nothingness, but rather as pure possibility.

  1. Medical

But the complexity of death doesn’t involve only philosophy. It is inscribed in medicine itself. Notwithstanding the fact that medicine primarily works with a mechanical paradigm of the human body, and therefore of death itself, medicine has faced a revolution in defining death since the Harvard Medical School Committee developed a new definition in 1968. Based on enormous technical developments in human body medicine, the committee was pushed to redefine death in neurological terms. Until then death had been defined as the cessation of heartbeat (cardiac arrest) and breathing. But the development of CPR and prompt defibrillation rendered that definition inadequate, because breathing and heartbeat can sometimes be restarted. Events which were causally linked to death in the past no longer kill in all circumstances. Without a functioning heart or lungs, life can sometimes be sustained with a combination of life support devices, organ transplants and artificial pacemakers. Today, where a definition of the moment of death is required, doctors and coroners usually turn to "brain death" or "biological death" to define a person as being dead; people are considered dead when the electrical activity in their brain ceases. It is presumed that the end of electrical activity indicates the end of consciousness. Suspension of consciousness must be permanent, not transient, as can occur during certain sleep stages or in a coma. EEGs can easily tell the difference.

But after decades of using “brain death” for determining what death is, some scholars have become critical about it. For instance, Dr. Franklin Miller, senior faculty member at the Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health, notes: "By the late 1990s... the equation of brain death with death of the human being was increasingly challenged by scholars, based on evidence regarding the array of biological functioning displayed by patients correctly diagnosed as having this condition who were maintained on mechanical ventilation for substantial periods of time. These patients maintained the ability to sustain circulation and respiration, control temperature, excrete wastes, heal wounds, fight infections and, most dramatically, to gestate fetuses (in the case of pregnant 'brain-dead' women)." Those who maintain that only the neo-cortex of the brain is necessary for consciousness sometimes argue that only electrical activity should be considered when defining death.

Eventually it is possible that the criterion for death will be the permanent and irreversible loss of cognitive function, as evidenced by the death of the cerebral cortex. All hope of recovering human thought and personality is then gone, given current and foreseeable medical technology. At present, in most places, the more conservative definition of death – irreversible cessation of electrical activity in the whole brain, as opposed to just in the neo-cortex – has been adopted (for example the Uniform Determination Of Death Act in the United States). In 2005, the Terri Schiavo case brought the question of brain death and artificial sustenance to the front of American politics.

But the idea that death can be found “within the brain” also leads to the contradictions and paradoxes involved in organ procurement practices. Even if a patient is dead under the law, they must be kept alive so that the OPO (Organ Procurement Organization) can make a determination about donor potential, as sharply notes bioethicist Jeffrey P. Bishop.

  1. Cultural

In a broader context death presently has a paradoxical destiny: on one side the oblivion of death and on the other side the anticipation of death. First, the oblivion of death, because death is hidden in an “efficient” society. There are no social and symbolic spaces for dying and grieving. The disruption which death brings in its wake is eliminated as much as possible. There is an unconscious, suppressive taboo on dying, death and mourning. It has become common not to be buried. The bodies are cremated. And when somebody dies in a highway accident a quick cleanup makes everything looks as if nothing had occurred. Death has been detached from daily life. Second, the anticipation of death because we have created non-natural mechanisms to anticipate death. The increase in suicide rate is one of them. But also the diffusion of euthanasia. Consider the paradox it implies. Euthanasia is the termination of a very sick person's life in order to relieve them of their suffering. In most cases euthanasia is carried out because the person who dies asks for it, although there are cases called euthanasia where a person can't make such a request. But beyond these juridico-medical nuances I would like to describe it critically, in its more cultural level, as: the process in which the body is understood both as a “Governable Body” and the individual as a “Sovereign Self”. And both movements can be understood in their more extreme forms and consequences. Euthanasia is in fact the cultural place in which death and the body appear the most disenchanted – reduced to mere things at our disposal. But euthanasia is also the cultural place in which self-determination reaches is climax. We decide on our own death. This double cultural affirmation at the core of euthanasia can be traced to one of the founders of Western Modernity: Descartes. We find in Descartes, on one side, a reductive view of the body that allows the birth and development of all Western medicine. The body (“res extensa”) is reduced to one of its multiple characteristics: measurement. As such it becomes just disenchanted flesh, i.e. a sophisticated machine that can be governed completely from the outside. And this first implicit postulate present in euthanasia is actually shared not only by all Western medicine but also by various Western ethics. On the other side (and together with this underestimation of the body) we find in Descartes the parallel and corresponding over-evaluation of the self. The rational individual (“res cogitans”) is able to build up a full experience of autonomy and self-determination. In this way the second implicit postulate present in euthanasia – that of a “Sovereign Self”, able to chose even its own death – is actually shared not only by modern medicine but also by a big part of Western anthropocentric culture.

Complexity therefore is an indelible mark of any serious analysis of death. And if it is present in consistent philosophical, medical or cultural descriptions, it should also be present in our religious, theological or lifestyle discourses. Medical and theological Adventist reflection on death should be characterized by information, clarity, openness and wisdom, and not only by conviction and zeal.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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Thank you for a very illuminating consideration of the complexity faced when trying to understand death in the human context. In some parts of the world life and death are not considered separately but as joint dancers in the experience of persons. In other parts, like in these United States, everything is done to pretend that it does not happen. Besides, there is the well known opposing views of death as a friend who allows one to escape from the troubles of this world, and death as the enemy who puts an end to life. This brief listing of other complexities is not meant to detract from a very clear exploration of the three areas considered in this essay, but just something to keep in mind when we think of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.


I wonder Hans whether Ernest Becker’s award-winning book some years ago which asserted that the “denial of death” is the primary source in our subconscious (and to some extent in our “consciousness”) of our neuroses and anxieties contributes at all to your helpful discussion. As I recall he especially challenged Freud’s analysis that human sexuality was the driver of our problems.


To understand when death occurs, it makes sense to concurrently seek an understanding of when life begins. It would also make sense that those proceses which define death by their absence would define life by their presence, and that termination of any or all of those processes would thus terminate life.

It would also make sense to respect the human rights of all of the living.

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I experienced, according to University Hospital, three minutes of death. if so, it was painless and restful. I thought I had just fainted. My last physical a week ago, aim was told that my heart was very weak, no predictions. I enjoy each day, in confidence. Tom Z


Mnaymany thanks for this topic , also including the problems we did not have -let us say - five decades before.

I also have signet the document for turning off the switch for the “life saving” machinery : At my very own responsibility and after checking six times ( every sixth hour), not as legally required three times. She, the patient, was 22)

“Nascentes moriimur” - Gettting born we die" -so Curtius, aRenaissance gynaecologist. How true : If there was not timely death in the placenta, already, you never would experience the life ofin light , in warmth a nd chill. And feel theanother persons - your mothers - skin on your skin - -

But just some experience from right here in Austria : In Germany they in the SS Quartgerly published advices for documenting some “last will”, legally called “Patientenverfügung”. Tthis document excluding reanimation - at your chhoice only in some cases, “life” prolonging treatments - - -

Not here, Nooo !

Repeatedly I stimulated a real pastoral attempt to promote as said in Psalm 90 ; 12 - so teach us to number our days, so we may apply our hearts to wisdom - -

This as a lifetime guide !. A real pastoring !

It was not my idea, one retired pastor, having witnessed some horrible “lifesaving” scenarios - meant that this should be a mandate given to me.

Nooo. We just live longer ! That`s the real value ! Being prepared for death and - additionally taking your own responsibility for the process - that is a private matter weeee do not intervene .

Feud siply is outdated. But some concepts we experience in their reality every day : So denial and disavowal of death., The lifes way to the end - we neglect.

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Tom Zwemer, I have long enjoyed your comments on AToday and on Spectrum. I value your wisdom. I’m close to approaching your age [I’m 83], and have found that we have both had similar experiences throughout our Christian experience, even though we’ve never met. You’re a dear, dear man. When your time comes to pass on from this old earth, all of us will be the poorer as a result. I myself don’t fear death; in fact, I look forward to it, because only an instant thereafter [in my perception] I’ll see the lovely face of Jesus. I look forward to waking up to see Him at the Resurrection.


thank you for those kind words. My life had been full and rewarding. I would regret if I left my wife alone in a senior center. thus, I pray for an extension. other wise, Even so come Lord Jesus. tomZ


BUT ENOUGH, and more than enough. Language which makes such a show of saying everything at once is usually concealing something important…
–Clive James, Cultural Amnesia.

Heidegger and Nazism
–Victor Farías, edited by Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore

Farías’ book includes more concrete information relevant to Heidegger’s relations with the Nazis than anything else available, and it is an excellent antidote to the evasive apologetics that are still being published."
—Richard Rorty, The New Republic

Farias examines with great care and persistence the charge that Heidegger, who died in 1976, was a life-long anti-Semite.


The Guardian: Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks’ reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy

“Heidegger didn’t just pick up these antisemitic ideas, he processed them philosophically – he failed to immunise his thinking from such tendencies,” the notebooks’ editor, Peter Trawny, told the Guardian.

Trying to untangle the complex Adventist analysis of death as pure possibility leads me to tremble for the future of Adventism.

Edward Allred brought that “pure possibility” down to earth, and to the bank, and is revered as a business model among Adventists, and, it is said, claimed to have aborted “hundreds of thousands” of human unborn. He is also notorious for making racist remarks.

Christianity Today: Adventist University Names New Center for Alleged 'Notorious Abortionist’

In another 10 years will we have another ‘Edward Allred,’ renowned among Adventists for a chain of physician-assisted suicide facilities?

No doubt I will be considered a philosophical naïf, but if philosophy doesn’t protect us mentally and culturally from Nazism, I have to ask, why do we revere it so?

And, Adventism itself didn’t protect us mentally and culturally from Nazism in Germany.


Not much is known about the puzzle of post-death events, if any, by most people , so we approach the matter from Biblical
writings. I am as baffled as anyone else but I am open to examination of reasonable theories. I think the Buddhist HIGH LAMAS
re more knowledgeable than the average Bible reader . One Lama created a sensation in Britain some decades ago when he
claimed to have taken over the body of a suicidal English Doctor and explained how and why. Apparently the key is what the
Bible refers to as the “silver cord” which is a rapidly rotating set of molecules which is attached to what the Russian physicists call
the bioplasmic body and we call the astral body or soul. The Lamas claim they can do transmigration, that is sever one’s silver cord
and attach their own and therefore ilve in another person’s body if that body resonates to the frequencies of their former body.
Scientists at a location called the LUXEMBORG site have been working to devise an interdimensional device which will enable
communication between the earthside living and the spirit world of the dead. One researcher whose wife was dying of cancer told her
repeatedly to seek out the interdimensional site after death which is called Timestream. Three months After death she
(Jeanette Duncan-Meeks) allegedly sent him and the other scientists at Luxemborg an e-mail with personal info. known only to
George, her living husband. All I am fairly sure of is tha tSOMETHING survives, if even an energetic body. Remember Samuel’s wraith
which was even able to prophecy Saul’s death next day?.

“Evidenced by the death of cerebral cortex” may come in different forms since cognition or cognitive functions have to do with how a person understands the world and acts in it. To witness the miracle of life is to watch a child acquire skills to understand his world and control his environment as he grows and matures. Throughout life this progression may be interrupted by a number of conditions including medical illnesses but worse of all is when it is interrupted by beliefs that render the individual stagnant and moribund as when he obsesses to religious beliefs that alienate him from his world, such as the ideology of exclusivity, e.g. the remnant church, women’s ordination, male-headship etc.


This is a very crucial matter : WHat is CCcoma vigile ? - I would not havbe turned off the machinery of Terry Schiavo.

Here we have certains rules for the proceeding - No sponatneous breathing, no vital reflexes ( a schme not used in everyday neurology), Zezeroline in EEG (not very reliable), and no oxgen uptake inside the scull (arterio -venous oxgen concentration difference to be measured). Thisthree times with six hour intervalls.

Anyway : No final statement , as never in science . Just a help for here and now.

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Thank you Hanz, for discussing a taboo without falling into a quick theological evaluation.

As for me - just having become a widower 11 weeks ago - I was intrigued by Heideggers “Vorlaufen”. My “anticipation” had been about my own death (due to some health worries), never about my wife’s (certainly not at 55).

As a consequence life is becoming of greater interest to me than the phenomenon of death: how we live, perhaps, yes, how we die … but not, how we are dead. The gospel message is about life (“the state of the dead” is a valid, but still misleading application of the wholistic view of man). My intensity of mourning (which fortunately my surrounding allows me and I at times go through excessively) is an existential experience. Death is not.


May you remain strong in faith as you continue your journey without your wife by your side.


Thank you for this essay, Hanz, and for the entire series. I do hope you’ll put them altogether and publish them in such as way that they can be used by professors and students in our Colleges and Universities.

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I second Mark Carr’s motion.

At the Conservative Jewish Synagogue I take a friend to, the Tradition for Conservative Jews is “30 days of mourning”. Except on Sabbath. Sabbath one is to put away mourning and Rejoice in God.
After Sabbath is over, one can then return to the Mourning Mode.
Perhaps if we allowed this Tradition in the General Population it would make it EASIER for persons to resolve issues that Death brings, that ARE NOT ALLOWED while the person was alive and breathing, and in CONTROL.
30 days to express my ANGER for them Leaving Me.

“Complexity, therefore, is an indelible mark of any serious analysis of death”

As a software engineer, and an amateur scientist, I appreciate the truth of this statement - and the obvious extension to it to the analysis of life.

It is exactly equivalent to trying to draw the precise boundary between day and night, between male and female, between happy and sad, between fast and slow.

We can not even decide where one person begins and another ends, and it you think understand that you need to consider - and similar situations where the head is shared but the body is not.

This is not deeply philosophical, theological, nor medical, but having recently turned 80, I do have a few thoughts on the matter. I know what the Bible says about death being a sleep, but I have found myself wishing, since my parents died, that they were still alive somewhere and could hear me talking to them. I’m thankful I don’t believe in hell, even though I think my parents were good people who loved my brother and me and did the best job they could as parents. I’ve realized as I mature, how I may have misjudged them or failed to appreciate them at times, and I’d love to be able to tell them so. Since I no longer read the Bible as the exact Word of God, but as a human instrument interpreting God as best they can from their cultural perspective, I’ve wondered if perhaps we can truly understand it, or whether it is a mystery we will not know until we experience it.

I also think about my own death, which may not be that far away. I know I have come to believe in a loving God who wants to save everyone who longs to be with Him, but I’m afraid I haven’t been able to purge the legalistic, fear-filled religion I grew up with completely from my psyche, and hope that fear will not take hold of me at death. I hope I will have a peaceful, hopeful death, surrounded by my family and fairly free of suffering. As do we all, I’m sure. I even think if suffering is truly horrendous, it would be acceptable to end that suffering. I also hope that, if I have not completed the things I want to do before I die, I can’t let them go without regret.