Doug TenNapel – On Death

March 16, 2014

One of the reasons why I am a Christian is that this religion got what’s wrong with the world right. In my wanderings through philosophy and reason I went looking for any religion that would best demonstrate man’s great problem. All philosophies (including no philosophy) exist to address what’s wrong with the world. I found something wrong with the world, and I intuitively knew this from a very young age.

When I was four I remember both receiving cruelty from my peers as well as dealing it out to them. Doing bad was an act of religion, bad religion, that all of us participated in. We weren’t convinced we should do bad by a world view or philosophy, and though most of us were never taught to do wrong, that is what we all chose to do at some point.

Now look around the world and ask why we do wrong. Why is it that few people have the goal of doing what is bad and yet we somehow always manage to do something wrong? It became obvious to me that not only was there something wrong with the world, but that it was largely beyond our choice or upbringing, for I did what was wrong even to my own moral code and upbringing.

I had a reoccurring dream from those early years, I believe I was four or five years old, but I was walking through hot mud under a scorching sun and staggering between dead trees. I was lifted up in the air by the sun and it’s beams of light pierced through me, they knew me, and I was found wanting. It obliterated me. Now I don’t know if that dream was any kind of a sign, I don’t look to personal experience to exegete what God did or didn’t do. But regardless, it was clear in word pictures in my mind from early on that I believed something was deeply wrong with the world, my culture, and myself. So I’ve always been on a hunt to find a world view or life philosophy that embraced this fact, that there was something wrong with me. Most world philosophies actually tell me the opposite. They tell me there is something right with me. Those world view stories get an automatic rejection from me. You’ll have to come up with something better than “nothing is inherently wrong with you.”

In fact, when atheists criticize my religion the first thing I do is hang on the edge of my seat asking for their best shot against my religion. Many think I’m joking about wanting so badly to find a better argument or explanation than what I’ve got, but I’m serious. I so long to hear a decent, philosophically coherent explanation for the world’s problems. I get nothing of the sort. The only thing more ridiculous than Christianity’s explanation for sin and death is any alternative I’ve heard so far. Still, I’m always open to a good shot at that explanation. It makes for better conversation around a drink than what most people talk about.

My other problem with everything was that there was not only sin or imperfection in the world, but that there was physical death. When I was four years old, I considered that my time would one day end, and I wanted some kind of meaning or explanation for why. As a four year old I knew that people died and I wanted anyone else to admit that it was a problem. If someone couldn’t find that death was a problem then I had no interest in that world view. My own dad had some residual nihilist philosophy passed around from the 60s and seemed to have a hard time articulating death having any meaning. As a kid we used to sing meaningless songs about death:

“The worms crawl in

The worms crawl out

The worms play Pinochle 

on your snout.”

My second criteria for finding a legit religion had to embrace our physical death as real. There is something worse than mankind being sick or wrong, but that he experiences death and that death is a deeper evidence that something is out of order. This eliminates most Eastern religions that either embrace it as a recycling project, fertilizer project or deny death altogether.

I wasn’t raised in Sunday school, but I knew the scriptures well enough to know the shortest scripture in the Bible which is John 11:23:

“Jesus wept.”

Why is Jesus weeping? The context of the verse is that Jesus just learned that his old friend Lazarus has died. In just a few more verses, Jesus is going to raise him from the dead, and yet there are still tears to be had. Death is bad, and even when Jesus is going to resurrect Lazarus physical death is still a bad thing.

But I was aware of more than just dying, for I knew that I was guilty before a good God of some kind. I wasn’t merely guilty of sin, physically dying here on earth, but I was eternally dead. How could a four year old know he was supernaturally dead? I don’t know. I can’t explain how I know because back then I hadn’t been exposed to any formal religion and got glimpses of philosophy from the neighbor kids or perhaps my Pentecostal grandmother. Nothing explains why my view was so developed so early on, and yet, when I found the Bible some years later, I found a philosophy that made perfect sense:

Ephesians 2:2 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sinsin which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient…  But because of his great love for us,God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6″

Dead in my transgressions? Where do I sign up?! There are many reasons to believe in Christianity, and perhaps a few lingering details that give me doubt or trouble… but I’ve always been in love with how it got my spiritual death right. I am a walking dead man, both physically and spiritually. The story begins with something being completely wrong and this is where other world views, myths and stories often get things wrong.

One day I’ll have to get at the rest of the story, but for now I’ll say that one reason why I’m a Christian is that it gets what’s wrong with the world right.

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42 Responses to “Doug TenNapel – On Death”

  1. saltyhorse Says:

    > As a kid we used to sing meaningless songs about death:

    “The worms crawl in
    The worms crawl out
    The worms play Pinochle
    on your snout.”

    I wouldn’t say this song is meaningless, or that it removes meaning from death. It illustrates one aspect of death quite accurately, so, as far as kids’ songs go, it’s educational. By omitting other aspects it doesn’t deny them.

  2. robertmullin Says:

    Very well said, Doug. Thank you.

  3. lynnmaudlin Says:

    Good stuff, Doug– you were an amazing little kid.

  4. stjohnror Says:

    For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 6:23

  5. jamessm Says:

    Doug, what branch of Christianity do you belong to?

    • tennapel Says:

      I’m just a Christian-Christian.

      • jamessm Says:

        There’s no such thing as a “Christian-Christian.” There are over 30,000 different denominations; you must pick one.

      • tennapel Says:

        I claim only Christ. We’ve no obligation to claim a denomination, though many denominations appeal to me.

      • robertmullin Says:

        Good for you. :) C.S. Lewis would call this “mere” Christianity, which I wholly endorse.

      • jamessm Says:

        You do know Christ himself founded ONE particular church that has existed since the time of the apostles, and is the largest branch of Christianity for a reason, right?

      • H.P. Says:

        It’s not enough to claim Christ, you have to claim His Church: The Roman Catholic Church. I know saying that may offend your protestant sensibilities, but when there are so many evangelicals converting to Catholicism, you know there’s a reason for that.

      • tennapel Says:

        I actually respect anyone these days willing to draw a line. All of the squishy talk of ecumenicalism among Catholics since the 60s hasn’t done sound theology any favors on either side of the Catholic line.

      • tennapel Says:

        It’s not enough to claim Christ

        No, it is exactly enough to claim Christ. That’s the whole taco!

      • Will Says:

        C.S. Lewis wasn’t merely a Christian, he was an Anglican, a religion that has much more in common with the Catholic Church than with American Evangelicalism.

      • tennapel Says:

        His best friend Tolkien was a Catholic and Lewis deliberately refused that church.

      • Will Says:

        Still, Lewis accepted some Catholic beliefs, like Purgatory.

      • Will Says:

        “No, it is exactly enough to claim Christ. That’s the whole taco!”

        Evangelical Christianity = Taco Bell
        Catholicism = authentic Mexican tacos

      • nnyb. Says:

        No offense Doug, but as far as the Catholic and Orthodox (as in Armenian, Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, etc) churches are concerned, you are not really saved. They probably won’t tell you that in front of your face, but most Christians in pre-Reformation churches see evangelical doctrines as heretical.

      • tennapel Says:

        I’m aware of that, though my Catholic buddy who is sitting right next to me just said my beliefs are heretical, but that it doesn’t mean I’m not saved. And it doesn’t bother me at all that a different denomination takes a stand on their beliefs. I take a stand on mine, too. I might find it perfectly fine to preach to Catholics, implying that they aren’t saved, I’m not offended by challenging other beliefs or others challenging mine. Tolerance.

  6. Thanks for writing this. You articulated beautifully one of the same reasons why I also am a Christian. No other world view seems to nail the whole “sin and death” thing on the head….or offer such a wonderful hope and rescue from it.

  7. jmpadoc Says:

    Reblogged this on Notes from the Threshing Floor and commented:
    Like Mr. TenNapel, I have often been on the edge of my seat looking for a better explanation for what’s wrong with the world than the one Christianity offers. I mean, let’s face it–Christianity forces us to acknowledge that *we’re* the problem. I love Mr. TenNapel’s explanation about how Christianity gets what’s wrong with the world right. Great post.

  8. Landon Kemp Says:

    Very thought-provoking, Doug. Glad I could read it. It’s a fascinating view point, and I feel there’s a truth to it.

  9. Will Says:

    The question is: how do you know you claim the REAL Christ?

    We Catholics have almost 2000 years of tradition and an unbroken leadership starting with St. Peter (the Rock).

    What do Protestants have?

  10. Dave Says:

    Pretty awesome stuff. Just wondering though- what “lingering details” are you referring to?

  11. Bryan Says:

    Whichever belief system gets you through your day and helps you live a fulfilling and hopefully positive life is the right choice.

    Whether or not that choice is technically false makes no difference in the end.

  12. Doug Lais Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, Doug. The “What’s wrong with us” part is spoken of in Romans 7, where God’s law is in my mind, but the law of sin is in my members. The Catholic Church uses the term concupiscence to describe this state, and writes at length on the concept. Here’s a link to a short article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. I’m not trying to convert you to Catholicism, but it’s an inexhaustible treasure trove for the seeker. “”

  13. Benji Wang Says:

    Yeah! Go for Jesus Christ!

  14. A powerful and welcome reminder. Thank you.

  15. sam Says:

    Hi Doug. I’m curious about your theological views. Are you an Arminianist or a Calvinist? Covenantal or Dispensational? Do you believe in the rapture, and if so, pre-trib or post-trib? Do you believe in eternal security? etc.

  16. Mm, though I found your views on this subject interesting, I disagree with your observation that all other explanations for what is wrong with . Though the people you talked to may have been incapable of providing a logical. Relating this to a less serious debate, I recently had an argument with a Mac fanboy, and while he could have actually named the numerous objective advantages that Mac OS had over Windows, he chose some of the most asinine and sometimes downright untrue points to back up what little of an argument he had (eventually resorting to just insulting random PC games). This likely could have been the case with the people you were talking to, who were incapable of coming up with a valid argument, despite the fact that there are perfectly valid alternative explanations.

    I also believe that what makes sense to people varies depending on the person, in that what might not make sense to you might make sense to someone else. For instance, while the Christian philosophies on death and the like make sense to you, they sound like pure bile to me. And that is not a jab at Christianity at all; it simply doesn’t really make sense to me, which shows how the same exact thing can be interpreted differently by different people.

    But, anyways, I do find it interesting to see others’ perspectives, even if I disagree with them. ;) I’m all for people believing what they want to believe, so long as they can intelligently back up their positions.

  17. Kevin Says:


    If you were on the edge of your seat wanting me to take my best shot, then you are really no different than a prize fighter pointing at your chin and begging me to punch.

    That speaks more to your willingness to reinforce, or “show me what you’ve got”, than illustrate a desire to find things wrong with it.

    Simply said.. Your religion works for you, and you appear to be able to make it work for you. and that is a good thing. I respect that you can do that.

    Other religions are probably not going to connect with you because each religion has a cultural theme to them. (now, in my opinion, Pentacostalism has a ‘bit more character’ than other types of Christianity, so it would make sense that not everybody would gravitate toward it)

    Atheism might not connect with you because it is a different way at looking at things than religion would. –one which you are quite clear about avoiding. I might as well ask you to draw in a style you don’t like. It doesn’t make sense.

    its becoming clear to me personally that people are not represented by their religion, or the symbols within. It is said in religious circles that ‘each person finds God in their own way’. To me, that makes the case that religion merely provides a “flavor” to express one’s self in.

    While the Christian religion can be criticized in its inconsistent writing, its a lost cause. The river of denial is long and complex (and even scientists fall prey to this basic human “feature” in their discoveries).

    I think the strongest criticism against Christianity (or rather.. **religion in general**) would probably be that it has enshrined inconsistent **thinking** while at the same time insisting that that same thinking is consistent.

    It doesn’t matter the story, or lesson that is taught in your religion of choice, the standard that is used for **how you get there** is neither ironclad, verifiable, or reproducible. (for a concept that seeks to nail this down)

    • tennapel Says:

      Well, thanks for posting.

    • GaBe Says:

      You make a lot of claims about tennapel’s beliefs (not being verifiable, doesn’t accept other worldviews because of culture, etc…) but not much more than that: claims.

      However, I would like to suggest that you are mis understanding tennapel’s imagery of leading forward on the edge of his seat when you compare it to a fighter in a ring. Instead, maybe think of it like how a student eagerly wanting to learn more about the world, land forward on their seat in eager anticipation for what is presented in class – whether it be a teacher or fellow student.

  18. jessica151 Says:

    It’s really interesting to come across this blogpost on death after visiting Hiroshima today. I just kept on thinking about the consequences of sin, and how we desperately need a Savior. The neatest thing that caught me off guard was how much the city and people have healed. In the memorial park was a photo of a flower blooming among the wreckage shortly after the event–a symbol of hope.

    In this life hurt is inevitable, but healing will follow. It is comforting to know that there is hope in Christ Jesus for this world. This story has a happy ending…or rather beginning!

  19. Lynn Maudlin Says:

    My priest’s wife (Anglican) has an aunt who survived the attack; she was leading a group of school children in the new library, which was basically built of concrete. She’s still alive. Amazing.

  20. Burton Says:

    Jesus is a faggot

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