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SMTHToday’s post is the 4th of a 5-part series, “Making Peace with Mortality,” by Dr. Margaret Peterson, associate professor of theology at Eastern University.

Peterson’s Ph.D. is in theology and ethics from Duke University. She received her first education in end-of-life care twenty years ago, as her first husband was living with and then dying of AIDS. She chronicled that experience in a memoir, Sing Me to Heaven: The Story of a Marriage.

Her second husband and former faculty colleague, Dr. Dwight N. Peterson, with whom she is the author of Are You Waiting for “The One”? Cultivating Realistic, Positive Expectations for Christian Marriage, has been in failing health for some years and entered hospice care (at home) in July of 2012. Peterson blogs daily about their end of life experience at


How can we make peace with mortality? Should we even try? Isn’t death the enemy, after all?

Of course death is an enemy—the final enemy, Paul tells us, the last one that will be destroyed when Jesus brings in the kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:26).

But let’s notice a few things:

  • It is God who conquers death, not modern medicine.
  • It will happen at the end of time, which (so far, at least) is not yet.
  • In the meantime, as scary and sad as death is, it still cannot separate us from God. On the contrary: whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8).

If all these things are true, then it ought to be possible for us to lay down our arms and start making peace with mortality.

Here are a few things that this does not mean:

  • Making peace is not the same as giving up or giving in. You do not make peace by saying, “I give up; you win.” That is capitulation, not peace. Making peace with mortality, then, is not the same as ceasing to care whether you or someone else lives or dies.
  • Making peace with mortality is not equivalent to “letting” people die. People are going to die, no matter what we do. The question is not whether a given person is going to die, but how that person is going to live as he or she dies.
  • Making peace with mortality is also not about “doing nothing,” or even about “doing less” (as opposed to “doing everything”). It is not about neglect; it is about care.

What making peace with mortality does require is a willingness to recognize that is not even possible to “do everything” for anyone. Every choice for something is a choice against something else.

For example:

  • When you insert a feeding tube into a demented elderly person, you don’t gently hand feed that person for as long as he or she can take, and perhaps even enjoy, a spoonful of applesauce or ice cream.
  • When you hospitalize and operate on someone undergoing yet another acute crisis, you don’t keep that person at home, in a familiar and calming environment, and manage his or her condition medically as best you can.
  • When you enroll someone in yet another round of chemotherapy because all previous chemotherapies have failed, you don’t allow that person time and space to stop being a patient and simply be a person as his or her life draws to a close.

Making peace with mortality requires recognizing that there is a difference between medicalMKP treatment, on the one hand, and care (including medical care), on the other.

Treatment is often focused on the future, when, it is hoped, the patient will have recovered as a result of possibly unpleasant things done to the patient now.

Care, by contrast, is focused on the present—on relieving suffering and enhancing life right now, because right now is what we have.

Making peace with mortality is not easier than fighting death or disease. It may possibly be harder.

It requires a counter-cultural willingness to live with human and technological finitude.

People do not live forever, and all the medical treatment in the world can’t change that. Giving and receiving care within awareness of our shared finitude requires that we give up fantasies of technological mastery and immortality. That is hard.

But remember Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Jesus does not bless the peacemakers because peace is easy. He blesses them because peace is his project, and he wants us to be part of it.

Who is equal to this?

What kind of people would we have to be, if we were to let go of the impulse to wage war on illness and death, regardless of the collateral damage such war-making visits upon sick and dying persons, and instead attempt to make peace with mortality by caring gently for the dying?

At the very least, we would need to be people who are shaped by the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. But what, specifically, would this involve? Faith—in what or whom? Hope—for what? Love—expressed how?

Tomorrow: What is the difference between faith in modern medicine, and a truly Christian faith?


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.