In the Face of Tragedy, We Can Do Better Than Throw-Pillow Theology

Photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash

Millennial Catholic Ellen Koneck writes:

He’s at peace,” the chorus of well-meaning Christians wrote in notecards and whispered in the days and weeks after my brother died. But such sentiment – even if true – didn’t, doesn’t work when facing down the dark abyss of death.

He’s in heaven now,” they asserted, as if it were easy or obvious. As if heaven were an effortless expression, the kind well-suited for stitching on throw pillows. As if we could rest our heads on such a theology, stuffed with the fluff of bromide. As if something so shallow could do more than decorate. As if decoration could distract from death.

Believers like to pretend we hope because: because of confidence in the promise of an afterlife or the reassurances of our faith. But in fact, we hope despite: despite the unavoidable evidence of death and decay we daily face. Despite knowing death intimately while merely hearing the rumor of heaven through a friend of a friend (of a friend). Despite discovering our desire and our desperation for heaven, oftentimes, only because death has visited us. “Parting is all we know of heaven,/And all we need of hell” writes Emily Dickinson.

Before his parting, the parting that has given me all I need of hell, I didn’t know that cheap hope – the kind offered me by well-meaning Christians, the kind I’m sure I’ve offered others – betrays us in the hour when the real thing is most needed. When we’re pacing, frantically, desperately, as the stitching begins to unravel. When it’s gently slipped into sympathy cards. When offered, this throw-pillow theology wounds when it should reassure. It decorates our daily lives but offers no cushion when everything comes crashing down….

Far from sentimental, Christian hope faces hell, and then Christian hope rebels. It rebels against the despair and nihilism that would be so easy to accept and so clear to concede. Facing hell, Christian hope does not resign to these horrors but is at rest beside them. Because God dove down to these horrors, these places designed only to host despair, and now God dwells in this darkness.