Dying Gods

It was the kind of news story that flickers momentarily in our awareness before disappearing forever in the place where old news goes to die. A deranged woman on board a flight from San Francisco to Boise, Idaho, tried to force open the cabin door while the plane was aloft. She had to be subdued by fellow passengers who bound her with zip ties. The article pointed out that the woman was a first-class passenger, presumably because her behavior would be more expected of a passenger flying coach. “I want to die! Get me off this plane!” she cried. She then repeatedly screamed, “I am God!” as fellow passengers filmed the incident on their cell phones. The woman was hustled off the plane by local police when the plane landed in Boise, and she was placed in the custody of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

I don’t mean to make light of the woman’s distress, but her case does raise questions. Granted, one doesn’t expect logical behavior from a person experiencing a psychotic episode. But why, if she truly believed she was God, did she want to die? Did she want to die because she was God? And if, for the sake of argument, she was God, how was she going to manage her own demise, since presumably she was immortal? Jumping out of an airplane wouldn’t necessarily do the trick, and it might imperil the other passengers. Clearly, the captain believed so when he got on the intercom to urge passengers at all costs to stop the woman from opening the cabin door.

Backtracking for just a moment, we should not assume God can’t die just because he or she is immortal. After all, more than two billion people around the world worship a man they believe to be God, and his death and resurrection are the central tenet of their faith. And, as it turns out, he wasn’t the only or even the first god to die in the line of duty. James Frazier pointed out in The Golden Bough that death and resurrection are a common motif among deities in world mythology, especially in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. The Egyptian god Osiris, closely associated with fertility rites, is one of the earliest and most prominent of these. His death at the hands of his jealous brother Set was even more gruesome than Jesus’ later crucifixion by the Romans in Jerusalem. Osiris was dismembered and his body parts were strewn across Egypt before he was painstaking reassembled and restored to life by his wife Isis. The pattern was established early and repeated often: gods die, but they don’t necessarily stay dead.

Jesus was something of an exception to Frazier’s archetype of “dying and rising” gods, because he was also a man, so his dying was only to be expected. His hybrid status as God and man caused no end of confusion, even among his followers, and it took several centuries for theologians in the early church to settle on doctrines to explain it to their own satisfaction. Jesus’ flirtation with divinity nearly got him killed even before he was betrayed to the Romans. “The Father and I are one,” he told a crowd that had come to hear his teaching in the temple. The only thing that saved him from being stoned on the spot for blasphemy was his judicious use of Scripture to defend his position. "Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods'?” Jesus told the crowd, quoting one of the Psalms. That stopped them in their tracks, and by the time they regrouped, he had escaped.

Gods? If we are gods, then the woman who wanted to jump out of the airplane must be seen in a new light. Deranged she may have been, but not necessarily wrong when she said, “I am God.” Spiritual adepts of every tradition have long said this is our true identity. There is a catch, however. First, we must die – not dying in the sense of jumping out of an airplane or being chopped to pieces by a jealous brother. It is more what St. Paul was getting at when he said, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” The Psalm Jesus quoted to save himself from stoning says, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.” But it goes on to say, “Nevertheless, you shall die like men…” What then does it mean to be a god if we must die? The issue, I suspect, is not whether we die but whether we stay dead.

"First-Class Passenger Tries to Open Emergency Door Mid-Flight, Shouts, 'I Am God!' by Ed Mazza,, March 6, 2018
John 10:24-42
Psalm 82:6-7
Galaians 2:20

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