Neither death nor life

According to St. Paul, even the things that threaten us most are unable to separate us from God’s love

Question: My favorite book in the Bible is St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There is a passage in the book that I never understand fully, however. Can you shed light on this? The passage is: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).

— John C., Covington, Ky. 

Answer: This is indeed a wonderful passage and a source of great consolation and comfort in times of need. Let us look at the things that threaten us, according to St. Paul. The first is life and death. The destructive power of death needs little elaboration. Even if we believe in the Resurrection, still death is, as one of my friends says, a terrible way to go! Death is the complete dissolution of all we know.

But what can St. Paul mean when he asserts that life will not destroy us? The saying seems at first glance rather odd. I think we can grasp the point here when we realize that St. Paul is using the language of astrology, the language of the stars. When he says that neither death nor life can destroy us, he is speaking in astrological terms of the fluctuations and movements between good and evil, between positive and negative. In simple terms, St. Paul is speaking of the ups and downs of life. He assures us that no matter how wrenching these are, we will triumph by the power of Christ.

St. Paul goes on to say that neither height nor depth will separate us from Christ. In astrology, height and depth refer to the highest and lowest points in the movement of the stars. Those points signify the moment when life, on the one hand, achieves its strongest and most vital realization and, on the other, its most abject and terrible failure. Height and depth signify, in turn, victory and defeat, elation and depression. The darkest depths of existence will not triumph over us, St. Paul is saying. In Christ we will rise above the depth of human darkness and share in Christ’s own triumph.

But, we may wonder, what does St. Paul mean when he says that the height will not destroy us? After all, in astrology, height signifies life at its most vital, fulfilling and successful. He is warning us that a purely worldly experience of fulfillment is fleeting. He is drawing attention to life’s empty heights and false successes.

St. Paul goes on to say that neither the present nor the future will destroy us. The worst that can confront us in any moment may seem disastrous and irreversible. None of us knows what troubles and traumas are around the corner. That is why we worry about the future, for the future means the incalculable, the unknown.

St. Paul states again that we need not fear the principalities and powers that inhabit the universe. Principalities and powers are foreign to our modern way of thinking, but for Paul and his contemporaries, they were very real. They signified all that is mysterious, fateful, strange, seductive and alluring about life. We know how easily we can become entrapped in life’s seductions and how the most attractive features of human life can swallow us up. Money, sexuality, power — all perfectly good things in themselves — can easily hypnotize us into a false sense of security, of being on top of the world. St. Paul recognizes this and tells us that even when the great fascinations of life seduce us, and then turn against us, we will not be destroyed. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.