The Death of Ivan Illych and Christmas

I’m reading through “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Tolstoy and this seems like a perfect Christmas story. Just as with Scrooge, we are given a look at the hardness of the human heart and what suffering it takes to repent.

Sometimes philosophers discuss what they call the hiddenness of God. This takes seriously the idea that God is absent and tries to explain why. Not only does this contradict the reality that the eternal power and divine nature are clearly revealed in general revelation so that we must deny our rationality to avoid seeing them, it also misses God’s loudest call back to us in natural evil.

Ivan asks why God is absent while he is at the darkest point of his struggles. He asks himself what he wants. His answer is he wants a return to the pleasant life he had envisioned for himself. However, the more he suffers the more he sees this was always a falsehood and never existed.

Slowly it occurs to Ivan that perhaps he has not lived as he should have. He refuses to consider this and chases it from his mind. Like Scrooge during his encounter with the third ghost he cannot consider that perhaps his life has been unrighteous. Ivan lived according to the conventions and traditions of his peer group and can’t imagine that this might have been incorrect. Indeed, he even did things that violated his conscience because others seemed to accept them and eventually these actions no longer bothered him.

In his deep agony and wrestling with suffering all of his pretensions and vain glory are stripped away. Even his false religiosity and hope for a cure must be seen for the idols they are. He alone realizes that he is dying and is unable to endure the falsehoods of those around him who try to continue pretending like death isn’t present.

God has not been silent or absent from Ivan. Natural evil is God’s call back to Ivan. And finally Ivan is able to ask for forgiveness. He is too weak and the word comes out “forgo” but he knows that the one who matters can understand it.

I found parallels here with Job that I’m guessing Tolstoy intended.  Job repents in sackcloth and ashes for not having known God as he should have. Ivan repents for not having lived as he should have and all the falsehoods he accepted. In the end, Ivan sees that God has not been absent. He finds that he is more alive than ever before, even as his body dies.

What Ivan never does is thinks that death is natural. This is the main falsehood that sickens him as he observes the continued pretense of those around him. Death is the interruption of life. He never flees the body for some gnostic heaven. When he repents it is for not having lived the way he ought to have lived.

Sometimes Dickens is criticized for not having explicit Christ references. I can imagine Tolstoy being criticized in the same way here. However, before the incarnation in John 1:14,

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

We have the rejection of the Word in John 1:10,

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.”

The ministry of Christ begins with “repent”. We see in the death of Ivan what suffering it takes to accurately assess how he has lived and ask for forgiveness.

 

Dr. Owen Anderson

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