What if death had a face?
Shinigami in Japanese Manga
Shinigami have risen in popularity in recent years, largely due to their appearance in best-selling mangas in Japan. They have been portrayed in many different ways: in Bleach, they are a society of warriors that protect the world from restless human souls; in Ballad of a Shinigami, they are cute girls who guide deceased souls to the afterlife; in Soul Eater, Shinigami is the principal of a special training facility; and in Death Note, shinigami extend their lifespan by killing humans.
What exactly is a shinigami? And why are people so interested in them?
The literal translation of shinigami means “death god”. It is similar to the Western concept of a 'grim reaper'. Their characteristics vary greatly according to the creative flair of the mangakas (authors), but generally they have something to do with dead people and the afterlife. In essence, they are like death becoming a person.
The Bible talks about death in a similar way. In Isaiah 5:14, it says this:
14 Therefore the grave enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers.
Death is like a person who is hungry all the time and eats anything and everything (reminds me of teenage boys!). Death indiscriminately devours both the nobles and the commoners, the good and the evil (also see Ecc 2:14).
The picture in Revelation 6:8 is a bit more frightening:
8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Sounds like the Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it? In John’s vision of heaven, he sees a series of disasters and catastrophes that comes upon the earth – one of which is Death. He is given power to roam through the earth and kill a quarter of the population through various means. What a scary thought!
From the beginning of time, people have been afraid of death because we don’t know what happens after we die. Shinigami is an attempt to make sense of death and to explain what happens. The cool or cute versions of the shinigami makes death seem less threatening and scary, and instead show them to be heroes and friends who help you.
As Christians, we have no need to be fearful of death or to ‘cute-ify’ it. Jesus has wrestled with death, and “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). In dying and rising from the dead, Jesus has defeated death and taken away its sting (1 Cor 15:54-56). The writer to the Hebrews puts it so well:
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)
So if you are a Christian, death is no longer like a shinigami who strips you of life and takes you away from family and friends. Death now becomes a friend who brings you into the arms of Jesus. For those who belong to Christ, not only can we face death without fear, but we also long for it with a certain hope and an eager expectation. That is why the apostle Paul can say that “to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).