In Him Was Life

Nicolai Gogol’s 19th century work Dead Souls is regarded as one of the great Russian novels. Set within vivid images of the rural life of the land-owning class, it is a commentary on the condition of serfdom before that class of Russian slaves was emancipated in 1861. The serfs are the enslaved servant class, bound to the land; to the cycle of housework and harvest. They are owned by their masters from birth until beyond death. Only the next of infrequent censuses will remove them from the register of property. Serfs are taxed and so, even the dead ones are a financial liability to the landowning class until the next government census extinguishes the record of them.

Into this context comes Pavel Ivanovitch Chichikov, a disgraced former civil servant. He travels from estate to estate offering to buy the deceased serfs. I would like to know whether you might turn over to me those not alive in reality but alive with respect to legal form,[1] he asks a potential customer on one occasion. As he travels, he acquires a large number of these dead souls. They exist on paper alone but as collateral they have great worth for his plan to take out a huge bank loan and then disappear.

The story is not a political commentary, but it makes a dig at the social structure of 19th century Russian society. As such it is illustrative of the paradoxical nature of life. In this case the dead have marketable value in excess of the living. Chichikov has no use for living servants. He has no land in need of their services. They would be costly to maintain. But their intrinsic value lies in the fact that they exist according to legal form.

The New Testament tells Jesus’ followers that God made them alive with Christ even when they were dead in transgressions[2]. However, having been made alive in Christ, we are to become dead to the world.[3] Just as we are destined to die only once,[4] so, having died, our life is now hid with Christ in God.[5] According to the legal form, we are dead. We should be of no further value to the world’s systems. But in Christ, we have been made alive and our lives are to be lived for His Kingdom purposes. Christ has paid the debt for our wrongdoing. We have been set free from our sinful nature. And we are dead. But, as with Gogol’s Dead Souls, each one of us has huge collateral value. Because we are dead we have come to life in the Christ whose love compels us to love our neighbor, and to do good to those who hate us. Because we are dead we have nothing left to lose when we serve the purposes of our Lord. Because we are dead we can truly find the life that awaits us in Christ.

In the great words that John uses to begin his story of Jesus, we are told that the Word that was with God in the beginning is the source of all that has been made. Furthermore, In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.[6] This Christmas let us remember that in His coming, His living, and His death, is our life, and that which makes us, in our death, of resurrection value to Him.

[1] Nicolai Gogol – Dead Souls – tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – Alfred. A Knopf, 1996 – p. 37

[2] Ephesians 2:5

[3] Galatians 6:14

[4] Hebrews 9:27

[5] Colossians 3:3

[6] John 1:4

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