The Death of Death

The following is a guest blog by Allan Stuart Contreras Ríos

Although its origins are subject to debate, ancient Aztec religious practices might serve as a background to explaining the cult of Santa Muerte (Spanish for “Our Lady of Holy Death”), a cult of the dead illustrative of and typifying how death has a hold on us all. The lord and lady of Mictlán (region of the dead), Mictlantecuhtli y Mictecacíhuatl were the gods of death, reigning over those who died of natural causes. When someone died, they had to present themselves to these gods, but in order to do that they had to go through nine obstacles or infernos. Some of these obstacles included two hills crashing against each other continuously, a place with a lot of snow, arrows, wild beasts, water, etc. Luckily, a hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintle – pictured above) was sacrificed during the funeral rites and buried with the deceased to help the person through these obstacles.

Fast-forward to 1795, a group of indigenes worshiped a skeleton whom they called Death in a town located in what is now central Mexico. Testimony indicates that this cult remained hidden for at least two centuries. But this popular myth, which was transmitted word of mouth, came out into the open in the 1960’s when a man in Catemaco, Veracruz saw an image of Death painted on the boards of his hut. The man ran to ask the local priest to verify and canonize this image, but the priest refused to do so and called it a Satanic ritual.

After President Carlos Salinas de Gortari undertook reforms to the Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship in order to improve relations between the state and different religions, greater freedoms were granted that allowed many religions to rise. In the year 2000 the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA (ISCAT)[1] solicited a formal registration for their Death worship, and although it was granted in 2003, it was revoked in 2005.  But it was through this that the Santa Muerte religion became more popular in Mexico and in some places in the USA.

Santa Muerte has become a representative idol of death within Mexican and Mexican-American culture. It is a personification of death, usually associated with healing, protection, and a guardian of the afterlife (some even call her a “mother”). And although many of the leaders of the Catholic Church have condemned her worship, she is adored by many Roman Catholic congregants, and it is spreading into other Christian denominations. But the worship of death is nothing new, as explained before. Probably, every culture has had some sort of worship or veneration of death. It just takes a quick search of Wikipedia to find a long list of ancient death deities.

What might sound incongruent is her worship within the Christian community. But is it really that strange? Afterall, there is a huge emphasis on death within Churches holding to a contractual theory of atonement. Even the Israelites pursued a relationship with death. Although forbidden by God, many Israelites looked for help from violent gods instead of the God of peace; death gods, instead of the God of life.

Necromancy was banned in the Old Testament, punishable by death itself to necromancers (Leviticus 19:31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11), but that did not eradicate the practice in Israel completely. King Saul is a good example of this, in 1 Samuel 28 he searches for a medium in Endor in order to talk to the prophet Samuel.[2] The Israelites seem to have adopted this practice from neighboring countries along with other idolatrous inclinations. They were quick to exchange God for any lifeless idol, such as the golden calf during the Wandering (Exodus 32).

Isaiah 28:15 characterizes the practice as entry into a “covenant with death”:

“Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we have made a pact. The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, For we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception (emphasis added).’”

This covenant with death has been interpreted in at least two ways:

  1. A possible allusion to necromancy and idol worship (Isaiah 8:19).
  2. An alliance with Egypt that supposedly would protect them from Assyria (Isaiah 20:6).

For the purpose of this blog, it does not matter which interpretation is favored. This does not mean that it is not important, it means that whether someone agrees with interpretations 1 or 2, the fact is that Israel was searching for help from anything and anyone other than God Himself. As Isaiah 8:19 says, “…should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?”

The problem was, they did prefer to consult the dead instead of God.

This covenant with death has a deeper meaning than the two interpretations mentioned above, which goes back to my initial point: humanity has made a covenant with death. When? During the Fall and thereafter. In the attempt to avoid death (death-resistance), humanity has made a pact with Sheol. And as the verse makes clear, this death-resistance amounts to a pact between humans and deception (constituting the original lie or the very ground of deception). The human predicament in Genesis 3 (entry into the lie in order to avoid death) is then repeated by all humans in all cultures. The fear of death creates a respect for death which results in deifying death itself, therefore, they keep this covenant going.

But there is hope. Isaiah 28:18 says: “Your covenant with death will be canceled. And your pact with Sheol will not stand.”

Although, in its original context, this verse held out no hope for the Jews. Death was going to visit them soon if they kept this covenant active. The false idea that death can protect you from death needed to end, and that is the hope found in Christ. Only through Christ’s resurrection could this covenant with death be annulled.

The ultimate evil, death, could not defeat Jesus. John describes this battle between death and God in terms in which death is easily overpowered: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it (1:5).”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgement, but has passed out of death into life (5:24).”

There is an obvious contrast between the covenant with death and the covenant with God; the first one brings death, the second one brings life; the first one is based on deception, the second is based on truth.

Paul also contrasts the two covenants in Romans 3 and Romans 10:

 Romans 3 Romans 10
10There is none righteous.10Resulting in righteousness.
11There is none who understands.10With the heart a person believes.
11There is none who seeks for God.20I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.
12All have turned aside.13Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
13Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving.8The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart – that is, the word of faith which we are preaching.
14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.8 10The word is…in your mouth. With the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
15Their feet are swift to shed blood.15How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!

Scripture teaches that death does not win over life. As in Genesis 1, darkness, the nothingness, is a canvas upon which God creates His best work. God did not become human to make bad people morally good, he became a human to make dead people alive.

Death, like Santa Muerte, is personified in the book of Revelation. And in this book, the death of death is described when John writes: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire (20:14).”

Whoever makes a covenant with death should expect death. But whoever makes a covenant with the God of life will enjoy life. The resurrection is Santa Muerte’s death, it is the death of death itself. Jesus has defeated death through life; trust Him who overcame the final enemy!


[1] The Roman Catholic Church still does not consider Death a Saint or even agree with the description “Holy.” While Roman Catholics worship Jesus and Guadalupe in México, the ISCAT worships Jesus and Santa Muerte.

[2] Whether Samuel showed up or not is a matter of debate. But there are many reasons to remain skeptical about Samuel actually showing up:

  1. Mediums are deceitful.
  2. Saul asked for Samuel, a man who was famous during those days, specially after his recent death. Because of his death, Saul removed all the mediums and spiritists, this would include this woman.
  3. Verse 12 says the woman saw Samuel (which could be part of the deceit), but no verse says Saul saw him. Many assume Saul saw him because he starts to speak to him, but it is not specified in the text. When mediums bring up the spirit, people “speak to the spirit” through the medium as if the medium is being possessed by the spirit, therefore, they “speak to the spirit.”
  4. For those who believe that heaven is the final resting place right after death, Samuel is coming up, not coming down. Did Samuel not make it to heaven?
  5. Samuel says “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” A prophecy that was not fulfilled as such. Was Samuel a false prophet?
    1. First of all, in chapter 30, three days (3 tomorrows) have passed by and they have not died yet.
    1. During the battle against the Philistines, Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchi-shua were killed. But Ish-bosheth is alive and was made king over Israel during David’s rule (not all sons were killed).

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