Rethinking the Phrase “R. I. P.”

“Live long, and prosper.”

Leonard Nimoy (of Star Trek fame) passed away this past weekend. So naturally, the entire country is off and running on yet another one of those emotional orgies that we have to endure when yet another celebrity we didn’t really know happens to die.

Yes, I know, it sounds kind of mean. But honestly, much as I love classic Star Trek and the character of Spock, I still don’t get it. And when I read up a little on the crazy and sometimes downright sacrilegious stuff Nimoy was into, I really don’t get it, especially coming from Christians. (Some of you may recall that I had a similar reaction when Robin Williams committed suicide, but at least there the suicide element gave it some emotional weight, eventually inspiring my own reflective tribute.)

In particular, I notice that many people are reflexively saying “R. I. P. Leonard Nimoy,” or “R. I. P. Mr. Spock.” Now, I will confess that I have not always been scrupulous in avoiding this particular phrase for dead people whose salvation was questionable. But I think there’s a good case to be made for eliminating it from the Christian’s vocabulary in this context.

Let’s think about what the letters actually stand for: Rest in peace. In the case of a person who quite clearly wasn’t a Christian, the phrase is frankly more than a little saccharine. What do we even mean by it? Are we interpreting it to mean, “Let’s cross our fingers really hard and just hope that Leonard Nimoy had a wild last-minute conversion so that now he’s happy in heaven”? Honestly, I think most people don’t even think it through. They just say it, reflexively, because it’s the thing to say when someone dies. Some people argue that the phrase allows for that kind of doubtful hope, but it seems like a stretch to me. It’s not the kind of phrase that’s meant to be uttered pessimistically, like Eeyore saying he hopes it doesn’t rain as the clouds thicken and lower. It’s supposed to be a feel-good phrase, a benediction even. It’s what you say when you can’t think of anything substantial to say, but you feel like you have to say something. 

Herein lies the problem. By expressing this vague, sentimental hope that Leonard Nimoy is generically chilling out in some generically defined happy hunting ground, we are ironically failing to engage concretely with Leonard Nimoy himself. If you need proof that Leonard Nimoy wanted nothing to do with any remotely orthodox conception of God, I think his late-life hobby of photographing semi-nude women to illustrate God’s “feminine qualities” should speak for itself. Likewise, his fascination with Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. At best, Nimoy was a cultural Jew. It appears safe to say that he didn’t seek or desire a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

So what exactly are we hoping for? That God dragged Nimoy to the beatific vision kicking and screaming? Doesn’t make much sense when you put it like that, now does it? And if you want to fall back on the “faint, wistful hope” interpretation, then why not say something more articulate in the first place?

It is one thing to say “Oh gee, look at that, Leonard Nimoy died. Too bad, hope he got saved before it was too late.” It’s another thing to say, “Goodbye Mr. Spock! R. I. P.! *sniffle*” One of these reactions takes Leonard Nimoy seriously as a real person with an immortal soul. The other reduces him to a comforting fiction. Christians, be the exception, not the norm.

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5 thoughts on “Rethinking the Phrase “R. I. P.”

  1. My first order of business was to quickly tweet a link to this post (https://twitter.com/jimboling/status/572461304235102208?s=09). Because the phrase has always bothered exactly for the reasons you put so well, I try to avoid it.

    On the one hand it falls into the category of “my thoughts are with [whoever]” or “sending warm/positive thoughts”. I think a large group of people have some very inconsistent beliefs, and these phrases are manifestations. I agree that often the phrase is thrown out with little thought whatsoever behind it, like “How are you?” is. That is bad, but I confess to being guilty of such mindlessness. I am more concerned that many professed Christians are really practical universalists. I certainly could be wrong about that.

  2. Sam Denning

    Sacrilegious? Is not being a Christian sacrilegious?

    “It appears safe to say that he didn’t seek or desire a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

    Well of course not, he was a Jew. This post seems a little churlish. Whenever a non-Christian dies, is it always necessary to proclaim that soul is burning in hell for all eternity?

    1. Er, did you even read the whole post? Or did you just miss the bit about photographing nude women to illustrate the “feminine qualities of God?” Which a lot of Jews were not happy with either, by the way? Read more carefully: I said he was a CULTURAL Jew at best. If he had actually been Jewish in any orthodox sense of the word, that would have been an improvement.

  3. John Situmbeko

    The phrase bothers me too, but for totally different reasons. I am a Seventh-Day Adventist, we don’t use that phrase even for the supposedly righteous dead because there is no scriptural evidence whatsoever to support the teaching that the righteous go to heaven at the point of death. The bible does however say that at death, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7. Whether one be wicked or righteous, his spirit returns to God for it is He who gave it.

    In the bible neither the Hebrew nor the Greek term for spirit (ruach and pneuma, respectively) refers to an intelligent entity capable of a conscious existence apart from the body. Rather these terms refer to the “breath” – the spark of life essential to individual existence, the life principle that animates animals and human beings. Said the wise king, “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath [“ruach”]; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?” Ecclesiastes 3:19-21. What happens at death is the inverse of what happened at creation, the breath of God returns to Him, and man to the dust. Solomon further said of the dead, “Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” Eccl. 9:6. Do they really look down on us from heaven? Wouldn’t that be having a share in anything done under the sun? And wouldn’t the sight of their suffering loved ones really not cause them any sorrow at all? Yet heaven is a place of no sorrow.

    The dead are dead, they are not living elsewhere. They shall rise in the resurrection, and then they’ll receive their respective rewards, fire for the workers of iniquity and heaven for the saints. According to Jesus, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves shall hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” John 5:28,29. And on the same theme Paul did say, “I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.” Acts 24:15.
    That makes sense don’t you think? Why would Christ come down from heaven to raise the dead if they already are in their mansions, wearing their robes and crowns, some even supposedly “teaching angels how to sing.”? And why would He raise the wicked just to throw them into the lake of fire, if they are already there?

    Another scriptural reference to the two resurrections is in Revelation 20:5,6., which says, “But the rest of the dead did not live again till the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who takes part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”
    Fire does not come at the first death, but it causes the second death. It is the ultimate punishment. Heaven does not come at death, but at the first resurrection. It is the ultimate reward.

    Many Christians however have made up their minds and don’t want to search the scriptures to understand fully the subject of what happens at death. If you think on it, since the dead are not conscious and have no awareness of the passing of time, the resurrection morning will seem to come the moment after death. Thus to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord for the Christian. Death is gain for them: no more temptations, trials and sorrows, and at the resurrection the gift of a glorious immortality.

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