Facing Death with Terra Cotta Warriors

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I’ll never forget taking my kids to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. As we toured their exhibit, China’s Terra Cotta Warriors: The Emperor’s Painted Army, I came face to face with a twenty-five-hundred-year-old Chinese General. As I learned about these full-scale sculptures, it brought to mind the Scripture:

“For we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out,” 1 Timothy 6:7.

But China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (260-210 BC), could not have disagreed more. He invested an estimated 70,000 craftsman over three to four decades constructing an elaborate underground city for his burial, complete with a population made of clay. Until relatively recently, tales of Qin Shi Huangdi’s necropolis were a favorite Chinese legend.

In 1974, rural farmers accidently discovered the emperor’s ancient burial complex while digging a water well. As archaeologists began investigating the area in the Shaanxi Province, they unearthed an army of elaborate, life-sized, terra cotta sculptures. 1,000 of an estimated 8,000 terra cotta warriors have been excavated. There is believed to be 130 full scale chariots and 670 horses as well. Qin Shi Haungdi’s terra cotta army includes Generals, Infantrymen, Archers, and Cavalrymen, as well as Acrobats, Musicians, and Birds. Each sculpture held an actual tool or weapon and thus far, no two faces are alike.

This emperor approached death as he did life – he intended to reign. Qin Shi Huangdi managed to conquer all of China’s warring regions and consolidate an empire. He was a violent man and paranoid about his rule. While his tomb has not been opened, excavations and histories demonstrate that he killed sons suspected of treachery, his wives were buried alive with his body, and all of the workers and craftsman involved in constructing the necropolis were executed to prevent grave robbery. Like the Pharaoh’s of old, this Chinese ruler believed he would need a palace, provisions, riches, and even an army to serve him in the afterlife.

Today the terra cotta warriors stand at attention; a silent witness of one man’s plan to face death. While his materialistic approach demonstrates he was wholly unequipped for the spiritual realities of death, no one can accuse him of taking his death lightly.  Over 30 years he contemplated and prepared for what should happen after he died.

It is good to ponder death (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4). King Solomon of ancient Israel (reigned ca. 970-930 BC) also considered death. With wisdom from God he wrote, “No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit, And no one has power in the day of death. There is no release from that war, And wickedness will not deliver those who are given to it” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).

Indeed, death is the great equalizer – rich or poor, king or peasant, wise or fool – the time comes to die. “And how dies a wise man die? As the fool!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16; see also Ecclesiastes 3:2).

Furthermore, in Psalm 89:47-48, Ethan’s contemplation is found, “Remember how short my time is; For what futility have you created all the children of men? What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?”

How many of our neighbors in American society truly ponder death for even 30 minutes a year, let alone a 30 year public works building project of terra cotta? Like other ancient rulers, Qin Shi Huangdi saw himself as the Master and the Potter. But Scripture teaches us that the truth of the matter is people are the clay, not the potter. We do not need to craft things to serve us in death but allow God to mold us in life that we might serve Him today and glorify Him through death (Romans 14:8).

“But now, O Lord, You are our Father; We are the clay, and You our potter; And all we are the work of Your hand,” Isaiah 64:8.

By Andrew Roberts

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One thought on “Facing Death with Terra Cotta Warriors

  1. Beautifully written! Very interesting and captures the interest while subtly prompting the reader to consider his/her own preparation for the afterlife. Well done, Andrew! : )

    Like

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