How Not to Think About Death Like a Secularist

Editors’ note: The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven & New Earth, edited by Don Carson and Jeff Robinson. 


Allow me to introduce you to Secular Sam.

Secular Sam is very successful. He has a good job, a nice girlfriend, a beautiful apartment, a new car, and excellent health. He’s humorous, intelligent, and personable. Secular Sam is also a Christian, and actually quite an active one. He has an evangelical background (though he’s chosen to leave behind some of the embarrassing bits of it), is theologically conservative, and believes in the authority of Scripture.

Indeed, he’s even come to see Scripture as the most satisfying explanation for all kinds of phenomena, from the origin of the world to the meaning of life. Sam, being a student of Scripture, can realistically examine humanity’s sinfulness. He can even confute his secular friends with historical evidence for the resurrection. He knows that all of life is under the scrutiny of God’s Word—not just religion, but also business, philosophy, ethics, economics, and law.

What is it, then, that makes Secular Sam so secular? Sam is secular because he expects to wake up in his bed tomorrow morning. He’s never even heard of what his grandparents called the “blessed hope.” Sam’s hopes and concerns, even about his own spiritual life, are all contained in this seculum (the Latin word from which we get “secular”)—that is, this age and this life. Sam assumes tomorrow will be just like today, which has some serious implications for the way he thinks about today.

Sam assumes tomorrow will be just like today, which has some serious implications for the way he thinks about today.

In 1851, Englishman George Holyoake was the first to propose a system called secularism. Through his journal The Reasoner, Holyoake taught that morality should be based solely on a regard for the wellbeing of humanity in this present life, without consideration for any belief in God or a future state. Of course, such secularism is of great antiquity; it’s much older than Holyoake and The Reasoner. But from the shapers of the ancient pagan world to those of the modern pagan world—Darwin, Marx, and Freud—secularism has flourished.

Even granted the basic human belief in some kind of age or life after this one, we can easily understand how, whether in a society at large or in an individual, a kind of creeping unbelief can gain the upper hand. One may begin believing in this age as well as the next, but he will soon begin concentrating on this age rather than the next, thinking less of the next, de-emphasizing the next, questioning the next, ignoring the next, forgetting the next, and finally, denying the next.

As our churches have done more and more to help us cope with this life and less and less to help us prepare for the next, such secularism has grown in both the society and the church. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11, the apostle Paul exposes the hopelessness of secularism.

First Thessalonians, perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters, indicates that the effects of secularism have existed from the beginning among young churches—which at the time of Paul’s writing are just 10 or 15 years old at most.

The problem Paul identifies first is a hopelessness among the Thessalonian believers. Their ignorance about death—here referred to by the metaphor of falling “asleep”—is causing them to “grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13).

Isn’t that true of many people’s experiences? There are so many who live with no hope and think like the secularist Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship”:

The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.

That is materialism, the belief that matter is all that exists; or as I’ve also heard it defined, “a stupid philosophy in which people invest everything in what will one day become nothing.”

Paul’s answer, however, is that Christians do have a hope: the dead are in Jesus!

Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess. 4:14)

It’s because of the Christian’s connection with Christ that we have hope in the face of death, for our hope is bound up in him.

The first funeral at which I ever officiated was in Florida more than 30 years ago, and though I didn’t know the deceased well, I knew he was not a professing Christian. His death had been a complete surprise, and I was called on short notice. I found myself standing around the casket of a man I barely knew with a small crowd of people, most of whom I didn’t know at all. I began to wonder, Why me? Why am I, a young man in his early 20s, preaching to this crowd of strangers?

 I know someone who has gone into the grave and come back out.

But I realized it was because I have this hope: I know someone who has gone into the grave and come back out. That’s why I was at that funeral. It was not because I knew the departed man but because I knew One who died and rose again. It’s because Christ died and rose that we can have the hope that if we’re in him, even if we die, we will rise too.

Paul writes of God “bringing” those who have died in Christ—who have died as Christians—with Jesus. The word for “bring” Paul uses here is a word used of someone who is alive, not dead. But here Paul speaks hope to the Thessalonians based on their union with Christ. Death doesn’t break this union.

Friend, if you have had a Christian brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother or child depart, there is hope in this truth: The union we have with Christ is more basic than this life itself. Even as Christ died and rose, we too—as those united with him—will die and rise again. Those who die in Christ will, as it were, come back “with him” when he returns.

And this blessed hope is the antithesis to the thinking of Secular Sam and all who live as if this present world is our final destiny.  

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