One of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game, a loving father and husband, shockingly fell to his death alongside his friends and young daughter. It’s not surprising that we’re all reeling from the death of Kobe Bryant. But the intensity of our grief is noteworthy.
Some approach this phenomenon—the public mourning of a celebrity—with cynicism: “They didn’t even know that guy!” “People die every day!” “Why are these people so upset?”
While I don’t share the cynic’s impatience, I do share his curiosity. Why does the death of a public figure so deeply wound our collective psyche?
Attempts to Avoid Death
One book I find helpful in answering this question is Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity. In it, ethicists Joel Shuman and Keith Meador argue that death is being exorcized from our collective imagination:
In contemporary North American Culture, no less than any other, health and medicine tend to be viewed through particular ideological lenses. One of these is a scientific and technological optimism that sustains the tacit belief that science may one day altogether deliver us from sickness and death and every other limitation lace on us by our bodies. Increasingly, we see a long, vigorous life as our inalienable birthright and medicine as the protector of that right.
Viewing health as a right—rather than a gift—affects not only our view of life, but also our view of death. Whereas death has been a part of everyday life for most of human history, modern man has relegated the entire process of dying to specialists: from hospice workers to funeral directors.
Of course, avoiding death is a fool’s errand. However hard we try to keep it at bay, it sneaks in: at Halloween, in gory movies, with the death of a beloved celebrity. We are then harshly summoned back to a sharp reality of this fallen world: we all die. You can turn your eye, but you can’t turn your being.
Guardian of Life
Historically, the church has been a space where man can process death in a context of hope. The ubiquity of church graveyards in antiquity testifies to the fact that, when seen through the lens of the gospel, death isn’t a thing to be feared. The dead can be among us precisely because we will soon be among them as we await the resurrection.
But for all of the gyms and playgrounds under construction on church properties today, when was the last time you heard of a capital campaign for a new graveyard? Absent the lens of the gospel, the world is forced to see death through a prism of fear. It’s not a question of whether we encounter death, but where and how.
Absent the lens of the gospel, the world is forced to see death through a prism of fear.
And if anything should strike fear in our hearts, it’s the incongruity of someone so ostensibly in control—someone so wealthy, so powerful, so fit—helplessly falling from the sky to their death. And yet, our Lord tells us that not even a bird falls from the clouds apart from the Father.
“As God is the guardian of our life,” John Calvin says, “we may safely rely on his providence; nay, we do him injustice, if we do not entrust to him our life, which he is pleased to take under his charge. . . . Would he who is careful about the sparrows disregard the life of men?”
Calvin goes on to insist that when Christians speak of death, they shouldn’t do so as the Stoics, who resigned themselves to the random absurdity of life, but as those confident of God’s good providence:
It is one thing to imagine a necessity which is involved in a complicated chain of causes, and quite another thing to believe that the world, and every part of it, is directed by the will of God. . . . I do acknowledge there is uncertainty: but I maintain that nothing happens through a blind revolution of chance, for all is regulated by the will of God.
For believers in Jesus, hope isn’t found in keeping death away, but in keeping God near. And as we hold tight to the promises and providence of God, we look unblinkingly into the dark night, confident of the morning to come. We use the death of those we know and love—either personally or from a distance—to remind ourselves of the hope brought to us by the resurrected Messiah.
Hope isn’t found in keeping death away, but in keeping God near.
Indeed, bringing death back into the presence of the living is the only way to bring life back into the presence of the dead. From the smallest of birds to the biggest of stars—nothing drops from the sky apart from the Father. So, have hope: from dust, to dust, to glory.