I remember when it hit me. I had been pregnant for what seemed like forever. But one day the reality dawned on me that to have my son, I was going to have to give birth, and it scared me. Pregnancy—good. Baby—good. The process of labor and delivery—I wasn’t so sure.
We sometimes have a similar thought process about death. Life—good. Life after death with God—good. It’s that process of labor and delivery into the next life we’re not so sure about. In fact, we’d really rather not talk about it or even think about it. Yet I’m convinced that there is a real freedom, and even joy, in thinking it through.
Taking in and chewing on the scriptural truths expressed in the writing of great preachers and theologians of the past and present can radically change how we think and feel about the unavoidable reality of death.
That’s what this excerpt from J. I. Packer can help us do. It will help us turn away from the pervasive denial about death in our culture, and face squarely the reality of death through the more beautiful and ultimate reality of Christ. He alone infuses the most painful and perplexing aspects of the end of this life with hope and peace.
In today’s world, death is the great unmentionable, just as physical sex was a hundred years ago. Apart from cynical paradings of a sense of life’s triviality (the Grateful Dead, “he who dies with the most toys wins”) and egoistic expressions of belief in reincarnation (the New Age, Shirley MacLaine), death is not ordinarily spoken of outside of medical circles. To invite discussion of it, even in the church, is felt to be bad form.
It has become conventional to think as if we are all going to live in this world forever and to view every case of bereavement as a reason for doubting the goodness of God. We must all know deep down that this is ridiculous, but we do it all the same. And in doing it, we part company with the Bible, with historic Christianity, and with a basic principle of right living, namely, that only when you know how to die can you know how to live.
There is a great contrast here between past and present. In every century until our own, Christians saw this life as preparation for eternity. Medievals, Puritans, and later evangelicals thought and wrote much about the art of dying well, and they urged that all of life should be seen as preparation for leaving it behind. This was not otiose morbidity, but realistic wisdom, since death really is the one certain fact of life. Acting the ostrich with regard to it is folly to the highest degree.
In every century until our own, Christians saw this life as preparation for eternity.
Why has modern Protestantism so largely lost its grip on this biblical otherworldliness? Several factors have combined to produce the effect.
First, death is no longer our constant companion. Until the twentieth century most children died before they were ten, and adults died at home with the family around them. But nowadays deaths in the family are rarer and, as often as not, happen in hospitals, so that we can easily forget the certainty of our own death for years together.
Second, modern materialism, with its corollary that this life is the only life for enjoying anything, has infected Christian minds, producing the feeling that it is a cosmic outrage for anyone to have to leave this world before he or she has tasted all that it has to offer.
Third, Marxist mockery of the Christian hope (“Pie in the sky when you die”) and the accusation that having a hope of heaven destroys one’s zeal for ending evil on earth have given Christians a false conscience that inhibits them about being heavenly minded.
Fourth, modern Christians are rightly troubled at the cultural barrenness, social unconcern, and seemingly shrunken humanity that have sometimes accompanied professed longings for heaven. We have come to suspect that such longings are escapist and unhealthy.
Fifth, man’s natural sense of being made for an eternal destiny, the awareness formerly expressed by the phrase “the greatness of the soul,” has largely atrophied amid the hectic artificialities of Western urban life.
How then should Christians think about death—their own death, to start with?
- Physical death is the outward sign of that eternal separation from God that is the Creator’s judgment on sin. That separation will only become deeper and more painful through the milestone event of dying, unless saving grace intervenes. Unconverted people do well, therefore, to fear death. It is in truth fearsome.
- For Christians, death’s sting is withdrawn. Grace has intervened, and now their death day becomes an appointment with their Savior, who will be there to take them to the rest prepared for them. Though they will be temporarily bodiless, which is not really good, they will be closer to Christ than ever before, “which is better by far” (Phil. 1:23).
- Since believers do not know when Christ will come for them, readiness to leave this world at any time is vital Christian wisdom. Each day should find us like children looking forward to their holidays, who get packed up and ready to go a long time in advance.
- The formula for readiness is: “Live each day as if thy last” (Thomas Ken). In other words, “Keep short accounts with God.” I once heard Fred Mitchell, Overseas Missionary Fellowship director, enforce this thought shortly before his own instantaneous home-calling when the plane in which he was traveling disintegrated in midair. Mitchell lived what he taught, and his biography was justly given as its title the last message radioed by the pilot of the doomed aircraft—Climbing on Track. I hope I never forget his words.
- Dying well is one of the good works to which Christians are called, and Christ will enable us who serve him to die well, however gruesome the physical process itself. And dying thus, in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ, will be a spiritual blossoming. As being born into the temporal world was our initial birthday, and as being born into God’s spiritual kingdom was our second birthday, being born through physical death into the eternal world will be our third birthday.
Dag Hammarskjöld was thinking Christianly when he wrote that no philosophy that cannot make sense of death can make sense of life either. No one’s living will be right until these truths about death are anchored in his or her heart.