“Awareness of death weakens our attachments to false hopes.”
Matthew McCullough delivered a message during a breakout session at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference titled “Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope,” based on his book by the same name. McCullough focuses on removing the taboo around death and allowing it to both deepen our spiritual walk and encourage us with hope.
In a culture that prioritizes pleasures, death seems a morbid and unexpected topic of conversation. Yet McCullough focuses on two major benefits for Christians—not in simply preparing for death, but in living with death on the horizon.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Matthew McCullough: So the title of today’s session is Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, which is the title of a book that I wrote and was published, I guess it was last year now in the fall of 2018. So what I’m going to be doing today is summarizing some of the basic ideas of that book and trying to help communicate in as concise manner as I can, why it’s useful to us to pay careful, close attention to death. And then what I hope to do is leave some time for Q&A at the end, because some of you maybe have even read the book, and so you’re going to be hearing stuff that’s familiar to you. And I’d love to be able to make this as useful to you as possible. So my goal was to give us at least 10 or 15 minutes at the end to just talk it out together. So glad you’re here. Let me say a prayer and ask God to bless our time, and then we’ll get into it.
Father, thank you for Jesus who lived for us, who died for us and who rose again for us. Thank you that he lives now to intercede so that we have everything we need to make it through this valley of the shadow of death and into the glorious light that he has prepared for us. We trust it all to him. And we ask that you would use this brief time together to help us more deeply attached to his promises to us and to live in the light of them. We pray that in Jesus name. Amen. So not long after my book came out back in the fall, I got a very encouraging email from somebody who’d read it and been helped by the book who shot me an email to tell me the ways that he had benefited from it.
I’m so glad he did that. Maybe you’re here. I don’t know. Here’s how he ended his email, “I must that I tried to recommend the book to some friends and their immediate response was one of bewilderment that I would find such a topic to be beneficial to my spiritual walk. They said it sounded so morbid that they thought reading and thinking about death would be depressing, though I hope in coming days to convince them otherwise.” If you are here, I’d love to meet you. Thanks for your super encouraging email. I’d love to know how you’ve been doing it, convincing your friends to read it. I thought that was really interesting. I heard another from another couple of readers who said they had to be careful where they were reading the book. Had to be careful about taking it on a plane because they did that and started to get a lot of strange looks at that side of that dust jacket, as if you need to take the dust jacket off to read it in public, or maybe slot it in between the leaves of your Sky Mall magazine or just stick to Kindle, maybe it would be the safest way to read it.
Several friends asked me to sign copies of the book for their parents because they wanted to give the book as a Christmas present. A couple months after it came out, every single case we did what you’re doing right now, we laugh together. Me right along with them at the idea of a Christmas present, given to mom titled, Remember Death. Love you, mom. Merry Christmas. You got to explain that one. So why do we react that way? What’s that about? I mean, I’ve just given you a couple of lighthearted, examples of a phenomenon that’s actually really big. That stretches over many decades and has been studied in great detail by sociologists and anthropologists, a cultural phenomenon that they refer to as a taboo.
Think about what other subjects we might feel this way about. What sort of books you might be tempted to hide on a plane. A book about sex, right? I mean, if you were reading, say the runaway bestseller by Dr. Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex, you took that one on a plane ride. I mean, you’re probably going to take that dust jacket off or hide it between the leaves of your Sky Mall magazine. You give that book to your parents for Christmas, and you’ll probably have to explain yourself. Sex has been a taboo subject for a long time. By taboo, what I mean is this unspoken agreement by members of a culture not to discuss or to acknowledge a certain topic in polite company. We don’t go there in polite company.
And even as the taboo around sex has been dramatically lifting in the West in the past 50, even to a hundred years, a similar taboo around death has taken hold almost in lockstep. We could talk today about how it’s been possible for a taboo around death to take hold. I don’t think it could have taken hold the way it has apart from remarkable changes in modern medicine and in what the advances in modern medicine have meant for average lifespans, not just in the West and in developed countries, but in developing countries. Countries all over the world, average lifespans have skyrocketed in the 200 years due to the success of new drugs and surgeons who are a lot better at doing their thing than what they were a hundred years ago. And the kind of care that you can get at most hospitals around the world. Not only have these medical advances pushed death further back in the average lifespan, it is also true that most people now die in these medical institutions rather than dying at home.
That percentage is now shrinking a little bit because of hospice care and how prominent that’s become, but for a long time, for the past 40 years or so. A vast majority of people who die, die in medical facilities, which is to say they die in places that they don’t live, that most people would never visit. That are roped off from normal life. We could talk about how it’s been possible for a taboo to settle in, in other words, and talk about medicine. We could talk about why we would want a taboo placed over honest, straightforward, talk about death. Among other reasons, we could talk about the fact that it puts a tremendous damper on our fun to talk about death in normal life.
I mean, our culture is a culture that prioritizes the sorts of pleasure you can get from our massive investment in entertainment and in leisure and in consumer goods and getting more and more of them. When that’s where our massive cultural investments are going, then death is going to always be an unwelcome change of subject. Historian, Philippe Ariès, he attributes the taboo I’m talking about now. Here is a quote from him, “To the moral duty and social obligation to contribute to the collective happiness by avoiding any cause for sadness or boredom by appearing to be always happy even if in the depths of despair, by showing the lease sign of sadness. He writes, “One sins against happiness, threatens it and society then risk losing its reason for being.” And what he’s getting at is that if grief is a kind of sin against society, then…
If you think about grief or sorrow, public sorrow, especially as a kind of moral failure, then it’s always going to come with shame that we would rather avoid, and it’s just easier not to go there. We could talk about those things. What’s made it possible for a taboo to settle in and why we would want a taboo around death in the first place, but we don’t have a whole lot of time this afternoon. So what I want to do instead, what I want to do instead is talk about why we ought to push past the taboo that’s already settled in. I want to talk about all the things we lose when we refuse to admit the truth about death and to build it into our relationships with one another is something that we ought to be facing together. Let me reframe it just a little bit.
I want to talk for a few minutes here about what we gain when we push past the taboo. When we talk death with honesty and a straightforward, direct sort of candor. In other words, what I want to talk about is the benefit of what I call death awareness. So not necessarily how to prepare to die as important as that kind of conversation is, but how to live with death on your horizon, knowing that, that’s where all of our lives will end and taking account of what that means for the lives that we’re living now, in the meantime. I want to talk about the benefits, what we gain from death awareness, what makes it worthwhile and even essential to push past the taboo and to embrace together the wisdom that comes from learning to number our days.
I’m just going to give you two things that we gain when we push past the taboo that we otherwise might live with for most of our lives. First of all, death awareness weakens our attachment to false hopes. This is a first gain that we get from pushing past the taboo and taking death seriously and bring it into our lives and our relationships, into our churches, into our own perspective on the lives that we’re living now. We get help from death awareness specifically first of all, because death awareness weakens our attachment to false hopes. I want to read you a passage, if you have your Bible, you can turn with me your 1 Peter 1.
I want to read a couple of verses that I think set us up for what I’m going to say next. In 1 Peter 1, Peter has just laid out all the hope that we have in Christ. In other words, what it is that we’re hoping for when we hope in Jesus. He promises us things like an inheritance that nothing can touch. He promises us a belonging in a family with a father who protects and guards us till that day. So that even what hurts us now, ultimately just serves to refine us according to his purpose. That’s what he’s promised at the beginning of chapter one. And then now he says, therefore, I’m going to pick up in verse 13, 1 Peter 1. “Therefore, because of this hope preparing your minds for action,” He says, “and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance. What you used to love, what used to drive you. Set that aside now, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. It’s a before and after passage. Once carried along, wave after wave by what he calls the passions of your former ignorance. Now he says, set your hope fully on what will come, what will be yours, the grace that comes at the revealing of Jesus. Set your hope fully on what’s coming and on him whose grace provides it all. I think that all of us can understand why Peter calls us to this kind of careful work. He says, “Be sober-minded.” He says, “Prepare your minds for action.” In other words, it’s going to take work for you to set your hope fully on this grace.
We’re going to need help as John Piper put it yesterday in his sermon, resonates so much with me what I want to say is afternoon. We need help to stay free. You guys remember what he said that? We need all the help we can get to stay free from false promises, from the promises of possessions and praise. He specifically mentioned from Mark 8. Peter’s saying, “You’ve got to work at setting your hope fully on this grace that’s going to come.” I think I can definitely relate with why this is work and with what he means by setting your hope fully. We’ll see if you can relate too. As a Christian, I affirm that I’m accepted by God through Jesus. That affirmation, if true means that God is pleased with me. That means it doesn’t matter to me if anyone else is, but my heart still leaps to praise from other people and my heart still sinks with every sign I’ve let somebody down.
At one level, I know that I have a promise of God’s provision that he’s focused on my life with the kind of careful detailed knowledge and full affection and with a fixed purpose for my good that a father has for his son. But still I face days and even weeks with work that matters to me, results that I can’t fully guarantee, stringing together hour after hour as if more work for me could secure this future that I want to see. Our point is that if we look at how we spend our resources, if you look at how we spend our time and our money and our relationships and our affections, if we look beyond just where we’re spending our resources to what makes us happy, to what makes us sad and confident and discouraged, this side of heaven, here’s what we’re going to see.
We’re going to see a lot of things that matter to us that have nothing to do with what we’ve been promised in Christ. Things that move the needle on our heart’s affections. Things that occupy our minds attention that have nothing to do with the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus. So Peter says, “Set your hope fully on this grace.” Because he knows that until we’re fully conformed to the image of Jesus, there will always be false hopes vying for their place in our hearts. To hopefully on Jesus, on what he offers means carefully detaching ourselves from what other sources offer us. It means recognizing false hopes for what they are, rather than just being carried along by them on the same waves that once carried us and now may carry those that we live around. What I want to suggest here is that death awareness being honest and straight forward with one another about what it means that we die, helps us towards this sober mindedness.
It helps us to prepare our minds for action. It helps us in other words, to set our hope fully on what’s coming, and I think it helps us by exposing all those old false hopes for the imposters that they are. I’m going to give you some examples. One of my favorite places in the Bible to see this kind of detachment at work, death awareness in the service of detachment from false hopes is Ecclesiastes. It’s basically what the whole book is. It’s a man who was wise and wealthy, a ruler from Israel’s glory days who had everything that he set out to get. And now near death, nearing the end of his life, looking back on it all, he sees he had nothing. It was vanity, he says. Striving after wind and there’s nothing new under the sun.
One of his favorite subjects in this book, again, think of the book of Ecclesiastes as a man using death awareness to crush false hopes that he had once been driven by and now knows to be vanity. One of his favorite subjects, his work, and that one hits close to home for me, because I love my work. I’m sure many of you do, hopefully all of you. I love my work. I mean, I put a lot into it, more often than not I enjoy the chance to put a lot into it. It makes me happy to go to work and to do the things I get to do. But one reason that my work is often stressful and discouraging and marked by longer hours and less rest than I need is that I put a lot of hope in what my work can do for me. I tend to make my work about me instead of, the purpose that God has given it.
I would say that my work tends to be one of the passions of my former ignorance to use Peter’s language. To use another set of language, my work is my immortality project, and that’s the language put to it by one of my favorite books and background reading on my book is a book from the seventies called The Denial of Death it won a Pulitzer Prize by a psychologist named Ernest Becker. It’s fantastic. If you’re interested in reading more about the same general subject you would do yourself a favor,.Check it out in a library, see if you like it before you buy it. But I think you would at least enjoy reading the introduction, get to sensitive from that. Ernest Becker, fantastic book. One of the main things that he talks about in this book is the way that we tend to use our work, our sense of accomplishment as a way to try to deny death. That behind it all, driving it all, even if we don’t put the right labels to it or recognize that about ourselves, what we’re doing is we’re chasing immortality.
We’re trying to accomplish something that won’t die, even if we do. And one of the reasons that our work is so hard, so relentless, so restless and sometimes discouraging, one of the reasons sometimes we feel, we question our own value when our work isn’t going well, is that we’re depending on our work to protect us from something, it cannot protect us from. Earnest Becker calls it an immortality project. Our desire to make a name that will ring out and live on. Listen to what Ecclesiastes 1 says about these sorts of immortality projects. “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” You get his point? I mean, it’s pretty straightforward, right? How would it affect my experience of my work? How would my experience be different if I acknowledge that no matter what happens, no matter what comes of it, nobody’s going to remember it.
Even if they did somehow remember what I accomplish, which isn’t going to happen, but even if they did the best I can hope for is that someone else is there to see what I did benefit from it, but it will be lost on me because I won’t be there to see them enjoying it. Listen to what Ecclesiastes says in chapter two, verse 18. “I hated all my toil.” He says, “at the end of a successful life where you accomplished much, I hated it all. Seeing that I must leave it to the man who come after me.” Best case scenario is somebody else gets the goods. Julian Barnes is a novelist that I like a lot who breaks past the taboo and talks really straightforwardly about death all over his work. But especially in this memoir that he wrote called Nothing to Be Frightened Of. For him, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be frightened of. It means there’s nothing to be frightened of. He’s frightened of nothing.
Believing that death is the end, and looking ahead to it. He’s imagining his own work, which has driven him for all of his life, and he describes how he sees his work as a condemned prisoner in a cell where he’s going to die etching into the wall, “I was here.” Hoping that one day, maybe some future prisoner will have the chance to see it, best case scenario and know that you lived. But saying that I was here, isn’t that really just another way of saying I’m not here now. So what’s the point? For me, work is a crucial false hope that’s always turning my head, always tugging at my heart. For you maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s money as another one of Ecclesiastes main false hopes that it tries to detach from through death awareness. Maybe for you it’s money or the things you can buy with your money. Do you stockpile? Is that your style chasing security? Basically using your money to feel secure by watching the number grow? How much do you think you’d need to have to feel like your life is safe?
The preacher in Ecclesiastes would say that number, whatever it is, isn’t going to be enough. As soon as you get it, you’ll realize what he did. Ecclesiastes 5:15, “As he came from his mother’s womb, he shall go again naked as he came and shall take nothing for his toil, that he may carry away in his hand.” Translation, no matter how much you own, you have nothing. Maybe for you is less the having of money than the buying of things with money. There’s a jolt of happiness. I know, I feel it that can come from something new. But think about what death means for our stuff. Best case scenario, if you’re buying stuff that’ll stand the test of time, which may not. But even if you were, best case scenario, when you’re adding to the stuff that you own in your home, at best you’re staging a great estate sale. Setting somebody else up for great stuff at bargain prices.
That’s best case scenario is that it survives the moths who would otherwise eat it. You could basically provide moth food if you want, or you could stage an estate sale. I sometimes go to these estate sales in our city, especially when there’s going to be a lot of books there every now and then there is. I do enjoy them because it’s a great chance to get bargain prices on books, but I cannot go to them anymore without thinking about the weirdness of what’s happening here. That you’re standing in someone else’s home, their space. This place that was theirs, that wrapped them up in the world and shrunk their world down to size and made them feel at home.
And you’re looking at their stuff, stuff that once gave them happiness. And you’re seeing that this lamp over here, did somebody give them that as a wedding present? Do they remember the name of the person who gave them that lamp? This chair right here, is this his favorite? Is this where he sat when he read his favorite novels at night? Is this where they watched TV together and their favorite shows? These clothes, was that a special dress that was bought to go to a daughter’s wedding maybe? You’re looking through what people left. It’s an intimate, personal thing and strange and sobering if you get the right message from it. Because all you need to do, what death awareness will allow you to do is just think a little bit down the road and what’s true now, this person’s stuff that you’re thumbing through. That’s going to be your stuff one day.
Ecclesiastes is just pointing us there. Naked you come, naked you go, you can have it all and you have nothing. It’s vanity and striving after wind. I want to give you just one more example to drive the point home. What I’m trying to say here about death awareness is that it can weaken our attachment to false hopes. It can change how we see the things that we would otherwise depend on to invest our lives with meaning and security and purpose and hope. Let me just give you one more example that’s been on my mind since the turn of the year. Like so many others, probably many of you, I captivated by the coverage of the death and the memorial services of George H. W. Bush. Reasonable people can disagree about the man’s politics, but this man’s life was remarkably full by any measure. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. I mean, remarkably full that’s a metaphor, right?
Imagine your life and the hopes with which you’re populating your life as a series of buckets that you’re filling up and pouring into those buckets, your time and your energy and affection. Think about that and your life, what those buckets are for you. Is there any bucket that you’re trying to fill that wasn’t overflowing in that man’s life? Do you hope to be rich? He was a millionaire businessman by midlife. He got there fast. Do you hope to be well known for what you accomplish? This man was a decorated war hero. You could live a life on that reputation. But he was just getting started. He became a US Congressman. Many people live long, full decorated lives as US Congressman, but he even went on to become vice president. And after serving as vice president, he became the 41st president of the United States.
Do you hope for a stable and thriving family life? This man’s marriage lasted more than seven decades. Can you imagine that? Seven decades of marriage to his wife. Most of us get pretty excited just about a good report card from our kids. My oldest son had his first baseball game of his coach pitch season over the weekend. I’ve been telling everybody that he went two for two with a single and a double and RBI run scored in three outs in the field all by himself. I’m telling everybody just like that. Most of us get excited about the idea of a successful first game in coach pitch. This man didn’t just serve as president, he raised to president and a governor and other kids who probably did… who knows what all else that he would have been happy to tell us about. It’s difficult. You guys get the point, right? It’s difficult to imagine a hope for life under the sun that we might have, that he didn’t actually have overflowing in his own life.
And friends for that reason, we would do well to pay careful attention to what time did to him. And to know that time will not be kinder to you or to me. Did you see the images of him being wheeled to his wife’s funeral soon before he died? Spirit strong, his mind sharp, but what time had done to his strong body. Time will be kinder to us. What will we have left when time has emptied the buckets that we worked so hard to fill? That’s the question that Ecclesiastes puts before us. And hopefully you can see what I mean when I say death awareness. Being serious about this, talking about it like we’re doing right now has an incredible power to detach our hearts from false hopes that won’t stand that test of time. Death has an unmatched ability to expose the flimsiness of the things that we believe gives substance to our lives. Let me give you another image. This one’s from a writer named Albert Camus, French philosopher, novelist wrote a lot about death, very straightforwardly, and one essay about death.
He talks about the things in our lives as the set pieces on a stage in a play. You know, from a distance they look solid load bearing even. It looks like a real tree. One with deep roots planted, growing strong. It looks like a serious brick wall over there. It looks like something you could lean on and it would hold you up. But from the perspective of death, Camus argues what death shows us about these things? Any substance that they have is just an illusion. It’s an appearance of strength that only stands so long as it’s propped up and death is that push of a finger, that gust of wind that topples them over boom, boom, boom one by one by one. Death awareness weakens our attachment. It says to us, “Don’t lean on that wall. It’s not real. You can’t climb that tree. It won’t hold you. So stay back, set your hope fully instead.” None of those passions of your former ignorance that carried you along like a wave with everyone else, but set your hope fully on a grace that will be revealed that the coming of Jesus Christ.
That’s what I want to do here with the few minutes that we’ve got left. I want to show you number two. The first thing is death awareness weakens our attachment to false hopes. That’s what we gain when we push past the taboo and take death seriously. Death awareness also though strengthens our attachment to Jesus. I started with an implied question from that helpful email that the reader sent in. How could a book about death possibly be encouraging to our faith? I realized that so far I’ve just been focused on bad news, probably ruined your day by this point, huh? I get it. So we’re not going to stop there, but I want you to think about what we’ve done so far as clearing of the ground. Jesus talks about the parable of the sower that the seed of the gospel needs to find good soil in order to grow strong and tall. In order to thrive, but sometimes it gets choked out by weeds, the cares of this world that starve it of its life, or it lands on rocks where it can’t put down roots and grow.
Think about death awareness in detaching us from false hopes as clearing the ground, pulling those weeds up, moving those rocks out of the way. Now, I want you to think about death awareness as the fertilizer through which those seeds, once planted can grow strong and true. Augustine, in one of his sermons talks about grief like this and including the grief that comes from taking death seriously. He draws a connection between sorrow or grief and dung. So like dung, sorrow and grief can defile what they touch. Like dung though, in the right context, in the wrong context they can defile what they touch. In the right context, they can provide the nourishment, the fertilizer that’s essential for growth. I love the way the Heidelberg Catechism begins the first question. What is your only comfort, it asks, in life and in death? I love that question because of the assumption that’s underneath the question.
Any comfort in life must also provide comfort in death. If what you’re turning to for comfort has nothing to say to you on your death bed, it has nothing to say to you now. It’s just an illusion. If the object of our hope can’t stand up to death, it can’t offer true hope in life either. There are many things that we hope in throughout our lives, things that we’re looking to for meaning and purpose. Things we accomplish, things we acquire, pleasures we enjoy, people we love, and we all trust these things to deliver us. We hope that they will endure. And as we’ve seen already, one by one by one death topples them all. So that only one hope remains. When we let that work proceed, only one hope remains.
And seeing those other hopes topple, I’m more eager than ever to claim to the one that’s still standing. What is your only comfort in life and in death that I am not my own, but in body and soul, both in life and in death, I belong to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ. Death awareness is a fertilizer, use properly in which this gospel seed can grow and spread throughout your life. See, sometimes the promises of Jesus can seem abstract to us. To go back to Peter and his language in chapter one before the part that I read, Peter is talking about this hope that he’s saying, “Set your hope fully on this hope.” And he’s using words like, imperishable, undefiled, unfading. “What does that even mean?” We might ask. “Why should we like the sound of an inheritance like that? It seems so abstract at first glance. So hard to cling to. I don’t need an inheritance kept in heaven.” We might say. “I need help now, in this world.”
Maybe you feel that way about many of Jesus’ promises. I would understand if you did, I have. What good is blood sacrifice or justification when you’re facing an uncertain job market or worried you’re not going to find a spouse. How can I care about an immortal body if I hate the body that I have now? Why does Jesus talk so much about eternal life when what I need is not some sort of path to a glory land, some other way, some other place. I need help. I need to know how to cope with hard things I’m dealing with today. It’s common to feel this way about Jesus’ promises. Like the abstract belonging to another world, written for other people and they’re different problems from what I’m living with. And friends, if we’re not clear eyed about the fact that we’re dying, I believe Jesus’ promises are always going to sound other worldly to us. They will always sound meant for someone else. Living different lives than the ones we’re living.
But when we see death for the threat that it really is, when we take it seriously and don’t shy away from it, when we own up to what it means for our lives under the best of circumstances, then the promises of Jesus take on an entirely different tone. You see what we’re saying here? Death awareness clears the ground so the seeds can land on the soil. Death awareness fertilizes the soil so that it gets the nutrients it needs. One of the main burdens of my book is to show detailed examples of this process. A lot more detail obviously that we can do and a half an hour or whatever we have in here. I’m trying to get as many examples as I can for how death awareness can deepen our attachment to the promises of Jesus.
I try to take certain aspects of the problem of death. Things I’ve scratched the surface on here and then pair them up with parts of Jesus’ promises to us that make especially good and clear sense in the light of death. So I can only scratch the surface here, but I do want to at least scratch the surface a little bit. Point you to a couple of the themes that I try to unpack even more in the book. I want to make sure that you at least have a couple of examples of what I’m talking about. Of how being honest about death can lead us to deeper attachment, to specific promises that Jesus makes that might seem other worldly and abstract, but come alive when we see them in this slide. The thing, for example, the promise of justification. We’ll just start there. Think of that promise.
How can death awareness strengthen my attachment to the promise of justification? This is one of Paul’s main themes. It’s all over the New Testament, central to how the gospel works in Christ, by grace, through faith, God looks on us and he sees Jesus life. And Jesus death and Jesus’ resurrection, those become our track record before him through faith. Sometimes the way we talk about it can come off as a kind of cold legal formula. Of course the legal part is huge. It matters. There is a transaction that happens that’s core to our hope. We are not guilty under God. Pardoned under God. Our debt is paid. All those things are important, but justification goes much further than that. It doesn’t just mean that what was true of me has been taken away. It’s also, God’s crediting to me of a perfect righteousness that Jesus deserves and what it means when God credits to me the perfect righteousness that Jesus deserves is that when he looks on me, I make him happy.
When he sees me, he sees me as one who is worthy, who is affirmed, who is exactly as I was meant to be not because of me, but because of Jesus. Think about how the reality of death prepares our hearts for that truth. Death shows me that I am on my own utterly dispensable in the world. My existence here is inexplicable and temporary on my own. I had nothing to do with it, and I can’t protect it. And in a hundred years, my own descendants won’t know who I was, probably. I am only not at the center of the world, I am not even necessary to the world, and I will not be remembered by anybody who’s alive. What is the value of a life that doesn’t exist as somebody’s memory even?
In Christ? On my own? Valueless. In Christ, that life is precious. That life is held together. It doesn’t disintegrate, it endures and not through some sort of building that I endowed with my name on the top of it. Not through even the memory of my loved ones, who will themselves die and be forgotten. It’s held together through the pleasure of the God that I was made to please in the beginning. My life matters because he knows and loves me because in Christ, by grace, despite the fact that I’m dispensable and deserve to be, I’m precious to him and nothing that’s precious to him will be destroyed by death. He won’t let that happen. You see how death awareness prepares me to be in awe at the message of justification that otherwise might seem stale, cold and detached. Take another example, the promise in Christ in the new Testament that we have purpose for our lives in him.
The Bible tells me that I exist for a reason. I was made to glorify God and whatever I do, I’m to do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, when I ignore the reality about death, that purpose doesn’t sound good at all. It sounds terrible. At the best, it sounds detached and abstract. Tough for me to understand why I should be glad to have a purpose like that for my life. But at worst, it just sounds like a rejection of me and what I want. I’d much rather establish my life on my terms. I’d rather see my life as a ladder that I’m climbing rung by rung, always reaching for what’s next only moving in one direction. Gain reputation, make a mark, a massive fortune I can be proud of. But when death shows me the truth about any purpose that I pursue on my terms, when death shows me I’m not climbing a ladder, I’m sliding down a mountain towards a cliff I can’t avoid.
When it shows me that everything I do, everything I put my hands to on my terms will turn to dust with me. Well, then I’m ready for a new purpose. I’m ready for a new purpose given to me as a gift and one that I can actually attain. I can give up this subconscious quest to overcome death. All those immortality projects I’ve been pouring myself into because Christ has already defeated death by his work. Why should I try to put my hands to that? He’s got it. And if he’s defeated death by his work, I don’t have to defeat death by my work. I’m turned loose. Obviously, I’m free to do what I was always meant to do, glorify God and enjoy him forever. “Therefore, my beloved brothers,” 1 Corinthians 15, “be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Knowing that in the Lord, in the name of a resurrected savior, who’s just the first fruits of what’s to come, your work is not in vain.”
Finally, let me give you one more, eternal life. This one is all over New Testament especially in John. Now, the kingdom of God doesn’t come up much in John, eternal life is almost a stand in for that concept in John. John wants to emphasize this life that Jesus has come to give at first blush when so much of my life is still out in front of me. When my loved ones are still close at hand and my future still seems really full of promise. The notion of an eternal life sounds like something that’s, I don’t know, come up with some sort of constellation price for people who are losing life while I’ve still got a chance to win.
But when I realized what death means even for me, when I realized that even if my life now plays out precisely as I hope it will in my wildest dreams, even if I get everything I think I want now, time is going to strip away everything I love. When I realize that and accept it, well then I can see how eternal life is what I’ve needed all along even when I didn’t know to call it that. In fact, so far from a distraction from the goodness and beauty of this world, it’s sometimes written off that way. Stop talking about eternal life. Look at what’s around you. Enjoy your life now. So far from the distraction, from the goodness and beauty of life now in this world, I believe eternal life turns out to be the only way. Claiming that promise is the only way you can open your heart to temporary pleasures now that you know, will only break it when you lose them, as you certainly will.
It’s knowing that whatever we enjoy now comes to us from the hand of the God who has prepared a feast. It’s an appetizer for a banquet. We’re going there. We’re just getting our appetites wet here. It’s only knowing that that allows me to open my heart and not close it. So what I know is just going to leave me sad, broken, longing, when I’ve lost it. I know there’s so much more we could say if for now, because I want us to have some time for questions. I want to sum up and return to the question that we began with. How could focusing on death actually encourage us in our faith. It’s a fair question. Not an easy one to answer. I want to try to sum up the answer I’ve given with an analogy. I’m borrowing this from somebody else. Used it in a different context, in a sermon I heard once.
I’m going to tweak it a little bit. I think this may help you. This will put up an image overall on the points that I’ve been trying to make here this afternoon. If you live down in Boca Raton, maybe let’s just say Key West way down in Florida, down in paradise, an essential heat salesman comes to your door pedaling his wares. He’s going to have his work cut out for him, convincing you why you need what he’s come to offer you, right? You aren’t experiencing the problem that he came to solve. Your life is insulated from it. You’re going to struggle to see the beauty and the power of central heat, because you can’t see the context in which it makes sense. If you live in Buffalo, that’s a different story. Maybe even here in Indianapolis, I mean, it was cold. I’m from Nashville, and we got up here and see snow on the ground when we rolled into town on Monday.
If you live up here, it’s another story. So take the promises of Jesus. The reality of death, the shadow of it. Well, that’s a major portion of the backdrop in which his work makes sense. It’s how he pitches himself. It makes his promises like eternal life relevant and essential, but in many ways, because of the taboo and all the factors that allow us to live with it, we are living now insulated from the reality he came to resolve for us. We’re living in a way that’s unprecedented in human history. Like folks in Boca Raton insulated from the harsh winters of Buffalo, New York. But friends, that installation that we live with, it’s an illusion. It’s a bubble world. That bubble gets burst for everyone. Meanwhile, as long as we live inside that insulated world, Jesus’ promises seemed like they’re built for some other world. Some other market, somebody else’s felt needs.
But if we’re willing to step outside into the cold, if we’re willing to face the truth about death, to feel it for what it is, then we start to realize why we need what he offers us. That cold drives us back into the heat. That means that the more we recognize death, the colder that climate grows around us then just like a good heat system, the hotter our furnace is going to burn. It rises to meet the challenge. The colder it is outside, the hotter it burns and along the way, the more you realize why having this person in your life is such radically good news. The hotter it burns, the more you’re experiencing the power and the life giving relevance of Jesus.
Friends, we have no reason to hide from the truth so long as we go there with Jesus. And we have every reason to push past the taboo because every time we experienced the sting of death, we are experiencing the relevance of his victory. And who wouldn’t want to experience that? Now we’ve got about, I think, 10 minutes before the session needs to be over. So I’d love to take any questions that you guys have. If there’s things you want to talk more about. Yes. back here.
How did you first start thinking about Remember…
Yeah. So the question is, how did you first start thinking about this subject and how did it affect you? It’s a great question. It’s not an easy one to answer because I don’t have the kind of experience that a lot of times inspires books on death. In some ways my life has been a charmed avoidance, so far of traumatic, unexpected illness, either in my own life or in the life of the people who were closest to me. It speaks to the kind of book about death that I wanted to write actually. So I think that the awareness that I’ve developed came from several sources. I grew up in a rural town, the father for a pastor who would take me with him to visit shut-ins. We had a lot of funerals in that church growing up. So I saw death as a normal part of life there.
I studied history professionally before entering ministry. And in history, you come to love people who are dead. You come to see their world. They’re not just subjects that you’re studying from a distance. You come to love them and empathize with them and understand what life was like for them. You see yourself in them and they’re all dead. All of them, the ones that I was studying. That struck me. There were persons in history that I was studying, especially the Puritans who modeled taking death seriously as a big part of their piety was to think on it and to think on Jesus through it. And then I think that for whatever reason, I just have a really nostalgic bent to me. And so I just noticed the passing of time a lot, and it just breaks my heart.
I think I’m thinking about it more now than ever before, just from having small children who aren’t as small as they used to be, and who change so fast taking with them, things that I love and know won’t come back. So it’s coming from all sorts of different sources. But what I wanted to write about is death awareness that doesn’t come only from a traumatic wake up moment, but that comes from the sober awareness of what’s true for everyone. I mean, the Bible celebrates death awareness as wisdom. It’s just paying attention to what’s true. So I think that the lack of traumatic experience in my own life helped set up the kind of perspective I’m hoping to communicate through the book. Yes.
That’s a great question. The question is now knowing that there’s a taboo around this subject, that makes it feel a whole lot like sex and bringing it up and polite company feels like bringing up porn in polite company. How do we de-pornographize death is the way you put it? I like that. I think it depends on what context we’re in. Yeah, we want to be gentle and charitable. And so you need to know who you’re talking to for you, bring it up and where they’re coming from, if at all possible. But I think that at the very least we’ve got to start in the church. One of the things that led me to a lot of the insights that I try to communicate the book is just preaching weekly to my people.
We preached the Bible verse, by verse, by verse. It didn’t take very long doing that to recognize how often death comes up. It’s everywhere. The Bible takes it so seriously. So I think it starts in the church, having conversations with people who are claiming hope in Christ, bringing up passages, like 1 Peter saying, “Look, we’re supposed to work being sober-minded to set our hope fully on what’s coming. How can we do that? Maybe paying attention to death is a way we can do that.” The church should provide that context because we have the promises of Christ as a shared hope and orientation point for that conversation. I do think it’s useful for evangelism to talk to people who aren’t Christians about the fact of death, that they can’t escape. And to use that as a bridge to Christ, because I think it’s this place where our best arguments for the historicity of Jesus and his work converge with the existential experience that people can’t escape forever.
They converge here at death and resurrection. So I think it is useful to push the envelope in conversations with your non Christian friends, but I’ll say it’s more difficult and I wouldn’t be so pushy about it. I think Christians shouldn’t have any excuse not to talk about this, but I tried to bring it up at a dinner party with an unbelieving person. We were talking about purpose, end of life, retirement and things like that and I sort of dropped some of these truth bombs on him at probably the wrong time and got not so gently shut down. So I think you got to be wise, right? More wiser than I was in that moment. And I think it’s hard to do, but I think we can do it together in the church. At least we can start there and just keep bringing it up. Yeah, and then we go…
Yeah. So the question is, yes, we’re talking about the avoidance of death in Western culture. We’ll just say American culture is what I know best, but we’re also seeing it in clothing. People wear stuff with skulls and crossbones on it, and then you’ve got movies like even children’s movie Coco, the Disney movie. So there’s a couple things I’ll say about this. One, the article that this brother mentioned earlier called The Pornography of Death from a sociologist a while back, I think it was back in the 40s. The main insight of that article was that when you shut down death as a subject for polite conversation, it doesn’t go away because it’s a basic human experience and we are interested in it any more than sex went away. What happens is pornography. So if pornography as relates to sex is what we’re all thinking about with that word, a pornographized version of death would be zombie movies, right?
It still bubbles up but then it’s the clothing that is meant to be eye catching and shocking, like pornography is shocking and other worldly not realistic. So death becomes skewed when there’s a taboo on there. It doesn’t go away. That’s a focus for interest and even popular culture. It just real deaths, the deaths that people were actually dying are not being talked about. What happens there is that death becomes even more detached from us. It seems exotic like porn. It’s something that’s going on for someone else and not me. I may see it happening out there, but it’s not about me. That’s one thing. I think that the Coco example, I’d put Lion King in here with this, and the whole Circle of Life idea is actually more of a… I think of it as more of a sentimentalization of death, trying to soften the blow by the promise that it’s really just serving future life or that you will be remembered and held by those who remember you. That’s again, the point of Coco and it’s beautiful, and I think we should try to remember those who have departed. I do, but it’s vastly underselling the nature of the problem. I think it serves the taboo in that way.
Hmm. Oh, great question. I’m trying to think of a good example to give you on the fly and I may not be able to do it. So the question is some specific case where someone tried to use a death awareness approach to an evangelistic conversation, and how did it go? I don’t have one of those off the top of my mind that I can give you in the time that we have. I know that I use it evangelistically all the time, especially in my preaching. So a lot of my evangelistic points and applications in sermons try to draw people straight to the truth about themselves and preaching, you get a bully pulpit. You got a captive audience and a bully pulpit. You can say what you want, and there’s a little bit of a clear path to bringing something like this up.
I know the case that I mentioned earlier where I was talking to an unbeliever who was talking to me about his own coming retirement, his desire for purpose, and I was asking him questions about where was he going to get that purpose trying to dig genuine interest in the things he was turning to. And then he asked me about where I find a sense of purpose, and I saw that as my opportunity to talk about how my only hope is that Jesus will be for me when I die, because I don’t think there’s anything I can try to put my hands to in this life that’s going to stand the test of time. It didn’t work so well, but I mean, sometimes it doesn’t, right? You just try to take the opportunity you have. I saw a bunch of hands back here, but I don’t know whose was first.
Yeah. So the question is about any connection between the taboo on talking about death in an open and straightforward way, and the rise in physician assisted suicide. I don’t have any data to back any of this up. I’m sure there are sociologists who will study that connection at some point. I hope they will, but I do think that a lack of ongoing lifelong awareness, that you are part of a continuum you didn’t choose to be part of and can’t escape on your own. That you can’t avoid escaping, that you had a birth that you didn’t have a hand in, and you will have a death that you can’t control. Understanding that it’s just a part of the normal span of life that going away by the departure of death from normal conversation has made a space for us to think about ourselves as in complete control of our existence. As if our life is our own, so our death may as well be our own, but either way, I’m the captain.
Yeah, I think that’s what I’ll say for that. I think it needs more time and more research and understand it well. Yeah. So the question is for folks like your friends who have seen combat deaths up close in serving in the military and become desensitized to it, so that it’s almost a joking matter, how do you reawaken the right sensitivities? I think that’s a difficult problem, but I don’t know exactly how to do that well. I do think part of it is the detachment that they feel it’s probably a personal attachment as well. Not just that attachment from the suffering of the person who’s died, that has to happen to be able to kill them. But probably also a detachment from their own mortality.
So some of these talking points could help them there. Like kind of getting in death in the back door. Death is not just like this activity you just participated in, or this event you just witnessed, but it’s this cloud that hangs over all of you. So death shows up when you’re sad that something’s over that you love. That was death. They’re not detached about that. Or it shows up when they get what they thought they wanted and realized they’re still not happy. That was this drive to overcome death that they’ve just failed in. You can start showing them symptoms. They haven’t associated with death, but that they’re feeling and not desensitized to, and then apply death to those. It could help them, depending on who they are and what the situation is, that’s going to be a difficult process that needs wisdom. So God be with you. I think that’s all of our time y’all but I’m happy to hang around and answer more questions up here if you have them. Thank you guys for being here.