Ben Franklin and others have quipped that “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” And yet even though we know both are coming—death most certainly—many of us spend more time thinking about taxes than death.
Most people will not read a book called On Death until faced with a crisis. But wouldn’t it be better to be ready for what we know is coming? We “prepare” our taxes each year, but have we prepared for the moment our loved one gets the devastating diagnosis, the commute that ends with the chaos of sirens and white sheets, or the tragedy at our neighbor’s house?
There are few topics of more pressing relevance, and Tim Keller’s On Death may be just the introduction we need. Buoyed by Keller’s wide reading and pastoral experience, the book is a gentle primer on death aimed at Christians and unbelievers alike. It’s written in a way that can comfort and convict Christians, and also reach an audience who hasn’t yet found their hope in Christ. For Christians specifically, Keller can help us better live as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”
Significant events such as birth, marriage, and death are milestones in our lives in which we experience our greatest happiness and our deepest grief. And so it is profoundly important to understand how to approach and experience these occasions with grace, endurance, and joy.
In a culture that does its best to deny death, Timothy Keller—theologian and bestselling author—teaches us about facing death with the resources of faith from the Bible. With wisdom and compassion, Keller finds in the Bible an alternative to both despair or denial.
Fearing Your Own Death
At a little more than 100 pages, this book’s length makes it an accessible approach to a difficult topic. It’s divided into two parts, focusing first on what we fear about death before directing us to the unique hope Christ’s defeat of death offers. The appendix, too, shouldn’t be missed. There, the Kellers (Tim credits his wife, Kathy, as a co-author) provide two seven-day devotionals—one for the dying, and one for those losing them.
Keller points to four reasons our society fears death. He rightfully addresses the fear that stems from the over-medicalization of death and its resulting hiddenness in modern society. The remaining reasons are helpful heart-checks, prompting us to ask, How have my feelings toward death been affected by the value our culture puts on affluence and this world? Have we bought into the temptations of our age?
Perhaps most poignantly, Keller points out that many fear death due to Western culture’s impoverished framework for dealing with wrongdoing. “We know in our hearts . . . that God is our Creator and the one who deserves our worship and obedience,” he writes, “but we have ‘suppressed’ that knowledge [Rom. 1:18]. . . . Death, however, makes our guilt and self-dissatisfaction much more conscious” (24). In many ways, our culture doesn’t allow for repentance and grace. Where can people find hope that their wrongs will not lead to suffering after death?
In many ways, our culture doesn’t allow for repentance and grace. Where can people find hope that their wrongs will not lead to suffering after death?
Faith in Christ, we know, offers just such hope. And this is where On Death excels at reaching beyond a Christian audience—showing Jesus is better even, and perhaps especially, when confronted with death.
Where secularism or other world religions might offer eternal happiness based on good behavior, Keller insists Christianity offers something far truer and more beautiful: “[It] doesn’t leave you to face death on your own, by holding up your life record and hoping it will suffice. Instead it gives you a champion who has defeated death, who pardons you and covers you with his love” (31).
What good news—for us and our neighbors.
Facing the Death of Others
Christ’s defeat of death affects not just how we die, but how we face loss. Setting the stage in the epigraph, Keller uses the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 to encourage readers to respond to death with both grief and hope. Many of us cite this verse, yet our urge is often to minimize grief, attempting to speed from sadness to a celebration of Christ’s victory—even funerals become simply “celebrations of life.”
Christ’s defeat of death affects not just how we die, but how we face loss.
Outside of Christianity, there are movements urging people to see death as neutral, even a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves (see the death positivity movement and eco-death trend). Keller’s question is apt in light of these trends: “Does such a view of death fit our deepest intuitions?” (41). The truth is it doesn’t. Death is not the way it ought to be. Rather than encouraging stoicism, Keller rightly states that “we have a lot of crying to do” (43).
Here is another heart-check for the believer—how well do we grieve? How well do we allow our friends and neighbors to grieve? For the unbeliever, what a relief it can be to know human death isn’t just part of the circle of life, or an absorption into the cosmos or a collective being.
But neither Paul nor Keller advocates despair. First Thessalonians instructs us to have hope; Keller explains our Christian hope is “uniquely powerful” among other worldviews and religions (50). What a comfort these realities can offer to believer and unbeliever alike.
- First, Christian hope is personal. Death will not strip us of our individuality. Not only that, our relationships with other children of God will continue after our death, uncorrupted by sin. Can you imagine the beauty of these relationships?
- Second, Christian hope isn’t merely spiritual, but involves real people, places, and things. Perfected reality. Amazingly, “we’re going to eat and drink with the Son of Man” (55).
- Third, the Christian hope maximizes joy because “we will be in perfect communion with him” (57). Keller writes, “When you at last you see the God of the universe looking at you with love, it will inflict on you a joy that will make all of the potentialities of your soul erupt and you will experience the glorious freedom of the children of God” (65). Our hope is in joy beyond imagination.
- Finally, the Christian hope is sure. In contrast to other religions, “we do not anxiously wonder if we have been good enough to go to God when we die” (67). When death strips us of everything else, there is no greater hope.
Keller urges his readers that death should function as smelling salts, “telling you that everything in life is temporary except for his love.” With or without faith in Christ, we will all face death. But praise be to God, it has no final power over a Christian. “We should grieve, yet we should have hope; we should wake up from our denial and discover a source of peace that will not leave us; and finally we should laugh and sing” (71).
On Death is a wonderful resource to help believers—and unbelievers—do just that: move through fear, press into grief, and find, at the end, deep joy.