In this article, we’re going to be facing squarely the topic of death. This is a topic that may make some of us uncomfortable, and I will do my best to be gracious. However, it is a reality we must all face honestly in our search for meaning. We will touch on some sobering realities, but I hope that you hear our heart in doing so - it is not because we have a grim fascination with death, but rather that we want to show you the bright hope that the Bible gives to us in spite of death.
There is an interesting documentary film called Dick Johnson is Dead where filmmaker Kirsten Johnson decides to make a documentary about her dying father by fictionally staging his death in multiple ways. It turns out to be a comical yet touching exercise that helps them both come to grips with the reality of his impending death and also bond together as father and daughter. Check out the film trailer here.
Before you continue on in this article, take some time to consider these questions:
Have you known someone personally who had a near-death experience? Or have you ever considered how you might die?
What questions did it make you consider?
No one likes to contemplate their own death. However,
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)
According to the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, death has something to teach us.
Living Life Backward
One of the repeated refrains throughout the book of Ecclesiastes is that death comes for us all. It is the same thing that awaits the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish. Death is what makes trying to find lasting gain in this life alone an exercise in futility - like trying to grab hold of a mist. Yet so few of us spend time contemplating our death - although 10 out of 10 people will die one day! We amuse ourselves until death and it comes as a surprise to us when it does happen. We think it a bitter thing to consider, so we assume we’d be better off pushing it far out of our minds.
However, what Ecclesiastes wants us to realize is that this is not true.
Have you ever had something important - some sort of reckoning - looming that you knew was coming that you didn’t want to deal with at the moment? Consider if you had a massive debt that was overdue, and you received a letter saying that collectors were coming to your door and if you couldn’t pay, they would cease all your property as compensation. But, this is a miserable thing to consider, and it is not going to happen for a few months you reason to yourself. So - you put it off and try to enjoy your days.
If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you know that even though you try to amuse and distract yourself, you cannot actually fully enjoy that time. It eats at your soul and steals your peace. It sneaks into the back door of your thoughts and hijacks your emotions at inopportune times. Even though you may be successful at some moments of distracting yourself with busyness or pleasure, you end up more miserable trying to avoid it. This is what Ecclesiastes is trying to tell us about death.
The solution is not to avoid thinking about it, but rather to think squarely about it. In effect, it is encouraging us to live life backward. In light of the end that’s coming for all of us, how then are we to live? And how are we preparing for that which we know is coming?
Facing the Reality of Death
In Canada, there were over 295,000 deaths in 2020 which represents a 1.55% increase in the death rate. However, surprisingly, even with the current pandemic, this doesn’t represent the highest increase in the death rate. In fact, in terms of the rate of increase in annual deaths, 2015 was higher at a 2.08% increase. According to Statistics Canada’s data, the average number of annual deaths in Canada has been around 275,000 deaths per year for at least the past 5 years and each month, there’s an average of at least 23,673 Canadian deaths. Now, I am not pointing this out to create panic or controversy as to if this is the end of the world and we’re all going to die. In fact, it may be surprising to you that worldwide, the death rates in every year before 2015 have been greater than at present today (which is about 7.645 per 1000 in 2021 - and that's even with the COVID-19 pandemic!). So, at least from a macro perspective, it seems like modern medicine and technological advances in healthy living have actually helped lower previously higher annual death rates globally, and this is good!
However, for most of us, we don’t usually keep up with those kinds of numbers because it would be a sort of morbid fascination. But death is all around us. We live in a culture that tends to sterilize and hide it from us, so when we’re confronted with death it can tend to be shocking.
“As the place of death moved to the hospital, people became less familiar with the sights and sounds of the very ill. Medical personnel took over the intimate care of the patient, often simply because their expertise was required. These changes allowed patients to survive - at least temporarily - diseases that would have killed them. But through this exchange, we forgot what death looks like, and we lost something.” (Rob Moll, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, p.16)
Perhaps our generation has been the least prepared to face death because of how hidden death has become. But death isn’t just the concern of religious people - atheists also struggle with making sense of death. Atheist Thomas Nagel captures the angst:
“I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.” (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, p.130)
Nagel’s problem is not just that he doesn’t believe in God, but that he actually doesn’t want God to exist because of what He fears that means after the grave. However, wishful thinking is not going to cut it. Bryan Magee comes to this conclusion when considering death from his atheistic perspective:
“If the void is the permanent destination of all of us, all value and all significance are merely pretended for purposes of carrying on our little game, like children dressing up. It is, of course, a willing pretense: we cannot bring ourselves to face eternal nothingness, so we busy ourselves with our little lives and all their vacuous pursuits… If I was about to be swallowed up by an everlasting void, nothing I did was of the slightest significance... It could therefore make no difference when I died, and would have made no difference if I had never been born; that I was in any event going to be for all eternity what I would have been if I had never been born; that there was no meaning in any of it, no point in any of it; and that in the end everything was nothing." (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, p.229 & 252)
This is some depressing candour by an atheist who has thought through the logical end of his worldview. This is ultimately what the person who denies the existence of God has to wrestle with - the problem of ultimate meaninglessness. Sure, you may be able to create some temporal meaning for yourself in the here and now, but as we said in prior workshops - meaning can only be as big and last as long as the one who creates it.
If we create our own meaning, then that meaning dies with us and our memory.
Generations come and go, and I’m pretty sure that many of us don’t know more than just a few significant details about the lives of people in our own family just 3 generations ago. In fact, within the space of about 80 years, most people will be totally forgotten by time. That can be really depressing to consider if there is no hope for meaning that is beyond and transcends ourselves. For truly transcendent meaning, we need a transcendent source of meaning.
As Peter Berger has pointed out, "There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas." (Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels, p.81) We can't stand the thought of our lives being terminated. We want to live forever. But this points to something or Someone that is far bigger than we want to imagine. These uneasy sentiments encapsulate the crisis of secularism, modernity, of postmodernity.
How do we make sense of these longings and feelings like death is just not right? What does the Bible have to say?
5 Biblical Points About Death
To find meaning in the face of death, we must look at the Bible’s teaching on death to understand it and be able to confront it. The Bible has a lot to say about death, but for this workshop, we’ll look at 5 main points about death.
1. Death is the result of sin
Not all death is directly attributable to sin in a direct manner. It’s not like we can make connections like - that person died of cancer because they kicked their neighbour’s dog when they were 12. However, on a more ultimate level - all death is a result of sin. God said to the original couple, Adam and Eve,
“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)
It was the entrance of sin into the world from our ancestors, Adam and Eve, who represented all of humanity in their fall into sin that brought all of the curses of sin’s judgment - which includes both physical and spiritual death. God made it clear that there is a causal relationship between sin and death. Later in Romans, the Apostle Paul said,
Romans 6:23a — ‘For the wages of sin is death”
Death is the “wage” or just consequence of sin. Thus, ultimately, the problem of death is actually the problem of sin.
2. Death is an evil intruder into God's good world
It’s a popular saying that “death is just a part of life.” However, death was not part of God’s originally good creation. Prior to the Fall, humans would not have died. God made a good world where we could flourish and enjoy fellowship with Him forever. We were not made to die and this is why, to this day, death still feels like an intruder. Deep down, we know that this was not the way things were meant to be. This is why we mourn the passing of a loved one. Death has robbed us of what we were created for. The Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
Elsewhere he says,
”The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26)
Death is the “last enemy”. So, in a very significant way - death is not “natural”. It’s only natural to us now because all we’ve known is life after Genesis 3. However, it’s not the way things were meant to be. Death is not part of God’s original good creation design - it’s an evil intruder.
3. Death is followed by judgment
What happens after we die?
This is the question that many philosophers and religions have pondered for centuries. Do we continue to exist in some way? Are we reincarnated and have other lives to live and die? Do we get a second chance after we die? Or do we just cease to exist and become lost to the void - like what the atheist philosopher Bryan Magee feared? Some people think that after death is automatic heaven for everyone - except for maybe Hitler...
Well, God does not leave us without guidance on what happens after death. He says it very clearly:
“it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
After death, there is judgment. That’s a sobering reality. No second chances. No reincarnation to another life. God has appointed to people one life and we will be judged based on how we’ve lived. As Paul says,
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Jesus himself says,
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, or by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
We will give account for every careless word! By that standard, none of us can stand - we’ve all said things we’ve regretted. But why should we believe Jesus? If there’s anyone we should believe about what happens after we die, it should be the guy who actually died, was dead for three days and came back to life again as a matter of historical fact. No other religious figure can legitimately claim this. Jesus Christ is the One True God who has come in human flesh to face death, conquer it and tell us what is on the other side. We would do well to heed his words. The apostle John writes of God’s final judgment on the Last Day:
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” (Revelation 20:12)
God will judge everyone perfectly. There will be no injustice in the final account. Nothing will be overlooked.
In 1990, my father and I were in Toronto visiting family when the Coup happened in Trinidad. A radical Islamic group violently overthrew our parliament and held the country hostage. During that time, my father’s business which he had worked so hard to build to get our family out of poverty was robbed, ransacked and burnt. The perpetrators were never brought to justice in this life. Though I was only 6 years old at the time, I always remember it and how devastating it felt. Many others feel the cry of injustice well up inside of them for evils that never seem to be dealt with. However, Jesus says that at the final judgment, no one will escape. This is good news when we consider all the injustice and evil that we see today. So many wrongs go unpunished, so many innocents suffer, so many corrupt and wicked people seem to getaway. If all we have is this life, it seems to be a very unfair one with no hope of ultimate justice.
However, this is also dreadful news for those who will be judged guilty by God’s perfect moral standards.
4. Death for unbelievers leads to eternal punishment
Hell is one of those topics we all get squeamish talking about. It seems too terrible, too dark, too awful to even say out loud to many of us. Perhaps this is why the majority of the teaching we have about Hell in the New Testament is actually directly from the lips of Jesus Christ himself. No one else but the incarnate Son of God could have the right to define so clearly such a sobering reality. Speaking of the Last Judgment, Jesus says:
“Then [the Son of Man] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. … And these will go away into eternal punishment …” (Matthew 25:41, 46)
Hell is described by Jesus as a place of eternal punishment. But punishment for what? Punishment for sin. Unlike what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, there is no mention of Purgatory as a ‘second chance’ to purge those who die in their sins. This was an unbiblical invention.
Speaking to the hypocritical religious leaders of his day, Jesus said to them about Hell:
“In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:28)
Weeping signifies misery and the “gnashing of teeth” refers to anger, rage and contempt for God. In Acts 7:54 the gnashing of teeth is done by the Jews in anger because of what Stephen had said to the Jewish Council: “They were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” So, we see that Hell is a place of anguish, but also that people are not suddenly turned favourably towards God in Hell but continue in their rebellion and hatred against Him. If people were not seeking after Him and opposed to Him in this life, that continues on in eternity. Repentance and turning to Christ are for now, while we’re still alive. This is why the Scriptures tell us, “Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts…” (Hebrews 3:15)
But why does Hell exist?
God is perfectly just, so every evil must be brought to justice. Just as a good and righteous judge must punish criminals, so too God is the Ultimate Good Judge. Thus, although talking about God’s wrath may make us uncomfortable, if we care about justice - then it is necessary to talk about God’s wrath against sin.
Sin is the problem that brought death into His good creation. Sin is a direct affront to His loving rule. We often have less problem when we hear of humans seeking imperfect vengeance for some great wrong done against them than we do when we talk about a perfectly holy, just, righteous, and good God delivering perfect justice. God’s just wrath is not just blind unrestrained rage. That’s a common misconception. It’s not God losing His cool like an out-of-control maniac or lashing out. It’s God giving what justice requires in just measure to those who are guilty.
G.C. Berkouwer describes God’s just wrath like this:
“No longer will evil be called good and good evil; no longer will darkness be turned into light and light into darkness; no longer will bitter be made sweet and sweet bitter (Isa. 5:20). The conflict between good and evil will come to an end, as will all arguments about motives, intentions, and the nature of good. . . . Error will be exposed; real error, turning away from the Lord.” (G.C. Berkouwer)
Hell is the expression of God’s justice against evil because He is a Good Judge. Paul actually says that part of the reason why Christians should be passionate about reaching people with the Gospel is that we know that God is just and must judge,
“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” (2 Corinthians 5:11a)
Hell is a dreadful thought. Indeed, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. But it is in light of this fear and reverent awe that we seek to warn others and tell them of the only hope for escaping God’s judgment.
Atheist and popular magician, Penn Gillette, once said,
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
To warn people of Hell and to tell them of the glorious salvation offered freely in Christ is the most loving thing we can do as Christians. God is a fair and just God. His justice is perfect. No sinner will escape. Though it may seem like people get away with gross injustice and evil in this life, the price for every evil will be paid. It will be paid either by the sinner who has committed it or by Jesus Christ who is the substitute for sinners who place their full trust in His work alone to pay their debt.
5. Death for believers leads to eternal life and joy
While death is a dreadful prospect for unbelievers, for believers who trust in Christ for salvation and follow him, there is a delightful hope.
“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. … then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'” (1 Corinthians 15:52, 54-55)
Paul says here that on that last day, death will be swallowed up in victory - what a glorious hope!
This all obviously hinges on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul makes this argument in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus was not raised, then our faith is in vain. However, Christ has been raised - God has given us the certainty of this fact through His Word which is the highest authoritative source as its origin is from God himself. We can see the veracity of this fact in what we see in history.
As we know, history is not like the other sciences. You cannot perform an experiment to determine what happened in the past. The past, being the past, is not repeatable. So the way we have knowledge about the past is by historical record - not by way of experimentation and observation. The Bible gives us a reliable account of the past because it comes from the very Author of History. Many discoveries in ancient history and archaeology help to provide demonstrations of this and there are too many to cover here (but there are a lot of great books and resources that cover this). We see exactly what we would expect in history because Jesus really did rise.
The Disciples' Boldness: His group of formerly cowardly apostles suddenly were emboldened by their seeing the physically Resurrected Christ - so much so that they all endured terrible suffering and martyrdom. People don’t suffer torture and death for what they know is a lie.
Suffering for Truth: Some object that the disciples fabricated the story because it would benefit them. However, the early disciples had nothing to gain by fabricating a lie - they suffered much loss for the truth because they knew it was true. Many continued to be poor and persecuted and increasingly shunned in society. In an earthly sense, they lost not gained because of their insistence on the resurrection.
The Roman Guard: The Roman guards were trained killers and would have suffered the death penalty for failing in their duties to guard the tomb - how would a rag-tag group of fishermen/disciples steal the body? Also, the stone itself was probably about 1-2 tonnes and would have taken a lot of manpower to move.
Swoon Theory: Some claim Jesus never died on the Cross but merely fainted or seemed dead then revived in the cool of the tomb. However, revived Jesus that was either half-dead, revived or a stolen corpse would not inspire people to lay down their lives for him. After the Roman beating, the crucifixion and the spear wound to his side - he would have been in terrible shape if he did survive and the disciples would have been trying to help nurse his wounds, not be in amazement at him.
Resurrection Appearances: Paul said that the resurrected Jesus appeared to over 500 people and challenged his opponents to “fact-check” him. It would be incredibly easy to discredit the early Christian movement because there were so many eye-witnesses alive to testify. So, why else did the Christian message have staying power for so long in the face of so much opposition?
Hallucination Theory: Trying to explain it away as a “mass-hallucination” is to posit another miracle to explain a miracle. People who hallucinate don’t have the same hallucination because it is in each person’s brain. Also, many of the martyrs do not seem like deluded persons who saw a hallucination but rather sane and reasonable people who knew without a shadow of a doubt what they saw.
The Meaning of the Resurrection
There are many more facts of history that could be considered which give attestation to the certainty of Scripture’s assertion of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can look these up online or in apologetics books if you would like to dig in deeper. However, apart from God’s Word, the resurrection is just another strange event. Weird things happen. The person who is unwilling to listen to God’s Word will always find a way to make an excuse for their rebellion. Don’t take my word for it though, this is what Jesus himself says:
“If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Ultimately, it is God’s Word that persuades and helps us to make sense of the resurrection because it also gives meaning to it as not just another weird fact of history. The Bible interprets what Jesus’s resurrection means for us. Here are a few things it means:
God has set a Day of Judgment (Acts 17:31)
God has vindicated Christ’s work on the Cross (Acts 2:24)
God fulfilled his promises from the Old Testament (e.g. Psa. 16:10 & Acts 2:25-31)
God will fulfill His promises to all His people (Heb. 11:13)
Because we who hope in Christ will be raised (1 Thessalonians 4:14; Romans 8:11; John 11:25-26)
Christ is the reigning Lord (Ephesians 1:20-21; Col. 3:1)
As Dr. K. Scott Oliphint has said:
“The reason that Christians believe in the resurrection is because, since sin came into the world, the fact of Christ’s resurrection, together with its meaning, comprises the center of God’s entire plan for the world.”
The resurrection is not just some random isolated event in history. It is part of God’s all-encompassing, comprehensive plan of Redemption for the world - the central point of human history. To believe in the resurrection is to embrace a totally different worldview - a way of looking at the world according to the Bible’s truth and in submission to Christ’s Lordship.
The Hope of the Resurrection
Many people, when they think of Heaven think of comic strips illustrating people with wings playing harps on a cloud. But this is far from what the Bible describes as our hope after the grave - and thank God for that!
There is coming a day when those who have trusted in Christ to pay their sin debt will be raised to new life with him in resurrected and glorified bodies like his. No longer will we have to be worried about our bodies wearing away or being riddled by the effects of sin - such as disease and sickness. We will be changed. The curse of sin that happened in Genesis 3 will be finally and fully reversed.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
In that eternal state to come, there will be no more death or sadness. This is what Jesus Christ has guaranteed in his death and resurrection. This is the Christian’s hope in death and beyond death. This is why the apostle Paul could say, as he wrote from within a Roman prison,
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. … My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:21, 23)
Far better. What death brings for the Christian is far better. Can you believe that? Why? Because death for the Christian, though it still is an intruder and enemy in God’s good creation, it is a defeated foe. Christ has been raised victorious over death and his victory through death is also the victory of every person who is united to him through faith in him. Through death, God brings us to be with Christ - and that is far better.
How do we face death?
“We need to recognize that our problem is far worse than we’ve admitted, so that we can recognize that Jesus is a far greater Savior than we’ve known. A clear diagnosis of the problem beneath our problems prepares us for the only worthy cure for what ails us. Honesty about death is the only sure path to living hope—hope that can weather the problems of life under the sun. We must compare our problems with death so we can compare our problems with glory.” (Matt Mccullough)
If you think your sin is small - no big deal - then you won’t see Jesus as such a big deal either. He is, after all, the sin-bearing Saviour. Many people today tend to think that their sin is a small deal because they have a small view of the bigness and holiness of the infinite and Just God we must all stand before in judgment. Don’t be like that. Have you soberly taken account of your life and how you will stand before a Holy God?
None of our good deeds can save us. No other spiritual guru or religious leader can stand in and advocate for us. We must come empty-handed before His throne to plead for mercy like the hymn-writer penned: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling.” Only the perfect righteousness of Christ is worthy of eternal life. Only the sinless death of Christ can pay the wages of sin. As we said at the beginning: God is perfectly just. All sin will be paid for. Either it will be paid by the sinner, or by the sin-bearing Saviour who died to save sinners like me and you. This is why Christians reason this way:
“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore you, secure you, strengthen you, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)
So, how do we face death and the grave? Through the lens of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
The Heidelberg Catechism from the Protestant Reformation in 1563 summarizes this well for us. It asks:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and death? A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Only through Jesus Christ is there hope for facing death with meaning that is transcendently bigger than us and a hope that goes beyond the grave.
I’d like to share a video with you of a man who is very dear to our church community. Mike Rogers was our Deaf Interpreter. He was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and has gone to be with His Lord. Before his death, he recorded a message about his cancer diagnosis. It is such an amazing example of the Christian’s hope in facing death.
Take some time to reflect on these questions:
Read 1 Corinthians 15:3-22
What are your initial reactions to this passage? What stands out?
What hope does this passage give to us in facing death?