by Rick Straub
Death: How uplifting! The ultimate experience!
Of course, this is ridiculous. Death is not inspiring; it is depressing. Death is revolting, ugly, morbid, and cold.
All of us at times ponder our existence and the inevitability of death, and this is good. Death shouldn’t be a topic explored by only the terminally ill and dying or the recently bereaved. Here we’ll examine some responses to the difficult problem death poses for mankind. We’ll look at man’s failure to solve this problem and at God’s solution, total victory, and the death of death.
How do people respond to their imminent death? Through five sequential psychological stages, according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. In her book On Death and Dying, she summarizes these stages, based on studying and interviewing dying patients. We can see the psychological difficulty we mortals face when confronting death.
- Denial. When first confronted with the news of their impending death, people refuse to accept it, denying reality.
- Anger. This second stage produces a resentment toward everybody and everything. Patients lash out at doctors, nurses, and family. This stage signals a partial acceptance of imminent death.
- Bargaining. In this stage people desperately attempt to buy more time from doctors or from God. They seek an extension, hoping to live a little longer.
- Depression. This is a difficult period produced by sorrow over failures and disappointment over elusive goals. People question the meaning of life.
- Full acceptance. Those in the last psychological stage live in quiet expectation of death. They come to grips with the inevitable.
We live in a culture that views death with fear. We avoid it at all cost, speaking politely in euphemisms: “He passed on”; “She expired”; “He was fatally injured”; “She is no longer with us.” We fail to realistically comprehend our own mortality, thinking death only grasps at the “other guy.”
Are we wrong to deny and avoid death? Should we rather welcome it as martyrs, considering death of greater value than living? These are difficult questions; we run into trouble at either extreme. Before we learn what our response to death should be, we must understand what death is.
Death is harsh. It is man’s greatest enemy. Caused by sin and sponsored by Satan, death robs us of the gift of life God breathed into us.
Death was not part of God’s “very good” creation, but was brought about by Adam and Eve’s sin. It is a curse sinful man deserves, yet detests and denies.
Facing the problem
We must overcome our squeamishness about death to deal with the problems it generates. One of these problems is the lack of permanence that raises the question “What use is living if everything is temporary?”
Life is temporary. Soon it is over and that is it; only silence remains where once a unique individual moved and breathed, worked and played. Life’s accomplishments are also temporary, soon destroyed or forgotten. Life’s possessions so patiently and purposely acquired are lost with the ending of life.
In our temporary world, where is the meaning for our existence? Soon we die, and what remains? Nothing! All is as though we never existed. “All is vanity,” as the book of Ecclesiastes says. Life is a short breath, a vanishing vapor. Everything we do seems pointless.
The search for permanence
Human history illustrates man’s search for what lasts. Man has ingeniously found answers — nearly always the wrong ones.
The ancient Egyptians built majestic monuments to last through the ages, to be permanent memorials of their mighty power. They mummified their rulers and important dignitaries to secure for them a life beyond death. The memorials are now evident, but only as eroding shadows of a former splendor. Mummies and their sacred chambers have been ransacked and destroyed.
Such instances display the futility of man’s efforts to gain immortality. The Egyptians’ answer to the problem of man s temporary nature failed.
Ancient Greek philosophers argued that the soul of man is immortal. One could rest comfortably, knowing the soul possessed a permanence that continued after the body died. The Platonic idea of the soul existing in a dismembered state has a wide influence, even within Christianity. But as a means of confronting man’s mortal existence, it too fails. It is an idea based purely on speculation and circular reasoning, not on meaningful or biblical reality.
Several eastern religions, like Hinduism, teach reincarnation This doctrine resembles the Greek philosophers’ explanation of the immortal soul. We are told the world we see is maya (illusion); the mortal soul is reality. This reality leaves the body at death to be reborn into another creature, whether man or beast. Reincarnated souls inhabit bodily forms until they reach the “ultimate reality,” thus becoming a part of the “world soul.” This answer may relieve anxiety over impending death, but is only a fantasy, not a reality.
What alternatives exist to these fantasies? Society’s humanistic philosophy would have us believe that man’s only god is himself, that there is no answer to the temporary state of our existence, that there is no hope. Man is a biological machine having as much chance at permanence and eternal life as an electric can opener. Humanism thrives on modern selfishness. Enjoy all you can at any cost! That is what life is all about. How shallow, unfulfilling, and hopeless is life based on such hedonistic reasoning.
Hope in Christ
Are we then left without hope? No!
Paul, a biblical writer, stated, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The if in this statement is critical. We do have hope, based on what is stated later in this chapter: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (v. 22). Christ’s promised return to earth assures that death will be destroyed (v. 26).
The key to confronting death is in the hope founded on the true revelation of the one real God. Faith in Jesus Christ, the “Prince of life,” is hope. Our death is but a rest from which we’ll be awakened at the return of Christ. As the grave could not contain Jesus, neither will it contain God’s children from resurrection.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (vv. 51-55).
How reassuring to know that through Jesus, life is not temporary but permanent; the eternal reign of God will be permanent. Conversely, death is not permanent but temporary.
Death is harsh. It is our enemy and cannot be ignored. We need not be preoccupied with death, but we should confront it realistically. Death is not a happening we should constantly fear and deny.
Paul admonishes that we respond to death by standing firm in Christ. Let us not despair of death, but delight in our Deliverer! Let us summon all our energy to run the race of life leading to victory. Let death not lead us into depression, but motivate us to seek the Giver of life.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
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