“I’m not scared of dyin,’
and I don’t really care.
If it’s peace you find in dyin,’
well then let the time be near.”
“When I Die,” Blood, Sweat, and Tears, 1969.
There’s the rub. Is it peace you find in dying, or something more? Our sometimes bluff attitude towards death makes too little of its inevitability and finality. Death is cause for healthy fear and respect.
The sting of death is sin, we’re told in 1 Corinthians 15:56. Sin is the first cause of death and the reason that death is as ubiquitous as sin. As such we dread it rightly. Those outside of Christ dread it because their own faith leaves them uncertain as to their own eternal state before the god they worship.
Many of those know in their own hearts that they are unprepared to meet the God they have denied their whole lives. Death for them is an accountability for a life lived in godlessness. In the face of that, only fictional characters and healthy young people remain relatively fearless.
For Christians, the matter is still monumental. While we can have confidence in our eternal life, much of what will occur after death is unknown to us. Additionally, the process of dying is often fearsome. The pain and decline of even the natural aging and dying process shows the consequences of sin in gritty and stark ways. None of it is for wimps.
We must say, though, that death and dying is generally a good news/bad news thing for mankind. The good news is that our experience of physical mortality is of limited duration. The bad news, as we’ve said, is that we will answer for what we do. Let me speak of them each in more detail.
Physical death is a gift from God when you consider that the alternative is eternal life in a fallen and declining condition. Corrupt man collects a lot of bumps and bruises over the course of a normal life.
Most bodies go into the ground with missing organs (a kidney here, a spleen there), scars, degraded joints, and reconstructed teeth. By late middle age, we begin to think of how much longer we need something to work before we take extraordinary measures to restore its youthful perfection.
Imagine the collection of scuffs and wounds we would collect if we lived another hundred or thousand years. It’s not a pretty thought. Those who dream of immortality want to fix their own development at 30 or some other youthful point in life. That’s piling unreasonable on top of impossible. I honestly believe that God banned Adam and Eve from the garden to protect them from a fallen and corrupting immortality. He was punishing them, yes, but also showing a deeper mercy so that they would have hope of freedom from their new mortality.
I’ve attended more than a few funerals where the joy of the departed person’s new life far exceeded the sense of loss. This friend had a degenerative nerve disease, this grandfather crippling respiratory problems, that grandmother the effects of multiple strokes?all made new after their souls were freed from their malfunctioning bodies. Christians have a comfort in not only the hope of Heaven but also in the best kind of healing for someone they love.
The bad news is that most people miss both the comfort and the hope. Health concerns aside, after a life lived on a man’s own terms, things get so labyrinthine as to be incomprehensible, and unpleasant.
Corruption and rebellion conspire together to make this life untenable. And yet, we’re foolish to believe eternal life is in no way connected to our mortal one. Lost men find themselves with one foot on a rotting, collapsing dock and the other on a burning boat. Death becomes a terrible watershed whether a man has made a conscious decision against God or just in favor of everything ungodly.
You’ve heard the expression “whistling past the graveyard” to describe someone who feigns unconcern regarding something he truly fears. The song I quoted at the top is as example of that. So was Sinatra’s, “now, the end is near and I face the final curtain ? I did it my way,” and “whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong, whether I find a place in the world or never belong, I’ve gotta be me, I’ve gotta be free.” I heard those two songs at a funeral, by the way. It’s delusion, bravado.
To those lost men I say “Yes, fear death!” Fear the Lord who judges the living and the dead. You will certainly fear him when you face him. It’s better to face him now.
To you Christians who read this, listen to a culture that speaks foolishly of ultimate things. Watch those who twitch and fidget at Grandma’s funeral. The solution to their fear is nothing but the gospel we bear. Remember that we will all die in terror or bright anticipation of the God we will all meet.
It is a fine thing that we examine the doctrine of man’s eternal state. Our churches don’t give as much attention to that subject as does the Bible.
A look at Heaven will salt our imaginations so that we more earnestly seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Learning about Hell will fill our hearts with gratitude for our great salvation. It should also make us pity those for whom the despair of this life is only a foretaste of their eternal state. How can we, believing what we say we believe, be uncaring about the fate of our neighbors?
I believe it’s all real. Yes, Heaven and Hell are a state wherein we are in the presence of or separated from God. That state of existence begins here in small ways that seem very big to our sensibilities. But they are also real places where resurrected bodies will dwell for eternity. These bodies have substance, as Jesus’ body did, and likely will have some ability to sensually perceive the experience of their surrounding. In other words, we will be able to feel pleasure and pain in our resurrected bodies.
As great as that sounds to those of us who are bound for glory, it is proportionally bad for those who are not. The real torture of Hell and pleasure of Heaven will be spiritual but not merely so. It is often said that Heaven will be filled with unimaginable joy and comfort. Our creative God, the author of beauty and love, has prepared a place that perfectly reflects his nature. We believe that and can go on about the revealed and imagined hope of Heaven.
The Bible uses burning to describe the torture of Hell. I believe this conveys the worst kind of pain the human body can experience. How much more serious could this warning be to us all? Do we believe in Hell as literally as we believe in Heaven? In the Bible, the reality of condemnation and reward are inseparable. Our convictions regarding one should not differ in degree with our convictions about the other.
Our Savior has taken the sting out of death for us. Our bodies will die but our souls and resurrected bodies will forever experience the completeness of life. For most of our neighbors, the sting is still in. They grieve without hope; they whistle and sing past the graveyard. I believe this is something about which God cares very much. So must we. Even the comfort we receive in this life is for God’s purpose and his glory.