The assisted suicide bill that is slowly progressing through the House of Lords made the headlines again last week. Looking at the coverage it was once again a reminder that part of the reason why there are such polarised views on the issue is the way we treat death itself. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, our beliefs about what may lie beyond the grave will affect how we see and value the life that leads up to the point of death. Too often this debate approaches death in a clinical and mechanical way that neglects all of the emotions, fears and hopes that are intertwined with this aspect of our mortal existence.
Today’s writer, the Revd. Canon J. John takes on this taboo in his guest post.
J John is an internationally recognised Christian speaker and author. He has written over 50 books and spoken in 69 countries, teaching the Christian faith and addressing over 300,000 people in person each year. His series Just 10 (on the Ten Commandments) has now exceeded one million people in attendance.
My friend Brenda is undergoing treatment for cancer. Recently she said something that caused me to reflect on death and dying; ‘All of us are dying, some just don’t realise it’.
Whenever I go into a newsagent’s I am intrigued at the different specialist magazines on display. However, there is one topic which appears to be absent in the journals, colour magazines and glossy monthlies; that topic is death. As death is a universal human experience, that omission is very striking. There is the Morticians’ Monthly or the Undertakers’ Journal, but these are trade journals and there is no reflection on death from the consumer’s point of view, as it were. Why is that here in the West, we choose not to talk about death? In fact, some people refuse to think about it at all – which is about as rational as denying the existence of gravity. The most undeniable of all statistics is that life is 100% fatal.
What’s wrong with death? For a start, there is a great deal of uncertainty about it. Most people have very little idea about the afterlife. Many seem to think it involves sitting on a cloud; a heaven that must be hell if you suffer from vertigo! And if you ask the question, ‘What’s beyond death?’, most people will reply that they don’t know. Some have a confident belief that there is nothing after death; yet that statement in itself is an act of faith. Throughout history, most of humanity had faith in life after death. Today, whilst many are anxious that the grave is the end, others are worried that it is not. Many people have unanswered questions leading to a fear of death and in popular western culture there is little discussion around the topic of death.
It is not just the uncertainty that is the problem with death, it is so disruptive! Everyone agrees that death really plays havoc with your schedule; our hopes and dreams – it all ends. You look forward to seeing your grandchildren grow up or watching the tree you planted produce fruit of its own. Then death comes to steal it all away. The ancient depiction of death as a skeleton with a scythe got one thing right; he cuts things short. And death does not just rob individuals, it also robs society. Death stole Mozart at the age of 35 and Steve Jobs at 56; it has stolen away countless others, some dear to us.
The finality of death is extraordinarily democratic. Whether we are in control of a multi-billion-pound business empire or could put all our belongings in a single suitcase – death ends all our achievements, all our joys, all our labours and all our hopes. With death, everybody starts speaking about us in the past tense and we slide into history preserved only in fading photographs and video clips.
Many people are troubled by the thought that death brings isolation. Some of us are fortunate enough to be surrounded by family and friends when we die. Yet with death, that ends. You may have faced every crisis for fifty years with your spouse at your side, but at the end, we all die alone.
Uncertainty, finality, loneliness – these would be bad enough, but many people are also concerned that death brings judgement. The common expression, ‘I’ll have to answer to that someday’, highlights this fear of judgement.
Many people would dismiss the notion of being ‘summoned for an interview with senior management’, as a primitive superstition. Yet when contemplating mass murderers or other violent criminals, we may all like to believe that beyond the grave, justice will be done. Accountability for our lives and actions however is a far less comfortable prospect.
So death disturbs us because it is an enemy with many threats and no answers. Uncertainty, finality, loneliness and judgement are serious issues that cannot be easily brushed aside with flowers, sentimental verses and wishful thinking. In the face of death, what can usefully be said to brighten the picture? Where can we turn for answers?
Throughout history, only one group of people has confidently proclaimed that death has been conquered. They were, and are – the followers of Jesus Christ. Their confidence is based on three things. Firstly, Jesus’ proclamation that he was Lord over death (John 11:25-26), that he would preside on the day of judgement (Matthew 25:31-46) and that he would oversee the remaking of the world (Matthew 19:28). Secondly, Jesus backed up his claims to have conquered death by raising people from the dead (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44). Thirdly, and most significantly, Jesus himself was risen from the dead, after having been executed and buried; demonstrating in the most dramatic manner that he had indeed truly defeated death. Although it may seem too good to be true, there is an enormous amount of historical evidence that the resurrection actually happened. If you read the New Testament books that follow the four Gospel books (Acts, the Letters and the Book of Revelation), you will see that within a few decades of Jesus’ crucifixion, the early church were talking about him in the present tense and speaking to him in prayer as if he was with them (1 Corinthians 15:20; Hebrews 1:3; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 1:18). In fact, the most fundamental Christian statement of belief, ‘Jesus is Lord’, depends on the resurrection.
So let’s revisit those problems associated with death. Uncertainty? Followers of Jesus have confidence in what is going to happen. They follow someone who has gone through death and come out the other side (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). He is the Lord over life and death.
Finality? Jesus promised his followers that there was a life beyond this life. He promised an existence of such value and worth that even the best earthly life would not compare with it. Facing his death, Jesus spoke of going to prepare a place for his disciples so that they could be with him (John 14:1-4). On the cross he comforted a criminal being crucified with him with the words ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
Loneliness? Jesus promised his followers that he would be with them ‘always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). That’s a promise that has not reached its expiry date.
Judgement? Jesus talked about judgement but claimed that he himself, ‘the Son of Man’, would be the judge (John 5:27; Acts 10:42). Christians have always expressed this as a simple if stark choice: we can either know Jesus as Saviour now or face him as Judge later.
Death is serious and solemn. Yet the message that triumphantly echoes throughout the pages of the New Testament is this: the destroying power of death has been defeated. Hear what Jesus himself said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ (John 11:25). In Jesus Christ, death has met its match. It has been destroyed itself.
When the time comes for us to die, we need not be afraid, because death cannot separate us from God’s love.