The sting of death
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 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 eternal state before the god they worship. Many know in their hearts they are unprepared to meet the God they have denied their whole lives. Death for them is accountability for a life lived in godlessness.
For Christians, the matter is still monumental. While we can have confidence in our eternal destiny, much of what will occur after death is unknown to us. Additionally, the process of dying often is fearsome. Even the pain and decline of aging 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. 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. Imagine the collection of scuffs and wounds we would collect if we lived another 100 or 1,000 years! It's not a pretty thought.
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 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 complicated 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.
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 an example of that. 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. There is no solution to their fear but the Gospel we bear. Remember that we will all die either in terror or in bright anticipation of the God we all will meet.
Our churches don't give as much attention to the doctrine of man's eternal state as the Bible does. A look at heaven will salt our imaginations so 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 also should 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 states 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 will have substance, as Jesus' body did, and likely will have some ability to sensually perceive the experience of their surroundings.
As great as that sounds to those of us who are bound for glory, it is proportionally bad for those who are not. 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 from 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. Most of our neighbors, however, grieve without hope. They whistle past the graveyard.
I believe this is something about which God cares very much. So must we.
Gary Ledbetter is editor of the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.