What is the fundamental difference between how Christians view the subject of death versus non-Christians? It turns out that the contrast in perspective is startling.
First, a true story …
The other day, a friend of mine told me about a gentleman friend of hers who had just received the dreaded news that his cancer tests had come back positive, and he wasn’t expected to live more than two or three weeks.
Weeks! Most of us would freak out at such a dire prognosis.
My friend visited the man a few days later and she found him to be excited and brimming with anticipation.
“I wonder what it will be like,” he giddily repeated, “What will it be like to meet Jesus face-to-face?”
What struck me about this story was this man’s childlike anticipation of “shuffling off his mortal coil,” as Hamlet once said.
He was not a man who was given to baseless “Que será, será” pop-psych positive thinking. Nor was he hoping to get a favorable hearing in heaven because he had “lived a good life.”
His optimism was based on something outside of himself entirely.
He had long since embraced Jesus as his Savior — the same Jesus who, in John 11:25-26, once declared unequivocally, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in Me will live, even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”
That “never die” claim wasn’t referring to his physical body — he could see the physical part of his being was rapidly winding down. Instead, he believed that Jesus’ promise extended to his all-important spiritual being and ,consequently, his spiritual essence would never be separated from God.
Someone once said, “He is a fool whose plans end at the grave.” This dying man’s plans had been made well in advance and his “death” was not an end but a commencement into the bright, broad uplands of eternal life.
Look backward from the grave.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day …
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
— Dylan Thomas
And then there are those who lack assurance of an afterlife, and are without hope beyond the grave, who “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In a 2014 interview, director Woody Allen bleakly commented:
My relationship with death remains the same. I am very strongly against it. … Everyone needs their own little fictions to cope with the harshness of life. I do feel that it’s a grim, pitiful, nightmarish, meaningless experience. The only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself, and I’m not the first person to say this or the most articulate person on it. It was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, and it was said by Eugene O’Neill. One must have one’s delusions to live. You look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable, because it’s a pretty grim enterprise, you must admit.”
Upon death’s approach, such people are limited to focusing on a carefully curated review of their lives, often through ornate funerals, well-disposed speakers, orchestrated memorial services, philanthropic donations in their names, etc.
But what is never discussed are the inevitable “woulda-coulda-shouldas” that go along with a backward review of an imperfect life lived in a broken world.
And don’t think the opportunity to make a few bucks from our human frailties about death has fallen on deaf ears.
A Nov. 3 Wall Street Journal article, “The Funeral Industry — How Morticians Are Putting the Fun in Funerals,” observed, “At an industry convention in Baltimore last month, funeral directors were invited to a workshop on how to ‘build your preneed customer pipeline’ and ‘generate warm leads.’ Among the pro tips some have implemented: Dinners at cemeteries, so-called death cafés and burial-plot lotteries … You have to find a way to make the conversation as pleasant as possible …”
Kind of creepy.
However, there is a way to steer the subject of death in a far more positive direction — but it involves some honest soul searching.
How About You?
In his book Renovation of the Heart, Christian philosopher Dallas Willard cautioned, “We should be very sure that the ruined soul is not one who has missed a few more or less important theological points and will flunk a theological examination at the end of life. Hell is not an ‘oops!’ or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by constant effort to avoid and escape God … The ruined soul must be willing to hear of and recognize its own ruin before it can find out how to enter a different path, the path of eternal life …”
— D.C. Collier is a Bible teacher, discipleship mentor and writer focused on Christian apologetics. A mechanical engineer and internet entrepreneur, he is the author of My Origin, My Destiny, a book focused on Christianity’s basic “value proposition.” Click here for more information, or contact him at email@example.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.