By: Larry T. Smith
Somewhere, lurking behind the curtain of the unknowable future, an empty casket or cremation urn patiently waits to be filled with our earthly remains. What is yet to be revealed is the time and manner of our passing. Will it be a good death or will it be a bad death?
What is a good death we might wonder. Let it be painless, instantaneous, let it come in our sleep, may we never know what hit us, just a blinding flash and then let it be over, then comes eternal quiet. A friend said, “I want to be napping in my rocking chair with my cat in my lap when the time comes.” That sounds good!
In contrast, what is a bad death. Let us pray that it won’t be the seemingly endless agony of terminal cancer, the horror of burning to death in a car crash, or gasping for each life-giving breath as COVID-19 ravages our body. Can we even begin to image the white-hot mind-numbing pain that our Lord experienced as his tortured and broken body was nailed to the cross, an iron spike hammered first through one foot, then the other?
So might our thoughts go as we mull over the physical side of our inevitable departure from this world, but what of the spiritual side? What of our consciousness after we take our last breath? Is there some sort of awareness? The atheist or agnostic will probably say there is no such thing as life after death, just oblivion, a solid wall with nothing beyond. Understandably, they cling tenaciously to their earthly existence, greedily gulping every last drop of whatever pleasure and comfort it has to offer. With this mind-set one might face imminent death with resignation, even horror, or just fear of losing all that is familiar and comforting.
But wait, is pondering the manner of our departure from this world even worthwhile? Couldn’t we change the subject? Isn’t it the task of the world (Satan) to convince us that we shouldn’t be concerned about it? Of course, but reality screams at us from The Letter of James: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”-you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears (James 4:13-14). In the popular language of today: It is what it is.
Our Christian hope is that death doesn’t place us squarely in front of a solid wall through which there is no passage. On the contrary, it places us in front of a gate that we can’t wait to get through, because on the other side we can see Jesus standing there with open arms. As we sprint towards the Lord that we have loved for so long, we realize that this is all we had hoped and prayed for!
Is it possible to gain the kind of faith that allows us to regard death as a mere gate through which we must pass through to get to our Lord? Aren’t the saints from A to Z proof that it is indeed possible to have that much love for our Lord? They regarded the time of their earthly existence as a kind of exile, something to be endured as they waited to be with their God.
Still yet, the question hangs in the air: How is it possible to be so much in love with the Lord that death holds no fear for us? In the beginning, we must accept the gift of faith that Jesus, with mercy and love, offers to us. Then we have to get to know Him. Whereas the Apostles and early Church Fathers were privileged to know and speak with the Lord, our only recourse is to know Him is through the Scriptures and prayer; it is there that He speaks to us; it is there that we can establish a relationship with Him.
In 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, St. Paul writes,“Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Clearly, this is the pinnacle of faith that we so desperately seek. And the mission of every Christian Church is to assist us in attaining it. Sadly, the leaders of some churches have seemingly lost sight of this—the very reason for their existence.
From Mark 9:24, we read: Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Moving from "l believe, help my unbelief" to "l believe” is a life long process, however long or short it might be. It follows that our life's spiritual journey revolves around making that transition and it is only possible with the Lord’s loving help.