There is …a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance (from Ecclesiastes 1:1-8).
Over the past year, I have lost both of my parents to death. Less than a month ago, my dad died. It has been very interesting, watching the reactions of people who hear the news. Cordially, everyone is sorry for my loss. But it is astonishing how many folks will then gloss over the reality of death in their efforts to be nice to me.
For example, I am quite frank in saying that my father died. But most people I run into would rather talk euphemistically about someone’s passing instead. I am sure it is a desire to be polite and not offend a grieving person, but when someone passes, what does that really mean? Does that really tell the truth about death?
Here is a list of some sentiments that have been expressed to me over the past month:
“At least there is an end to your dad’s suffering. There is too much suffering in the world.”
“Your dad is in a better place. He is with your mother now.”
“Your dad is looking down upon you now… and smiling!”
All of these are quite bold statements, if you think about them. How do we know there is no suffering after death? How do we know that a loved-one is in a happier, better place, with others that are also loved… and smiling? Are any of these assertions true?
A curious one is that both my mom and dad are together now, implying that they are still married in the afterlife. But according to classic Bible teaching in Matthew 22:23-33, the bonds of matrimony are terminated upon death. Mormons, however, do believe that marriage goes on into eternity, but my parents were never Mormons, though we did have some Mormon missionaries knock on our door once back in 1978. I think they gave my mom some kind of pamphlet while my dad snuck out the back door to go cut the grass.
So, what then is the basis for the truthfulness of any of these assertions? Is scientific substantiation possible? Is it through some sort of revelation from a divine being, an intervention into human history? Or is it through the speculation offered by one’s own wishful thinking? How reliable is that? Could it be, that such sentimentality is a type of coping mechanism designed to take our minds off of what we fear the most?
A Culture Fearful of Death
In the weeks preceding the deaths of my parents, I spent hours with them, talking about spiritual things and reading the Bible with them. My parents were both church-going people. So, you would think that on that basis alone, they would both have the assurance that they would be with Jesus after they die. Sadly, though many simply assume differently, I never heard either my mom or dad express to me verbally that they had such assurance.
When I asked my mom and dad, “do you think you will be with Jesus forever and ever in God’s heaven?” Both of my parents simply replied, “I hope so.”
Is this the type of “hope” that the Bible teaches? Is it a type of “hope” that has the utmost confidence in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the truth of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed? Or is it a “hope” of a different sort, kind of like “hoping” that you might win the lottery some day?
Is it a type of “hope” where you just keep your fingers-crossed, wishing that something might be true, but not really having much confidence beyond that?
I wonder about these things.
Now, I am fully aware that often our stated theology does not necessarily reflect the reality of the situation. It is clearly possible that both of my parents might have had a saving encounter with the God of the Universe, before they breathed their last breaths. Perhaps they had a genuine trust in Jesus as their Savior, in a way that I simply knew nothing about. True, both of my parents did show some interest in knowing this God of the Bible, sharing an appreciation for the liturgical tradition of worship in their church, and so I am willing to go with that and lean on God’s tender mercies.
But do I know?… Absolutely? … For sure??… Where they are now?
I have had to trust that God knows what He is doing, and that He will do that which is right. So, when I think about the eternal state of my parents, and I am honest with myself, I am often left with their own words, “I hope so.”
However, hoping so, and knowing so, are two different things.
Such lack of confidence can be quite unsettling to many. But this anxiety, I would argue, is actually a very good thing to seriously ponder.
The Anxiety of Not Knowing What Lies Beyond Death
At least my atheist and agnostic friends can be fairly honest about death. They can say that there is nothing after death anyway, or that we do not know what happens after death. Unless God has stepped into history, and informed we human beings, we have no such assurance of anything beyond the grave. We only have the knowledge that science provides to inform us. Yet science can not assuredly detect what can not be observed and tested.
For some reason, it is more difficult for people who say they believe in God to grapple with the reality of death today. But who is the “God” that they say they believe in? Is it the God of the Bible, some other “God,” say of some other great religious faith,… or is it the “God” of their own imagination? It seems like everyone has an opinion about God, and the human experience of the afterlife, but what separates personal, opinionated preferences from mere fancy?
My parents remains are buried in an 18th century church courtyard. Back during the colonial period, when the faith of the Puritans dominated the American landscape, those who considered themselves to be Christians took death a lot more seriously than people do today. Before the modern era of sophisticated embalming treatments, and cremation procedures that often obscure the semblance of human existence, Puritans, like Jonathan Edwards, treated death with more sobering dignity, warning their children, even at the earliest ages, that the horror of death was only one ill-fated step away from everyone. What then would become of their eternal destiny? The prospect of the possible terrors that lie after death was just as real as every single breath they took.
Yet with the eradication of high infant mortality rates, and other modern medical advances, it is very easy to view death today as something far off, belonging to some distant land. We turn up the radio, plug in our headphones, crank up the television, engage in some extreme sport, self-medicate… We do anything to avoid the possibility of what death might bring to us.
But as I sat next to my father’s lifeless body, only minutes after he took his last breath a few weeks ago, holding his familiar, gentle arm as his then still-warm body grew colder and colder, from moment to moment, the surreality of death hit me hard. I then felt very cheated by the cavalier attitude of popular culture, that tends to trivialize death in our day.
My dad had a very traditional Anglican memorial service. No fancy flower arrangements. There was a time to celebrate and share great memories of my dad, even laugh a little, but it was also a time to be reminded of our mortality, and the frailty of human existence.
However, a recent article in Christianity Today observes that we live in a time where funerals have become less of a time of mourning and more of a time of celebration. A BBC report observes that in England, a land that at one time had the highest concentration of evangelical faith of any nation in the world, there is now a trend where you are more likely to hear Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” played at a funeral, than anything else.
Please do me a favor. DO NOT PLAY “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at my funeral.
Real Christian Hope
I believe in a heaven and a hell because I believe what the Bible teaches. Christians can have various intramural discussions as to the exact nature of heaven and hell, seeking to best interpret the intended meaning of the Biblical authors, but the basic contour of the Christian message has remained the same for 2000 years. Death confronts us with a great divide.
Christians need not fear death, but we are not to gloss it over either. I may not be able to look deep inside the mystery of where others stand in their eternal destiny, including that of my own parents. But according to the Bible, I can have the assurance of God, as to where I might stand.
So can you.
I can say, with confidence, that for someone who has experienced the living presence of God’s Holy Spirit in their life, by having a relationship with Jesus Christ, that such a person will have passed over from death to life, after the moment of their physical dying. This is a type of “passing” that I can affirm, the only one I know that the Bible teaches. Any other sort of “passing” is only a matter of personal speculation, where the odds of a predictable, much less a good, outcome are not so favorable.
Some may wish to push back on me at this point: How can I have such confidence? Can I really know for sure?
That is a good question.
Here is my answer: In the absolute sense of saying that “2 + 2 = 4,” I can not be that sure. But I am willing to take what 17th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, considered to be a reasonable wager. If God does not actually exist, believing in the Christian Gospel has only suffered upon me finite loss, perhaps some earthly pleasures. However, if the God of the Bible does actually exist, and I choose to ignore this God, I risk the infinite loss of a being separated from this loving God for all eternity.
Do you have this confidence?