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Death defying

There’s that famous line attributed to Benjamin Franklin that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. But an even older statement of the obvious was in a treatise on life now preserved in the Bible:

“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5–6).

Yet for all death’s inevitability, in the 21st century “western” world there is an unprecedented aversion to the subject that verges on denial. With all the emphasis on living the good life now, planning for retirement, living the dream, there is a materialist focus that often refuses to confront the reality that our time on earth is short. Death is a taboo subject, to be carefully stepped around. It is the elephant in the room when someone we know is sick and dying. Often people just don’t know how to deal with it, what to say, what grieving should look like. I’m reminded of a dear elderly lady I once knew quite well. Her friends and family of her generation were passing away, one by one. She occasionally attended church, and one day, the pastor’s wife cautiously asked this lady if she was prepared for death. The lady was extremely affronted, insulted even, at the audacity of the question. How dare anyone mention death to her, as if she had one foot in the grave! As if there might be any “preparations” to make, any taking stock of her life as she approached her destiny with her Maker! That dear lady has now passed on, to the genuine sorrow of those who knew her, but equally it must be respectfully acknowledged, to no one’s ultimate surprise. It’s difficult to ascertain what she thought would happen after her death, as it was a subject she refused to discuss, except to emphatically, but vaguely state, “I’ve lived a good life.” Whatever lay beyond, I suspect she assumed she would just be part of it. Three points are worth making in response to what I suggest is a common attitude, particularly amongst that generation, but also the increasing numbers of those who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”

The first point is, if death is inevitable, why is it something to be ignored and unprepared for? If my elderly friend had been preparing for a journey overseas, which she had done on occasion, she would hardly have just turned up at the airport without ticket, visa, itinerary and bookings for accommodation. Even though she might not have known exactly what the country she was to visit would be like, or felt the need to organise every moment of her stay, it would be ludicrous to do no planning whatsoever; to just assume everything would fall into place. Yet that is how many people face death. They have no idea what’s ahead of them, what it will be like beyond the grave (or even if there is anything at all!) Like a journey one might be dreading, it’s easier to not think of it at all, yet surely it warrants some thought? Some research? Some satisfaction of curiosity? Did my friend really believe that if she didn’t think about the journey, or refused to discuss it with a well-meaning mentor, that she wouldn’t have to actually depart? Imagine someone planning a trip to, say, Scotland in winter. They like warm weather, and hope that Scotland will be warm, so they just pack some light summer clothing. That would be pretty foolish, even dangerous. But that’s actually the same attitude that assumes there’s some sort of Deity, some sort of life beyond, and that it will all work out and they’ll find out when they get there, but there’s no need to investigate it at all.

Which brings me to my second point; given an unwillingness to investigate life after death, why would it be safe to assume that whatever there is, one will automatically be welcomed in? All jokes about fronting up to St Peter at the Pearly Gates aside, it seems a very strange way to plan for eternity. The post-modern assumption that truth is relative, that all roads lead to the same place, is only tested when you pass the point of no return, after all. In other words, do I have a right to expect that my own construction of the hereafter (be it reincarnation, disembodiment, Nirvana, heaven or another dimension, or even just non-existence) will be the correct one? What if I’m wrong? Much easier not to think about it, to be affronted when someone with our eternal interest at heart tries to raise the subject, and embrace a naive but comforting agnosticism.

As an analogy; my elderly friend in her earlier days was quite a socialite and loved to host parties and social events. Let’s imagine she was planning a large gathering such as a daughter’s wedding; invitation only. How would she feel if someone of only peripheral acquaintance, who had never shown any interest in her or her family and had in fact, on occasion, openly derided or mocked them, gate-crashed the event? Would she feel affronted? I dare say. What right had the interloper to come to the banquet that had been prepared at great trouble and expense as a celebration for family and dear friends, to turn up and expect a welcome? How, then, could it be equally appropriate for a mocker of religion, who had made no significant effort to know God or seriously investigate his existence, to ignore him all his life and yet expect to be welcomed into heaven? The Bible presents eternal life as everlasting fellowship with God; someone whose fellowship he disdained throughout life. Why would it suddenly be desirable, and why would he expect to be part of it?

At this point, people might assume, like my elderly friend, that having lived a “moral" life will be invitation enough. The interloper to her daughter’s wedding might have lived an exceptionally good life too, but here’s the point: the interloper is neither family nor friend, by his own choice. Now, most religions do have a definition of righteous and appropriate living that is required to obtain eternal reward. But only Christianity bases worthiness for eternal life on relationship with God, not on individual merit; that’s called grace. Grace means that the imperfect and embarrassing members of the family get to come to the wedding, because they’re family. Those who are not interested in being part of the family, don’t. We will not be reciting lists of our good deeds to St Peter at the Pearly Gates. Rather, we will stand before Christ, the judge of our hearts. Our acceptance or rejection will be on the basis of relationship with him, and his redeeming work that overcomes our imperfections. He alone is able to make us worthy, and adopt us into his family. Here’s the situation: All humans have turned their backs on their Father and Creator, have spurned being part of his family. The Bible calls that sin, and this ruptured relationship with God has given rise to every kind of evil, immorality and brokenness in our relationships with each other and with the rest of Creation. We are all estranged from God’s family, disinterested in the inheritance he has prepared for us, the loving eternal relationship for which we were designed. God could have shrugged us off, but he didn’t. Instead he went to great lengths to reconcile us back to himself, through his Son Jesus, who bore our sins and destroyed the power that death had over all who trust in him.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die —but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:6–11)

By believing in Christ, we become part of God’s family, no matter who we are or what we have done. Later in his letter to the Romans, Paul describes this as being adopted and becoming children of God; “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! (Papa) Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs —heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15–17). As children of God we inherit many blessings from God, not the least of which is the overcoming of death, and the gift of eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This gift of eternal life, this inheritance, is not for strangers who have no relationship with God through Jesus, but for his family. To become children of God and never fear death, we must believe in Jesus Christ. This means accepting our unworthiness and neediness and sinfulness before God, repenting and acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord and receiving his forgiveness. One way Jesus described this was to “confess” him. This means to acknowledge our relationship to him and his Lordship over us. “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33). When we meet our Maker and Judge, he will recognise those who are his, and acknowledge them as they have acknowledged him. Those who have had no interest in a relationship with God will not have it “inflicted” on them for eternity; rather, they will be turned away, as gate-crashers, and will perish.

The Bible actually uses the analogy of a wedding banquet in this way. You can read one of the parables Jesus told about this in Matthew 22:1–14. God, the King, invited the Jews to a celebration of relationship with him, expressed as the “wedding” of his Son. The Jews largely rejected God and his Son, and God invited all peoples, Jew and Gentile to be part of his celebration. (In another version of this parable people make excuses for not accepting God’s invitation; business, family responsibilities etc). Many people happily take up the King’s invitation, however one person wants to receive the gift on his own terms. He spurs the wedding garment (the clothing of forgiveness provided by Jesus) and is cast out. God extends the invitation to all, but on his terms. The only way to relationship with God and eternal life is through faith in Jesus (Acts 4:11–12). The final book of the Bible, Revelation, describes eternal life forever with God as beginning with a “wedding banquet,” with the people of God figuratively described as Christ’s beautiful bride whom he has saved (Revelation 19:6–9; and chapters 21 and 22).

The third point is that we need to take eternity seriously. Instead of stubbornly focusing solely on this life, refusing to acknowledge our mortality, and pushing God aside, we need to consider what lies beyond. Do we want to live the way we were intended, with no more suffering and death? Do we want to be part of glorious, everlasting life? Christ has conquered death on our behalf and invites us to come to know him and to be present at the greatest celebratory banquet, the one that heralds an eternity of joy. Will we refuse that wedding invitation point-blank because we’d rather stay home that night and watch TV? Or will we leave the invitation unopened, gathering dust, as our lives race downhill to the inevitable grave? We’re going on a journey, whether we acknowledge it or not, and we need to do some planning. Open the Guidebook and find your itinerary, your invitation to truly defy death, today.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

(John 11: 25–26)

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