Why believers don’t know what to think about death

  • Hannah Ploegstra
  • 3 June 2016

Cemetary in winter with flowers

This is the third article in a series about how to think about death. Read the first and second.

Many Christians are sorely undereducated about death. This becomes evident at funerals when, in an attempt to make sense of deep sorrow, Christians mix up bizarre cocktails of greeting card clichés, pop psychology, Greek philosophy and a dash of vague biblical truth. We serve these liberally to one another as we stand around the coffin—bottoms up! And though they might numb our pain for a moment, when the buzz has worn off, these cocktails leave us feeling the same or worse than we did before. They offer no real hope. Nothing tangible. The world’s hope in the face of death is as vaporous as life itself. Then why do we drink down these philosophical cocktails without a second thought? Why do otherwise mature, devoted believers reach for vapours to help them deal with death?

When it comes to how we’re supposed to think about the body in the coffin and the body in the grave, our alarmingly bad theology reveals an even more urgent deficiency: many of us don’t really understand the gospel in the first place. Most of us know, at least superficially, that the gospel is the thing that gets us right with God—the means by which God drops his charges against us. We picture Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. This is all true and all essential, but not complete. Other religions offer sacrifice and death. Death is easy to come by. Anyone can die.

But there’s only one man who came back from death, never to die again. And there’s only one gospel that promises the same for us when we trust in this man’s defeat of death. The resurrection is the thing that must be authentically true and substantive if our faith is to be something more than another pitiful human attempt to make sense of this weary life (1 Cor 15:14, 19).

Lots of religions promise a better life now. Some even promise bizarre, unappealing versions of eternal life, but you have to become a snail or a spirit to get it. Only the Bible promises eternal life in your own body (made new), doing authentic, satisfying, purposeful human work in a land lit by the presence of the Creator. If you aren’t explicitly making the resurrection—Christ’s and ours—the driving reality of all you do in life and ministry, you’re like a salesman who doesn’t have any actual goods to sell.

The resurrection is the ‘goods’ in the good news. Whatever you do, don’t think of the resurrection as the take-it-or-leave-it cherry on top of the gospel sundae. It’s the bread and butter of our entire faith: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

Jesus’ identity, in fact, is bound up in the fact that he has defeated death: he is the “living one” (Rev 1:18). He is the Son of God—a technical title for the king who sits at God’s right hand, reigning forever—and he gained this title at his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4; Heb 1:1-4, 8-12). The resurrection of Christ is what evokes both holy fear and saving faith from those whom God is calling (Acts 2:24, 31-32, 36-37). Without the resurrection, Jesus isn’t the Christ; he’s just another guy who died.

As disciples and disciple-makers, we need to fortify our faith and the faith of those we lead with the central reality of the resurrection—Christ’s, which is historical and established, and our own, which is yet to come. We need to read the Scriptures with an eye for the eternal, not just asking, “What is God saying to me for my life today?” or “How can I make this relevant?”, but consciously adjusting and re-adjusting our own scope of life into eternity to match the Bible’s. More often than not, we’re the ones coming to Scripture with irrelevant questions and invalid expectations. The Bible is about life and death; so is the gospel. And so, for that matter, is our existence, which can be launched into eternity at any given second.

But in order to adjust our scope, we need a view of death that’s real. Without an awareness of death in us and all around us, we will think that life now is as good as it gets. Death jolts us back to reality: things are not so great. Everything dies. Everything rots. Everything falls apart. Everything ends. I know that’s depressing, but without the bad news, the good news isn’t really very necessary, is it. Death is the bad news to which the gospel responds with unbelievable hope—unbelievable, yet true.

We need to build into our habits of encouragement, our patterns of speech and our habitual responses the reality of the hope of resurrection. When a believer dies, we need to remind each other “God’s not done with him yet”. We need to talk and think like terminal, dying people who have been given hope of life, because that is what is real. We need to train, exercise and discipline our emotions to reflect this hope. When death parts us from our loved ones in Christ, we can say with full joy, “No need to wish for what is past. The best is yet to come.” Because when you boil it all down, that’s the gospel.

Death is coming. It really is. When it comes—whether to you or to someone you love—will you and those you are leading possess a gospel that can deal with every emotion, every fear, every question and every need that death brings? The Bible contains this gospel. Start digging it out now, dust it off and live in the resurrection today. You’re going to need it.