Chaplain’s Corner: CXLIX

“Hope in the Face of Death”

When it comes to the subject of death, it seems that everyone has something to say:
“Do not try to live forever, you will not succeed.” (George Bernard Shaw) “He who pretends to face death without fear is lying.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) “The meaning of life is that it stops.” (Franz Kafka) “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” (Woody Allen) “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” (Will Rogers) “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!” (Hunter Thompson “Christians are people better off dead.” (Dallas Willard)

The author of Ecclesiastes has something to say about death as well: “I also said to myself, as for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from the dust, and to the dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)

Needless to say, this is not the kind of Bible text that is likely to appear on an inspirational greeting card. What’s going on here?

Solomon is describing the “life under the sun”-how things look from the perspective of this world and this world only. There seems to be no grounds for believing that anything awaits us at death except nonexistence.

We can tell our children that death is entirely natural. In The Lion King, young Simba is assured that while lions eat the antelopes, all lions eventually die and fertilize the grass which provides food for the antelopes. And so we are all connected to the Great Circle of Life.

Try this instead. Be outraged. As the Irish poet Dylan Thomas wrote while watching his father die, “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the night.” Be angry that life always ends in a cemetery.

Author and Pastor Tim Keller, who stepped into the next world just a few months ago, reminds us of one of life’s certainties: “Whatever we believe about the future absolutely controls how we live in the present.” When the author of Ecclesiastes looks toward the future, he sees no assurances. He finds no hope. Shakespeare’s Hamlet concurs. He describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

What does Jesus say about death? “I am the resurrection and the life”, He announces while standing in a cemetery. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. And whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) What does that mean?

Something big awaits us. Solomon can’t see it, but Jesus assures his followers that we’re heading instead for the Big Celebration. The next world will provide a reunion like no other-a welcome home party.

Whether or not that means we’ll get to stand alongside Will Rogers and be surrounded by dogs is just one of the mysteries that will finally and joyfully be resolved.

Ron Naylor, Chaplain