I have long said that my primary role as a shepherd-pastor is to help people to die well. To do this, as I have often said, requires that we learn how to live life well. Of all the normally uncomfortable subjects that Christians find it difficult to talk about, death should not be one of them. But it is. This is because, of all the world religions, only Christianity has a positive view of death. After all, we have a divine Saviour who confronted and conquered death. As a result the original apostles mocked death.
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
¶ The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.”
First Corinthians 15:55-56
These apostles refused to be intimidated by death which was ultimately evidenced by their martyrdoms. The apostle Paul could look forward to his death with the obvious lament that he would no longer be available to help those he had led to the Lord (Phil. 1:23-25). But he could face his impending death with the assurance that it would mean that he would immediately be in the presence of his Lord — and so should we! And like Paul, we too should be able to talk about death in a very different way to those who do not know what we know.
A NON-CHRISTIAN VIEW OF DEATH
For the non-Christian, death might be thought of as “the end” – especially for the one trying to think like an atheist. For the Hindu or Buddhist death might be considered the end of one “life cycle” and/or depending on whether they had attained nirvana or not it might be thought of as their dissolution into the all-powerful Brahma (this is known as reincarnation). For a Muslim man, death might be thought of as the doorway into Paradise where all of his erotic pleasures will be perpetually satisfied. Mormons (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”), who share many similarities with Muslims, also see death as a doorway to this ‘Paradise’ but as separate planets for each Mormon male who will attain to the status of a god equal to God the Father. For Seventh-Day Adventists, death is the end of this life and when the soul will transition into a state of “sleep” (this is known as soul sleep). Jehovah’s Witnesses see death as a doorway where 144,000 chosen people will get to get to heaven and the rest will be given a choice to either live again on the New Earth for a thousands years, or be annihilated.
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
HOW JESUS VIEWED DEATH
Death is not the final end. It is an end, but not the end. Biblically, ‘death’ means separation. James writes that faith separated from works is dead, just as the body separated from the spirit is dead (James 2:26). Thus, physical death occurs when the body is separated from its life-giving spirit. In a similar way then, spiritual death (referred to in Ephesians 2:1-5) occurs when a person is separated from God, the Source of True Life.
After the eternal Son of God was born of a woman, He saw physical and spiritual death as a result of the Fall from innocence into sin which led to the first man and woman’s expulsion from the garden of Eden’s Tree of Life (Gen. 3:1-7). The evil one (who became known as the devil) had manipulated a serpent illegally (witchcraft always involves deceitful manipulation) to ruin the woman and the man. The writer to the Hebrews states that Christ came to destroy the one who illegally had gained the power of death:
¶ Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood,
He Himself likewise partook of the same things,
that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death,
that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Throughout Christ’s earthly ministry, he frequently demonstrated His power over death by raising several dead people back to life (Matt. 9:18-26; Luke 7:11-16; John 11). Jesus certainly did not see physical death as the end and warned people that it was matter of far greater concern than their physical death that they be reconciled spiritually to God in this life so that they would not be separated from God the Father for all eternity:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
After Jesus had risen from the dead and thereby demonstrated that He had conquered death, He appeared to the banished apostle John:
¶ When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead.
But He laid His right hand on me, saying,
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.
I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
The writer to the Romans declared that the Risen Christ had conquered death once and for all and He could never die again (Rom. 6:9). Ultimately, he tells the Corinthians, death itself will eventually cease to exist when it is finally destroyed (1Cor. 15:26). Because of Christ conquering death, the imprisoned Apostle Paul could write:
¶ Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me His prisoner,
but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling,
not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace,
which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus,
who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel
Second Timothy 1:8-10
HOW THE APOSTLES VIEWED DEATH
As persecution began to intensify and the number of Christian martyrs was increasing, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and told them:
¶ But we do not want you to be uninformed,
brothers, about those who are asleep,
that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
First Thessalonians 4:13
Jesus had told the father of a dead girl that his daughter wasn’t dead, but that she was sleeping (Mark 5:39) before He raised her back to life. And Paul described the death of the Thessalonian martyrs also as sleep. The apostles viewed death as a toothless lion for the believer. They were certain that the grave was not the end for the believer – Christ’s resurrection had guaranteed that. The apostle Peter referred to what awaited the believer after their death as “a living hope”:
¶ Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy,
He has caused us to be born again to a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
First Peter 1:3
James, the brother of Jesus, became the apostle over the churches in Jerusalem. When he wrote his epistle he wrote to Christians about how to care for the dying. Those in the last stages of life, with only perhaps hours left to live, should be surrounded by people who know how to pray, and then the elders should visit and ornamentally anoint the dying with oil to prepare them for their death and burial with the symbol of the Holy Spirit (oil) to reassure them that they would be “raised up” in the resurrection, because their sins had been forgiven –
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church,
and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.
And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Many people fail to see the context of what James is telling believers. When someone is dying as a result of injury or illness, it is not necessarily the result of a curse, or lack of faith, or some secret sin. But how should we talk to someone who has been given a prognosis of how much time they have left to live?
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment
HOW TO TALK TO A DYING PERSON
The apostles spoke of death as a defeated foe. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis noted that the ‘world’ (under the sway of the devil) has long attempted to use death to eradicate Christianity, through persecution and martyrdom, and with each burst of persecution and round of martyrdom the world has been disappointed. Lewis said, this disappointment began with the crucifixion and has only got worse for the world and devil with each failed attempt to dissuade others from becoming worshipers of Christ.
When we are with a loved one who is in their final moments, which can be painful and disconcerting for them as their longing for relief magnifies, God is gifting His beloved with an appreciation for what lies ahead: a resurrected, glorified, body, incapable of pain, sorrow, or weariness (Rev. 21.4). This brief time of transition from this life into the presence of Christ is an act of God’s grace. It is an essential part of true euthanasia (Gr. “eu” = ‘good’ + “thanos” = ‘death’) which has long been called natural death.
What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah
We are culturally conditioned to use polite questions in our ordinary social interactions. This is the basis for a civil society.
“How are you?”
“Good thanks. How are you?”
This works perfectly well when both involved in this polite conversation are well. But when one person is terminally ill, it can be awkward — especially when the terminally ill doesn’t look ill. We may not be aware though that someone, who responded to our polite enquiry with a “Fine thanks”, is actually gravely ill. From experience, I have found that such people can get weary about talking about their health challenges and would rather just answer with a “Fine thanks”. But there are times when you might want to follow up your polite question with: “May I ask how you really are?” But what do you ask a terminally ill person whom you know only has months left to live?
When someone you know has told you plainly that they are terminally ill, then you might consider these alternate questions (I don’t offer them as replacement questions for conversations with your healthy friends) :
“Is your soul well?”
“Is your heart at peace?”
“What is left for you to do?”
“How would you like me to pray for you?”
I have not taken the time to discuss how not to talk with a terminally ill person. But I will offer these very brief thoughts: (i) Do not offer false hope for their recovery; (ii) Do not assume that it is always God’s will for someone to be healed; (iii) Do not tell a non-Christian (or an unrepentant) atheist that they “will be going to heaven.”
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD,
and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
HOW TO GRIEVE
¶ Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
Grief is the impulsive emotion that we each feel when we experience loss. It often induces tears. Weeping is now considered by psychological researchers to be extremely therapeutic. Grieving may include something as petty as the emotion we feel when Geelong loses its rightful place in the AFL season’s ending finals (even though it has definitely resulted in tears;). Or, the more weighty loss of losing a job or marriage that we enjoyed. Or, the weightiest of all losses, the unexpected passing of a loved one. We are created to be able to grieve. There are stages of grief that are common to all people. In summary, these stages include: disbelief > sadness > anger > withdrawal > acceptance > learning to live with a wound and the memory of what has been lost. Therefore, when interacting with the grieving, listen carefully for which stage of their grief they are experiencing, and be patient with them. Please do not say such things as, “Shouldn’t you be ‘moving on’ by now?”
I hope some of these thoughts help you to be more comfortable talking about death and dying. Let me know in the comments if these thoughts have helped.
Let me know what you think below in the comment section and feel free to share this someone who might benefit from this Pastor’s Desk.
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