Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about death, and how people are driven by the fear of death. I’ve also been thinking about my dad. This should come as no surprise seeing that now is the time of year he passed away.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Death reveals that the world is not as it should be but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death.” I couldn’t agree more. When I sat at my dad’s bedside shortly after he passed, I was struck by the paradox of death: On one hand nature is full of it. Death has a wonderful purpose in the cycle of seasons, and all things die that they might live again in some renewed form. So death is natural.
On the other hand, anyone who has watched a loved one struggle against terminal cancer and eventually give way under that beast can tell you that there is nothing natural about death. Despite the mystery of death and resurrection being written into the very fabric of the universe, there remains another side to death’s face-an ugly side-which I dare say no honest man can face up to without being brought to realize that something is wrong with our world. The pain, the emotional trauma, the heart-wrenching effect on family and friends… all together it goes to show, like Bonhoeffer said, that something is amiss. Death is the evidence of a breakdown in the original, God-intended order of things.
The writer of Hebrews was firmly convinced that God came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ for one mighty purpose:
…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. (Hebrews 2:14,15)
Those are some heavy words. But isn’t it true that people are driven by the fear of death? What else can explain man’s tireless efforts to preserve his life, to prolong it, to avoid pain at any cost, and hopefully, ultimately, to overcome death altogether and live forever? Death is an enemy-the last enemy, according to Paul (1 Corinthians 15:26)-and deep down in his heart man knows this, and he is terrified by it.
Now, I understand some cool-headed atheists out there will deny this. Come to find out, they are not at all afraid of dying. That’s fine, I understand where they’re coming from. But at the end of the day I just can’t believe it, because they’re human just like I am. We’re made of the same stuff. And this instinct-this primeval fear of dying-goes deep into the heart of man, whether he cares to admit it or not.
This is where the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ comes into play. Without the resurrection there is no Christian message. We can go on and on about how Jesus “died for us” and everything that entails, but the fact of the matter is, until the Lord rose from the dead there was no good news to tell. Consider the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: Christ died, and though they may not have understood it, he died for them. But that meant nothing to them or to anyone as long as he stayed dead just like everyone else. Just like Lao Tze, just like Confuscius, just like the Buddha, and just like every other man and woman, even the great ones who brightened their little corner of history with flashes of light and truth.
The good news is in the resurrection, for “Christ alone is the conquering of death.” Until death is defeated, man is not free. Rather, he is “subject to lifelong slavery” through the fear of what is to come, namely death.
So I’ve been thinking about all this and how it pertains to my life and the thoughts I have about my dad. And I can say with all honesty, through my faith and experience of Christ in the Spirit, that the resurrection of the Lord has worked an incredibly practical effect in my life. I wrestle with fear and doubt just like the next guy, but I can testify that the sting of death is gone for me. From the day my dad fell asleep until now, I can say that I sense him with me as much and sometimes more than I did before when he was living in the flesh. What’s more, I can say that with each passing day, even as I move on with my family and my life, I am not haunted by the fear that I am losing more of dad through the passing of time. A lot of people feel that way, I think. They feel that as the initial trauma goes away, time passes, and memories begin to fade, they are somehow moving further and further away from their loved one. I have the opposite sense. For me every day is not a drifting away from dad, despite the pain I feel from missing him; on the contrary, with each day that passes I have a growing sense of closeness to him… a drawing together rather than a fading away.
This is the reality of Christ in me, the hope of glory! Nothing in life can amount to this experience which is mine, and I hope yours, by faith. It is a tremendous joy, a liberation, which I can’t fathom knowing any other way. Yes, something is terribly wrong with our world-death reveals it-and in this life we will have pain and sorrow. “But take heart,” Jesus said to the twelve, and through their testimony to us, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33)!