On Death

According to Timothy Keller, death is the great interruption, schism, insult, and enemy. No one can avoid it. Death will claim us all. In his little book called On Death, Keller provides a helpful look at death and the fear associated with it. Furthermore, he explains why Christians should be people who grieve deeply while holding on to the hope of the gospel.

His short book (less than 100 pages) is organized by two chapters. The first chapter discusses humanity’s fear of death. In the chapter, Keller provides four reasons why he believes people are less prepared for death than their ancestors. He also claims that the power of death is broken when we understand and embrace what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.

The second chapter is dedicated to the rupture of death. Keller uses the teaching of the Apostle Paul to explain why Christians should “grieve hopefully” and avoid falling into extremes that are not helpful or biblical.

Lets begin by looking at chapter one, titled “The Fear of Death.” The first of four reasons Keller believes we are less prepared for death than our ancestors is because the blessing of modern medicine has hidden it from our view. Due to medical advances, death keeps us in an illusory state where we attempt to avoid the inevitable. One result of these advances is that death is not witnessed as often because people go to hospitals and nursing facilities to die rather than dying at home. During the nineteenth century, death was a community occurrence. Furthermore, in colonial times, the average family lost one out of three children before adulthood. Life expectancy was also around forty years which resulted in many children experiencing the death of their parents. Times have changed and our desire to avoid death has grown.

The second reason we struggle with death is because we focus our attention on “this-world meaning and fulfillment.” Because the secular viewpoint claims that nothing supernatural exists, meaning and fulfillment must be achieved within the confines of our material world. Unlike many historic worldviews, happiness is to be found in whatever we deem worthy of our time, energy, and resources. We, in essence, make up ultimate reality. Such a worldview creates the timid response people experience in the midst of death and dying.

In the book, Keller shares the story of Mark Ashton, vicar of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge, England. During Ashton’s battle with gallbladder cancer he “talked with virtually everyone he met about his coming death with ease, eloquence, and poise.” His words were met with silence and uneasiness. When this world is all there is, death becomes a great insult and enemy. It becomes a conversation killer.

The third reason we are less prepared for death than our ancestors is because our world has redefined death as nonexistence. By so doing, our life has no significance and our presence on earth is utterly meaningless. Death, within such a worldview, “takes away the significance and joy of things.” Keller also cites Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, which claims that modern culture attempts to create significance in things such as sex, money, career, and social issues. Death truly is the great enemy if we cease to exist after this life.

The fourth and final reason we struggle with death is because we’ve lost categories for sin, guilt, and forgiveness. Friedrich Nietzche argued that our feelings of “indebtedness” is a result of our belief in God. Now, the argument goes, with our loss in the belief of a God of judgement, feelings of shame and guilt should steadily decrease. Of course, that hasn’t happened. People still have moral reflexes they can neither ignore or destroy entirely. Thankfully, there is a remedy for our guilt and fear of death.

Keller argues that Christianity doesn’t “leave you to face death on your own, by holding up your life record and hoping it will suffice. Instead it gives you a champion who has defeated death, who pardons you and covers you with his love. You face death ‘in him’ and with his perfect record (Philippians 3:9). To the degree we believe, know, and embrace that, we are released from the power of death.”

The second half of the book discusses how we can boldly face the death of a loved one. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, Paul teaches us that we should grieve with hope. When death claims the life of someone we love, we do not need to be like “the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (v. 13). Rather, when we grieve, we should recall the truth that Jesus rose from death and will one day raise our bodies from the grave as well. We will live again in physical bodies and dwell on a physical earth while worshiping our risen Savior. Keller says that Jesus “conquered death, and we will share in his resurrection. That’s our hope.”

Keller further claims that our hope is personal, material, beatific, and assured. It is personal because, when we die, we do not become part of the universe and lose our individuality; rather, we live for eternity in loving relationships with each other and the Creator.

Our hope is also material in that we will “walk, eat, hug, and be hugged.” One day, we will see each other and say, “I always knew you could be like this. I saw glimpses of it. I saw flashes of it. Now look at you.”

Our hope is beatific. We will one day see Jesus face-to-face. Saint Augustine said that we all have a “God-shaped hole” in us and are always striving to fill it with our accomplishments, relationships, and the approval of others. When we are with Jesus, we will be fully known and loved. No secrets. No shame.

Lastly, our hope is assured. The book of Romans says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). Also, “if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (6:8). Other religions find it hard to assure a person that they have lived a “good enough” life to enter heaven when they die. Christianity says that you have not lived a good enough life, but Jesus has, and his life, death, and resurrection is all that is needed for you to enter.

Keller seems to always quote C. S. Lewis in his books. Here’s a quote found in On Death that summarizes our future hope magnificently. Lewis said, “He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into…a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness…That is what we are in for. Nothing less.”

I would strongly recommend Keller’s book to anyone who fears death. The appendix of his book offers daily encouragement for those who are facing death or facing the death of a loved one. The book is short, however, I found it extremely profitable to read it slowly and reflect on the material rather than blaze through it. It can be purchased here.

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