On Being Unprepared for Death

Let’s be honest. Most of us are unprepared for death. I’m guessing you don’t sit around talking about death with your friends and acquaintances. That would be weird. You probably don’t have a death plan like an expectant mother has a birth plan, the template of which is hanging on your refrigerator and revisited throughout the day. That would be super weird. Yet, I’m not sure if avoiding the conversation entirely is great, either. Life will end. We will die. I guess death is the great equalizer of humanity in that sense. Regardless of our earning capacity, influence, age, education level, or any other factor, death cannot be avoided. No one gets out of this life alive.

According to Timothy Keller, “Death is the Great Interruption, tearing loved ones away from us, or us from them. Death is the Great Schism, ripping apart the material and immaterial parts of our being and sundering a whole person, who was never meant to be disembodied, even for a moment…Death is hideous and frightening and cruel and unusual. It is not the way life is supposed to be, and our grief in the face of death acknowledges that. Death is our Great Enemy, more than anything else. It makes a claim on each and every one of us, pursuing us relentlessly through all our days.”

In his little book, On Death, Keller provides four reasons why he believes people are less prepared for death today than at any point in history. First, the blessing of modern medicine has hidden it from our view. Due to medical advances, it’s easier than ever to dance around the inevitable. People are born in medical facilities and taken back there to die. Out of sight, out of mind. Life comes full circle in a hospital room.

There was a time in history when dying at home was far more common than it is today. For instance, in the nineteenth century, death was a community affair. A dying person would receive care in their own home, by their own loved ones, and those events were considered normal, far from something to be ignored or brushed under the rug. Every person in the household had a front row seat. Every person contributed in some way. It was next to impossible to avoid the reality of death.

In colonial times, the average family lost one out of three children before they reached adulthood. Consider that. I can’t imagine the amount of grief losing a child must produce in a parent. I know some who have walked through it. It’s terrible. Life expectancy in colonial times was around forty years. I’m grateful for the advances in medicine that have led to longer, healthier lives. It’s a good gift from God, and we should celebrate it. We are blessed, indeed.

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 of the historic worldviews, happiness is to be found in whatever we deem worthy of our time, energy, and resources in this life. It makes logical sense. If nothing beyond this world exists, why waste time pretending it does? We should all just carry on and have as much fun as possible. We should eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. People who hold such a worldview have every right to feel timid when facing death and dying. It’s strange, unknown, and ridiculously rude. How dare it interrupt our pursuit of happiness?

In his 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.” You won’t be surprised to learn that his words were met with silence and uneasiness. Death is insulting. It is a conversation killer.

The third reason we are less prepared for death than our ancestors is because much of our world has defined death as nonexistence. When you die, you simply cease to exist. No heaven. No hell. The lights go off and that’s it. Within such a framework, a deceased person would have no cognitive understanding of their condition. They wouldn’t understand anything. How could they? They no longer exist here or anywhere. On one level, I understand why this view is so attractive. If I knew I could live however I wanted without ever facing a God who may confront my behavior, I’d certainly be tempted to do so. Who wouldn’t be? Yet, if such a worldview is true, there is no ultimate meaning to life.

William Lane Craig has stated it well: “If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter in the end whether he ever existed at all? Sure, his life may be important relative to certain other events, but what’s the ultimate significance of any of those events? If everything is doomed to destruction, then what does it matter that you influenced anything? Ultimately it makes no difference.”

Lastly, we struggle with death because we’ve lost categories for sin, guilt, and forgiveness. Believe it or not, there was a time when those words provided clarity and a path forward to the sense of morality found in every human being. We do our best to ignore them today. We don’t like feeling bad for our decisions. We don’t like the difficult work of forgiveness, so we avoid it like the plague. Friedrich Nietzche is famous, in part, for his argument that humanity’s feelings of indebtedness stem from their belief in God. Many thinkers have argued that once people eradicate their belief in a God of judgment, the burdensome feelings of guilt and shame would disappear with it. Religion is to blame for much of our woes, according to this logic, and doing away with it is the surest way to attain happiness and freedom.

The world is vastly secular today. Belief in a God of judgment has been replaced by belief in a God who is never angry about anything or, in many cases, especially in the western world, belief in no God at all. Yet, people still have moral reflexes they can neither ignore nor destroy. Thankfully, there is a remedy for our guilt and fear of death. And it doesn’t involve wishful thinking or doing away with anything that resembles religion. It involves a person named Jesus who cares for you, loves you, and has done something about your indebtedness.

According to Keller, 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.”

Death is never pleasant. It is an intruder, an enemy opposed to God’s will. Nevertheless, we don’t have to be unprepared for life’s inevitable end. When we’re faced with it, whether through the loss of a loved one or in the midst of our own dying, recalling Jesus’ victory over death, which he accomplished by rising from the grave, should encourage our hearts and prepare our minds. All who believe in Jesus will live, even though they die. And whoever lives by believing in him will never die (John 11:25-26). Do you believe this?

3 thoughts on “On Being Unprepared for Death

  1. Superb, Daniel. At 72, I’ve thought much more about death than former times. We as a culture will no longer get to avoid death as we have. Times are changing.

    Liked by 1 person

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