I’ve probably pondered death in recent days more than the rest of my life combined. What has struck me most during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, is how unprepared I am to die. Typically, death is terrifying. But now it is profoundly tangible too.
Typically, death is terrifying. But now it is profoundly tangible too.
Of course nobody wants to die. There is even a local song in my hometown about, ‘Many who want to go to heaven but don’t want any bit of death.’ So I suspect I’m one of those. I love my schedules, toddlers, smartphone and internet access. There are plans and dreams of a business start-up, countless opportunities and an exciting platform to develop my writing. The thought of suddenly untangling from all of this is scary, unsettling and sobering.
“To Die Is Gain”: Wait, What?
Although the Bible is breathed out by God himself (2 Timothy 3:16), including Paul’s odd remark about death being gain (Philippians 1:21), I prefer the softer parts of Scripture. Well, it’s beginning to look like I do. I see two sides to this conundrum.
The Good Side: God has created me to live forever (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
The Scary Side: “Man knows not his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12)
Even though every death appears untimely, what deserves our attention is it’s inevitability.
I often wax eloquent about eternity. Yet I run around like a de-feathered chicken in anxiety and fear when crisis hits, or death looms. The ancient hymn My Jesus I Love Thee has multiple sobering ‘deathbed’ verses. Among them is one that mentions devotedness to Jesus until the “dew on my eyebrow lies cold”.
Now that Uganda’s President has declared a “month-long national emergency”, I hope this enforced break, along with potential quarantine, will aid me in reflecting on how I am unready to die. I imagine it will reveal how tightly I clutch this world. For even though every death appears untimely, what deserves our attention is it’s inevitability.
To Die Is Inevitable
As Peter Leithart put it in Solomon Among the Postmoderns, pulling no punches: “The worst of it is death. Jog and lift weights until you are eighty-five; aspire to be the healthiest ninety-year-old in history, but eventually you will be a corpse. Delay the inevitable with skin creams and make-up; keep fit by dieting and exercise; maintain your youthful appearance with plastic surgery and liposuction, but eventually your beauty will fade, and if it doesn’t fade while you’re alive, it will fade when you die”.
We are confronted by sudden sightings of the eternal.
But the world’s most persistently nagging and undeniable reality seems also to be one of its most ignored truths. COVID-19 is causing many to ponder how over-invested we are in this world. It’s challenging me to reflect more on the world to come. Gladly, this tension is not mine alone. Alongside me are millions of believers globally. Together we are witnessing the downfall of temporary idols, as we are confronted by sudden sightings of the eternal. As the curtain threatens to draw shut on our mortality the stage becomes a cold and dark space. But it isn’t all there is.
To Fear Death Is Human
Let us consider a biblical example: King David. His fervent prayers for the sustained earthly life of his child met a dead end (2 Samuel 12:16-18). Yet he was called a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). David treasured human life yet death cluttered his existence. More importantly, we have Jesus. He was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). He lived a perfect life on our behalf. Yet his perfect obedience did not spare him from loud cries (Hebrews 5:7), including his rasped and desolate cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Scripture repeatedly and regularly reminds believers to focus on the unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18). Yet our smartphones and spiritual sweets have distracted us. Modern medicine has lured us into a false sense of security. We are now dangerously insulated from these ‘grave’ realities. But do we have anywhere else to turn now, apart from looking to our Creator God? I doubt it.
Modern medicine has lured us into a false sense of security.
If we had our way, we would pluck Genesis 3 out of the Bible. But seeing that it is our present reality, we must choose to rest in the hope of another Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45). For Jesus is not only able to preserve our bodies but will also preserve our souls through his own life, death and resurrection. If these realities sound distant or foreign to you in the season of COVID-19, you are in good company. I have been there: even though ‘to die is gain’ I would prefer that it is delayed, indefinitely.
Facing Death, Firm in God’s Promises
However, God has spoken clearly about the gain awaiting believers on the other side of the funeral. Therefore we should enrich and develop our eternal perspective, as our grave gets nearer. If the dead are not raised then let panic ensue, for our faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). Alternatively, if Christ was raised then let’s ask God to convince us of this truth. As he does that, we will find – even if only in part – that we start to believe there is gain in death. So the song goes, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus / Look full in His wonderful face / And the things of earth will grow strangely dim / In the light of His glory and grace.”
We must ask how gripped we are by this passing world. Maybe that’s what COVID-19 is here to accomplish in me?
Indeed to die is gain. Therefore we must not only recognise that our physical demise is beyond our timing. We must ask how gripped we are by this passing world. Maybe that’s what COVID-19 is here to accomplish in me? Maybe.