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Who Can Really Say What Death Means?

Tahmid MunazThe town of Nain rested on the side of a hill. It was surrounded by a wall that had one gate. As Jesus led his crowd of followers up the path toward the city, a funeral procession was leaving town by the same narrow road. Picture two human parades silently slipping past each other. The one with the coffin was led by a widow griev­ing for her only son. If you’ve seen grief, you’ll have no trouble imag­ining her. If you’ve seen death, you can picture her son. Leading the other parade was the Author of life.

When Jesus saw the widow, “his heart went out to her.” It was not her first sorrowing walk down this hill. Not her first funeral. As he watched her pass, there was a release of his Spirit at that broken place, a promise of things to come. “Don’t cry,” he said.

Only it wasn’t the same weak sentence I say when I can’t think of anything else. When this One orders an end to tears, there is something behind the command to stop a heart, or to start one. There’s a look on his face that would be outrageous on any other: “I can fix this.”

But his next words aren’t to the woman. Having stopped the pro­cession with a forbidden touch on the coffin, he spoke to the young man lying dead. We could each stand such a pause in our long walks toward the grave just to hear the next eight words of Jesus.

These words sparkle with infinite possibilities here under the shadow of death. One sentence from Christ makes a joke out of all the worldly “possibility thinkers” who imagine their minds soaring unfettered when they prattle on about seven figure salaries and repeat their mantra: “If you can see it, you can be it.” They still think deep inside the suffocating box when they dream of things they’ll enjoy for a second or two in this life before they “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”119 But you, step outside, and just try to exhaust the possibilities stored within these eight words. Unhinge your mind. What if there is One who can speak this way to a boy lying dead?

“Young man, I say to you, get up!”

Don’t miss the word I. By whose authority does Jesus dismiss death? His own. The young man got up, and Jesus “gave him back to his mother.” And all who saw it spoke better than they knew: “God has come to help his people.”

For his words slipped beneath the long shadow of death and began to peel it back.

(Please read Luke 7:11-16.)

People have numerous reasons for believing in life after death. For many their reason is a feeling. Some sense intu­itively that the scientific law on the indestructibility of matter and energy—the way these can’t ever really be destroyed—applies also to their own consciousness. Some see the principle of life coming out of death written across nature itself—the exploding life of spring that always follows the apparent death of winter. They ponder every seed that falls to the ground and “dies” to release a new kind of life.

Scientific laws and seeds are not proof of anything. How­ever, the intuition itself is proof of something, especially because of the fact that most people admit to it. Our unshakeable sense that life somehow goes on recalls the ancient Scripture: God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” C. S. Lewis commented that for hunger there is such a thing as food, for thirst there is such a thing as water, for human sexuality there is such a thing as, you know . . . and when we find in ourselves a longing that nothing in this world satisfies, it is another sign that there is more than what we see now. There is something more, something after.

So C. S. Lewis wrote about a dear friend who had died: “Nothing could have changed my idea of death more than Johnson did simply by dying. When the idea of Johnson and the idea of death met in my mind, it was the idea of death that had changed.” The complete annihilation of his friend’s existence was inconceivable. He could not get his mind wrapped around it. More of this intuition of the afterlife can be seen in the strange human fear of both ghosts and corpses. When any living thing is cut in two, we find both pieces appalling. This is death—the unnatural severing of body and spirit. The body decays, but what happens to the soul? People are dying to find out.

Now, I can understand how people respond to the real­ity of death. I realize it’s simply because people are hurting when someone has died that they feel an impulse to deny God because of it. Mourning is the price we pay for the priv­ilege of having loved another human being. We pay dearly, and anger is one of the things we’re likely to experience along the way. If you are mourning someone now, if you feel lost and without hope, I hold out the assurance that you won’t always feel this way. Whether the 60 years you had your husband or the 7 years you had that little boy, you will realize one day that you wouldn’t trade those years for any­thing in the world and that they came from a good God. This whisper of gratitude blinks small but alive at the end of your tunnel of grief.

Most of all, I pray it enters your mind that if you deny God because of death, you haven’t done anything about death at all. All you’ve banished is every possible hope of an answer for death, every possible hope that you might still see your dear ones again. Still, I’ve learned to listen, just listen, when grieving people need to vent the anguish in their hearts. They’re just in pain, that’s all.

But the one response to death that I can’t at all under­stand is the shrug of the shoulders as if, “Oh well, no one can really know what dying is all about, and in the end it doesn’t matter.” Much truer it is to say that the riddle of death is the only question that does matter. If we don’t know what death means, if it remains the nasty undefined variable at the end of our equation, then life itself is with­out solution. Whatever else your life may hold in pleas­ures or sorrows, if you don’t know what death means waiting inevitably in the end, you can’t know what any of it means.

And nothing sounds less true than the world’s hypocriti­cal indifference to death—one minute outraged about a senseless murder, the next saying death is as natural as being born. Does anyone really believe that? The hopeless grief of the atheist at the funeral of a friend is surely the worst kind there is, but those are honest tears. Death is natural? We’re okay with it? Surely it resounds in a far deeper place to watch Jesus cry at the tomb of his friend, as if before a tragedy. A tragedy! And he sees it better than we.

Death is an unwelcome intrusion into a world that wasn’t prepared for it, the enemy coming to take away every single thing you could ever have. More than that, death is a great and terrible disgrace. This is how one man put it, “I’m not so much afraid of my death as ashamed of it.” The hand that types these words will be a skeleton one day. And do you dare to ask why? It’s unavoidable biblical truth that death is a consequence of sin. If you’ve ever seen human death, not all dressed up in a funeral parlor but as it actually is, then you’ve witnessed one thing that matches the ugliness of human guilt and have heard the sharpest possible teaching of God’s law.

So soon after the opening pages of the Bible record the entrance of human sin into the world, we encounter in the ancient Hebrew text the word vayamoth. We read it again and again and again. It tolls like a bell throughout the ancient genealogy, after each man’s name for generation upon gen­eration: “ . . . vayamoth . . . vayamoth . . . vayamoth . . .”

“ . . . and he died . . . and he died . . . and he died . . .”

These are “the wages of sin.” The sad truth is that we are dying already as we live. Walter Wangerin observed that when a bucket is being poured out, the last drop does not empty the bucket; it is simply the last step in a process that went on the entire time. While we live, our lives are already running away. Our bodies are returning to dust. But again, what of our souls?

This is the ultimate fear, the one that holds all people captive for all their lives, that makes them waste their lives running from the inevitable, the one that they must push to the back of the closet, that surfaces in nightmares and debilitating phobias, silly euphemisms, neurotic denials, and contradictory philosophies—the fear of death and whatever it brings.

And yet the ugliest scene in the entire world and in all recorded history is that of nails being driven through the palms of Christ as he faced all our consequences. This was the cost of the way he chose to love us—the dead body of God was planted deep in our human soil. Like a seed . . . a stubborn, unstoppable, inevitable seed.

And the most beautiful scene etched in human history is Jesus Christ alive. Please don’t deny it too quickly. It is all we really have. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: “Nothing has changed my view of death more than Jesus did simply by dying. When he and death met, it was death that was changed.” And the living Savior, through the Word he has left us, is the one who has a right to speak when your heart wants to know what death means, for your dear one, for you. Let the agnostic stare blankly at his feet, having noth­ing whatsoever to say. It is Christ who fulfilled the mar­velous prophecy Isaiah once made over the very Jerusalem—“on this mountain”—where Christ appeared alive from the dead: “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ justifies the human long­ing for life to go on and more than completely satisfies it. In Jesus the general principle that dead people stay dead now has an asterisk beside it, one outrageous footnote. The “firstfruits” appeared on the human tree, with the prom­ise of more “fruit” to follow. It is Christ who walked through death and emerged alive and smiling on the other side, who pushed open a door closed for centuries and left it open behind him. He alone holds the floor on the matter of our mortality. “Because I live, you also will live.”

After two years of ministering to my old, dying friend— my “Thursdays with Les”—I didn’t cry one day beside his bed in intensive care the tragic words of Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Instead I said: “You go, Les”; “We’ll see you soon enough”; “God has for­given all your sins, Les”; “Fly home to Jesus.”

And when I lay myself down in death, I’ll remember the One who said “Don’t cry” to a woman who grieved for an only son. By the grace of God and not without it, I’ll show my loved ones the meaning of ultimate spiritual freedom.

I’ll put my hope in God and in the words I too will be wait­ing to hear: “Young man, I say to you, get up!

What is sown in sorrow is raised in joy. This is God’s promise. So we plant our loved ones like seed in the soil, with the faith any farmer has.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That’s what Jesus said. And the Christian, when reduced by death to what it really means to be one, savors these words. They hold us together.

122022_morepreparedtoanswer From More Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit by Tahmid Munaz and is licensed under CC0 2.0.