A few months ago I was in a meeting of the editorial board of the Evangelical Magazine discussing what we should have as the theme for the next issue. There were a number of pressing issues in our minds, but eventually we settled on a topic which was absolutely relevant to every reader, and one that is often neglected or deliberately not discussed. The topic we chose? Death.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that scene being repeated in the offices of The Guardian, GQ, or Woman’s Weekly. In the media, everything must look fresh and youthful, as the BBCs recent employment tribunal demonstrated, and as a quick glance at the magazine rack in a supermarket will confirm. Glance through the women’s magazines (and even the men’s!) and you’ll see dozens of tips on how to look young and feel young, but none at all on how to die well.
Of course death is not easy for even Christians to consider. Perhaps more than anyone else we realise the tragedy of death – this unnatural intrusion into a world which God declared was ‘very good’. Every one of us has lost loved ones; most will have lost a parent, spouse or even a child. Just like those who are not converted, when Christians think about death, we think about those we loved, and our happy recollections of all that they contributed to our life are mixed with our sense of loss and grief that they are no longer with us.
But, that said, Christians do not grieve as others do, who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). It is that hope that tempers our grief, and enables us to think carefully about death. The Christian can look this great, all-conquering enemy in the eye and say, ‘Death, where is your victory?’ (1 Cor. 15:55).
Our hope is, of course, that death is not the end. The world says ‘where there is life, there is hope’. The Christian says ‘even in death, there is great hope’. And it really is great hope. I have some friends who believe in re-incarnation – the great ‘circle of life’. But who wants to come back to life, only to suffer the same troubles, the same pain, the same grief, the same tears that we have already experienced? Who wants to be locked in an endless cycle of birth, toil, death, birth, toil, death? That is no hope at all.
But for the Christian, our hope is resurrection. We don’t simply believe that one day we’ll go to heaven. We believe that the whole creation is groaning in eager expectation for the return of Christ. And as part of the creation we groan too – not in despair, but in longing – for the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:18-25). Our hope is not simply that we’re going to live forever, but that we will be given new resurrection bodies in order to enjoy the new heavens and the new earth free from pain and the struggles which come through illness and old age.
Have you ever spoken to someone who has had a hip- or knee-replacement? When the operation is successful, it can give the recipient a new lease of life. The man who could barely drag himself from the front-door to his car, can now walk to church and enjoy the service pain-free. The grandmother who could hardly find the energy to visit her grandchildren can now play hide-and-seek and even give piggy-backs! But that transformation is nothing compared to the transformation that one day awaits all those whose faith is in Christ. Resurrection is no mere ‘patch-up’ job – we need more than that! Just as our hearts have already been made new, so our bodies will likewise be made new.
Scripture is keen to point out that this hope of Christians is no mere pipe-dream. There is one who has gone before us, and blazed the trail. The Lord Jesus Christ has conquered death. He has received his resurrection body; he is already glorified. Our hope is not that we will have ‘done enough’, not that somehow God will give us a second-chance, but that we will be found in Him.
Life to come
So all this means, not that Christians can think about death, but that we should do so. After all, if we have hope in this life alone, we are to be pitied beyond all men (1 Cor. 15:19). If we fail to look beyond this life, we will miss the joy of meditating on the life to come, and be unable to deal with the grief that will inevitably come our way.
So when we planned the magazine we commissioned articles from John Woolley and Jonathan Pearse on how the truths of the Bible can help us to deal with grief – not with platitudes or mere stoicism, but with simple trust that God is good. And, to help us to help others who are hurting and grieving, we asked Arthur Bentley-Taylor to remind us that we can bring the presence and peace of God to those who are afflicted.
We can bring comfort and have hope, because the good news taught by Scripture rests in reality, and Paul Wells was asked to write about Christ’s death on the cross that reconciles us sinners to our God. Our hope is sure, because God’s goodness has already been demonstrated and, his power to raise from the dead is already made clear.
This hope should not merely be of help in our old age or in our hospital bed, but it should transform our lives. Hope in resurrection will give strength to the weak, hope to the dying and courage to the timid. The Boxer Rebellion in 19th century China is a salutary yet uplifting reminder that frequently God’s people have had to be prepared to ask themselves whether they really believe that ‘it is not death to die’. So, to complete the picture Lowri Iorwerth and Gareth Edwards looked at heaven and hell and reflect on the truths (and some of the myths) of the life to come.
As I reflect back on that meeting, and read again the articles we commissioned, I find them both a challenge and a comfort. We worship a God who has conquered death and dealt with its consequences. Blessed be His name!
This article was the editorial of the March 2011 edition of the Evangelical Magazine.