John Wesley famously summarised the final outworking of the gospel in the hearts of those within early Methodism with the memorable words, ‘Our people die well’. As a summary of the power of gospel hope to hold out against death, this is as succinct as it is brilliant; as a road map for walking through the darkest valley it can be unhelpful, and ultimately disorientating. In this post I want to think a little about the Christian and death, work through some of the mistakes we can make in discussing how we die, and share what hope looks like in the salvage yard of bereavement and loss.
There is a long tradition within evangelicalism of ‘the good death’ of Christians, of a transcendence of the terrors and troubles of the final journey which beset those outside of Christ. Sometimes this can be an implicit assumption, picked up as one of our ‘givens’, one of the assumptions that we can carry from listening to others uncritically. The basic idea behind this is that our hope in Christ is so strong and fresh that it fragrances death to the point of anaesthesia, that the believer will be protected from the psychological, emotional, perhaps even physical trials that passing away entails. This can also be an explicit assertion. The hymn writer Spafford was not alone in his sentiments when he penned the words, ‘no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, thou wilt whisper thy peace to my soul’. Countless Christian biographies present the best of scenes in the final moments of heroes of the faith, their fortitude, their unshakeable complacency in Christ, their easy acceptance of the first and final throes of death.
Two deaths framed my early experience of, and exposure to, this kind of teaching. The first was that of my Grandfather, a godly and humble man. In the hours after his death a well-intentioned friend arrived at his now achingly empty flat and prayed with those of us left behind. His prayer began with the assertion that death had no victory, that there was now no sting, that all of this had been removed through what Christ had done.
As a young man this felt somewhat counter-intuitive, I felt horribly stung at the loss of one who meant so much to me, and at least for now my Grandfather did not seem to have won his battle.
The second death was that of my own beloved Dad from cancer when I was 26 years old. His was a hard journey from the first diagnosis, and his final few days were protracted and traumatic. For the first time in my life I found myself praying that God would take someone away, that their suffering might be over, that death would come.
In all the maelstrom of grief that followed, one of the most difficult emotions was confusion and disappointment. I had no idea that death could deal such a blow, that the end of a Christian’s life could be so wracked and wreathed with sorrows and hardship. The decommissioning of death, the destabilisation of sin’s regime, the painless passage through mortality that appeared in sentiment, song, and literature felt like a cruelly distant reality.
My mistake was as simple as it was profound – I had confused the sentence of death on death, with its final execution. I had mistaken the ‘already’ for the ‘not yet’, I had conflated the inauguration and the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, and I had dislocated my hope from the Final State, planting it in the here and now. The over-realised eschatology that feeds the necrotic teaching of the prosperity gospel had infiltrated my understanding at a crucial point, and I had additional wreckage to pick up in my grief as a result.
In the here and now, death is not finally ended, but it is our final enemy, it is the last in a long line of hardships and horrors that dog the life of the Christian in this world. Death rages and roars in our world, it intrudes and transgresses, it makes the Fall its anthem and the original order its curse word, it denigrates and denudes, it humbles and horrifies, it can strip a man or woman of almost everything, it can prompt indignity, despair, doubt and sadness. Death is the dysfunction that Adam bequeathed to us all, it is the disordering of God’s good world, and it makes brittle our most tender of relationships.
The hope that Paul heralds in 1Corinthians 15:54-55 is a Resurrection hope, it is the joyful prospect that lifts our heads and garrisons our hearts in the midst of casualty and cruelty, bereavement and loss,
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
Among the many vital words in this statement, ‘when’ and ‘then’ are crucial. When Christ comes in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, when we see appear our risen glorified Saviour, when the Firstfruits of the Resurrection calls the fulness of that harvest home, when the graves shatter, when the frames and fibres of the old order are penetrated and immolated by the sheer fundamental force of the New Creation, then our song and boast will be that swollen death is swallowed by the life of our victorious Christ. The when and the then hold between them the keys to our final hope, the majestic, triumphant, appearing of Jesus Christ the Lord. Not until then will we find our foretaste of glory realised in fulness, not until then will we really grasp the magnificent hope that is ours.
In the meantime
These truths eased themselves gently into the darkened room of my bereavement. God in his mercy allowed the true light of the Final Day to suffuse into my present suffering, he poured oil on my disappointed spirit, and he patiently re-ordered my hoping and weeping so that my experience of death’s robust grip was eased by the reality and grace of real hope.
As I write these words I think of some who may have walked a similar path, of some who might have imbibed the idea that ‘dying well’ means dying easily, and whose hearts and hopes have been long left behind in the hospital ward or hospice corridor. Some Christians march home in triumph, I have witnessed wonderful examples of Christians given profound grace to face into the lengthening shadows of the valley, but I have also watched believers struggle with death as they die, I have watched their physical frame rage against the dying of the light, I have seen their desire for home now deferred to the point of desperation. Both are true experiences of true Christians, who are truly hoping for Christ’s conquest to be made visible.
Bring your deathbed disappointments, your shredded garments from the final theatre of conflict, your traumas and troubles (should they be yours), and rest them not in the hope that we hold for now, but the hope that we have in then, when, this undoing will all be undone, when the reality of death will be made untrue, when Christ will visibly crush the curse that wounded us and will bring us to home, and home to us.