Facing Death

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“If you could live forever, would you want to, and why?”

That’s the question that the host of the 1994 Miss USA competition posed to Miss Alabama, Heather Whitestone.  She memorably replied, “I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.” 

Heather’s interesting answer notwithstanding, the question of immortality has troubled and fascinated humanity since ancient times. 

According to Greek mythology, the goddess Eos fell in love with Tithonus, a mortal from the city of Troy.  She pleaded with Zeus to grant him the gift of immortality.  Zeus complied.  But Eos had neglected to specify one small detail – that Tithonus should remain forever young.  Instead, he became older and more decrepit with every passing year, comforted at least by the fact that he would be eternally eligible for Social Security. 

Billions of dollars are currently being invested by major corporations in longevity research.  “Immortalists” are convinced that science will one day solve the riddles of aging.  The majority of scientists, however, remain skeptical.  And according to the Pew Research Center, most Americans are anxious that efforts to extend their lifespans will leave them like Tithonus – still alive but saddled with increasing immobility and a decreasing ability to enjoy life.

Like it or not, at least for the foreseeable future, every human life has an expiration date.  We are not immortal. 

That leaves us grappling with that other ancient question:  Is there something that awaits us beyond the grave?

Some of the smartest people in the world have come up with different answers to that question.  The late professor Armand Nicholi, Jr. taught a course at Harvard for 35 years that contrasted two of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds.  He summarized his observations in The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life. 

Nicholi’s closing chapter, on the subject of death, is illuminating.  

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a lifelong atheist, was dismayed by the fact that one day he would die. 

Birthdays were occasions of despair.  He remarked at “how little joy” he felt when he turned 60.  As he saw the end approaching, he described human existence as “an incomprehensible and amusing comedy.”  Throughout his adult years he fatalistically parted company with others by saying, “Goodbye, you may never see me again.” 

Freud dreaded death’s utter finality and feared the pain of terminal illness.  Nicholi observes that “the terrors of eternal nothingness” preoccupied him every day of his life.  He was crushed by the premature passing of one of his children – it was apparently the only time he ever shed tears – and could not bear to attend his own mother’s funeral. 

In September 1939, as cancer ravaged his body, he arranged for his physician to give him an overdose of morphine so he could exit the world on his own terms. 

For the first half of his life, C.S. Lewis was also an atheist.  It can safely be said that his conversion to Christianity at age 31 transformed his perspectives on everything.  That included death.

“There are better things ahead of us than anything we leave behind,” he wrote towards the end of his life.  He actually enjoyed the process of aging.  “Autumn is the best season,” he insisted, and saw his physical decline not as the final chapter of his life’s story, but as the prelude to personal renewal.  The death of his wife Joy was a shattering experience.  He acknowledged that it jolted the foundations of his faith.  But as his own death approached a few years later, he felt both peace and anticipation.  He calmly told his brother, “I have done all I was sent into the world to do.” 

The news of Lewis’ death was pushed to the back pages of the world’s newspapers because it happened on November 22, 1963, the same day JFK was assassinated.  His thoughtful reflections on this world and the next, however, continue to inspire new generations.

Nicholi notes that Christians have always had ambivalent feelings about the end of life.  Death and loss are clearly Plan B in God’s world – the result of things going very wrong.

But death itself – specifically, the death of God’s Son – became the very means by which God rescued us.  We read in the book of Hebrews that “the Savior took on flesh and blood in order to rescue [us] by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death” (Hebrews 4:14-15, The Message).

We are not going to live in this world forever.  Death, however, doesn’t get the last word.  Therefore one of the Holy Spirit’s primary jobs is to prepare us to face death without fear.

It helps to embrace the right prepositions.

People commonly speak of passing into death, as if we’re tumbling into an abyss where everything will be lost.  That was Sigmund Freud’s lifelong fear.  But it’s more accurate, from a biblical perspective, to say that we go through death into something wonderful.  We leave this small corner of God’s neighborhood so we can relocate into a vast new hemisphere of divine real estate. 

Jesus assured his followers that we are heading for a reunion like no other, a welcome-home party. 

No wonder the Bible’s most oft-repeated command is, “Don’t be afraid.”

Life can be tough.  And death can seem so deadly.

But because of the One who put death out of commission on the cross, all shall be well at life’s end.