To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
When it comes to the subject of death, it seems that everybody has something to say:
“Do not try to live forever. You will not succeed.” (George Bernard Shaw)
“He who pretends to face death without fear is lying.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
“The meaning of life is that it stops.” (Franz Kafka)
“I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” (Woody Allen)
“We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” (Richard Dawkins)
“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” (Will Rogers)
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’” (Hunter S. Thompson)
“Christians are people who are better off dead.” (Dallas Willard)
The author of Ecclesiastes has something to say about death as well:
I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21)
Needless to say, this is not the kind of Bible text likely to appear on an inspirational greeting card.
What’s going on here?
Solomon is describing life “under the sun” – how things look from the perspective of this world and this world only. From a purely biological perspective, there seem to be no grounds for believing that anything awaits us at death except nonexistence. We live in a secular society that has openly rejected God as the key to the meaning of life. What therefore should that society tell its members about the meaning of death?
There are several options currently in play.
We can tell our children that death is entirely natural. In The Lion King, young Simba is assured that while lions eat the antelopes, all lions eventually die and fertilize the grass, which then provides food for the antelopes. “And so we are all connected in the Great Circle of Life.” Cue that great Elton John song. There’s nothing to be afraid of, kids.
But kids are afraid. And so are the older generations who love them. Death is the thief that spares no one. It seems to rob us of all our tomorrows, as well as every relationship we value.
So try this instead: Be outraged. As the Irish poet Dylan Thomas wrote while watching his father die, “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Be angry that life always ends in a cemetery.
Modern Western culture has delivered an unprecedented world of comforts to its citizens. Even “underprivileged” individuals enjoy conveniences that the wealthiest people in the ancient world could never have imagined. Men and women, on average, now live twice as long as those who lived during Bible times. Yet such realities have not banished the fear of death. Tellingly, nearly 50,000 Americans took their own lives in 2022, the highest suicide rate in our nation’s history. Creature comforts do not appear to guarantee that people will find joy and meaning in life.
Perhaps, then, we should simply refuse to think about the fact that death awaits us all.
WMDs (Weapons of Mass Distraction) are always close at hand. Instead of cultivating “mindfulness of death,” as the ancient Greeks advised, we can surrender ourselves to travel, video games, sports, TV, housecleaning, personal fitness, hobbies, sex, shopping, religious busywork, surfing the Web, alcohol, or opiates.
Author and pastor Tim Keller, who stepped into the next world just a few months ago, reminds us of one of life’s certainties: “Whatever we believe about the future absolutely controls how we live in the present.”
When the author of Ecclesiastes looks toward the future, he sees no assurances. He finds no hope. Shakespeare’s Hamlet concurs. He describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
If we confine ourselves to life “under the sun,” hope will always elude us. But if we’re willing to look beyond Ecclesiastes – to grasp that it is but one volume in a library of 66 books that introduce us to God’s larger story, including life “beyond the sun” – we eventually come across the strange account of a traveler who does visit the undiscovered country, and miraculously comes back from the dead.
What does Jesus say about death? “I am the resurrection and the life,” he announces, while standing in a cemetery. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. And whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
What does all this mean?
As we’ve noted before, 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. 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.
Something big awaits us.
From where he’s standing, Solomon can’t see it. For all he knows, we’re headed for the Big Sleep from which no one will ever wake.
But Jesus assures his followers that we’re heading instead for the Big Celebration.
The next world will provide a reunion like no other – a welcome-home party.
Whether or not that means we’ll get to stand alongside Will Rogers and be surrounded by dogs is just one of the many mysteries that will finally, and joyfully, be resolved.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.