How (Not) To Die: Mortality and Faith
I did a difficult funeral this week. According to the news, a man was found dead in his car, and I was approached to do the funeral. It got me thinking about nature of death. Why do humans die? What is the meaning of that? How is that connected to the meaning of life? How can one of the most fundamental realities of what it means to be human show something of the truth of the Christian faith?
That is what we are going to explore today.
Believe it or not, humans at a genetic level are programed to die.
Believe it or not, there are animals that are not programmed to age and die.
There are animals that are functional immortal. Many turtles don’t age. What they look like at teen-aged years, fully grown, is exactly how they stay. No turtle dies of old age. They just don’t age. Why aren’t we overrun with turtles? Turtles die from disease and from predators. That’s it.
Immortal Jelly fish, aptly named, when injured, tell themselves to reverse age. When a tentacle is bitten off, they revert back to undifferentiated polyp, the goop that they were when they were born, and from there re-mature fully healed. Not only do they not age past maturity, they actually reverse age at will. Amazing isn’t it?
Ocean flatworms have near limitless regenerative capacity. It’s the X-Men’s Wolverine of the ocean world. Remember that scene from that weird Disney movie Fantasia where Mickey Mouse uses magic to cause brooms to become alive and do his house chores? They get out of control, so he starts hacking them to pieces with an axe, only to find that each piece becomes another broom. That’s what flatworms can do. Cut up a flatworm into a dozen little pieces, and it does not die. It regenerates quickly into a dozen clones of that flatworm.
All these animals do not process what is called “senescence” (that is your word of the day), which is the genetic capacity to age.
That’s right, humans, as with most organisms on the planet, are genetically programmed to age and die. This does not make a lot of sense from a purely atheist-materialist point of view. People before they discovered senescence thought that our bodies just wear out like my 2002 Honda Civic is slowly wearing out. They rust; they wear down; they break.
But that rests on the faulty assumption that our bodies are machines. But we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have somewhere around 37 trillion cells in our bodies. Our cells replenish themselves often. Intestine cells every 4 days; skin cells every few weeks; blood cells every few months. Our bodies are remarkably designed to regenerate itself, but oddly, it is not that these processes wear out against their will as we grow old. Our genes tell themselves to stop.
If physical life is all there is and life is just survival – and more than: that survival of the fittest – the idea that our bodies are designed to age means that humans are essentially a failed species. We could have had the genes of the immortal jellyfish, but we don’t. Too bad for us.
On the other end, consider the tiny organism call a “water bear.” They are only about a few millimeters big, but they are functionally un-killable. They are immune to cold. They can stand minus 270 degrees Celsius (which near absolute zero). It can withstand heat well over boiling point. It can survive in the vacuum of space. It can withstand 6 times more pressure than the bottom of the ocean. It can withstand a dose of radiation several hundred times the lethal dose for a human being.
Yet, water bears ever live past 30. Their bodies, which are otherwise impervious, are designed to stop at 30 years old. Unlike turtles that never die from old age, only from predators, water bears only die from old age, nothing else.
All of this is bring us deeper into the mystery of our own mortality. We were meant to be mortal. God wanted it that way.
“We must all die; we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” (2 Sam. 14:14)
One of the vital ways we can witness the truth of Jesus Christ in our world is by showing how Christian faith makes sense out of the fundamental realities we face as humans. In other words, by looking to our faith, we learn to be more human. When we look to our mortality, a vital part of our humanity – it is as universal a fact as all of us needed to eat and breath – it is really only best understood be the standpoint of Christian faith.
We live in a world that no longer understands death. Because it no longer understands death, it no longer understands living either. Richard Baxter once said characterized the Christian life as the art of dying well. That is learning our mortality and living that reality out in grace, walking with Christ.
Many of us live unaware of our own mortality. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote about this in her famous poem:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
In moments where death is unexpected, someone close to us, that is when we are reminded that we are finite, mortal people. We don’t like this feeling. We assume we will live on indefinitely, which is of course, not the case.
So, lets do something bizarre this morning, and learn our mortality together.
1. Death as Limit
(a) If humans were created limited, a limited lifespan is good.
The notion that our lives come to an end is not in and of itself a bad thing. As the world was created, day turned to night. Each day ended. That was a good thing. Humans were created. We were created just as limited and finite as creation. Our lives, like the days of the week, were from the start limited.
This is important because there is no biological fact that links mortality to immortality. Plants and animals have been dying well before humans arrived on the scene, these we understand as innocent. God does not punish the leaves of a tree for making them turn and fall in autumn. Life is meant to be limited.
Immortality is found in God alone, this is why the narrative of Genesis chapter two places the Tree of Life alongside of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We don’t have immortality in and of ourselves, we never did. Immortality is our destiny, not our origin. God alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16).
In fact, this quest for immortality, any notion of immortality understood apart from God is highly dissuaded in Scripture. The serpent’s temptation was with the allure of immortality apart from God: “Surely you will not die!”
The mythology of the world around Israel is replete with heroes questing to find immortality for themselves by their great prowess whether the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh or the search for the Greek Ambrosia (the fruit that bestows divinity). What is all this but immortality by works, justification by works?
Israel rejected this. Humanity is created by God. We dare not assert ourselves as the Creator. So, the fact that our live have limits calls us deeper into dependence on the one who is unlimited. Our work presupposes God’s provision; our prayer presupposes God’s providence. We are dependent; God is absolute.
In fact, the limited age of humanity is seen as a means God uses to curb sin. As the demi-god-like Nephilim corrupted humanity, God restrains the life of humanity to 120 years (Gen. 6:3).
(b) Living forever in this life is never understood to be an ideal for God’s people.
Yet, we humans are still searching for it, not with religion as we would think of it, but with technology.
Even at the highest of the conception of a “good life” Israel shied away of thinking in terms of immortality. The biblical ideal for this life was a “ripe old age” or “full of day” where one walked with God. Job is granted life to 140 years (Job 42:17- that’s 20 years more than the limit, by the way).
There are efforts to cryogenically freeze individuals. Cryonics Institute charges just $28,000 (that cheaper than some funerals!) at time of death to cryogenically preserve a body, to be revived at some future date when it becomes possible.
Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth believes we will be able to transfer the human mind to a computer by 2110. That kind of feels like a movie starring Johnny Depp. I wonder how that will end up?
Technology has become the god and religion of the modern world: we place our trust in it like cave-people placed their trust in statutes of gold.
It is not a good thing. One thinks of the fiction of Jonathan Swift. In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver discovers strange fantastic world that teaches him profound moral truths. One place he stumbles upon has a group of individual that have discovered a fountain of immortality. Tempted to drink of it, he then surveys the group, realizing that many of them are unthinkably miserable, clinging to the quantity of their lifespan at the expense of all quality. At this point, Gulliver pours out his cup of immortal water and departs.
He concludes that a short and good life is better than an infinite one.
(c) The limited nature of our lives remind us that life is a gift.
If life is a gift, there is a gift giver. Reject the giver, and we will become increasingly unable to recognize all life as a gift.
This notion of the goodness of life is growing increasingly in doubt. We face a culture of death. As I said, in forgetting the meaning of death, we have forgotten the meaning of life.
If life is just survival and pleasure or achievement, than means a lot of our lives are not worth that much. We are seeing suicide at levels that should equate them with pandemic.
According to Statistic Canada, “In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 16-44 year olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. Seventy-three percent of hospital admissions for attempted suicide are for people between the ages of 15 and 44.”
We are facing a pandemic of meaninglessness in life. Worse still, our government as not been diligent to combat this. Our church was one of many that sent petitions that protested the assisted suicide bill, pleaded that at any rate, there needs to be a clause for consciousness objectors in the medical establishment. The Trudeau government did not even allow for that.
Now, anyone that faces suicide, especially in cases of terminal illness, needs compassion and support, but I worry assisted suicide makes a judgment call on the “value” of life. In Holland, which has had euthanasia laws for a while now, reports that some doctors now have recommended suicide to people with mental illness because there conditions are “insufferable.”
Where do we draw the line here? I don’t think we can. Should we see people with exceptional needs as having a lower value than those that are fully able-bodied and able-mined. Is that where we see human value? Christians see human life in the image of God, created with inherent dignity, such that to living in fellowship with people with exceptional needs is a joy, not a burden.
I think these laws for assisted suicide are symptomatic of a growing awareness that apart from God, we don’t know how to understand all life as having value, even in time of pain and difficulty. We care for people because all life as value; we allow ourselves to be cared for (a difficult truth for us autonomous modern individuals) because we cherish the opportunity to live another moment alongside God and God’s children in this life.
Because we have forgotten the meaning of our mortality, how we are designed for something, someone, more, we have lost the ability to live.
2. Death as Sin
Life as merely limited is good, but we are fallen humans. We are all born into a world where sin has had its way. So, we cannot think about death apart from its tragic, fallen state. Why is death sad? It is because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” says Romans 6:23.
This is important. God is concerned with our bodily well being, but there are things more important than the mere physical: seeking the kingdom of heaven is more important that food and clothing says Jesus. The opposite of this pursuit is death, true death.
(a) Sin is understood as death worse that physical dead.
This goes right back to the Garden of Eden. Notice that the warning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that you will “surely die” but it is not like Adam and Eve died as soon as they ate it. What did they do? They felt the shame of being distant from God.
God comes down and tells them the consequences of their idolatry: men must toil, but inevitably they will return to the dust, women have lost their primal equality with men, and just as the toil of men remind them of their mortality (their inability to be immortal) so also the reproductive cycles of women (it is a truth that we are less aware of since birth has become so much safer now). Their physical mortality is seen in light of their shame and idolatry. You have tried to be your own gods? You will fail. That’s the consequences.
Like I said, there is nothing wrong with being finite, limited creatures, but when we try to surmount our place as creatures, the true death is to live apart from God. Often the Apostle Paul talks about being “dead in our sins” (ex. Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). This is important, the Bible considers any moment of physical life lived apart from God to be true death.
In all of this, Adam and Eve lose relationship with God in the Garden, and are exiled. This is an archetypal way of saying we all lose our innocence when we turn from God. We are all born mortal; we are all born into sinful existence, but there is a point that Christ never underwent but we do, a point where we embrace that sin for ourselves, and that is the point when we embrace true death.
This is where physical death and spiritual death are connected. Since we all have fallen and turned from God, the limit of our lives is seen with fear. This fear comes from understanding the limit of our lives through our quest for own immortality (which we will fail at, as our mortality reminds) and through our own disobedience.
The funerals that I have done where the person was not a very good person, have been the most bitter. There is unresolved pain on the part of their loved ones, regret and resentment. Death becomes the terminal reminder of the unfixed brokenness of their relationships.
Understood apart for God, the end point of our lives is anguish. The presence of a loved one’s life is now absent, a vacuum of meaning, propelling all the bizarre emotions of grief. Grief is a weird thing. You can feel happiness over the joyful memories of a loved one’s life, then sadness over them not being around anymore. You can feel gratitude over the gift of their life, then anger and guilt over the “what if’s” of not cherishing them more. The weird thing about grief is that you can feel all these emotions all at once. If you have ever lost a loved one close to you, you know what I am talking about.
(b) It is because of this pain of death that all people, Christian or otherwise, see death as an obstacle.
This is important because from a purely materialist point of view, we humans die and that is it. It is a biological fact, and if science is the only way to see the world, it is a fact that we just need to accept. Why is it preferable to live versus no life if both are biological facts? Why does life have any more value than things that are inanimate? There is no ultimate answer in that scheme. Like Is said, it is only through the lens of faith that the bitterness of death even makes sense.
Christians see death as something that does not belong in this world ultimately. We are mortal, yes, but God wants to bring us into something more than that, after that. It is then that death is seen as an enemy, getting in the way of the fullness of life God wants for us:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
Nor do any that go down into silence.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
Or your faithfulness in destruction?
Are you wonders known in the darkness
Or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
It is natural for all people, Christian or otherwise, to fear death, but for different reasons. Fear of death has driven humans to do wonderful and terrible things. Wonderful things like build civilizations, organizing ourselves to protect ourselves from disaster, invent medicine, develop structures that ensure common good and well-being, etc.
It has also caused us to do terrible things. We have tried to find immortality apart from God. Men have deified themselves through technology as I just said.
Here is a question: what if scientists do uncover the gene that stops senescence, that stops aging? What if they are able to procure immortality? Does that render what we are thinking about null and void? Does that make God unnecessary?
Sadly, I think some people look to God as their “fire insurance.” They love God not because of who he is, but what they can get out of him. God is the cosmic “get out of jail free card,” the divine equivalent of death insurance. If that is your reason for believing in God, then ya, that would be a crisis.
But consider the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “If there were no heaven I would still love you; and if there were no hell, I would still fear you.” In other words, Avila calls us to love God because God is God. We do not love our children for what we “get out of them,” we love because of the goodness of love.
Refusing to love God, for any moment, is death. It is death worse than physical death. The greatest tragedy is not our lives coming to an end (our lives were at some point meant to do that), but the true tragedy is any life spent apart from God. That is death right now.
This is important for us now: Do we know that true life is living every moment with God here and now?
On the flipside, are you ready to get rid of the death in your life, the things that your have been keep from God, the sin in your life, and commit it to God? Are you ready to walk with God in a new way today?
This bring us to my last point..,
3. Death as opportunity
(a) We need God to reveal himself as a God that is with us.
We remind people of this often iat funerals. They might like the idea that God saves us or that there is an afterlife, they probably assume that from their religious upbringing that they have fallen away from. So, I recall them to the need to stand on revelation. We know our loved ones are with God because of how he reveals himself. God reveals himself to be love that is present to us in all the darkness of life and death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me!” says Psalm 23. David knew this because he walked with God. David also says in Psalm 139:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In Jesus, God is with us in our sin and death. God became flesh, God took on our humanity, even our mortality. He was not born, immortal. That is important as well. Humans were always limited and mortal, even Adam before he fell. How do we know this? Because even the second Adam was mortal. He did this to show us true humanity in the face of mortality. God loves us in all the moments of life.
(b) Jesus has taken on the wages of sin to bring us life.
Jesus gladly bore the curse of the law, the consequences of sin to show that God’s will for us is mercy and grace. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
As physical and spiritual death are connected, Christ gladly bore both at the cross. Whenever we think our lives are worthless, that we have done unforgivable things, that all we deserve is death, God tells us in Jesus Christ “I will gladly die your death to bring you life.” Thus we can say, as paul reminds us,
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
How do we know God loves us? Because he showed us that he would die for us. He loves us more than his very life. How do we know death is not the end? The Father rose Jesus from the grave.
The cross cannot be understood without the resurrection. Death has been defeated in Christ, because the Father raised up the messiah. In Jesus, something amazing has happened on Easter morning. God is present to us, even in our physical deaths, such that death has been disarmed. The cosmic nothingness of death was brought into the being of God and surmounted into the joy of new creation. Resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s life and death.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
(c) This turns physical death into just another moment to walk with God
Do you know God is with you even in your darkest moments? Knowing this, walking with Jesus, knowing we have eternal life, reshapes our perspective on life such that we greet every moment as opportunism to walk with him.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” says Jesus (John 14:6). Nothing else beside that is consider true living.
It is so important that Paul would even say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Funny thing, I know a friend of mine in high school, who we went on to study together to be pastors. He put that as his quote in his high school yearbook. people were worried that he was suicidal.
That is not literally true, but metaphorically. In Christian life, we “die” to our old selves. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” says Romans 6:11. We die to our sins in baptism, to start living resurrection life, eternal life now.
Every moment you are dying, but I a good way, when you choose to embrace new life in Christ. Paul uses this metaphor, because it is hard. Giving up the past is hard. You have to leave it behind. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” says John 12:24.
(d) Death, the fear of death no longer stops us from doing what is right.
Death was the weapon of fear, used by tyrants to keep people in line. Death was the cause of fear, propelling Israel to seek immortality in idolatry.
In Jesus, death became a path to righteousness and true life. Jesus used the instance of death as a way of being faithful to the Father. Jesus used the instance of the oppressive Romans executing him, the instance of the Jews abandoning him, to show a way greater than hate, violence, and despair. As the murdered him, he prayed for their forgiveness, non-violent, self-sacrificial love for his enemies.
This is a similar calling we must take up.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26)
The great martyrs of our faith refused to see the fear of death as obstacle to witnessing for Christ. They became opportunities to be faithful no matter what. God gave his life for us, so how can be give anything less than our entire life for him? As the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier (d. 1528) cried out as authorities burned him alive, “Truth is immortal.” He could have renounced his faith, trying to live on a little longer. Perhaps repent of that later, knowing Christ might forgive him. That would be to miss out, not on physical life, but true life: living completely with Christ, even to the point of the privilege – no other word will do – of bearing our own cross. This is the truth that is immortal. That is, knowing Christ and witnessing his truth, is worth far more than preserving our physical lives at the expense of faithfulness.
This is the truth that we must live. Whether we face physical illness, mental illness, disability, old age, or worse persecution and the threat of martyrdom. Living is for Christ and to die is gain.
Someone asked me whether I like doing weddings more than funerals as a joke. I said, that is not always the case. I funeral for a person who has walked with the Lord their whole life is actually really pretty. There life is so encouraging. It is a celebration of life.
For many people I know, death has already been defeated. They live joyously with the Lord such that whatever life brings them, including the end of life, is just another opportunity to love the Lord. It is here that the truth of the Scripture ring out
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)
(e) So, we live in hope for the restoration of all things.
The earliest statement of Christian hope is in Acts 3:21: the disciples await God to return to restore all things. All that has gone wrong in this world, God promises to be put right again and then some. That is the total victory of God over sin that the cross signifies.
God promises to mature this world beyond death, to restore it into the universe he wants it to be. One day, Revelation envisions,
Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).
Some doubt whether God will do this, but we know that the God that brought this world into creation, has the capacity to bring it into New Creation. The God that defeated death in the resurrection wants to do something like this with all life. But God does not want to make that happen by just snapping his fingers. He wants to use his children, his way (self-sacrificial love) to bring this world fulling into his kingdom.
So, the question now is how will you live out true life? How will you live out true hope?
May you know the goodness of every moment spent depending on God your Creator
May you know that in Christ, God has defeated sin, death and the devil
May you trust that now, living out the power of the resurrection out now, awaiting the restoration of all things.
Amen, go in peace.