Christ and the Problem of Death
April 12, 2006
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who has 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).
I have been closely touched by death a handful of times in my life. When I was in junior high school, a close friend came home sick from a youth group outing on Saturday afternoon. Overnight his conditioned worsened. The next morning he died. It shook me up because he and I used to wrestle in his front yard. Then we would go inside, sit on the sofa and read comic books. He’d come to my house sometimes and we’d fool around together. We were just typical good friends. And then he died. The whole school was dismissed for his funeral. I remember that the church sanctuary was packed with people. The casket was open in the front. Some of my friends went down front to look at him. I remember standing at the back of that crowded sanctuary and seeing the outline of his face above the edge of the coffin. He was the first dead person I had ever seen. I was too scared to go up for a closer look.
I was in college when my grandmother died. She was in her eighties and had been sick for some time so it came as no surprise. I drove through the night from Chattanooga to Nashville to Memphis and down to Oxford to attend the funeral service. They took me in to see her. Someone commented, “They did a good job, didn’t they?” In the hallway my relatives were standing round laughing, talking, joking, sipping drinks. Only one aunt seemed concerned at all. I remember that it seemed rather bizarre, drinking cocktails at a funeral home.
But death remained shadowy for me until my father died in 1974. He was a popular surgeon in the small town in Alabama where I grew up. To use an old-timey expression, he took sick and died. No other event has affected my life like the death of my father. It took me a long time to deal with the reality that whenever I went home from now on, he wouldn’t be there to greet me.
Run the clock forward a bit over twenty years to the day when Len Hoppe died. He was an elder in the church in Oak Park, a dear friend and a man of enormous faith who fervently believed God would heal him. Nine days after his cancer surgery, he died. We buried him on a bitterly cold day in Chicago.
Gary Olson and I prayed with Len before his surgery. Then Gary spoke at Len’s funeral and said, “I can almost hear Len talking to me from heaven saying, ’Gary, get on up here. It’s great.’” Three years later Gary would indeed “get on up there” when he died suddenly while working out at the high school. I still remember the shock of getting the phone call saying he had collapsed. And I remember standing by his body in the hospital emergency room. His death hit me hard in ways that I still find difficult to explain almost seven years later.
“Ray, Take a Good Look”
Then my mother died three years ago. I had the honor of speaking at her graveside service where we buried her next to my father. While I was standing there, I had a surreal personal experience. Perhaps it happened partly because I was a bit under the weather, perhaps it was seeing so many old friends after three decades, perhaps it was because we were burying my mother and my father side by side. It was as if there was a “wrinkle in time” and the 29 years since my father died had suddenly been swallowed up. They just disappeared for a moment. I was in my early 20s when Dad died; I’m in my early 50s now. Most of the family friends who came to the graveside service had been at my father’s funeral 29 years earlier. Most of them were in their early 50s then; most are in their late 70s or early 80s now. It seemed as if the three decades in between had just disappeared. All this passed through my mind in a flash while I was speaking. I could reach out and touch my mother’s coffin. I was standing three feet from where we buried my father. It was as if we buried my father last week, we were burying my mother this week, and next week someone would bury me. I had a tremendous sense of my own mortality, of the quickly passing years. It seemed as if the Lord whispered in my ear, “Ray, take a good look. This is where you will be someday.” And that day comes sooner than I think.
Yesterday my father died.
Today my mother died.
Tomorrow I will die.
Yet decades may pass between those events. But all are certain to happen. I cannot totally explain what I experienced that day, yet it was profound to me and I am still thinking about it. It was a revelation of my own weakness, my humanity, my frailty, a reminder that “dust thou art, to the dust thou shalt return.” This is always true for all of us, but often we live as if we don’t believe it.
I am not sure how many funerals I have conducted over the years. But I vividly remember my first funeral after becoming the pastor of a church in Downey, California. I was fresh out of seminary, a newly minted pastor, and not long after I arrived I was asked to do a funeral service for a man I had never met. I was young and inexperienced and thought to say a few words of comfort. I fumbled my way through the ceremony and came to the closing prayer. When I got to the part about the resurrection of the dead, the words stuck in my throat. I could barely finish my prayer. I went back home frustrated and embarrassed. What had gone wrong? Then it hit me. I wasn’t sure I believed in the resurrection of the dead. Up until then, it had all been theoretical. But now I had come face to face with death and all my brave words seemed so hollow.
Death has a way of doing that to us. It shocks us, scares us, sobers us up. Even the most suave and debonair young man is forced to stand with open mouth and wide eyes before an open casket. Cemeteries aren’t much better. Something about those fresh mounds of dirt makes us shudder. Something makes us drive faster past a cemetery late at night lest we accidentally shine our lights on a tombstone. Death makes us realize our mortality, our weakness. Death frightens us because we instinctively know that someday we too shall die. Most of all, death makes us think. It makes us think about our own lives, about our priorities, about our goals, about ourselves. And we hate to think about that. So we avoid death at all costs. We avoid death because we don’t want to think about life.
There are so many fears related to the fear of death:
We fear dying alone.
We fear dying a painful death.
We fear what may happen after we die.
We fear leaving our loved ones behind.
We fear the unknown and death is the ultimate unknown.
We fear death because of our sins.
We fear standing before God after we die.
And so we do whatever we can to avoid death at all costs. We change the subject, we live as if we were never going to die, we drink ourselves senseless, we turn to sex to keep us occupied, we bury ourselves in our work, and we try our best not to think about the moment of our own death. Martin Luther said we should live with the day of our death constantly before our eyes. That way we won’t be surprised when the day finally comes. And come it will. Death is no respecter of persons. The statistics are awesome to contemplate:
1 out of every 1 person will die someday. No one gets a free pass.
Death is a problem. It was a problem in Bible times, and it’s still a problem today. Death is the great leveler, the ultimate equalizer. Donald Trump will die someday, and so will the poorest man in the poorest village in Bangladesh. “It is appointed unto man once to die” (Hebrews 9:27 KJV). Thus says the Lord. And that’s an appointment no one can skip and no one can postpone.
A Man Came Back from the Dead
What does the Christian faith have to say to the problem of death?
Easter is God’s answer.
God’s answer is wrapped up in a man who came back from the dead.
Hebrews 2:14 tells us that Jesus came to “destroy him who has the power of death—that is, the devil.” Satan has the power of death. He uses the fear of death to keep people enslaved in sin. Every time you pass a graveyard, you see mute testimony to the reality of Satan’s power. Death belongs to Satan’s realm. But Jesus has broken that power. He did it 2,000 years ago on Easter Sunday morning by rising from the dead. The devil still has the power of death in that we will all someday die, but he has been rendered powerless over the children of God because if you know Jesus, though you die, you won’t stay dead forever.
Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior.
Waiting the coming day, Jesus My Lord!
Up from the grave he arose
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes.
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And he lives forever with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ Arose!
Jesus broke the bondage of death by delivering us from the fear of death. Let me give a personal testimony. Sometimes I think about my own death. It’s not something I look forward to. I’d prefer to live a while longer if the Lord allows it. And if I’ve got to go, I’d just as soon it be in my sleep peacefully. But there are no guarantees, none at all, except that unless the Lord returns in my lifetime, I’ll certainly die someday. I may die in a fiery crash or I might have a heart attack or I might waste away with some dread disease. I might be the victim of a crime. Or I might grow old and simply slip away slowly. Though I know a few things about life, about the circumstances of my own death I have no knowledge whatsoever. None at all, except for this. I know what will happen the moment I die. I’m totally certain about that. With all my heart I believe that I will see the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will welcome me into heaven. I do not believe I “deserve” to go to heaven or that I could ever “earn” eternal life. What an empty pipe dream that is. If I go to heaven, it will be because Jesus takes me there. And if he takes me there, it will be because his blood has covered all my sins, and he has given me his own perfect righteousness.
Nada. Zip. Zero.
If I show up at the gates of heaven talking about how good I’ve been, I’m in real trouble. First of all, I haven’t been all that good. Too many sins come crowding into my memory, and those are only the ones I can remember. I testify that I am a sinner through and through and left to myself, I don’t have a chance of going to heaven.
Not going to make it.
And if I start talking about my own paltry good works, which are far too few to matter, the Lord will turn me away and I will spend eternity in hell. That’s not something I care to contemplate, but I believe hell is a real place and that some people will be there forever, separated from God for eternity times eternity times eternity. So when my time comes to die, I’d better not be spouting any nonsense about how good Ray Pritchard has been. That will only get me in big trouble. What, then, can I say?
Consider these words from the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563. Here is how it begins:
Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
Answer: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life9 and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
That’s the sort of statement every Christian should memorize. Why don’t you stop right now and read it out loud? It will do your soul good to say those words. Just stop for a moment and read it aloud. You might want to write it down and put it on your mirror so you can say it every morning.
For many people, death is a painful passing from this life into the life to come. The process of dying can be excruciating. So I don’t necessarily look forward to my own death. But I can say this very plainly: I’m not afraid to die. If you find out tomorrow morning that during the night I died, be assured that I was ready to go. It’s not because I’m some kind of Terminator/Die Hard/John Wayne-type who can look death in the face and laugh. And it’s not because I’m prayed up or because my life makes me a holy man. I am ready to die because I know Jesus Christ, and he has freed me from the fear of death.
Waking Up in Heaven
Peter Marshall tells the story of a young boy about four years old who had a terminal disease. At first he was simply sick and in bed and didn’t understand his condition, but eventually he realized that he wasn’t going to get better and would never again play with his friends. One morning he asked his mother, “Am I going to die?” And she said, “Yes, dear.” “Mommy, what is death like? Will it hurt?” The mother ran out of the room to the kitchen and leaned against the refrigerator, her knuckles gripped white to keep from crying. She prayed and asked the Lord to give her an answer for her son. Suddenly, an idea came and she went back to his room and sat down on the bed. “Do you remember how you used to play outside all day and when you came inside at night you were so tired you just fell down on the couch and slept? In the morning you woke up in your own bed. During the night your father would come along and pick you up and carry you to your own bed. That’s what death is like. One night you lie down and go to sleep and your Heavenly Father picks you up and carries you to your own bed. In the morning when you wake up, you’re in your own room in heaven.” The little boy smiled and nodded. And several weeks later he died peacefully. That’s what death is like for the Christian. Satan’s hold is broken. The fear is taken away. Jesus came to break the bondage of death.
After Gary Olson died a few years ago, someone sent me the words to a hymn written in 1681 by Richard Baxter called Lord, It Belongs Not to My Care. I printed the words out and carried them with me for many months and found in them consolation for my soul. I found that paper recently as I was unpacking a box. The words have an enormous power. Baxter adds this note when he published the hymn in 1681: “This covenant my dear wife in her former sickness subscribed with a cheerful will.”
Lord, it belongs not to my care
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And this Thy grace must give.
If life be long, I will be glad,
That I may long obey;
If short, yet why should I be sad
To soar to endless day?
Christ leads us through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.
Come, Lord, when grace hath made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet
What will Thy glory be!
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.
“You’re Looking in the Wrong Place”
Let me return for a moment to the first funeral service I conducted as a pastor when I stumbled through the prayer and later realized that the reality of death had overwhelmed my faith in the resurrection of the saints. Out of that experience I began to pray, and it seemed as if God said to me, “Son, you’re looking in the wrong place.” There is indeed a grave that’s empty, but it’s over on the other side of the world, outside Jerusalem, carved into a mountainside. That tomb is empty and it’s been empty for 2,000 years.
Several years ago I visited the Holy Land for the first time. During our visit to Jerusalem, we spent an hour at the Garden Tomb, the spot believed by many to be the actual burial place of Jesus. It is located next to Gordon’s Calvary, that strange rock outcropping that appears to be worn into the shape of a skull. We know it was used as a burial site in Jesus’ day. Many believe it was the spot of the crucifixion. The Garden Tomb is located about a hundred yards from Gordon’s Calvary and is in fact the spot of beautiful garden built over an ancient Roman aqueduct. To your left as you enter is a typical first-century tomb dug into the hillside. A trench in front of the opening was apparently designed for the massive stone that once covered the entrance.
Because the opening is very small, I had to duck to go inside. For a few seconds, you see nothing until your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then you can easily make out the two chambers. Visitors stand in the mourners chamber. A wrought-iron fence protects the chamber where the body was laid. You soon notice that the burial chamber was originally designed for two bodies. However one ledge was never finished for some reason. The other one was. It appears to be designed for a person slightly less than six feet tall.
As I looked around the burial chamber, I could see faint markings left by Christian pilgrims from earlier centuries. After a few seconds another thought enters the mind. There is no body to be found in this tomb. Whoever was buried there evidently left a long time ago. The Garden Tomb is empty!
As you exit back into the sunlight, your eyes fasten upon a wooden sign: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is risen, as he said.”
“Look What I Did For My Son”
We look at our loved ones dying and wonder if the resurrection can be true. But that’s backwards. God says, “Look what I did for my Son. Will I do any less for those who put their trust in him?” Put simply: We do not believe in the resurrection of the dead because of anything we can see with our eyes; everything we see argues against it. People die all the time. There hasn’t been a resurrection in a long, long time. But that doesn’t matter. We believe in the resurrection of the saints because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
As I write these words, it is late at night, and we are five days from Easter. On this day Jesus cursed the fig tree. Tomorrow he faced down the Pharisees. The next day he met with his disciples in the Upper Room. On the next day he was crucified. The day after that he lay in the tomb. And on Sunday–just five days from now–he rose from the dead. Everything we believe comes down to what happened this week. If it’s true, then we’re in great shape. And the good news–the gospel truth, as they say down South–is that it’s true, it really happened. And that means that whether we live or die, we’re in great shape tonight. Amen.