Death: The Missing Piece in Our Worldview
We don’t talk about death in our culture.
In fact, we often do everything in our power to forget the reality of death. Talking about it makes us uncomfortable, thinking about it is depressing. Nevertheless, at all times—whether we acknowledge it or not—death looms over us and will at some point be a reality we all experience.
The Bible, however, encourages a very different perspective. Rather than echoing the naive, superficial attitude we find all around us, Scripture is honest about the ugliness, unwelcomeness, and intrusiveness of death. At the same time, it maintains a clear-headed perspective on the issue and encourages us both to reckon with death and evaluate our lives in light of it.
Vanity of Vanities
One of the clearest places we see this perspective in Scripture is the book of Ecclesiastes. Part of the Bible’s wisdom literature, this book reminds us that, while it is good to enjoy the simple pleasures of life such as food, drink, work, and family (Eccles. 3:13; 9:9), these things are only fleeting and temporary. We cannot escape the fact that “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities…all is vanity” (12:8).
The question, then, is how should we live in light of this reality? We are given the answer at the end of the book. After spending twelve chapters evaluating the futility of human experience and the apparent meaninglessness of life, the author writes these words:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:13-14).
As J.I. Packer has commented, if there is any book that is intended to turn us into realists, it is Ecclesiastes. The point the author is making is plain: Living our lives in blissful ignorance of death and ensuing judgement is foolish. It makes as much sense as a camper cheerfully frying his morning bacon over the fire while a grizzly bear approaches behind him. Therefore, if we wish to make wise and sober-minded choices in the present, we must be careful to keep before us the big picture of life, death, and final judgement. Only in this way can we possess a true sense of the way things really are.
Jesus the Ultimate Realist
The author of Ecclesiastes, however, is not the only person to encourage us toward such an honest outlook on life. Though it may sound surprising, Jesus encouraged a similar perspective for his followers. Consider His words in Matthew 16:24-27:
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? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
It is also noteworthy that, while instructing His followers on the cost of discipleship and the consequent hardships and struggles that would be involved, Jesus turned their focus to the “end of the matter.” Like the author of Ecclesiastes, He reminds them that the pleasures of this life are fleeting and temporary, and that if they want to think rightly about how to spend their lives, they ought to remember that “the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (v. 27).
The End of the Matter
This type of forward-looking perspective is, I think, something that has the potential to help us grow considerably as disciples of Jesus and lead productive, fruit-bearing lives. After all, how many of the challenges we face here in the west (materialism, consumerism, nominalism, etc.) could be combated by regularly reminding ourselves of the overarching reality that: “…the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities…all is vanity” (12:8)?
Moreover, remembering the reality of death shakes us loose from the complacency that constantly threatens our hearts and, instead, reminds us of the preciousness of Jesus. Like a splash of cold water, it wakes us up to the incredible reality that, through Christ, God has enacted the “death of death” and brought about a way for us to be reconciled, transformed, and restored to eternal life in Him.
In the final analysis, if we want to maintain an accurate perspective on this fallen world, our lives in it, and the preciousness of the gospel, we would be wise to keep the reality of death at the forefront of our thinking. Though uncomfortable and awkward in our day, remembering this truth has the capacity to produce in us a greater zeal for godliness, a more fervent passion for evangelism and discipleship, and a sweeter love and appreciation for Jesus.
May our cry be that of the psalmist: “…teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12)!