David Chilton, a frequent contributor to WORLD over the years, died three weeks ago. He wrote the following column after surviving a major heart attack in 1994. It first appeared in WORLD in January, 1995.
A few weeks ago, I did something i probably shouldn't have. I asked my doctor how much longer I've got to live after having survived the heart attack last January. (Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my wife wince.) I was sure he'd say, "Oh, I don't know--20, 30 years maybe." Instead, he floored me: "Oh I don't know--two years. Four years?" I probably shouldn't have asked.
Many years ago, I heard about a minister who had had a heart attack and survived but became depressed; a few months later, he shot himself. A mutual friend told me that heart attack survivors tend to become sullen, moody, and suicidal. He may have been just making that up, I don't know.
What I do know is, I feel utterly different: If ever I felt I had a reason or purpose to live, it's now! God certainly had plenty of opportunities to "take me out"--but he didn't, for whatever purpose he had in mind for me. Despite the very real disabilities I still have, I look forward to each day of new life: I'm usually more cheerful than I ever was before.
In a way, I feel like Lazarus: "Been there, done that." Do you think Lazarus, after his resurrection, ever felt for a moment afraid of death anymore? I think he must have had no qualms about death the next time around, because he'd already been through it.
Of course, everyone has a normal apprehension of crossing over the Great Divide. But the Bible says that Christ became a partner in our humanity, encompassing in himself our mortality, "that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:14-15 NAS). Even though we all have a natural fear of death, and the unknown, I can honestly say that, having been "through it" already, it doesn't bother me.
Now, perhaps I've just caught up with the rest of you. I used to be terrified of death. I had a probably abnormal fear of flying, although I did have some excuse: On two occasions when I was a child, the plane I was flying in had engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing. (Once, it was a frightening touchdown in the icy Aleutian Islands; on another flight, the plane caught fire as we were descending into LAX.)
Years later, as an adult, I remember sitting next to a strong, impressive-looking young man in a military uniform. I thought to myself, "Well, at least he'll give me courage to get through the flight--he looks so strong and confident." As soon as we took off, though, he began sobbing quietly, explaining through his tears that he had always been afraid to fly! The next time I took a plane, I suddenly bolted and walked out just before it pushed back from the gate.
I am still grateful for the advice a former pastor gave when I was scheduled to fly across the country and, in shameful tears, confessed my terror to him. His solution: "Take a train!"
I was shocked. I protested that such a cowardly act would be "unspiritual," a confession of disbelief in a sovereign, loving God. "Lighten up, Chilton! It's just a train ride. People do it all the time. Besides, it's cheaper."
I eagerly clutched at his solution as at a life raft. "Unspiritual" as it might have been, it was the answer I needed at the time. Eventually with further counsel, prayer, and the "peace of God, which passes understanding," I not only became reconciled to flying; I actually enjoy it. My problem, of course, was not that I was so afraid of death as such, but of dying--not only the pain and suffering, but that last, final gasp: the dissolution.
Unfortunately, many new age and secular "solutions" and "explanations" try to make an unholy "peace" with death. It may seem shocking, but Christianity is utterly opposed to such a notion.
Theologian Alexander Schememann wrote in his classic For the Life of the World, "Only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely an enemy to be destroyed, and not a 'mystery' to be explained." Jesus has been there, done that--and instead of becoming reconciled with death, he overcame it.
So can we, through God's grace.