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Whistling past the graveyard

"Whistling past the graveyard" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Rev. Van der Poel, as head of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, developed a way of asking at the outset the questions that Studs Terkel and other secularists think are optional. The assessment tool shown and explained in Sharing the Journey takes us through questions that will bring out how the patient sees God, prayer, and church. Some of the wording could be improved, but this is a handy way to get started.

Erwin W. Lutzer, One Minute After You Die: A Preview of Your Final Destination

Rev. Lutzer, senior pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, wisely examines near-death experiences, biblical teaching about heaven and hell, and the preparations for death that we should make. He writes, "Dying grace does not mean that we will be free from sorrow, whether at our own impending death or the death of someone we love.... Sorrow and grief are to be expected. If we feel the pain of loneliness when a friend of ours moves from Chicago to Atlanta, why should we not feel genuine grief when a friend leaves us for heaven?" He notes, "In heaven we will rest, but it is not the rest of inactivity. We will most probably continue on some of the same kinds of projects we knew on earth.... Jonathan Edwards believed that the saints in heaven would begin by contemplating God's providential care of the church on earth and then move on to other aspects of the divine plan, and thus 'the ideas of the saints shall increase to eternity.'

John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven

Rev. MacArthur works the biblical clues into a precise description of how the people God has saved will experience the new heaven and earth that God will create. He emphasizes the stimulation and pleasure of unbroken fellowship with God, and notes that food and light will not be needed. The New Jerusalem will not have a temple, since Christ himself will be permanently with us.

HOW THEN SHALL WE DIE?

We can expect over the next two decades clever books that wine and dine readers on their way to death, but such works may merely repeat the error of the late 19th century's most popular preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. He wrote that those with terminal diseases should merrily proclaim, "That we are so near death is too good to be believed." When he died in 1887, blossoms and floral wreaths covered his casket and the pulpit; pink roses formed a "B." Ministers who imitated Beecher proclaimed that we should be happy, happy, happy all the time in the face of death. Gathered Gold, a typical book of quotations for current ministers to use in their sermons, includes anonymous sayings such as, "It is never too soon to begin to make friends with death."

that true? Should we make friends with death? Christ exhibited a different attitude. When Lazarus died, He wept. The Apostle Paul questioned the power of death-"Where is thy sting?"-but never saw it as a party favor. John Calvin wrote that death "has been destroyed in such a way as to be no longer fatal for believers, but not in such a way as to cause them no trouble." The reason: Death is not natural. As 20th-century theologian John Murray put it, "Man is not naturally mortal; death is not the debt of nature but the wages of sin."

That many people "through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Hebrews 2:15) clearly shows a lack of faith. But Christians who are faithful yet unrealistic lack credibility. As C.S. Lewis noted in 1961, "It is hard to have patience with people who say 'There is no death' or 'Death doesn't matter.' There is death. And whatever is, matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter." Christians err by taking either extreme position-frowning all the time or smiling all the time-in regard to death.

We need from Christian publishers more books that answer five questions: How does Christian belief lead to a realistic but optimistic attitude toward death? What can we learn from experiences of Christians who have gone before us? What practical steps should we take to increase the opportunity to die well? Why is the Christian understanding of what comes next superior to that of Islam, Buddhism, and other religions? Is there any satisfactory alternative?

Realistic optimism

J.I. Packer's Knowing Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 1999) and John Piper's Future Grace (Multnomah, 1998) each contain valuable insights about approaching death, but I have not included them in my list of 25 books because they are mostly about living, not dying.

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