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Whistling past the graveyard

"Whistling past the graveyard" Continued...

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

Dr. Packer's realism is important, though. He writes, "Normal people do not look forward to dying, and there is good reason for that. We cannot expect the process to be pleasant; the prospect of going to give an account of oneself to God is awesome; and Christians know that physical death is the outward sign of that eternal separation from God which is the Creator's judgment on sin."

So what difference does being a Christian make? John Piper writes of two skydivers, both free-falling at the same speed, but with a crucial difference: One has a parachute, one does not. Only the person who knows he can land successfully will dodge panic as the ground approaches. If he's a first-time skydiver (as is everyone who dies; there are no practice dives), he will still be nervous, but intellectually and spiritually he will have the knowledge that he will not crater.

Furthermore, as Dr. Packer notes, "Dying well is one of the good works to which Christians are called, and Christ will enable us who serve Him to die well, however gruesome the physical event itself." Dying well, in this sense, is the opposite of making friends with death. It is like pitching well: The object is not to make friends with the batter, but to strike him out.

Past practitioners of realistic optimism

We can learn much about dying well from Christian predecessors. Leonard Hoar, president of Harvard College from 1672 to 1675, did not minimize natural fears of death: "The traveler is afraid to pass when the evening is come," and death can "pierce and pain." But he told fellow Christians to put on the whole armor of God to protect themselves from trouble at the end, since Satan used the opportunity of weakened bodies to produce "despair, and casting away of our hope." And Hoar insisted that God provided "grace to help in this time of need that takes away the sting."

Has that been the case? We have early church histories of notable martyrs, but we need solidly researched, realistic histories of how ordinary Christians in America have died, and how they have reacted to the deaths of loved ones. When the wife of Joseph Tompson of Massachusetts died in 1679, he wrote of the effects on his family: "the want of her prayer" and of "her daily nurture & instruction" of their children. He mourned the loss of "a soul friend, a loving neighbor, a tender mother, & a Dear Dutiful wife.... The benefit of her Company was ever desirable-her Countenance to me exceedingly lovely." And yet, he wrote that while he was "bitterly lamenting," she was "triumphing" in heaven. Death, he noted, was an unnatural tearing apart of relationships, but he was confident that they would be restored in a superior fashion.

Realistic optimism about caring for the dying and the dead

We need books that examine our current ways of dying in America. I'm all for at-home care that allows the terminally ill to be with their families rather than surrounded by hospital machinery, but Virginia Morris points out, "Some patients do not want to be at home because their home life is stressful.... One fellow who knew he was dying spent a year in an intensive care unit because he said he didn't mind the tubes and interruptions, and he loved watching television all day and being catered to by the staff." Taking care of the dying is expensive either in money or in time, and many who grumble about costs still prefer paying through the nose to investing time and having the smell of death in their homes.

Complaints about funeral expenses should also be seen in terms of the time/money tradeoff. In the 19th century families typically invested time: Men made the coffin, women washed the corpse, other men dug the grave, other women made refreshments, and so on. Now, professionals handle it all and get everything done quickly, but with a loss of familial contact. The problems of dying increase when there have been problems in living: Are there ways to counteract both?

Christian beliefs compared with those of other religions

The Christian hope is not merely a hope in the immortality of the soul, because man is created to have a body, and an afterlife without one is not entirely satisfactory (as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5). It is also a hope in the resurrection of the body, which will not occur until Christ returns at some future point and finally subdues the last enemy, death. Christians possess a parachute, and through the example of Christ know that the parachute harness has a body in it. For a time after death Christians are in an imperfect, bodiless state, but when the time of waiting is over Christians will once again have a body-soul combination, this time in a glorified state, free of sin, and living in a new, perfect world.

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