Coming to Peace with Death

My father died on April 28, 2016. It pained me to see his body shut down, piece by piece until all that remained was a crumpled figure, barely recognizable, gasping for air. Pancreatic cancer defiled his body. I prayed God would allow death to arrive sooner than later and end my dad’s suffering. I welcomed death, but never as a friend — only as a useful enemy.

Compassionate people have given me words meant to comfort, saying “death is part of life”. While I appreciate their kindness, I don’t respect their logic. I thought death was, silly me, the end of life. Illogical clichés, no matter how well intentioned, don’t offer the hope we need.

Personally, I don’t find much comfort when people try to paint a pretty face on death. It’s lipstick on a pig. Death is ugly, cruel and selfish to the end. Death steals every asset, ability, and eventually every memory. We must be careful when explaining the tolerable side of death because we can slip into the same irrational and risky behavior of people suffering from Stockholm’s syndrome. (Stockholm’s syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages develop positive feelings toward their captors and even defend them because they mistake a lack of abuse with an act of kindness.)

Every culture has attempted to make peace with death. Eastern cultures have tended to view our physical life as an illusion, turning death into a hero that will set us free from the illusion of life. Greek and Roman philosophers accepted the reality of the material world; but like eastern thinkers, obliterated individual identity after death. Marcus Aurelius said, “You came into this world as a part: you vanish into the whole which gave you birth, or rather you will be gathered up into its generative principle by the process of change.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 24, 84-88.) Modern atheists sing a similar song about the “circle of life” and find solace in the idea that our bodies will fertilize the earth and get recycled by the cosmos. Pragmatists have tended to make peace by placing their hope for immortality in the memory of the living. In all, the common compromise with mortality is the surrender of the individual’s conscious identity after death. Death is not defeated, only redefined. The peace offered is, at best, a truce not a victory.

The question remains, “Is such a peace treaty with death worth the paper it’s written on?”  Woody Allen quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”¹

Christianity never seeks a truce with death. The Bible unapologetically describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It clarifies that the only acceptable terms of peace will be death’s total surrender. Death must give up all power and authority. The eternal peace Jesus will win comes as a result of total victory, not compromise. It won’t be a cease fire with the enemy (like the Korean War), but an annihilation of the enemy (like the Allies’ victory over the Nazis).

We can trust the peace Jesus promises because he has already personally defeated death — the most powerful and ruthless dictator — on the cross.  Jesus fought to win, not to obtain a truce. He removed death from the throne at His resurrection and has made death His footstool. One day Jesus will make death our footstool too, as promised in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

If God never calls death a friend, neither should we. Death stole everything from my dad. When I buried my dad he made a small package. His urn weighed 10 pounds — nearly the same weight as when my dad entered the world. The words of Ecclesiastes pierced me, “All are from the dust, and to the dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). Real hope springs from the fact that God refused to compromise with death but instead waged war to win a total victory; so that those who are allied with Jesus can know that they will never be left in the dust. The only one left in the dust will be death.

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