My mistake was as simple as it was profound – I had confused the sentence of death on death, with its final execution. I had mistaken the ‘already’ for the ‘not yet’, I had conflated the inauguration and the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, and I had dislocated my hope from the Final State, planting it in the here and now. The over-realised eschatology that feeds the necrotic teaching of the prosperity gospel had infiltrated my understanding at a crucial point, and I had additional wreckage to pick up in my grief as a result.
John Wesley famously summarised the final outworking of the gospel in the hearts of those within early Methodism with the memorable words, ‘Our people die well’. As a summary of the power of gospel hope to hold out against death, this is as succinct as it is brilliant; as a road map for walking through the darkest valley it can be unhelpful, and ultimately disorientating. In this post I want to think a little about the Christian and death, work through some of the mistakes we can make in discussing how we die, and share what hope looks like in the salvage yard of bereavement and loss.
There is a long tradition within evangelicalism of ‘the good death’ of Christians, of a transcendence of the terrors and troubles of the final journey which beset those outside of Christ. Sometimes this can be an implicit assumption, picked up as one of our ‘givens’, one of the assumptions that we can carry from listening to others uncritically. The basic idea behind this is that our hope in Christ is so strong and fresh that it fragrances death to the point of anaesthesia, that the believer will be protected from the psychological, emotional, perhaps even physical trials that passing away entails. This can also be an explicit assertion. The hymn writer Spafford was not alone in his sentiments when he penned the words, ‘no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, thou wilt whisper thy peace to my soul’. Countless Christian biographies present the best of scenes in the final moments of heroes of the faith, their fortitude, their unshakeable complacency in Christ, their easy acceptance of the first and final throes of death.
Two deaths framed my early experience of, and exposure to, this kind of teaching. The first was that of my Grandfather, a godly and humble man. In the hours after his death a well-intentioned friend arrived at his now achingly empty flat and prayed with those of us left behind. His prayer began with the assertion that death had no victory, that there was now no sting, that all of this had been removed through what Christ had done.
As a young man this felt somewhat counter-intuitive, I felt horribly stung at the loss of one who meant so much to me, and at least for now my Grandfather did not seem to have won his battle.
The second death was that of my own beloved Dad from cancer when I was 26 years old. His was a hard journey from the first diagnosis, and his final few days were protracted and traumatic. For the first time in my life I found myself praying that God would take someone away, that their suffering might be over, that death would come.
In all the maelstrom of grief that followed, one of the most difficult emotions was confusion and disappointment. I had no idea that death could deal such a blow, that the end of a Christian’s life could be so wracked and wreathed with sorrows and hardship. The decommissioning of death, the destabilisation of sin’s regime, the painless passage through mortality that appeared in sentiment, song, and literature felt like a cruelly distant reality.