It is the phone call you dread to receive, especially from a relative who never calls. But the call came on Thursday, the 3rd of September from the United States. The news was unwelcome, though hardly unexpected. My father, Frank, had a cardiac arrest in hospital and died despite attempts to resuscitate him (2nd September US time). He was 85 years old.
Dad’s death came only ten months after I got the other dreaded phone call. My mother, Louise, age 84, had also had a cardiac arrest and died despite the efforts of the paramedics to revive her. The date was the 31st of October.
Billy Graham, in reference to his beloved wife Ruth Bell Graham who died in 2007, said that no matter how much you anticipate death, it is still a shock when it comes. This is, no doubt, true for many people. The stunned realisation that your loved one has ‘passed on’ and you will not be able to see, speak, or visit with them for the rest of your natural life is an immeasurably sad thing. For many, it can be overwhelming though, invariably, most people pick themselves up and get on with their lives. Yet it will not be the same.
The Bible describes death as an ‘enemy.’ Indeed, it is the most ferocious, fearsome and formidable of all foes. It stands there dangling a ‘sword of Damocles’ over our heads which could, at any given time, come down and take us from this world. Death is strong, inevitable, and egalitarian. It afflicts young and old, male and female, rich and poor. Remember the Titanic? It wasn’t just poor Irish peasants in the steerage who were flung into the deathly cold waters of the North Atlantic. The wealthy, too, met the exact same fate, even though they dressed in their dinner jackets. On that tragic night, 1500 passengers met an untimely death. Only 700 made it to the lifeboats and were rescued by the ship called Carpathian. But guess what? Of the 700 survivors, how many of them eluded death? Absolutely none of them. Only in May 2009 did the very last Titanic survivor, Miss Millvina Dean, age 97, succumbed to the grim reaper. She was only 9 weeks old when the ship went down. Her father drowned but her mother and brother survived. Now she has joined them and the other 2,200 passengers of that ill-fated ship in that realm called death.
For almost twenty years I have taught a great subject called ‘Eschatology,’ which means ‘doctrine of last things.’ This not only includes end-time prophecy, but also what happens to people when they die. Another term for this is the ‘intermediate state,’ which is where people go between physical death and physical resurrection. Now, with the perspective of having to say ‘good-bye’ to two amazingly wonderful parents in the space of less than one year, I feel that a fresh perspective on death is in order.
First, death is an enemy and a very horrible one at that. It not only fells the best and brightest among us but also creates an enormous sense of loss which seems impossible to fill. It also is the cause of great fear for many. Try as we might to extend our lives through diet, exercise, and healthy eating, we are still not going evade our appointment with death. Hebrews 9:27 (KJV) says ‘And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.’
Second, it needs to be made crystal clear that death has an enemy even greater than itself. His name is Jesus Christ. Though He died the most unspeakably horrific death on a cruel Roman cross, Jesus rose from the dead, conquered death, and will never die again. Most importantly, Jesus offers this same victory to all who believe (I Corinthians 15:57; Romans 6:9-10; John 11:25-26, etc.). Christ turns the entire notion of death on its head; instead of being an enemy to fear, a dead end, a place of inconsolable grief...death becomes a gateway into the very throne of God. Paul says that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21) and to be absent from the body means to be present with the LORD (II Corinthians 5:8).
Death is still painful but it no longer represents the threat it once did. Because of Christ’s victory and the promise of the resurrection, we can confidently say that believers in Christ have a hope that others do not (I Thessalonians 4:13). I was not raised in a Christian home--though it was a very good, loving, and moral home. Yet, through much prayer and persistence, I had the privilege of watching my mother come to Christ and leading my father to faith in Christ. Though they have passed from ‘this life,’ they have not passed from ‘the life.’ In this I have great hope: hope to meet them again, hope of a better resurrection, and hope of an eternity spent with the living God. And eternity means ‘forever and ever.’
In John 11:25-26, Jesus says those who live and believe in him shall never die. What an incredible claim. Have not Christians for 2,000 come and gone, lived and died? Yes, but...
Understand the nature of death: it means separation--separation of the body from the soul/spirit (James 2:26); separation from loved ones, and separation from this world. But when you believe in Christ--who is the source and Prince of life--not even death itself can separate you from Him (Romans 8:38). As one great evangelist once said, ‘When you read the headlines that ‘The Evangelist is Dead’...don’t you believe it... I will be more alive then than I am right now.’
Randy Alcorn has written a life-changing book called Heaven. He says that we do not ‘lose’ a loved one in Christ. How can we lose them when we are all part of One Body, the Church, which includes converts from the Day of Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ? No, what we lose is our present contact with them, which is temporarily interrupted.
Remember that both death and the grave are only temporal, in the light of eternity. Even if you outlive your loved one by twenty, thirty, forty, even fifty years (like the Elizabeth, the Queen Mother to her late husband King George VI), such a span of time is a blip in the light of eternity.
In reflecting of my parents, I do miss them...their love, smile, and sense of humor. They bestowed on me my DNA, name, and heritage. They were my first ‘teachers’ and, as my wife said, they taught me well. But while there is sadness, it is very much under control. When Paul says ‘As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10), I understand what he means. For the joy of the LORD is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
While death is still around, it is on borrowed time. For the signs of Christ’s return are getting clear, even while many sleep. Revelation 20:14 promises that death and hell will be thrown into the lake of fire. When that happens, God will wipe away all tears from our eyes (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4).
In the light of such promises, comfort, and hope, death really does lose its sting. It has a ‘used-by date’ and been de-fanged. It becomes the unwitting catalyst for bringing us into the presence of the LORD and enlarging His kingdom. God can it for our good (Romans 8:28). In light of this, what an impetus to encourage as many people to get off the sinking Titanic of this world and come into the lifeboats of salvation.