Death is the unmentionable subject. People often view their future death with fear or resentment. As it draws nearer, they rage against it, saying they have not enjoyed their lives enough yet, have not accomplished everything on their “bucket list”, or will miss their loved ones.
Death is the only great certainty in life, apart from the fact of our birth. Just as we remember our birthday every year, when our earthly lives began, so we should remember regularly that there will be a day when our earthly lives come to an end. As Christian believers, we could look on that day as our second birthday, for, in the words of Bede in eighth century England, “Christ is the morning star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”
In a glorious passage on the resurrection of the dead, the apostle Paul writes repeatedly of death as “falling asleep”, after which we are raised imperishable and immortal, for death has lost its sting. It is so exciting one can hardly wait. (1 Corinthians 15:12-57). Small wonder that Paul wrote elsewhere of his great desire to depart this life and be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-24).
Death is the gateway to our heavenly life in our resurrection bodies. It opens the way to blessed rest from our troubles, sorrows and afflictions and from the weary spiritual battle of life in a fallen world. C.S. Lewis called death a “farewell to shadowlands” and the “beginning of Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Instead of shrinking from the thought of death, we should follow the example of Christians who lived in times far more uncertain than this present era of coronavirus, times when early death from illness, accident or violence was always likely. These Christians thought often of death and kept themselves in a state of readiness. The Welsh non-conformist minister Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote: “It is good for us to think familiarly of dying, to think of it as our going to bed, that by thinking often of it, and thinking thus of it, we may get above the fear of it.”
What habits of thought can we embrace so as to make ourselves comfortable with the knowledge of our mortality?
- Death is like retiring to the privacy of our own bedrooms to lie down for a night’s sleep. Every morning we rise from our beds and go out to mix with people again. In the same way, death is a solo experience, but we shall meet our loved ones again in the morning of the resurrection. When we say goodbye to them on earth, it is only like saying “good night” in the evening, knowing that we will greet them again next day.
- At death we leave behind our earthly bodies, just as we take off our clothes to sleep. Some of us have bodies that are a great burden, whether through sickness, frailty, failing faculties or disability. Some of us also have mental illnesses that distress us and weigh us down. At death we leave behind all such hindrances, just like taking off cumbersome, scratchy, badly-fitting clothes. What a joy and relief! In the morning we shall find a beautiful new set of clothes in which our souls can dress for eternity. (Job 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:2-4)
- At death we shall lie down in the grave as we lie on our beds, but – being forgiven sinners – we shall rest in peace (Isaiah 57:2). There will be no tossing and turning, no nightmares. The grave is a bed of spices (Song of Songs 6:2). We shall rise from it, completely refreshed, to meet our soul’s Beloved and be with Him for ever.
So we could follow the example of some of the saints of old and use these three nightly events – going to our bedroom, undressing, lying down – to remind ourselves of death, that it is inevitable, that it might come tonight, and that it is the gateway to heaven. Before falling asleep we could prayerfully commit ourselves into God’s hands, as if it were our last prayer.
DR PATRICK SOOKHDEO
What the Bible says
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)
I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27)
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.” (Revelation 14:13)
A prayer in the hour of death
In this hour of my death
I entrust myself into Your loving care.
Release me, O Lord,
From all fear and anxiety.
Give me that confidence
To embrace You, my Lord.
Give me that faith to see
The heavenly kingdom that awaits me.
To You I commit now my soul.
Forgive me my many sins and failures
By Your great mercy.
Take my hand,
O my beloved Lord,
And lead me Home
So that when I awake
I awake with You.
©Patrick Sookhdeo 2020
1 From Bede’s commentary on the
book of Revelation
2 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (1956), Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1964, pp.155,165.
3 Matthew Henry, “Directions for Daily Communion with God” (1712), in The Miscellaneous Writings of the Revd Matthew Henry, London: John M’Gowan, 1838, p.165.