Over the past three years, it’s been sobering as the world confronts its mortality. Covid’s death toll overwhelmed hospitals, filled the morgues, converted paddocks into mass graves. The words of Hamilton have felt prophetic: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinner and the saint, it takes, and it takes, and it takes…” In the wake of Covid, we awoke to the reality of death. Suddenly, the false hopes of medicine, exercise, healthy diets to fix everything were exposed as fake, phonies, flimsy bandaids that offered only temporary solutions. And suddenly the desire for pretty things, faster internet, on-trend fashion, tastier coffee faded in comparison to the desire for life and love and longevity.
But death shouldn’t surprise us. Turn on the TV, and there’s news of wars and rumours of wars, mass shootings, car accidents, violence and murders every day. Perhaps though, unless you taste death up-close and personal, it’s easy to breeze through life deceived by the immediate sense that this life is permanent.
In this medically comfortable age, we’re often sanitised from the reality of death. And our independent, autonomous lifestyle also estranges us from the sick, the elderly and the dying. Some go decades without ever attending a funeral. The young often live footloose and fancy free. It’s easy to think yourself invincible. After all, there is so much good to enjoy in God’s marvellous creation! “All good gifts come from above”, from the Lord who teems and abounds with life (Jas 1:17; Gen 1), who has put eternity in our hearts (Ecc 3:11). But while such people might have been spared the pain of death’s cruel dictatorship for a time, they are bereft of what God calls wisdom (Psa 90:12).
From the time of Adam, all people have snubbed their maker and severed access to the eternal prosperity of God’s life-giving presence. The story of Genesis 3 is well known but easily forgotten – Satan, as a serpent, slithered in, and seduced humanity into a coop. Instead of God’s image-bearers reigning in life, sin took up chief post and demoted humanity to slaves (Rom 5:12-14). We might think it’s all Adam and Eve’s fault, but we are just like them, made in their image (Gen 5:1-5). In Eve’s likeness, we grasp for status, grasp for control, grab the reins (Gen 3:6). In Adam’s likeness, we blame others – the tiredness, the disorganisation, the lack of time, the miscommunication, the complaints… it’s always someone else’s fault (Gen 3:11-13). In Cain’s likeness, sin crouches at our door as a roaring lion, desiring to rule over and devour us (Gen 4:6-7; 1 Pet 5:8).
The Bible teaches us the truth. It’s not Covid that causes death, or car accidents, or cancer, or world wars – it’s sin. Since the time of Adam and Eve, humanity has been subjected to the evil oppression of death. When we reject God, we reject life. So, sin always renders the death toll at 100%.
It’s a reality we must all face. Two months ago, I was diagnosed with Grade 1A breast cancer. Since then, I’ve had successful surgery and doctors predict a very positive prognosis. Many assumed I found the cancer news shocking. But as a child raised in a small country town from a large extended family, I’ve barely gone a year when death hasn’t come knocking. If you know your Bible, death shouldn’t be shocking either. We don’t know when death will visit, but we know it’s inevitable. Wisdom is preparing well for inevitabilities.
When Covid hit, we scrambled for safety, hid in our houses, tuned into the TV for a daily dose of hope and helplessness… Humanity tries to reclaim our original dominance over death, but our efforts are futile. We are enslaved by fear (Heb 2:15). Scientists might discover anti-ageing agents, vaccinations, diets, and revolutionary transplants, but we’d be fools to believe that humanity can cause a coop to conquer death. Death dominates.
While I’m incredibly thankful for modern medicine removing my cancer and (presumably, if the Lord wills) prolonging my life, my greatest problem remains – my heart is corrupted with the corrosive forces of evil. Sin does far greater damage than cancer ever will and has a far more dire and permanent prognosis. I’m willing to chop off toxic tissue to remove the cancer; but am I willing to chop off the pride and selfishness and spite that poisons my heart?
This Easter weekend ten years ago, my husband’s wife passed away from pancreatic cancer. I never met Bronwyn, but I’m told she was a caring and uncomplaining woman. Her friends and family glow with memories of her laughter, her intelligence, her resilience.
Death is such a cursed beast. It stabs us in the gut, rips those we love from our grasp and leaves us with lonely, aching, weeping wounds. If only we could revive them, resuscitate them, reach into the abyss, and bring them back…
I’ve now been married to her husband for over six years. I’ve lived in her house, cooked in her kitchen, collected her mail… Where she should be, I am – studying with her children, celebrating their birthdays, applauding their graduations, holding her grandchild… It seems so painfully unfair. Someone else should be enjoying this life I live. Yet graciously, through the death of another, I’ve been welcomed into a family in which I don’t naturally belong.
At Easter, we also remember another. His strong, powerful body was slowly suffocated like a criminal, pinned down and pulled down by the evil and injustice of our sin. He stood where he shouldn’t have. He didn’t deserve it. I should have been executed instead of him. But he went willingly. He walked down into the darkness of death to shield me, protect me, save me from the wrath of God.
In our medically comfortable age, death is less expected, and marrying a widower is less common. But I’m really thankful for its perspective. I’m regularly reminded that death is inevitable. One day I’ll stand by my husband’s grave, or he by mine, and the love that brings such happiness now will weep with sorrow. But our situation also reminds me – death is not the end. Dying on March 31st 2013, Bronwyn followed the risen Lord Jesus on Resurrection Sunday to a sublime and superior existence. In the words of the now immortal Billy Graham, she is more alive now than ever before. She lives in a better home, enjoys the perfect family, delights in the satisfying bliss of the eternal marriage.
And so, while we remember, we also rejoice – Jesus has gone ahead, walked through the darkest abyss and disempowered death’s evil dictatorship forever. He now stands in his rightful place, reigning in the light of the eternal side. From there he calls us, reaches for us, urges us to come, take up our cross, follow him and live.