Because of Christ, we don’t have to live in the constant fear of death. Yes, it’s still painful. Yes, it’s still our enemy. Yes, we would avoid it if we could. But it is possible for you and I to look death in the face and to know that it will not have the last word (Romans 8:31–39; Philippians 1:19–23). There is a resurrection. There is a world to come. There is eternal life (Revelation 21:1–7).
The most prominent reality at a funeral is also at the same time the most difficult subject to discuss. That reality, of course, is the subject of death. As one man has noted, “Death is the one experience that will be shared in common by every person …. Every moment we live, the sand in the hourglass of our existence continues to flow, bringing our final end ever near.”1 And yet, despite the “commonness” of death, most people prefer not to talk about it. There seems to be a kind of natural aversion to death. If we had our choice, we’d much rather celebrate the birth of a new child or the wedding of a close friend. If we had our way, there would be no funerals, no sad and uncomfortable occasions associated with the passing of a loved one.
Yet, we cannot escape reality. Death confronts us on the front page of the newspaper. It shakes us when we have to bury a family member or friend. Finally the day comes when death knocks at our own door. Indeed, the moment you and I were born into the world, we began our lifelong journey to the grave. And so, we can’t avoid the reality of death. With this inescapable reality in view, I’d like briefly to address the meaning of death. Specifically, what is death? And why must we die?
What Is Death?
Webster’s Dictionary defines “death” simply as the cessation of life. Thus, to understand “death,” we must first understand “life.” Webster’s offers two primary definitions:
(1) “Life” refers to the properties of growth, metabolism, response to stimuli, and reproduction. But this definition is unsuitable for human life, since it would place us on the same level as bacteria or fungus or garden weeds.
(2) “Life” refers to the physical, mental, and spiritual experiences that constitute a person’s existence. Unlike bacteria and garden weeds, we are personal beings. We do not merely have a body, but we have a mind and a spirit.
Someone may ask, “How do the mental and spiritual experiences of a person differ from a bacterium’s responses to external stimuli?” Here’s the answer: People attribute meaning and significance to their experiences; bacteria do not! People write books; people visit libraries; people engage in philosophy and science; people come to an event like this one today and ask questions like “What is it?” or “Why does it have to happen?” Neither bacteria, nor plants, nor insects, nor animals ask those sorts of questions.
And so, if we put Webster’s definitions together, we end up with something like this: “Death” is the cessation of those meaningful physical, mental, and spiritual experiences that constitute a person’s existence.
That immediately leads to another question.
Why Must We Die?
This is where it gets interesting. When we ask the question “why,” most of us betray a feeling of unhappiness with the prospect of death. For most of us, death is an unwelcome intruder upon our existence. We would much prefer that life continue. Thus, when we ask the question, “Why?” the very tone of our voice conveys the feeling that death is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Death as Meaningless
Despite our feelings, there are many people who tell us today that there’s no meaning to human death. In other words, there is no answer to the question of “why?” Death just happens! It’s part of nature. In fact when you boil it down, there’s really no huge difference between life and death—human life is simply dust in motion and death is simply dust come to rest.