It is never pleasant to think about death. Yet death is real. It is not something we can afford to ignore, to wish away, to sentimentalize, or to trivialize. Scripture owns up to the reality of death and does so from its opening pages. Issues of “life and death” importance mark the first three chapters of the Bible.
We all have questions about death. What is death? Why do we die? Why do we all die? Why is death so scary? Why did Christ die? Why do Christians have to die? How can I face the death of someone I love? How can I prepare for death? How can I help others prepare for death? What happens after death?
To answer these questions, we need to go to the Scripture and see what God has to say to us there. The Bible is God’s Word and is completely reliable and true. If the Bible tells us something about death, then we can stake our lives on it.
We also have a lot of help. Our spiritual ancestors thought deeply and practically about death. Throughout the history of the church, pastors and teachers have sought to help God’s people face death in light of the riches of biblical truth. In the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, the church recovered the gospel in its full biblical integrity. Martin Luther, John Calvin, the British Puritans, and their spiritual heirs have left us rich reflections on suffering, death, and heaven in light of the gospel.
But we don’t live in the halls of church history. We live in the twenty-first century. Every generation faces its own particular challenges in thinking seriously and biblically about death and dying. The challenges of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are not always our own. To begin, we need to think about where we are. Why does modern Western culture—and sadly, sometimes, even the church—make it so hard for us to think about death?
CHALLENGES FROM OUR CULTURE
What are some obstacles that our culture raises to thinking properly about death and dying? There are at least two. The first is that we live in a culture of distraction. Think about it. We have year-round access to sports—live and televised events; domestic and international; football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer. We have cable networks, talk shows, call-in shows—all devoted to sports. We have television and movie streaming—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and Apple TV+, for starters. In 2019, there were 532 original scripted television series broadcast in the United States; up from 495 in 2018 and 210 in 2009.1 And then there are the twenty-four-hour news channels. You couldn’t begin to watch all that’s offered. There is music streaming—Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. For a few dollars a month, you can stream or download hundreds or thousands of songs. And although social media is a relative newcomer, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok entice users to spend hours on their devices.
The point is not that sports, television, music, or social media are bad. They are not. I enjoy each of them. The problem is that our culture overwhelms us with entertainments and diversion. This multibillion-dollar industry keeps us from thinking about serious things—life, death, and eternity. Of course, diversion from serious things is not unique to our culture. It is part of our fallen bent as sinners to distract ourselves from the truth. Why do we do this? Blaise Pascal put it well nearly four hundred years ago: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things”2 and “It is easier to bear death when one is not thinking about it than the idea of death when there is no danger.”3
Therefore, our culture has not done something brand new in its pursuit of distraction. What is new is that we have taken distraction to new heights. The thought of death is so overwhelming that we would prefer not to think about it at all. Our modern industry of distraction helps us to do just that. We invest billions of dollars annually not to think about the unthinkable.
A second and related obstacle that our culture has raised to thinking seriously about death and dying is that we live in a culture of distancing and denial. We have all sorts of ways to try to keep death at arm’s length. Few young people, for instance, have had direct experience with death. They see dramatizations of death in TV and movies, often in shocking and gory detail.4 But many have never been to a funeral or memorial service, and even fewer have ever seen a dead body. It used to be that most people died at home. Now, most people die in institutions—hospitals and nursing homes, for instance.5 This is not a bad thing, of course, since these institutions are routinely staffed by skilled people who ensure that our friends and family members receive care and comfort in their last days. But this also means that families are often not with their loved ones in their last hours. Further, a routine experience of death in families has been mercifully stemmed: infant mortality. Parents, of course, continue to experience the tragic heartache of the loss of a child, but this is far less common than it used to be.6 The eighteenth-century Scottish pastor Thomas Boston, buried six children before they reached the age of two. The English Puritan John Owen had eleven children, but only one survived to adulthood. No one would want to return to the days when infant mortality was an expected, if not inevitable, part of family life. But that also means that fewer families today know what it is to experience death firsthand in the home.
We have also witnessed a revolution in the way that people mourn in our culture. Increasingly, funerals are called “celebrations of life.” This way of speaking serves to distance both the service and the mourners from the reality of death. One survey from 2019 found that the three most popular songs performed at funerals in the United Kingdom were Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Andrea Boccelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye,” and Eva Cassidy’s recording of “Over the Rainbow.”7 It is revealing that these songs equip us to respond to death with sloppy sentimentality (“Time to Say Goodbye,” “Over the Rainbow”) or with bald defiance (“My Way”). The survey’s authors commented that “surprisingly no classical hymns made it on to the most popular top ten list.” Is this a surprise, though? Good hymns capture deep, substantive, biblical truths to bring gospel comfort to mourners. By and large, that is simply not what we want in the West today as we encounter death.
CHALLENGES FROM THE CHURCH
The culture is not the only place that we find obstacles to thinking seriously and substantively about death and dying. Sadly, the evangelical church has added its own set of obstacles. We may briefly reflect on three in particular. First, the church has embraced consumerism. The church too often treats attenders like customers, and these attenders too often act like customers. The church can present itself as selling a product in a competitive marketplace. Church attenders can demand to be kept satisfied or they will take their business elsewhere. If that model informs, even imperceptibly, our understanding of the church, then mortality and death will struggle to find a place in the teaching and songs of the church. If people are not made to feel positive and uplifted, the reasoning goes, they will leave and go elsewhere. There are incredible pressures to keep people coming and to attract more people to our services and programs. Why, then, would you put an unwelcome reality like death before them?
Second, the church has embraced an entertainment mentality. Often the buildings in which evangelical churches meet resemble stages with auditorium-style seating. A band is up front playing loud music (some churches even offer earplugs to attendees as they enter the building). Preaching reflects the influence of entertainment culture. Preaching is dedicated less to opening and applying a text of Scripture than to addressing the felt needs and concerns of contemporary hearers. It avoids being either serious or confrontational, and it is not particularly authoritative. Death and eternity, if they are handled at all, are handled sparingly and gingerly.
- “Number of Original Scripted TV Series in the United States from 2009 to 2019,” Statistica, January 2021, accessed January 19, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/444870/scripted-primetime-tv-series-number-usa ↩︎
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), 66 (=Pensée 169). ↩︎
- Pascal, Pensées, 72 (=Pensée 166). ↩︎
- Timothy A. Sisemore, Finding God While Facing Death (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2017), 19. ↩︎
- Sisemore, Finding God While Facing Death, 19. ↩︎
- Sisemore, Finding God While Facing Death, 19. ↩︎
- Georgina Hamilton, “The Most Played Songs at Funerals Revealed—and Some Choices Are Bizarre,” Smooth Radio 97-108, May 2, 2019, accessed January 19, 2021, https://www.smoothradio.com/news/quirky/most-popular-funeral-music-songs. ↩︎