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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

The Denial of Death

Let’s talk about death. Not just Jesus’ death, but death itself.


It’s coming. It’s coming for you, and given my age, likely coming much sooner for me than for most of you.


I keep a little journal. I write down bits of Scripture from the daily lectionary, sometimes with brief reflections. Periodically, I jot down a dream. I try to do some “listening,” writing in red what I think I may be hearing. Maybe it’s my age, but as I write down the date for the day, I realize that I’m one day closer to when my journal entries will finally end. And while I may linger a bit after that, death is coming for me. At age 70, I'm more aware of it staring me down than I used to be. It’s coming. My days are numbered. They’ve always been, but I’m more aware of it now.


Ernest Becker was already dying when his book The Denial of Death was published 51 years ago. Throughout his career as a cultural anthropologist, Becker charted this country called death that awaits us all. At the age of 49, when Becker was writing his book, he was losing a battle to colon cancer, heading towards that destination he'd spent his entire career researching and contemplating. By the time his book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize the following spring, Becker was gone.


Becker believed that by confronting our own mortality, we could live more fully. He believed that to “hold that terror” is to see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t. He called our attempts to leave a lasting mark in the world “immortality projects.” Becker’s book is even mentioned in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Allen joked that instead of achieving immortality through his work, he’d rather simply avoid dying.


Becker believed our immortality projects can actually be a way to avoid facing our mortality. Whether we leave behind a large family or a corporation, we’re subject to the same “creatureliness” as the common gnat. The swatter is always there, hovering on the periphery.


“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker wrote. (I suspect he'd add binge-watching Netflix to the list if writing today.) He said that another way we avoid the specter of death is through heroism. Becker saw heroism as a contradictory notion, both pointless and beneficial to human society. “The world of human aspiration is largely fictitious,” he wrote. But what else is there?


Good question. What else is there? It may be a particularly good question to ask on this day Christians oddly call Good Friday.


The Bible never talks about a noble death. Even Jesus isn’t described as being particularly heroic in how he faced death. Real heroes don’t try to be heroes. Real heroes just do what needs to be done – like getting up in the middle of the night to feed your crying child, or hand-feeding and changing the diapers of your slowly fading spouse.


Jesus wasn’t a Stoic or a Buddhist, calmly accepting his death as part of the cycle of life. The form of death he “chose” was publicly degrading, shameful, traumatic and excruciatingly painful (the “cruc” in ex-cruc-iating” coming from “crucifixion”). He didn’t ask for special favors, but rather chose the worst way to die imaginable.


“Chose” doesn’t mean he didn’t struggle, or that he didn’t have second thoughts. Knowing what lay ahead in the next day, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” But he followed that with, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” Ultimately, he chose his Father’s will over his own, because he knew that at that moment he couldn’t trust what he wanted. All of this tells us that Jesus wasn’t protected in any way from the full death and dying experience. As the apostle Paul wrote, Jesus was “obedient onto death” (Philippians 2:8).


Today we have ways to mitigate much of the suffering that accompanies death. And that’s a grace. Interestingly, when on the cross Jesus was offered the usual anesthetic – wine mixed with gall – he refused to drink it.


I wonder in what ways I try to numb myself to the reality that I’m going to die. What diversions and distractions, what excesses and obsessions do I resort to?


Yes, Jesus’ death was horrific. But death itself is appalling, and ultimately evil. It is a blight on God’s good creation. That’s why the Old Testament reading for this Easter Sunday so beautifully cuts to the chase:


On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare

    a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine—

    the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy

    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,

the sheet that covers all nations;

    he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

    from all faces;

he will remove his people’s disgrace

    from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken (Isaiah 25:6-8).


“He will swallow up death forever.” Death is a disgrace, a disgrace that our Creator, and we his image-bearers, have had to bear because of the freedom he's built into his creation. I wonder what it means that God will “swallow up death?” Is that what began to happen on Good Friday?


It’s one thing to stop trying to live in denial of death, as Becker suggests, but what is one supposed to do with it?

In my journal this morning, I wrote down these words from 1 Peter 1:17: “Live out your time as temporary residents here in reverence.” Why in reverence? The first part of the verse reads: “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially.”


Notice how God is referred to as “Father.” A part of a parent’s job is to discipline their children. Without discipline there is chaos in the home, and a child fails to grasp the meaning of right and wrong. The Bible even says, “God disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). This isn’t the place to talk about what that discipline can look like. Normally it's God simply allowing us to experience the consequences of our actions.

But there is another judgment that the Bible talks about as well, judgment carried out by the same Father and his Son, Jesus. It happens after we die. To what extent this judgment takes place after we die, or when Jesus’ returns, isn’t clear. But if there's to be a New Creation, things must first be made right, or as Tom Wright expresses it, “put to rights.” At the same time, anyone who claims to know what all this is going to look like is just exposing their ignorance.


The Bible uses metaphors and parables rather than providing any actual details. From my study of Scripture, I think it's fairly safe to say that the judgment both after death and after Jesus returns will consist of at least these four things: 1) accounts being settled, 2) wrongs being made right, 3) God’s creation and creatures being purified of all evil, and 4) evil and death being destroyed altogether. Given what I know from the present world and creation, I suspect that all of this will be much more complex, nuanced and time sensitive than many of my believing friends assume. (Given that virtually everyone was thrown by how Jesus came the first time, I wouldn’t be at all  surprised if the same thing happens when he returns.)

Fortunately, Jesus offers us a way to help get ourselves ready: "Trust and follow me."

He offers us forgiveness for past, present and even future sins, and increasing freedom to love as we have been loved.

There are promises that can encourage us:

The wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 3:23).

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

[Jesus said,]"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).

So trusting and learning from Christ can give us confidence as we prepare for that inevitable end to our lives called death, and whatever lies beyond.

But what if we don't – if we don't trust and learn from Christ? That's a question that's way beyond my pay grade. But my trust in Christ goes beyond his ability to save me and those who believe like me. Jesus' last parable in Matthew's gospel (the one with the sheep and the goats – 25:31-46) suggests that things are more complicated than a lot of us have been taught.

These are a couple of Scriptures that remind me of the limits of what I know, and am supposed to know:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever... (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know (1 Corinthians 8:1-2).


One thing we do know for certain is that God’s judgment already began on Good Friday, when virtually all of us became God's enemies. Surprisingly, it ended up being a judgment God took upon himself on behalf of humankind. He “swallowed” death that day, and someday, when Christ returns, he will swallow it up completely. Another way of putting it, is that on the cross Christ defeated the dark powers of sin and death, and will some day destroy these powers for good.

The comparison is sometimes made with WW2's D-day and VE-day. The allies’ victory at Normandy, D-day, is often credited as being the deciding battle of the European conflict. But the war didn’t actually end until VE-day, when Germany surrendered almost a year later. The battle of Normandy was the largest amphibious victory in military history. Jesus referred to his own death as a kind of “baptism.” These are anything but exact comparisons, but sometimes an analogy can be helpful.


Of course, all of what I’ve just said might be described as simply theoretical, or even wishful thinking – except for what happened on Easter Sunday. As we face the reality of death, I believe it’s important to also face the reality that almost all human theories about what, if anything, happens after death are just that – theories.


And there are a lot of them. Like most ministers, I’ve either attended or conducted hundreds of funerals during my life and ministry. On these occasions, people say all sorts of things about what life is like for their deceased loved ones, a lot of it is based on wishful thinking and hearsay. (The main justification for saying these things is that they’ve heard other people say these same things at other funerals.) But there’s no concrete evidence to support any of it. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but these are things we mainly say to soften the blow, to blunt the impact of this cold, hard, bloodless juggernaut called death. And yet, I suspect that the only reason many of these pictures ever arose in the first place, is because Christ arose. In other words, many people who aren’t Christians cling to such ideas about the afterlife only because they live in a culture where the residue of Christianity hasn’t been completely erased.


I understand that these days almost any news can be labeled “fake news,” making even the most basic, verifiable facts appear suspect. But Christians really do have solid evidence, not just imaginative theories, for what they believe about the future. Most of it is based on what happened on Good Friday, and then on Easter Sunday morning, and in the days and weeks that followed. There were eyewitnesses, lots of them. They were willing to swear not only with their hand raised in a court of law, but with their lives. It’s why these early Christians called themselves “believers.” It wasn’t primarily because of their doctrines, but because of actual events.

Of course, once they were shown the facts, they tried to understand what those facts meant. They had the Scriptures, Jesus’ teachings and the Holy Spirit to help them understand their meaning. But it all started with facts, actual events, with actual witnesses. That’s why this weekend is so important for “believers.”


I don’t know how many of you watched the January 6 hearings. I’m sorry to bring in politics, but it’s the best example I can think to give. If you watched the hearings, you heard hours upon hours of sworn testimony by people who were Trump supporters, people who loved his policies, several of whom were in the White House on January 6 and either heard things directly from Donald Trump or from people who heard Trump say those things. Having listened to all that testimony, I don’t go around still wondering what actually happened that day. The evidence is so overwhelming that even my normally skeptical mind doesn’t wonder what really happened. Those who testified risked not only their political futures, but the inevitability of death threats to themselves and their families. They also knew that they could go to jail if they perjured themselves.


I feel a similar confidence about the facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what the apostle Paul wrote:


Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.


For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).


That’s a lot of eyewitnesses, a lot of people risking their lives, livelihoods and existing relationships to tell others what they’d seen and heard. Paul talks about the gospel people received and “on which you have taken your stand.” It’s because of these facts, not just theories, that these early believers had a place to actually stand in the face of the unrelenting gale of death.


Donald Ray Pollock wrote, “Someone once said there are only two things worth writing about, love and death.” Because of Easter, on this Good Friday I can talk about both in the same breath, and based on the same event.


“God proves his love for us, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).


And then there’s that old Gaither hymn: “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow.”

You probably won't get these thoughts until Holy Saturday, but the fact that Jesus was still dead on Saturday probably makes this a good day to ponder not only his death but our own, before we enter into our celebration of Easter.


(Please message me if you would like to talk about any of this. I’m sure there are questions I won’t be able to answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.)



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