Death has always been hard to understand – just try explaining it to a child. How strange it is to be speaking to a person you know one minute and find them absent the next. Their body is still present and looks the same, but the person is gone. What has become of them? Did they leave their failing bodies and go elsewhere? Or did they, somehow, cease to exist?
In attempting to understand death, ancient people turned to story and myth. In Norse mythology, the god Baldur descends into Hela’s abode, the place of the dead, and finds it dark and gloomy, its residents mere shadows. Sheol is the place of the dead in Hebrew literature. It, too, is a place of darkness and from it, the poet said, people do not praise God. The Greeks believed the dead went to Hades, where even heroes were empty shells, their voices incoherent mumblings, and their bodies transparent shades. The place of the dead was a place of deepest shadows.
The Christian era brought a sea change to the way people thought about death. Jesus taught his followers not to fear it: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He likened death to sleep, and consoled his students with the promise they would neither taste death nor see it.
Hours before his own death, and knowing what awaited him, Jesus comforted his disciples. Even though he would soon be crossing the threshold of death, he told his friends they should be glad for his sake—he was going to the Father.
The early Christians took Jesus’s teaching to heart. They spoke of death as if it were no more than pulling up the stakes of a tent and moving on. They said things like, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task…” They echoed the sentiment of the biblical poet: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil.” Death had lost its terror for them.
St. Paul, following the lead of Jesus, looked at death as the door to eternal life and considered it a marked improvement over his current situation. Facing a possible death sentence, the apostle told his friends, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He fully expected to be better off dead. And this was not because life was so terrible (he was full of joy), but because the life to come was so wonderful.
Paul went on to muse about what awaited him. He might be released to resume his work or he might be convicted and executed. Because he wasn’t afraid to die (he considered it a promotion), he found himself torn by conflicting desires: He would like to go back to work and serve the people he loved, but he would like even more to “depart” (by means of the executioner’s sword), “and be with Christ.” The latter, he wrote, “is better by far.”
Christians of later generations also learned this lesson. When Europe was rocked by plague, and the dead left unburied because their families were afraid of becoming infected, the Christians came to the rescue. They buried the dead, their own and others, because they “were not enslaved by their fear of death.”
For the Christian, the other side of the grave is not dark, shadowy or indistinct. Christ has “destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light.” Death does not portend the fall of night but the breaking of day.
Some years ago, the maker of the allergy medication Claritin launched an ad campaign featuring allergy sufferers who found relief from their symptoms by taking Claritin. Viewers wouldn’t realize the picture was indistinct until the slogan “Claritin Clear” was spoken, a film was peeled away, and the scene became distinct.
This is analogous to the Christian’s experience. After a lifetime of seeing “through a glass darkly,” death will usher in a clarity that will surprise, delight and relieve. We now see dimly; then we will see face to face. Our current knowledge is patchy and fragmented. Then it will be complete.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/10/2017