Imagine my surprise when reading about a ‘Death Cafe’ in Cape Town (South Africa), where folk gather over tea and cake to discuss mortality! (EP Herald, 12/03/18) They come to discuss their fears about our inevitable death, the logistics of death, what should happen to their bodies, etc. Apparently 5,000 such cafes have popped up in 55 countries since September 2011.
Recently the world took note of the passing of famed jazz trumpeter, Bra Hugh Masekela. In his last days, dying of prostate cancer, he wanted no-one to talk about death. “It was breaking his heart that he was leaving us and was leaving this world. He never admitted the thought that he was going to die – for him, he was going to get better and he was going to live forever.” (EP Herald, 2018) Sad in a way…
Having had a grade 1 cancer diagnosis and a near-death experience through unrelated emergency surgery in September 2017, I have become more conscious of my own mortality. No one is Superman!
Creation, the Bible and Jesus speak much of our mortality, even as believers. Creation decays and global climate changes are a fact – some have suggested we begin to die soon after birth. What is also true is that the God of the Bible alone has immortality – we derive that immortality only as we share in Christ and his life.
- In Ps. 90 Moses poetically contrasts God’s eternity and human frailty. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back you mortals.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.’ (v. 1-4, NRSV)
- The apostle Paul reminds Timothy and his readers of the good fight of faith, concluding ‘he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords… It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can ever see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.’ (1 Tim. 6:15-16)
I grew up as a teen believer being taught that humans innately possess a ‘never-dying’ soul.’ That is more Greek philosophy than good theology. God alone is deathless. In Hebraic/biblical thought we cannot rigidly isolate body, mind and spirit. We also note that the concept of immortality is expressed directly only in the NT: in his 2nd Letter to Timothy Paul exults in ‘our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.’ (1:10) Paul expounds that ‘gospel’ more fully in his first Letter to the Corinthians chap. 15 (all of it): the person, death and resurrection of Jesus; the resurrection of the dead in him; their resultant transformed body. What a gospel!!
Which radically changes our view of death. I was considerably helped on this issue by Prof. Dallas Willard’s classic, The Divine Imperative. Let me distill some of his points:
- Once we have grasped God’s full world and the full gospel, the early disciples’ almost startling disregard for physical death begins to make sense. Jesus ‘abolished’ death for his followers.
- Jesus made it clear to the religious establishment, which was accusing him of possessing a demon, that those who trust in him will neither ‘see’ nor ‘taste’ death (Jn. 8:51-52). They simply never stop living. At a certain point they merely move house.
- Willard cites an illustration by the famous Scottish preacher, Peter Marshall, of a child playing in the evening among her toys. Gradually she grows weary and lays her head down for a moment of rest, lazily continuing to play. The next thing she experiences or ‘tastes’ is the morning light of a new day flooding the bed and the room where her mother or father took her. In like manner, we never remember falling asleep, but we do recall waking up.
- Heaven will not consist of sitting around looking at one another or God for eternity but of joining the eternal Logos, reigning with him and continuing with him in the endless and on-going creative work of God. A place in God’s creative order has been reserved for each one of us, his plan is for us each to take our position in the ongoing creativity of the universe. As the apostle John reminds us in his Apocalypse, the risen Lamb has made us to be ‘a kingdom of kings and priests, serving our God and reigning on earth.’ (Rev. 5:10)
For myself, working through some of these issues in the last months, I came to the conclusion that, in the matter of our life and death, we need a careful balance:
- The gospel is much more than avoiding hell and going to heaven. My son reminded me of the more biblical perspective of Scot McKnight and Brian Zahnd: in the 8 sermons in the Book of Acts where the gospel is preached, not once is there a reference to the after-life, i.e. getting people ‘saved’ in order to escape hell and enter heaven. The common thread is that of ‘life’ in Christ, through simple faith. It involves all of our life, living in and from Christ!
- We must not become so obsessed with our mortality that we collapse into a heap and a perpetual pity-party. I still enjoy my life on the whole and am not quite ready to say ‘goodbye to it all.’ I think of my children and grandchildren, my marriage, my lovely faith-community and a 101 other simple joys! How about investing in our relationships: some years ago, a businessman believer, cut down in his 50’s by cancer, urged me at his funeral to underline the importance of relationships, which he felt he had not given priority due to his overly busy lifestyle.
- We must recapture that ‘new life’ to be had in Christ, which influences all of our life on this earth and culminates in God’s new heaven and earth. Let us live and serve with perennial hope, even if suffering and pain overwhelm us at times. I recall our Scottish College principal asking us what we would do if we knew for certain that Jesus was coming the next day. Then he added, ‘I can tell you what I’ll be doing, I’ll be lecturing you students!’
- We must live in dependence on God in everything. The apostle James warns the scattered churches about the danger of presumption concerning ‘tomorrow.’ “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town, doing business and making money. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that. As it is you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (Jam. 4:13-16). I love singing along to Robin Mark’s rendition of “Jesus, all for Jesus, All I am and have and ever hope to be… All of my ambitions, hopes and plans, I surrender these into your hands. For it’s only in your will that I am free… It’s only in your will that I am free!”
In passing, my attention was drawn to Prov. 9:10-11 recently, ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.’ Wise living can indeed add to our days here on earth.
The adored theoretical physicist and atheist, Prof. Stephen Hawking, died aged 76 on Wednesday 14th March: a man of amazing intellect, courage (he overcame motor neurone disease for 49 years) and wit. Yet science and reason at their peak could not come up with a unified theory of the universe nor circumvent the final enemy. Isaiah, the good news preacher of the OT, wisely urges one and all to ‘Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near…’ (Is. 55:6)
So how about our organic faith groups becoming Life Cafes??
‘You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?’
(Jesus of Nazareth)