By Moses Bean
Somehow, some way, death has to make sense; yet it remains one of life’s greatest mysteries. Because if death has no meaning, if someday all our hopes and dreams will just arbitrarily cease, then life has no meaning either. If some day it all just stops then it makes no difference when that happens. Then as the Apostle Paul said, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”, and let us seek, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “to live deep and suck out the marrow of life.”
But if to the contrary we truly believe there is a purpose for life, then there must also be a purpose for death. So what is it? Why do we all have to say goodbye? We will look at two common answers and then the Biblical answer---at the reason that we both mourn and celebrate the death of Jesus Christ..
One of the most popular explanations given today is simply to say that death is just a natural part of life. This certainly has a cryptic, Zen-like coolness to it. The “circle of life” allows a person to make room for the next generation while also sharing a lifetime of wisdom and wealth.
Nevertheless, this answer also has some fundamental problems. Foremost among them is that it doesn’t actually make any sense…at all. Literally. No matter how you look at it, no matter how we try to spin it, no matter how much science one tries to rest it on, it is about as coherent as saying that black is a natural part of white or that deception is a natural part of truth or that war is a natural part of peace.
Are we just going to pretend that it makes sense? In Star Wars Revenge of the Sith Master Yoda tells Anakin Skywalker to rejoice for those who “transform into the force”—i.e. died—for “death is a natural part of life.” With all the awesome special effects and fast action thrown at us we just don’t care that he is speaking gibberish any more than we care that they’re zipping millions of light years around the galaxy in just a few hours, any more than we care that they’re trying to bring a “balance” to the force—what?! We don’t want too much peace—have to balance it with some war?! Huh?
It doesn’t add up. We are much better off admitting that Star Wars doesn’t always make sense and that death is a mystery.
It is a mystery for scientists as well. One of the most dynamic areas of modern biology is the study of aging. All the leading theories suggest that aging is deliberate, that it is actually programmed into our genes. That is to say that the body does not necessarily wear out in the way a pear of jeans or a car wears out. Instead, we are actually commanded to slowly break down and die.
But why? In short, even if in our minds we very much wanted to keep living and competing, how could our DNA have a stronger “desire” to will our death? Could our genes be that selfish? Could a person just be the gene’s way of making another person?
Many scientists will answer yes. As famed biologist Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene, “The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” The jacket of the book sums it up: “Our genes made us. We animals exist for their preservation and are nothing more than their throwaway survival machines.”
Again, although that sounds a bit poetic and deep let’s be relentlessly zealous for the truth: it still doesn’t make any sense. Neither eggs nor genes nor jelly beans can be selfish any more than a radio can sing or a laptop can hate or the planet earth can comprehend life. To the extent that the word inanimate applies to anything, it should either apply to the string of information we call a gene or be removed from our vocabulary altogether. Authors can be selfish, but not sentences.
If the first explanation could be compared to a Star Wars movie, this second one could be compared to a world class choir singing gibberish. Perhaps you’ve heard one of those Italian operas or German choirs—strong voices, beautiful music, but it’s incoherent to you. Who really cares? They could be singing the lines of a grocery list to Beethoven’s Ninth and we could still get lost in the brilliance of it all, ascribing all sorts of mysterious power to the majestically beautiful babble.
Likewise with a naturalistic explanation that ascribes the meaning of life to pure nonsense. Brilliant minds, breathtaking science, but “death is just a natural part of life” and “our genes made us” equals pure incoherence. They cannot even conclude that life is meaningless, for “meaninglessness” is only coherent in the context of a meaningful universe.
Likewise life only has meaning in the context of eternity.
If there is no eternity then we can only pretend that life has purpose—whether through religion or philosophy or politics—but it’s all about as substantial as a Hollywood movie. So grab a box of popcorn and have another drink, for all is temporal. What meant something yesterday means nothing today. And for those who are suffering, they are just terribly unlucky. Life is a game of play-pretend, narrated by a narcissist, full of noise and violence, giving significance to nothing.
We know this is not true. To the extent that we know anything, we know there is more to life than that.
The Bible says that death is inextricably linked with justice. It is the righteous consequence of our desire to judge good and evil—to, in effect, usurp the Creator and be self-righteous (Genesis 3:1-5).2 In response, to maintain justice, God commanded that every living thing must die. “For the wages of sin is death…”1 But that death is not natural. It is a grievous outrage.
The Bible also says that Jesus died so that we might live. For the joy of seeing the redeemed enter into his rest, he chose to lay down his life and pay the price for our sin. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”3
Thus when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we are confessing that his death had a profound purpose. When he hung on the cross both the justice of God and the mercy of God were loudly proclaimed—his justice in pouring out punishment for sin, and his mercy in providing his Son as the payment for sin. Love and faithfulness met; righteousness and peace kissed each other.
And in conquering death and rising from the grave, Jesus now offers life freely. So that death is not to us a threat but rather an option.
God gives us a long time to think about this choice between living and dying, between trusting in our own wisdom and trusting in the Author of Life, between seeking worldly gain and seeking God Himself. Thoreau found all this terribly distasteful and contrary to sucking out the marrow of life. “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it,” he wrote, explaining what living deep does not entail, “whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’”4
By contrast, the Apostle Paul found the Gospel to be glorious beyond imagining:
51Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory." 55 "O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?"
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.5
1 So that command might support the scientific view that growing old and dying is in fact programmed into our genes. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the scientific evidence points to the Bible’s teaching.
4 Walden. Henry David Thoreau.
51 Corinthians 15:51-57