- ‘The last enemy’
The phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ refers to any situation in which everyone present is aware of an embarrassing ‘beast of a problem’ but no-one will dare to mention it, all pretending not to notice it. Death is a beast we tend to ignore! Even believers in Jesus – who ‘taste[d] death for everyone’ (Hebrews 2:9) and rose triumphantly with a body of transformed earth dust, and then breathed his risen life into his followers (John 20:22) so that they thereby experienced a new birth, having ‘passed from death to life’ in their inner being (John 3:3,5; 5:24), and can thereafter conduct their daily duties ‘in newness of life’ (Romans 6:4) – must still consider death as an enemy; ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15:26; see 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). For only then, in ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ will it be true that ‘death shall be no more’ (Revelation 21:1-4).
So let’s examine the reality of death and willingly talk about it together.
- ‘To dust you shall return’
Life in a body is God’s intended ideal for us earthlings. We are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). We have a sense of self-consciousness to a degree that no other earthly creature can experience, yet neuroscience cannot explain this phenomenon. Paul Brooks reckons that the experience of self is ‘the illusion of unity’. ‘From a neuroscience perspective, we are all divided and discontinuous,’ and ‘our sense of self – feelings, thoughts, memories – are scattered through different zones of the brain. There is no special point of convergence. No cockpit of the soul.’ Yet the psalmist sang of himself as ‘knitted together’ and ‘intricately woven’ (Psalm 139:13,15). And death certainly causes a disintegration of the body. Is it, then, also a break up of the jigsaw of the self into a disjointed mass of meaningless pixels? What else does Scripture tells us?
- ‘Fallen asleep in Christ’
Throughout the Old Testament each death is described as ‘he slept with his fathers’. The dead raised to life at the end of the world are defined as ‘those who sleep in the dust of of the earth’ (Daniel 12:2). Jesus said dead Lazarus was sleeping (John 11:11-14), and Paul refines the term for departed Christians as ‘those who have fallen asleep in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15:18,6,20,51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15). We sleep each night oblivious to our environment, yet in our dreams we can be consciously in other places, living at a different pace – admittedly via brain activity. Does actual death parallel this?
- ‘Absent from the body, present with the Lord’
Paul describes his own future demise as being ‘away from the body, and at home with the Lord’ which, he affirms ‘is far better’ (2 Corinthians 5:6-9; Philippians 1:23; Luke 23:43; compare 16:22,25). ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Genesis 3:19). Or to put it in terms of a 21st century analogy, God retains on a memory stick the full recorded content of one’s laptop that now, devoid of its hard drive, disintegrates in the cemetery’s skip awaiting a new state-of-the-art computer at the end of the age! Doesn’t that make real the meaning of the metaphor that ‘books [a]re opened’ on Judgment Day when each one will ‘receive what is due for what he has done in the body’ (Revelation 20:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10)?