Staring Death in the Face

Assistant Professor of School of Theology (Chinese)

In the past few months, the whole world has been staring death in the face. Day after day, we witness the constant rising of the death toll due to COVID-19. No matter how distant we may be from these deaths, we are connected through the internet, as if participating daily in the countless funerals. Death has robbed the lives of so many at such a rapid rate, leaving behind immense grief and pain.

In our society, many of us fear death, for death is viewed as a tragedy. It destroys all that we have worked hard for in this life and the precious relationships that we hold dear to us. In this unknown journey of death, all we can see seems to be forsaken darkness. We seek all ways to delay the inevitability of death through medical means; even when death can no longer be prevented; we crave just one more day. But how should Christians view and respond to death?

Four years ago, I started to provide counselling at a palliative care ward. I had the opportunity to work with terminally-ill patients and their families over a year. The topic of death came up in every single conversation. Some were despondent and rendered speechless in the face of death. Others viewed death as a friend; they had no regrets in life and looked forward to the day that death would end their suffering and pain.

One of the doctors in the ward who was a strong believer told me that he has met many Christians and church leaders who also feared and resisted death. They were not spared from feeling this way despite their Christian faith. I was not surprised upon hearing this; anyone who has not looked at and conversed with death in the face may be caught off-guard. Christians are no exception.

Has God provided any insights as a blueprint for how we should approach death? Definitely! In fact, the topic of death permeates Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, we who are helpless in the face of death can see the massive attention God gives to this topic.

First, God reveals that death is the result of sin. Adam and Eve stubbornly chose their own way despite God’s warning (Genesis 2:17). From then, humanity has lived under the shadow of sin and cannot escape its grasp; we must face death (Hebrews 9:27). As Moses despaired over the brevity of life, he acknowledged the reality of death as the consequence of sin (Psalms 90:7-9). The severity of death lies in being separated from God in eternal darkness and unbearable suffering (Luke 16:19–31; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). In this seemingly unresolved tragedy, a plot twist appears: God sent his beloved son, Jesus, who humbled himself to serve humanity. He died for us on the cross, an instrument for the worst criminals, to take upon Himself our punishment (Romans 8:29–30). His death rewrote the meaning of our death. He triumphed over death through his resurrection, giving us a brand-new finale to life. Now, for those who repent and believe in Christ, death no longer means separation from God, but an eternal reunion in the new heaven and the new earth.

Brothers and sisters, in conversing with death, God has provided us a direct blueprint for how we are to do so. Like what the Christian doctor had said, however, having this knowledge does not mean that we are ready to welcome death. Recent research points out that reflections on death (reflections of those who have met with near-death experiences) can help people better face their own deaths and evaluate the meaning of their lives. Perhaps, as we look at death in the face daily, together with the rest of the world, we can reflect on our views of life and death with the following four questions:

  1. If I were a patient with COVID-19, bedridden, having difficulties breathing, and fighting for my life (imagine being isolated on the hospital bed, surrounded by medical equipment and staff), what would I be thinking and feeling?

  2. If I were to die, how would I spend my last moments on earth? As I look back on my life, how would I describe my outlook in life?

  3. If I could overcome this virus, would I make any adjustments to my current life? If so, how?

  4. If I had to meet the Lord now, in what areas of my life would I find it difficult to face God? What changes should I make?

In reflecting on these questions, you may find it difficult to concentrate or may wish to merely answer each question simply and hastily. These are normal reactions–thinking about death is uncomfortable and we would rather avoid it. Effective reflections on death, however, requires us to centre ourselves and to take time to seriously ponder over it. Though the process is difficult, its reward is abundant. Looking squarely at death evokes in us a fuller appreciation of the value and meaning of life. It transforms our perspective and direction in life. We can throw off our unnecessary burdens, value what the Lord Jesus values, seize the opportunity, and walk in the way that pleases him.

Moreover, when Christians look squarely at death, we receive a special favour: we can examine our own deaths through the death of Jesus on the cross. Not only do we see the reality of our sin, but how much more do we see God’s sacrificial love, unconditional pardon, and the hope of the new life he gives!

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