I’ve just been reading a blog post which struck me as brave and realistic. It’s about how Christians die: ‘Illness and death beautiful?’
Theologically, we know that Christians go to heaven when they die, leaving behind all their disappointments, regrets, sins, and sorrows for ever. Theologically, we know that death for the Christian is a defeated enemy, and the Christian is more than a conqueror through Christ. Because Christ lives, the Christian lives too.
But this does not mean that all Christians die triumphant deaths, sailing into glory on the crest of an exultant wave of spiritual success.
There are stories of martyrs, whose last words went something like this. “Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, the world and all delights! Farewell meat and drink! Farewell, sun, moon and stars! Welcome, God and Father! Welcome, sweet Lord Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant! Welcome, blessed Spirit of grace, God of all consolation! Welcome glory! Welcome eternal life! Welcome death!”
But most Christians do not die the death of a martyr.
In death, as in life, it is likely that the majority of Christians, the majority of the time, neither float on clouds of assurance nor wallow in ditches of despair. For most people most of the time, they have a quiet, stable sense running along in the background of their lives that they are Christ’s and Christ is theirs. This fades in and out of conscious prominence from time to time, and slowly and surely shapes their outlook on life, their responses to life’s events, their acceptance of providence, and their likeness to Christ. But most people’s highs are not especially high, and their lows are not especially low, in spiritual things.
When they come to die, it is unusual for this picture to change much. I have only very limited close-up experience of the actual deathbeds of godly individuals. I also have only limited in-depth second-hand knowledge from listening to other people’s experiences. But it would seem that even the eminently godly do not normally have strikingly glorious entrances into glory.
It would seem that very godly people even at the end of long lives do not look forward to dying. They do not seem to relish the obvious fact that they will soon have the chance to leave this sad sinful world to go to glory. This fact may not even be obvious to them, as they instead engage with their care plans and look forward to getting home from hospital. They seem to take as much interest as ever in the lives and activities of their family and friends. Their conversations may revolve as much around their current medication as around the blessings of union and communion with the Saviour.
This is not a criticism. Neither is it aspirational. But it seems to be more common than not, and it is worth acknowledging. Our expectations of other people’s deathbeds are better informed by the norm than the exception. There is no need to be disappointed or doubtful about someone if they go to glory quietly and unremarkably. Similarly, it is probably unwise to expect that our own deathbeds will be scenes of blissful triumph any more than our lives are.
The continuity between life as a whole and death as an event is no doubt a useful guide to help manage expectations. Although there is plenty reason for the Christian to rejoice with thanksgiving at every moment in their lives, there are also plenty reasons why the end-point of their life on earth is not naturally conducive to suddenly starting to rejoice in a newly conspicuous way. Christians are frail and sinful in any case, and coming to the point of death typically makes people more frail than ever before. They may well be in discomfort or pain, or sedated or exhausted, or otherwise more constrained by their physical needs than luxuriating in their spiritual blessings. They may be worried about how their spouse will manage without them, or who will be left in the family to pray for their unsaved children and grandchildren. Some of them understand, although I don’t, the genuinely pinching dilemma between departing to be with Christ, and abiding in the flesh to serve the needs of others (you would think the choice would be obvious, but Paul couldn’t decide). And perhaps a bit like an expectant mother looks forward to meeting the baby but not to actual childbirth, you can understand why people don’t want to die even knowing that there is something better beyond. Our only experience of existence is as integrated souls and bodies. The forcible disintegration of soul and body in death is both unknown and dreadful.
And yet, and yet, for the Christian, death has had its sting removed. Theologically, we know this.
So to align our theology of death more closely with the case histories of how Christians die, we need to remember the contrast between how things look and feel now, and how they are in reality. When a Christian dies, it is actually a victory. It is a victory for their Saviour and consequently for themselves. It may look underwhelming and anticlimactic, but so do all the victories of the Christian life from regeneration onwards. Yet it remains a fact, however much or little we sense the gloriousness of it. When a Christian dies, it means that they have been successfully saved, out of sin, through this life, into heaven. This is amazing. When a Christian dies, they immediately pass into glory, to be made perfectly blessed in the full enjoyment of God to all eternity. This is wonderful. When a Christian dies, it is another bit of the answer to Christ’s prayer, ‘Father, I will that they whom thou hast given me be with me where I am.’ This is stupendous.
Illness and death are not beautiful. What is beautiful is to be saved from them – from illness and death and sin and ourselves. There is something visibly beautiful if it happens that when the Lord is saving his people out of these things he gives them the grace to rejoice triumphantly in the process. But it is also beautiful that he saves them at all, even by the skin of their teeth, because what the eye doesn’t always see here and now is the bigger reality that we are thoroughly theologically convinced of – that those who believe in Christ will never perish, but have everlasting life.