What follows is a lightly revived version of my blog origininally posted on December 24, 2012.
Last year we saw a musical version of Truman Capote’s short story A Christmas Memory a month or so after the death of our daughter-in-law, Kim. As the play came to its conclusion, this line was spoken, “When people die they don’t really go away,” and reflexively I said to myself, “The hell they don’t.” When people die they do go away. We can no longer see them, touch them, talk to them, write them cards or letters, send them texts, or view their Facebook page. Nor can they communicate with us. They are not forgotten, but they are gone, painfully so.
I know that some Christians are sanguine about death, but I am not – not about mine, not about yours. My guess is that I have more than a little company. Human death is the most unnatural thing in the world. It is a great insult to our humanity. It is humiliating. It is a frontal attack on human dignity. We were not created in God’s image so that we might die, but, because of our sin and God’s judgment, we do.
I think that some Christian funerals suffer from conceiving the service as a “celebration of life” or of “victory.” Funerals are rather and rightly God’s people coming into his presence to worship him in their sorrow. We go before God, for we do not know where or to whom else to go in our sorrow. In funerals we, as it were, sit with our grief before God. While we do not grieve as those who have no hope, we do experience the “sorrow upon sorrow” Paul said would have been his experience had Epaphroditus’ illness resulted in death. Funerals are times for mourners to wear black and for clergy to read Psalm 90.
The final steps of the journey through the valley of the shadow and entering into life beyond are something we cannot experience till we do. In that sense it is like jumping out of an airplane the first time. You can be told what it feels like and what will happen, but you cannot know it till you jump. Even this illustration is limited for we can watch skydivers jump from planes and land on earth, but we have never seen a person jump out of this world and land safely in heaven.
When we die we take the strange journey to an existence we can hardly imagine. We are created as fleshly creatures. We are embodied souls. We are destined in the resurrection to be embodied souls again. The resurrection existence is something I can at least imagine. As different as it no doubt will be, it is an embodied life, and I know something about embodied existence. I can think about even its perfection in the longing I have for a fulfillment and perfection of embodied existence that escapes me now.
But a purely spiritual existence is beyond anything I can see with my mind’s eye. Presently there is such an entanglement of our bodies and souls that there is no way to separate soul life from body life. That includes worship where we see with our eyes, sing with our voices, hear with our ears, taste with our tongues.
It is very difficult to conceive of an existence without body. What is that for human beings who were created and will be recreated with bodily existence? The only advantage I can see to disembodied existence after death is that is without sin. I can believe it is “far better” because it brings us into the presence of Christ in a way beyond what is now possible. That is the inspired testimony of the Apostle who perhaps had a “preview experience” of that heavenly existence (2 Corinthians 12: 2-4). But for now death is an enemy - the last enemy, but a present evil enemy.
However, Christmas has something to say about this grim enemy which hovers over all humanity.
(1) When his human nature was conceived in the womb of the Virgin, the Son of God joined himself to our frail, mortal existence. Sharing our nature Jesus was not some superhuman, extra-human, or ideal human, but a man who was like us in every way except for our sin. His humanity was our sin-cursed and sin-weakened humanity. He was a man who could and did die. "Since, therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things… he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest" (Hebrews 2:14,17).
Because Jesus became one with us in mortality, we can be sure he knows our feelings about death. Because he died, we can be sure he knows what we will face when walk through the valley of the shadow. Because he wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, we can be sure he knows our grief in the loss of those we love.
(2) He came not only to share in our mortality but to do something about it. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and death is surely the work of the devil who was a murderer from the beginning. The last enemy has not yet been crushed, but the end of death is so certain that Paul can speak of “our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immorality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). On Christmas we sing,
Forth today the Conqueror goeth,
who the foe, sin and woe,
death and hell, o’erthroweth.
God is man, man to deliver,
his dear Son, now is one
with our blood forever.But, the already of his accomplishment is still the not yet of our existence.