Awaking Relevance: Death?


How do we face the reality of death?

When I was seven I remember weeping with my mom and dad after hearing that my grandma died. I remember kissing her bodies’ cold dead lips at the open casket. I remember the hardness of her skin.

When I was 13 I remember hearing the news right before Thanksgiving that my best friend had been killed in a tragic hunting accident. I remember the silence. The shock and the pain. The questions. The emptiness. The deep sense that it was not right. It was not supposed to be like that.

When I was in my mid-20s I remember hearing that a dear friend that I had met with a few days before and encouraged to keep fighting against his drug addiction had committed suicide. I remember meeting with his family and sitting with them and crying alongside them. I remember his funeral and how his mother was late because she didn’t want to say bye. I remember his mom and girlfriend weeping at his casket and I remember helping them say their final goodbyes.

I remember hearing that my brother-in-law that taught me how to drive and meant so much to me died. His son found him in the kitchen after a massive heart attack. I remember getting a group text message three months later about one of my other brothers-in-law. I was on the campus of George Mason University and the world stopped. My brother-in-law who had been like a brother and father to me had died.

I remember a dear friend that was struggling with depression. I remember first hearing that he had lost the battle and had taken his own life. I remember deeply wrestling that week with what to say at his funeral.

I remember death. I remember the bitterness. I know it is a dark reality.

Death is coming for us all. One way or another. That’s the cold stark truth.

It is appointed for each person to die once.[1]

As Solomon, the great philosopher said, “The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts are the same. As one dies so dies the other.”[2]

My own dear wife, because of various health issues, has a shorter life expectancy than most people her age. However, even the concept of “life expectancy” admits the reality of death but seems to try to hide it. We will all die. It would be more accurate to talk about “death expectancy.” But it’s more palatable to say “life expectancy.”

The truth is though, that we should remember death, and remember death often, because we’re all gonna die. We are all terminal. We have the devastating condition known as mortality.

There was a time when danse macabre, or pictures of the “dance of the dead,” were common (see the picture below for an example). The purpose of these pictures “was to remind the viewer not only that death was always close to them and could strike at any moment, but that everyone was equal in the face of it.”[3]

History shows that “What we really need is wisdom for how to truly live and die well.”[4]

Dance of the DeadWhen we live life in light of our coming death, we’ll be better positioned to live well.  Death, however, is more distant from our minds than at any other point in history.[5] We try our best to ignore and silence the disturbing reality of our own mortality.[6] So, to the question: “How do we face the reality of death?” The answer is, at least in many cases: We try to avoid thinking about it.

Reality is what it is regardless of if we accept it or think about it. I believe that we are better positioned for life if we consider and live in light of reality.

There’s a local apple orchard where I live. Their cider is the best tasting liquid I think I’ve ever had. But their cider is seasonal. It’s not available year-round. So that reality means that I need to make the most of cider season. I need to cough up the money and enjoy the cider while I can. There will come a day when I won’t be able to enjoy the cider anymore. That reality has a very real impact on the beverage choices I make.

When we realize the reality of death—and not just cognitively with our heads—then it will make a difference in our lives. We will “buy the cider” and we will enjoy every drop. Death can give us profound enjoyment of life. When we grasp and meditate on the fact that death can snatch anyone away in an instant then we will realize that “life exists to be lived to the full, that every moment must be cherished as a gift, that you should make the most of the few years granted to you.”[7]

Death, strangely, can give us the gift of life; a full and fulfilling life.

“Our modern desire to keep death at a distance, to insulate ourselves from its shadowy presence, is a form of collective denial that diminishes our capacity to feel the fragility and fleetingness of our earthly being, and saps us of our life force.”[8]

That’s why we want to consider death here. We are different from animals. We can consider the concept of both life and death. We know that we will die, and that those near us, our loved ones, will die as well.[9] We would do well to take advantage of this ability.

Humans realize “loss is universal, not exceptional. It’s guaranteed, not unexpected. Every relationship is lost to time. So is every penny of everyone’s wealth, and ultimately so is every life. Loss isn’t surprising. It is basic to the course of every life.”[10]

When we consider the constant reality of the presence of death it helps us to see both how precious and precarious life is. If we don’t acknowledge the haunting reality of death, we are unlikely to truly prize life. Just as money is valuable because it is fleeting and limited so is life.

You might be thinking, “Why would we want to consider anything related to death?” First, it is important for me to challenge you to consider death because I don’t think you have a lot of people telling you to do that. And death is a lot more sanitized than it used to be. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing but the truth is “wakes,” “calling hours,” or “viewings” used to take place in homes and death was a lot easier to consider because it was harder to forget.[11] Now, however, it’s easy to put off thinking about death almost entirely.

But remembering death brings a needed perspective change to our lives.

The other day I was on the couch and my favorite baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, were on and I just wanted to chill and watch the game. But, my kids wanted to spend some quality time with me. They wanted to wrestle. So, I lay there for a little bit but then I remembered something… I remembered death. I remembered to think of things in light of death and so you know what I did? I got up and wrestled with my kids. It was great! I hurt my toe. But it was great!

If we remember death, it will absolutely have an impact on us.

Psalm 39 somewhat strangely says, “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!”

This Psalm says, “let me know how fleeting I am.” As far as prayer requests go, this one is a strange one… Imagine some guy in the corner saying, “I really want you to pray that I would know the shortness of my life”? That’s a funny picture.

So, why would the person who wrote Psalm 39 ask God for that?

I think of my kids playing with bubbles in the front yard. They blow bubbles. Pop. Pop. Pop.

The Psalm says we are a mere breath.

Pop, pop, pop, and we’re gone.

We don’t know when, we don’t know how, but just like a bubble we will soon pass away.

When we realize that it changes the way we think, and it changes the way we live. That’s why the person that wrote Psalm 39 asked that they would know how fleeting they are.

“We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.”[12] Death is the way of all the earth. And we are always but a step from it. “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.”[13] Death is the way of all the earth. Even the wise die. “The stupid and the senseless alike perish.”[14]

So, I’m telling us to remember death because we’re unlikely to. I’m telling us to remember death because we’re likely to think we’re the center of the universe, but death reminds us that we’re not.[15] I’m telling us to remember death because death helps us to put things in the right perspective and remember the things that really matter.

When we remember things it helps us chart the right course but when we forget even little things it causes us all sorts of problems. That is why “it is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart.”[16] Therefore, remember death while you yet have life. Let the reality of death give you perspective and wisdom in life.

You may have an elaborate sandcastle, but the tide is rising. “Death has an unmatched ability to expose the flimsiness of the things we believe give substance to our lives.”[17] We are used to commanding our destiny. We make plans and we accomplish goals. But no one has authority over the day of death.[18]

When you’re on vacation and you have limited time, you ironically wear yourself out making the most of the time. You know the time’s limited so do you refuse to have fun? No! You capitalize on the time and make sure you spend good time with your family… That’s death for us.

Even though flowers wither in the autumn doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy their beauty. If anything, it means we must enjoy their beauty while we can. It’s the same with the beauty of autumn. There’s a short window of time when the sky is ablaze with the color of the trees. That scarcity makes autumn all the more precious and beautiful.

The shortness of life should spur us on to make the most of life. Our time is short. So, we should consider how we should live and why?

What hope is there in the face of death?

The Christian Scriptures say a lot about our coming death. It says a lot about how we should prepare for it and live in light of its reality. Ecclesiastes tells us to enjoy life while we can (9:9-10). This makes sense when we are reminded how amazingly short our lives really are (see e.g. Job 14:2; Ps. 90:2-12; 103:14-17; James 4:13-16). And so, in light of the fleeting nature of life, we are told to “number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

The Christian Scripture points to death as confirmation that something has gone terribly wrong in the world. Thankfully, however, that’s not where Scripture leaves off. Scripture says that death is not the end. It is not the termination of all consciousness.

When Jesus’ close friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept (See Jn. 11:1-54). Jesus did not react with cold detachment. Jesus intimately cares. Jesus is heartbroken. One of the reasons He’s heartbroken is because death is not the way it was supposed to be. That’s partly why we’re repulsed by it.

The Bible teaches that God has no pleasure in death (Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:4, 6; 2 Peter 3:9; Titus 2:11). And so He did something about it. He provided a way for people to be saved from death; the death the Bible says that was deserved.

Death is deserved because of sin. Just as a ticket is the wages of speeding, so death is the wages of sin. Just as speeding is dangerous and destructive so is sin. And so it’s taken seriously and punished to minimize its destructive impact.

So “death spread to all, because all sinned.”[19] Because of sin, no one can live and not see death.[20] “Judgment in Scripture,” however, “is anything but arbitrary or capricious… Most often, judgment is a matter of God leaving an individual or a society to the logic of their own settled choices.”[21]

Christ brought rescue from sin’s penalty but its presence remains until He returns. Soon death will be no more, the Christian Scripture teaches. But not until then. Yet, there is rescue from both the penalty and presence of death through Christ.

So, what hope does Christianity give in light of the grim reality of death? The Bible talks about resurrection. It talks about the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and it talks about the eventual resurrection, to true and everlasting life, for all those who trust and follow Him.

Perhaps this is getting a little out there for you now. Too much like an episode of The X-Files or Stranger Things.

I’d encourage you to at least read on and check out the next post. Partly because I believe, as Matthew McCullough has said, “It is Resurrection or vanity.”[22]


[1] Hebrews 9:27.

[2] Ecclesiastes 3:19.

[3] Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (BlueBride: New York, 2011), 267.

[4] Jonathan T. Pennington, Jesus The Great Philosopher, 20.

[5] Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (BlueBride: New York, 2011), 265.

[6] See Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997).

[7] Roman Krznaric, How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life, 269.

[8] Krznaric, How Should We Live?, 273.

[9] See Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 2-3.

[10] Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, 122.

[11] The average life expectancy in the 1830s was a mere thirty-eight years (Krznaric, How Should We Live?, 265). It is important to observe that the church culture has also in many ways removed the reality of death further and further away. To go inside a church building one used to have to walk past monuments to our mortality. Church buildings used to be accompanied by church cemeteries.

[12] Second Samuel 14:14.

[13] Second Samuel 14:14.

[14] Psalm 49:10.

[15] “Not only will the world keep going without us—eventually we won’t be remembered at all” (Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, 61).

[16] Ecclesiastes 7:2.

[17] Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, 99.

[18] Ecclesiastes 8:8.

[19] Romans 5:12.

[20] Psalm 89:48.

[21] Os Guinness, Fools Talk, 98. See Hosea 8:7; Jeremiah 4:18; Obadiah 1:15.

[22] Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, 110.

About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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