The seventeenth-century Puritans and their more contemporary heirs commonly wrote about “the four last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Earlier audiences were rightly concerned about their future and wanted to learn about their looming eternity. Today, all of these topics have largely fallen out of favor, eclipsed by subjects that focus more explicitly on the here and now.
But despite our aversion to talking or thinking about death and what follows, we continue to die.
Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 90 puts it well: “The busy tribes of flesh and blood, with all their lives and cares, are carried downward by [God’s] flood, and lost in foll’wing years. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.”1 And, as always, for all of us, after death come judgement (Heb. 9:27) and an eternity in heaven or hell. Nothing is more certain, unless Christ returns first: Everyone who has ever lived will die. Surely this is not a topic that we should avoid.
With the subject of death we begin to study individual eschatology, or the study of the end of all people prior to the end of all things. We need a realistic, hopeful, and biblical perspective on death and how to process our own end and the deaths of those around us.
The Idea of Death
From mere observation, we know that ordinary life ceases at death. But to understand death beyond what we can see we need to listen to know what God says about it.
Death is the antithesis of life, the foil of the beautiful portrait painted Genesis 2:7. In death God draws back to himself and keeps safe until the final judgment the spirits which had animated our material frame, while our physical bodies decay and return to the elements from which they were formed (Eccl. 3;18–21; 12:6–7). Louis Berkhof puts it succinctly: “Physical death is a termination of physical life by the separation of body and soul.”2 And yet, Scripture insists that “Death is not a cessation of existence, but a severance of the natural relations of life.”3
Death is contrary to nature.
And yet, like the stunted perspective of a person who has never traveled beyond the limits of his blighted, boarded-up city, death and decay seem normal to us. Everything we observe breaks down over time. It is easy to assume, as many people do today, that death has always been built into life, a sort of planned obsolescence to promote progress in the human race.
But the Bible insists that human death is a curse. God warned the first humans that they would forfeit life if they disobeyed his holy will (Gen. 2:17). When Adam violated God’s command against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he tested God’s integrity and found it intact. He and all who were connected to him by covenant headship,4 that is, his wife and his natural seed, began to die. To use James’s language, Adam’s desire conceived and gave birth to sin which always results in death (James 1:15). Paul sums it up thus: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, New American Standard Bible; cf. Rom. 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:22). Death is not natural but “foreign and hostile to human life; it is an expression of divine anger (Ps. 90:7, 11), a judgment (Rom. 1:32), a condemnation (Rom. 5:16), and a curse (Gal. 3:13), and fills the hearts of the children of men with dread and fear, just because it is felt to be something unnatural.”5
Sin’s curse brings not just physical death but also moral death—death to the blessings of God—and, if uncured, eternal death. Where the curse reigns humans are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). This grim reality helps us treasure the promise of the gospel; all who live by faith in the Son of God are redeemed from the curse of the law; Christ has become a curse for them (Gal. 3:10–13). Understanding the cause of death is vitally important. If death is natural then we have to accept it. But if death is caused by sin, then if sin is defeated death can be reversed. As Jesus told Martha, while both of them grieved the death of their brother and friend Lazarus, it is possible to taste death and not die in an absolute sense (John 11:23–27).
Preparing for Death
For each of us, death is both imminent and unpredictable. Every week the local paper contains obituaries of both old and young people. Some expected to die; others were blindsided. No one can cheat death. But we can prepare for death so that our deaths will not be eternal punishment for our sin, “but only a dying to sin and an entering into eternal life (John 5:24; Phil. 1:23; Rom. 7:24–25).”6 Do we?
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, young Jane was asked if she knew where bad children went when they died.
‘They go to hell’ was my ready and orthodox answer.
‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’
‘A pit full of fire.’
‘And should you like to fall into that pit and to be burning there forever?’
‘What must you do to avoid it?’
I deliberated a moment. My answer when it did come was objectionable. ‘I must keep in good health and not die.’
How many people are like Jane, trying to prevent death rather than prepare for the life to come with true godliness (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8)?
Prepare for Death by Entrusting Yourself to Christ
No one is ready to die who is not entrusting their eternity to the eternal Son of God. The only way to die well is to have your life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) so that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection become yours. Christ died to answer the just and true God’s demand for the satisfaction of our sins (Heb. 2:9; Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 40). He was raised to “overcome death . . . make us partakers of the righteousness which He has obtained for us by his death,” raise us up to a new life, and offer a “sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.”7 God graciously offers us the eternal life we forfeited by our union with Adam (original sin) and by our actual transgressions.8 We can receive God’s gift “and make it [our] own in no other way that by faith only (1 John 5:10).”9
Prepare for Death by Bearing Fruit
Too many people enter old age woefully financially unprepared. And this, despite the urging of economists—armed with striking compound-interest graphs—to start investing for the golden years early. Similarly, too few people value Jesus’ admonition to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20, English Standard Version). John Piper reflects on Jesus’ words:
Evidently there are two ways to live: you can live with a view to accumulating valuable things on earth, or you can live with a view to accumulating valuable things in heaven. Jesus says: the mark of a Christian is that his eyes are on heaven and he measures all his behavior by what effect it will have on heaven—everlasting joy with God.10
Those who commit to investing in eternity, by beginning early, working hard, and finishing well, by God’s grace store up treasure in heaven.
Prepare for Death by Meditating on Death11
Macabre meditation can be unhealthy. But it doesn’t have to be. As evidence, and as a pattern for our reflection, the Scriptures frequently speak of death. The words “death,” “dead,” and “die” occur more often than “life,” “alive,” and “live” more than one thousand times. God still laments over his people’s lack of thought on ultimate things: “If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end!” (Deut. 32:29, English Standard Version). Moses understood and asked God to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12, English Standard Version). Other psalms propose out-of-style-but-essential language for preparing to meet God.
Make me, O Lord, to know my end,
Teach me the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am
And turn from pride and sinful ways.12
Likewise, Christian hymns teach us to find in Christ’s presence hope for life and death.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.13
They help us to trust God to shepherd us even though he leads us to death.
And when my task on earth is done,
When by thy grace, the vict’ry’s won,
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
Since God through Jordan leadeth me.14
They help us process the inevitable: One day we will all long to be reclothed with immortality.
When in dust and ashes to the grave I sink,
When heav’n’s glory flashes o’er the shelving brink,
On thy truth relying through that mortal strife,
Lord, receive me, dying, to eternal life.15
Modern reluctance to think, talk, and sing about death could signify a superstitious attitude about, or an unpreparedness for, and a fear of death.16 Christians, for whom Christ has sanctified the grave, should not be overwhelmed by fear of death.
But we most certainly should grieve death.
Believers lament death because it testifies to the treason of Satan and the fallenness of man. More concretely we grieve because a very real part of the deceased’s life is over. We miss them. We are saddened over the destruction of their “earthly house, this tent,” their body (2 Cor. 5:1). The current habit of referring to funerals as “celebrations of life,” while well-intentioned and partly appropriate, threatens to underestimate the tragedy of death. Our celebrations of the life of departed loved ones should never paint over the genuine distress (2 Sam. 1:26) we feel over the departure of our friends. Jesus wept (John 11:35). These two words contain a world of wonder: God cried. Indeed, “he groaned in spirit and was troubled” (v. 33). In full understanding that Lazarus was not lost, Jesus grieved over the treachery of the curse and in protest over the stinking corpse of a man who had previously been strong, beautiful, and good; the image of God. Believers must feel the freedom to cry, trusting that God puts our tears into his bottle and records them in his book (Ps. 56:8).
At the same time, believers must resist grieving inordinately, sorrowing as others who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Extreme efforts to remember departed loved ones and retain their memory can unintentionally conflict with God’s plan for our healing. Perhaps this is why God told his people, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28, New King James Version). Not only is the practice heathen in origin, but also it tends to extend artificially the grieving process and falsely suggest that self-imposed pain is redemptive.
By contrast, David engaged grief in a way that respected God’s gift of healing, even after he was dealt the crushing blow of the death of a child. Though filled with sadness, “David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate” (2 Sam. 12:20, New King James Version). David understood that he could not bring back his son from the dead and should make no attempt to do so, not even a symbolic attempt. He measured his grief against God’s promise to be a God to him and his son (Gen. 17:7). He gained perspective, insisting that he would one day see his son on the day of resurrection (2 Sam. 12:23). Believers grieve for other believers against the backdrop of hope.
But how do we grieve for departed unbelievers? In these moments of seemingly unredeemable tragedy we need to reserve judgment to God. We should be careful of declaring the eternal fate of the dead either by condemning them to hell or by marshaling false comfort of their salvation. When faced with terrible questions about God’s judgment against sinners we should content ourselves with the posture of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25, New King James Version).
Honoring the Dead
Part of the typical grieving process involves a funeral or memorial service. How should we use funerals to help cultivate an end-times spirituality?
If Possible, Attend the Funeral
Death should take priority over almost everything else in our schedule. This may mean taking a day off work or rearranging an important appointment even for a funeral of someone you have never met, if you have a relationship with the bereaved. The funeral is not, after all, for the deceased but for the living, including yourself. There is often no medicine for the soul like a gospel-infused memorial service if we follow John Donne’s advice. “By this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making recourse to my God, who is our only security.”17
Don’t Say Too Much
In an increasingly secular world funerals represent rapidly shrinking sacred ground. Fewer settings better remind us that “God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2, New King James Version). Silence is a modern taboo. But in the valley of the shadow of death it can be a healing balm. When Job’s friends heard of the adversity that had befallen him, including the death of his children, “each one came from his own place . . . sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:11, 13, New King James Version). But they grew impatient of silence. Their mouths began to pour out counsel, prompting Job to answer, “I have heard many such things; miserable counselors are you all! Shall words of wind have an end?” If we are anxious about what to say to the bereaved we should remember, “I’m so sorry for your loss” will usually suffice. Those in the clutches of grief are not looking for logic but comfort. At all costs, avoid trite phrases like, “This will work out for your good,” or, “Isn’t God great!”
Insist on God-Centered Funerals
Very often, bereaved families are able to influence heavily the memorial service of their loved one.18 This means that family members can and should give careful thought to how the funeral will best honor God. A basic guideline is to not make the deceased the focal point. Over a century ago, Abraham Kuyper observed, “Sometimes in so offensive a way you hear addresses at the grave, when he, whose breath was in his nostrils, and now died, is exalted as in a halo of glory, and every remembrance of the name of the Lord remains wanting.”19 Where this is not already understood, families should ask of the funeral officiant that “a brief homily should be given after the gospel, but without any kind of funeral eulogy.”20 Funerals should be both biblical and personal. But eulogies tend to crowd out the preaching time, provide ample opportunity to communicate bad theology, and exaggerate the deceased’s good qualities minimizing their need for God’s grace. Might it not be best, if a eulogy seems necessary, to leave it for the fellowship time following the funeral, not unlike what often happens at weddings? If a eulogy must be given it should be brief, true, simple, and God-centered.
Honor the Body
The witness of Scripture is unambiguous: Human bodies are made by God, bear his image, can be indwelt and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and should, therefore, be treated with respect after death. The burials of Sarah (Gen. 23:19), Abraham (Gen. 2:25), Isaac (Gen. 35:29), Jacob (Gen. 50:13), Lazarus (John 11), and Jesus (John 19:38–42) illustrate how God’s people have always cared for the bodies of the departed. The Bible’s few examples of cremation (e.g., Josh. 7:25; 1 Sam. 31:12; 1 Kings 13:1–3; Amos 2:1) call to mind God’s displeasure toward the deceased. Following the tradition of the Old Testament believers, Christians from the time of the apostles until the late twentieth century almost uniformly buried their dead. The first cremation in America didn’t happen until 1876. It was “accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu Scriptures.”21 No Christian should doubt that God is able to resurrect one’s body whether they were buried or cremated. But, despite social and financial pressure to favor cremation, a Christian burial seems to best reflect a robust hope in a bodily resurrection. With planning and creativity, a God-honoring funeral can cost much less than the North American average of $7,000 to $10,000.
How we face death should be understood as the premier test of our life. After all, “when a person dies, we can see much more clearly who they really turned out to be, which is eternally significant . . . when a season of life ends, we see, at least to some degree, the true fruit of all our dreaming, planning, labor and investment.”22 What Isaiah said to Hezekiah, God says to all of us: “Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live” (Isa. 38:1, New King James Version). If we have a biblical vision for the future and are held tightly in the hand of God, these jarring words can also be words of hope.
Are you, and those close to you, comfortable talking about death? If not, why not?
How does the ministry of Christ affect your view of death?
Can you remember a time that you grew in godliness by attending a funeral?
How would you advise those wrestling over whether to take their young children with them to a funeral?
How, in John 11:32–44, does Jesus model appropriate grief over death?
How do his words and actions (see also vv. 20–27) encourage hope in the shadow of death?
How has God healed you after the hurtful loss of a loved one?
How can a Christian rightly wrestle with the cremation option?
The article cautioned against the use of funeral eulogies. If given the appropriate context to comment on the life of a loved one, what kind of themes might you want to emphasize?
1. Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA.: Great Commission Publication, Inc., 1990), song 30.
2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 668.
4. On covenant headship and original sin see, for example, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 2.1; John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R, 1959); Michael Grant Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2012).
5. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 669.
6. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 42, in The Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2, 1552–1566, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 779.
7. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 45, in Reformed Confessions, 2:779.
8. See Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 18, in Reformed Confessions, 4:355.
9. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 61, in Reformed Confessions, 2:783.
10. John Piper, “Don’t Be Anxious, Lay Up Treasure in Heaven, Part 1,” March 2, 2003, http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/dont-be-anxious-lay-up-treasure-in-heaven-part-1.
11. See, for example, Abraham Kuyper, In the Shadow of Death: Meditations for the Sick-Room and at the Death-Bed (Audubon, NJ.: Old Paths Publications, 1994), and John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Random House, 1999).
12. Metrical version of Psalm 39 from The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999), number 104.
13. Trinity Hymnal, song 402.
14. Trinity Hymnal, song 600.
15. Trinity Hymnal, song 568.
16. Pastoral experience indicates that even in the church, God’s people seldom feel the freedom to say with Jacob (Gen. 48:21) or Joseph (50:24), “I am dying.” One can’t help but notice how our reluctance robs us of the beautifully frank conversations our forebears had with their loved ones on the brink of death.
17. Donne, Devotions, 103–4.
18. The position of the United Reformed Churches in North America is helpful advice: “A Christian funeral is neither a service of corporate worship nor subject to ecclesiastical government, but is a family matter, and should be conducted accordingly.” Article 49 of the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 7th ed., http://www.urcna.org/1651/file_retrieve/23868.
19. Kuyper, In the Shadow of Death, 299.
20. From Ordo Exsequiarum, no. 41, cited in John Allyn Melloh, “Homily or Eulogy? The Dilemma of Funeral Preaching,” Worship 67 (November 1993), 502.
21. Timothy George, “Cremation Confusion: Is it Unscriptural for a Christian to Be Cremated?,” Christianity Today 21 (May 2002), 66.
22. John Bloom, “Lord, Prepare Me to End Well,” February 28, 2017, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lord-prepare-me-to-end-well.
Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.