How can one explain the fascination of western culture with death? In December of 2007, when the body of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, was transported from the Apollo Theater in New York to C.A. Reid Funeral Home in Augusta, Georgia, the director of the funeral home received a midnight call from the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, requesting permission to come by and pay his respects. Michael Jackson spent the next five hours viewing the body and grilling the funeral director, demonstrating an unusual fascination with the death experience.
I have been blogging now for several years. I have written several blogs about death and what happens to people in the afterlife. These articles are some of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written affirming that people are extremely curious. What is it that causes us to have a nearly insatiable curiosity about death? The typical answer to plug in here is that we are so curious because it is in the realm of the unknown. But, there are a lot of things we have little knowledge about that don’t pique our curiosity at all. I know nothing at all about ice fishing in Alaska, or how microbes reproduce and I have no curiosity to drive me to learn of those things.
Perhaps our cultural obsession with death is not so much because it is so distant from us, like an older uncle we never met who lives on the other side of the globe. I believe we are curious about death because it is like the neighbor who lives next door. We are reminded daily of its existence. We see death on the obituary page, we see it on television and we are reminded of its perfect record of conquering all life when we see pictures hanging in our home of those who have already succumbed. For some, a fascination with death can be morbid, it can lead to an macabre obsession that may cause one to lose his sense of the world he presently inhabits. On the other hand, a balanced consciousness of death can be healthy if it reminds us of how we are to live in this present world and serves to caution us that there is a hereafter to prepare for.
Death is not an ending for the Christian. Rather, it is a transition into a life more abundant than the one we are now experiencing. Peter ignited this flame of hope in his followers: “…set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:13) We are but wayfaring strangers passing through an alien world. We are wanderers unsatisfied until we find the new city whose maker and founder is God. We revel in this hope within us that is capable of smothering our fear of death. Those who have not this hope “are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19)
No onlooker can understand this hope in the breast of every Christian if he cannot understand the work of grace in the Christian life. Grace is the mysterious favor of God. A GRACE acronym that summarizes this supernatural work of God is: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. It is freely bestowed upon us but it was purchased with the precious blood of a willing Savior. This grace is the cornerstone of a Christian’s forgiveness of sins in that it satisfies the penalty for our sin. But grace continues for the true convert in its sanctifying capacity by which a Christian experiences freedom from the power of sin. A Christian who is entertaining the hope Peter speaks of understands that there is a future demonstration of God’s grace, the glorification of the soul. Physical death is a necessity before we can experience the grace of glorification, God’s deliverance from the presence of sin.
The Philippians were encouraged to “work out their own salvation”. (2:12) Our salvation is not just a one moment-in-life experience, it is a lifelong adventure. We cast off on the seas of salvation when we humble ourselves and confess our sins to Christ. We then begin a long journey in which we learn to conquer sin through grace which results in the sanctification of our souls. We must not put limits on how far the grace of God can take us down the stream toward purity. Paul wrote to the Romans: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (6:14) As we drift downstream, there is a shining hope in the distance that grows brighter and brighter, it is the hope that we will one day be glorified. We will land on the shore of perfection and enter a kingdom where purity reigns and where sin lies defeated at the outer gate.
In order to enter one gate we must exit another. The “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and “it is appointed unto men once to die.” (Hebrews 9:27) All men, with the exception of only a couple (Enoch and Elijah), have had to die a physical death in order to receive the mantle of eternal life. Christ’s resurrection stripped the fear of death away and replaced it with the hope of everlasting life.
So what happens when you die? The body is corruptible and it stays here and decays. The soul is incorruptible, it cannot be destroyed and it passes on to eternity. Every man has a soul and every man’s soul, whether it be righteous or unrighteous, sinful or pure, will live on forever. What we are when we die is what we are for all of eternity. “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.” (Rev. 22:11)
Death for the unrepentant is a horrific and terrifying thing. The wicked will experience a second death. “The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars –their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8) It is a death that lasts for all eternity and this is why the wise man wrote in Proverbs: “When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes…” (11:7)
“…They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (2 Thess. 1:9) Death to a Christian is the bright and eternal hope of living pure, glorified, and sinless forever in the presence of a holy God. It is the liberation of the soul from the bondage of a sinful earth to the liberty of a sinless heaven. Death to the righteous will be a refuge. (Prov. 14:32) With this hope living within us, we can say with the Apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)