We live at a rather unusual time in history, not least of which when it comes to death. Death is inescapable in every age, of course. Still, until fairly recently, death was a much more present reality in people’s lives. Infant mortality was high; women died in childbirth at much higher rates; different kinds of accidents claimed the lives of men, women, and children, not to mention infections, parasites, and diseases.
A major difference in the past was that people tended to die in their own beds. In-home funerals were common. In fact, many homes were built with a coffin door to facilitate moving bodies in and out of the house.
Much changed with the advent of antibiotics, which extended lifespans, and with the professionalization and institutionalization of medicine and the funeral industry. When people became gravely ill, they were sent to hospitals. When they died, they were taken to funeral homes. Death was increasingly hidden from immediate experience, allowing us to more easily ignore it and its inevitability.
Though in many ways, the pre-modern world had a far more realistic understanding of life and death than we do today, that doesn’t mean they better grasped the hereafter. Of the various views possessed by ancient cultures about what happens after death, there are only a few basic options. Some cultures believed that humans became spirits after death, either as ghosts or as ancestral spirits to be worshipped.
Other cultures believed in a more substantive afterlife, particularly those cultures with more elaborate mythological systems. For some, it was believed to be a dreary and desolate existence, even those not actively being punished for their sins. Others saw the afterlife in more favorable terms, especially if one belonged to the elite or ruling class. Many visions of this kind of afterlife included the prospect of judgment.
Asian cultures were among those who held to some form of reincarnation, in which the quality of someone’s next life was determined by how well they lived this one. The meaning of life within these systems was to grow spiritually to a point where one could escape the cycle of reincarnation and lose individual existence.
The only other real option, one typically held by philosophers and intellectual elites, was that death meant the end of personal existence altogether. This essentially materialistic view was held by diverse groups such as the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Sadducees of Second Temple Judaism.
These alternatives offered little hope for people facing the inevitability of death. Even those with a relatively positive vision of the afterlife sought to delay or prevent death. For example, Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, built a magnificent tomb for himself, full of goods set aside for his use in the afterlife. But, he also sought an elixir that would allow him to live forever. (Ironically, the elixir he tried contained mercury, which may have hastened his death.)
Overall, when it comes to death and the afterlife, the assessment by the author of Hebrews sums up the ancients well: people were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Christianity changed all this. The Gospel proclaimed that God became man to take upon himself the punishment due to us, to die on our behalf, and to be raised from the dead as death’s Conqueror. By faith, we are united to Him, and His death, resurrection, ascension into heaven, and glorification are made ours. Death is a defeated enemy, no longer to be feared by those who follow the one who already faced and overcame it. We follow the One Who can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death.
For the early Christians, these were not mere platitudes. Thus, many faced martyrdom with joy rather than renounce their allegiance to the One who died for them and rose again. Others tended the sick during terrifying epidemics, in complete disregard for their own lives, seeing death from sickness as simply another form of martyrdom and a doorway to a better life. Their hope stunned their pagan neighbors.
Second-century church father Tertullian observed that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” The pagan world had never seen anything like this. Even the philosophers, who viewed death with such indifference, struggled to grasp how Christians faced death when simply burning a bit of incense to the emperor could avoid it.
In the modern world, the Christian tradition of the ars moriendi, the art of dying well, has been replaced with the art of attempting to ignore death. Though modern technologies make this possible in all kinds of new ways, they do nothing to help us face the fear of death. This was made plain again throughout the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Once again, the world needs what only Christianity offers: the promise of resurrection, a Guide to lead us past the gates of death, a world beyond this one in which all that is sad is made untrue, and a hope that cannot be shaken by the circumstances of this world.
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