Posted by: 15shekels | November 13, 2009

As you used to call it in the Shadowlands

sunrise-1

“It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.” -Epicurus

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'” -John 11:25-26

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the Christian faith with a friend. I was trying to explain the power of the cross and the resurrection, when she stopped me and asked simply, “So, are you not afraid of dying?”

ominous cloudsThe question has remained with me since. Yes, I have moments of doubt and fear, but generally no, I am not afraid of dying. What really shook me at that moment was the realization that there had been a time when I did not believe in eternal life. There had been a time when I thought that there was probably just blackness when the lights went out. The thought chilled me. How had I avoided utter despair?

In a sermon several years ago, Tim Keller spoke about John 11, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In the sermon, Keller discusses how we, as humans without faith, deal with death. “Death looms over and casts a huge shadow on us…Nobody can live a day without some kind of strategy for dealing with the reality and the inevitability of death.” Keller says he believes that people generally choose one of two strategies. The first is to live in total denial that death exists at all, which is why, he says, funerals are so awkward:

Jail-Bars-and-Cuffs“As a minister who does funerals, I’ve noticed something. People are really like a bunch of prisoners in a jail who have decided [that] the way they’re going to deal with their condition, the way they’re going to handle it, is that they’ve made a promise never to talk about it, never to mention that they’re in jail…it’s a conspiracy of silence…But at a funeral, it’s like all those prisoners are being made to gather together and stare at the jail gate, at the door, at the bars….The number one emotion I feel [at funerals] is embarrassment.” -Tim Keller, Sermon, “I Am the Resurrection and the Life,” March 13, 1991

The other strategy we choose, says Keller, is to try to make death our friend, to discuss it as natural and beautiful. This way, we hope, it will lose its power over us, like a phobia that we confront and conquer.

You may have noticed that neither of these strategies works, at least not well. We can forget for awhile, but we are periodically reminded that the fear of death looms over us, threatening to tear our world apart at any time.

Death terrifies us because it is irreversible. We can hire the best doctors; we can safety-proof our houses and cars; we can make sure our family eats plenty of antioxidants. But when death strikes, it mocks our futile efforts at safety. There are no second chances. This isn’t a video game in which we have multiple lives. Death is the most final thing that can happen.

And yet…

lazarus“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. ‘But, Lord.’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone…Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.'” -John 11:38-44

Lazarus had been dead for four days. As I said, we cannot reverse death. But God can.

However, not long after this occurrence, this conqueror of death was hung on a cross, brutally beaten, and killed. His disciples were mystified—their mighty Messiah, who had demonstrated his power over death, had not been able to fight off the soldiers and chief priests. He hung on the cross brutalized and very, very dead. And so the disciples slunk away, one by one, and went into hiding. Of course today, we read about the cross with the 20/20 vision of looking into the past, so we now know that Jesus meant it when he said that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21). For had Jesus not hung on that cross, carrying the weight of the sins of the world, and let death—literal and spiritual—conquer him, we would still be prisoners, because we would still be carrying our own sins, and “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). And yet because Jesus—sinless, fully man, and fully God—died in our place, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23).

Jesus chose to die. And yet he did not remain dead, crushed by the weight of our sins forever, a dead Savior. Instead, three days later, “the resurrection and the life” walked out of that tomb, much like Lazarus, and dined with his friends. Death, defeated, once and for all. Sins of the world paid for in full. We worship a living Savior, a living Lord, who wants to celebrate eternal life with us. He isn’t just the resurrection. He is also the life. Eternal, glorious life, starting in this place when we enter into a relationship with him, and bursting into its full glory in heaven. I still think that outside of the Bible, C.S. Lewis captures this joy best in The Last Battle when the lion Aslan (who represents Christ), tells the children that they have died and then truly awoken:

aslanreturns-794813“Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them. ‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’ And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” -C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle.

We no longer need to live as prisoners to death. Jesus has unlocked the prison gate. He has told us to take off the grave clothes.

Will we choose to walk out into the light?

“Someday you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of Northfield is dead. Don’t believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now.” -D.L. Moody, preacher

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Responses

  1. In a more recent Tim Keller sermon that I donwloaded (sorry – don’t remember which one) he had a great quote from a funeral director who bemoaned how so many services have become artificial celebrations of the life of the deseased, providing emotional cover for those present. Beyond earthly death, I think contemporary culture has build mechanisms to help us ignore pain and suffering and pretend it can’t happen to us or our loved ones. And to many people, pain and suffering imply to them that there isn’t a God and ultimately no meaning to life, reinforcing the need for strategies to divert us from “facing up” to these issues.

    But we in Christ know that we have a God that experienced horrible physical and emotional pain, suffering and death on the cross yet was ultimately glorified and triumphant in the resurrection. So as “little Christs” we too can expect suffering and the certainty of earthly death but in the full knowledge of ultimate glory. There is no undoing of suffering itself but we know that we always have the love of God with us.

    Your mention of C.S. Lewis and the reference to Shadowlands reminds me of the fine movie of the same name with Anthony Hopkins playing Lewis. It is a movie that addresses how Lewis dealt with personal suffering in light of his own beliefs and weaknesses. I highly recommend it.

  2. Beautifully said. Sometimes I wonder if 95% of modern life is designed to distract us from thinking about suffering, death, and large philosophical questions. Those who dismiss belief in God as invalid or unintelligent need a constant stream of distractions to avoid despair. I remember the feeling well from before I believed. Facing these questions head-on is terrifying. However, I think if more people slowed down to do it, more of them would realize that the faith they are running from provide more answers than expected.

    I hope to rent Shadowlands soon. I think C.S. Lewis is a phenomenal writer and would love to explore his biography in more depth.

    Sadly, Bonhoeffer is sitting on my desk untouched. Hopefully when work slows down I will finally delve into it.


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