On Death and Dying

Jesus: “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn 14:19)

While in Vancouver this week I read a front page article in the September 14 National Post on the high number of terminal cancer patients who live with an impenetrable denial of their condition. They are sure they will get better, regardless of the facts.

The article was based on a study which a long term social worker, Naomi Kogan, at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital had taken part in.

They note that the cost of such denial is enormous both to patient and family. Family members have no alternative but to go along with the patient’s unrealistic certainty. In fact the new mode of treatment by caregivers is that they go along with the denial too, now considering it a useful coping mechanism.

But in this denial much of value is lost and the aftermath is devastating. For examples: honest conversation is impossible between patient and close family members; there is no opportunity for final goodbyes; sometimes financial matters or funeral arrangements should be addressed but are not. Then when death comes the denial is shattered by reality.

This information brings home to all of us what a deep and unfathomable experience death and dying are. Only those who experience it personally know its full extent.

The National Post article makes no reference to the Christian resources available in facing death — the help and hope Christian faith offers the dying and their loved ones.

The Christian Scriptures do address the issues of death and dying realistically. Beginning in the very second chapter of the Bible, Adam is warned by God that if he eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he “will surely die” ( Gen. 2:17).

Adam and Eve disobey, and although physical death is not immediate, from then on Adam lives under its penalty. To reinforce the point, chapter 5 reports on a series of Adam’s descendants, closing every paragraph but one with the words, “and he died.”

Thus in Christian understanding, the Scriptures make a penal connection between death and sin, not necessarily between an individual’s sin and that person’s death but between the universality of sin and its universal consequences (Romans 5:12-14).

It is this grim reality as it is embraced that shows what good news the Gospel of Jesus Christ is. The New Testament changes our thinking about death. It is still an enemy to be feared, called by the Apostle Paul “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26).

Even for people of faith, death is still there on our pathway, but like a defanged serpent, it has lost its poisonous sting (1Cor. 15:55). In Christ’s victory over death we find hope. Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

The Hebrew letter says clearly that Our Lord Jesus Christ entered our humanity “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14,15).

I once befriended a young couple, Cliff and Vera, while he was in hospital recovering from a leg amputation. They were in every respect pleasant to be with except that so far as the gospel was concerned they were modern pagans.

I gave Vera a copy of the New Testament to read and a week or so later I went to her home to follow up. I discovered she had read it as though it were a novel and she asked: “That man in the early section – did he die and come to life again four times?”

By coming to the book with such freshness she had seen that whoever is reporting the gospel, whether Matthew or Luke, it always comes out at the same place. Christ came to die; Christ came to conquer death and give the gift of eternal life in its place to all who believe.

I love the Apostle Paul’s take on this matter. He writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20, 21). There is our hope!

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