For thirteen years I was pastor of a congregation that met across the street from a Christian college. I had many contacts with the students and heard their varied life experiences. It was during the years when faith-denying influences were attempting to supplant Judeo-Christian foundations with a faith-denying secularism.
Some conversations were about happy things — like wedding plans. Others had to do with working through highly personal problems. Yet others were about distressing circumstances and the need to find the best path forward. I carry the memories of many of those conversations to this day.
One campus event, however, seemed to stun the whole student body. A member of the basketball team took a bad fall during a game. Unconscious, he was rushed to the local hospital and then transferred to a university hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. He died from a massive brain hemorrhage.
A pall fell over the college when his death was announced. Death wasn’t supposed to be a part of these young lives. Some were silent. Some asked, “Where is God in this?” Students came two or three at a time to a prayer room at the church.
Why such an unyielding pall? Possibly because young people are geared for life, not death. Youth is for action, growth, new experiences, and long-term dreams. Death is generally not considered a reality to be reckoned with.
That shocking event took place more than fifty years ago. In our present era a shock of vaster proportions than the college death has struck us close at hand. It affects the whole of North American culture. Covid-19 has brought the word “death” back into daily conversation.
What can secularism say to this word? It may try to reassure by explaining that the percentage of deaths, as the virus works its way through communities everywhere, is relatively small even among the elderly. Also, we hear that science is coming to the rescue with effective vaccines. We are profoundly grateful for good news. But in spite of these blessings, secularism has nothing to counter death generally.
A few days ago I discussed this matter with a well-informed friend. Why the increase in suicides, depression, a general undercurrent of uneasiness? I wondered. It’s a complex question. Among the answers is a deep-below-the-surface fear of death.
My friend’s opinion was that secularism has been settling on our culture for decades and is inimical to Judeo-Christian foundations. As a consequence, there is no place for death in life’s sequence of events, although death is destined for all.
This in turn brings forth the inescapable question for those without faith: After death, what then? Oblivion? Endless sleep? Some sort of vague reckoning? Secularism has no satisfactory answer. Therefore, for those in our own culture without faith the question about death is often met with denial or silence.
I write as a Christian. I believe that hope for this life and the life to come is the twin blessing promised to those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the grieving Martha when she wept over her brother Lazarus’s death:
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)
Christianity does not dismiss or diminish death. Its reality remains for all. But a living faith in the Lord Jesus, who indeed conquered death, removes the sting of death and gives the promise of joy at the end of our earthly journey.
Photo credit: Gedalya AKA David Gott (via flickr.com)