Two Ideas About Death

  • Steve Hatter
White Tombstone Near Cross Surrounded by Trees

An author named Earnest Becker won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1973 for a book he wrote entitled “The Denial of Death.” I read this book as an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University in 1978, and I should say that it had a strong influence over my pre-salvation thinking. Becker, an atheist, sees man as simply sitting alone at the top of the evolutionary food chain pondering the dilemma of being godlike in abilities, but no better off than bugs or plants in terms of knowing any meaning beyond the temporal in life. He says it this way:

 “This is the paradox: he (man) is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.”

Becker’s premise in the book is that we cannot, and therefore, we do not live with the dilemma. The only rational approach a person is left with is to simply ignore death as long as he can. Human beings are sadly left to deny death until they no longer can. In the meantime, people must strive to live for the moment. People must live with a focus that the Apostle and gospel writer John warn against: For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life (1 John 2:16).

Deceptively, such a  strategy may work well when death is a ways off, when someone is young and healthy and going to university. Or it may suffice for a time as people fill their days lives with busyness, or substitute reality with escape behaviors and the unrighteousness of living for “all that is in the world.”  

But what a pathetic conclusion this is when—not if—life gets real! Although I read Becker’s award-winning book and others like it in that Vanderbilt philosophy class with enthusiasm, and even awe at his towering intellect and gifting to write, Earnest Becker’s take soon proved bereft when I went off to war a decade later. The empty philosophies of men never satisfy when our own death, becomes real.

Another author, writing two thousand years ago—long before there was such a thing as a Pulitzer Prize—said this about his contemplations regarding his own death:

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21)

The Apostle Paul wrote these words while incarcerated in Rome. He was jailed and possibly facing execution and yet, he wrote them not from a self-focused sense of regret or feeling bereft. No! He wrote them from a heart of selflessness! He wrote to his precious church in Philippi to encourage them. He wrote to assure them and to help them to see what they had in Christ. He wrote to supply the reminder of God’s power which is the single enabler to face the ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies, the realities of life and death in a fallen world.

And, he was simple in communicating this life-giving exhortation. The single hope for Paul, for the church at Philippi, for every person ever born, which includes you and me, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you are facing your own death, or the death of someone close to you, consider Paul writing in his moment of life “getting real.” Consider Paul’s inspired exhortation—to live is Christ, and to die is gain—and see that he points you to the answer to all life’s challenges and searches for meaning. He points you to the Gospel!

We are saved from sin and death by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone.

Beloved, reaffirm your faith and be encouraged if you already believe!

However, if you are reading this and do not yet know where death will take you, pray to receive saving faith in Christ today!