by Glen Doss, Major –
Why do we Christians sometimes fear death?
I’m sure we all don’t; but I know that many do. Yet, if we truly believe in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body—as expressed in our eleventh doctrine—why do we not only grieve, but also shiver in our boots when we hear of a friend or loved one’s passing? Why do we dread the day when we may receive ominous news of our own impending demise? It is natural to have such fears, we are told—we all have them.
Ernst Becker wrote: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.” (The Denial of Death) His is a non-Christian perspective. At age seven, I viewed my grandfather’s body lying in state, and the image was engraved indelibly upon my mind. My earliest nightmares are of falling to my death into a black abyss. (I always managed to wake just before I hit bottom!) I remember waking from one such nightmare and shuffling, shivering, through the darkened house to my parents’ bedside. I would not leave until they awoke and responded to my forlorn query: “Mama, Daddy, you’re not going to die and leave me, are you? Promise me you won’t die!” Death—theirs and mine—was the most horrifying thing I could imagine.
It is a natural tendency to define all things by what we can see and hear and touch—remember the words of Thomas in John 20:25, when he asked to touch the Lord’s wounds? The world’s perspective adheres to us like glue—only the power of God can rid us of it. (Romans 7:24-25) Thus, the total loss of animation in a human body—and the eventual decaying of that body—is seen as horrifying.
When I accepted Christ at age 39 and began attending the San Diego Citadel Corps, I was deeply moved when I heard the phrase, “promoted to Glory”—it fit so well with my growing understanding of the Biblical perspective on death. Paul entreats us: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.” (1Timothy 4:13) And he trumpets: “Death has been swallowed up in victory…Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55)
I was wonderfully relieved at this good news, for the anxiety I brought to my newfound faith had nearly killed me. Serving in Vietnam as a medical assistant during the 1968 Tet Offensive, I worked regularly with the dead and dying. My duties included transporting the dead and wounded and assisting physicians with triage. I was 21. I was an atheist. I was also scared to death—but you would never have known it by talking to me then. Emotionally numbed, I functioned quite effectively, even earning a commendation medal.
Throughout my twenties and thirties I argued down many a so-called Bible thumper—or at least smugly told myself I did. I recall standing on the fantail of the USS Henry B. Wilson, the sea breeze blowing hard into my face, loudly arguing with a shipmate whom I had caught leaving Scripture messages on my bunk. My salvation had become his special project. I shouted at him: “How could I possibly believe in a so-called God who allows thousands to die daily from the ravages of disease and starvation? Even if you could prove to me that such a God exists, which you can’t, I would despise him!” I meant every word of it.
I saw death as simply cessation of existence…as it is for a cow, a bear, a dog. Yet, as my Vietnam memories continued to nag at me, I was more and more losing my bearings; I could make no sense of death, and the seeming senselessness was driving me to despair.
Ravi Zacharias hit the nail on the head: “Where there is no answer for death, hopelessness inevitably invades life. Pascal knew whereof he spoke when he said that he had learned to define life backwards and live it forwards. By that he meant that he first defined death and then his life accordingly.” (Can Man Live Without God?)
At the lowest point of my despondency, when I was actually considering suicide, I finally opened up my mind to the possibility of God—then, through his grace, I emerged whole! I saw but one opportunity for a way out—the possibility ever so slight that there is a God. Desperate, I reached for that possibility and grabbed onto it! As I hung on to God for dear life, he pulled me through to safety. I had an encounter—vivid and real— with the living God!
Once I discovered there is a God in the world—I could no longer deny it, for I had met him—all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I believed now in things eternal, that death does not have the final say. As Pascal had observed, I could define death, and it made all the difference. All my earlier arguments fell apart. I saw the deaths of multitudes, of which I had raved so violently to my shipmate, in an entirely different light—their deaths were not the end of their existence as I had so naively assumed. The same truth applied to my comrades in Vietnam. It was as if I had moved from a world of black and white to one of color—all things took on wonderful new hues.
I once read a sermon by John Wesley in which he said something like this: “Oh, were I but where this dearly departed loved one is at this instant! How much more wonderful is her lot than ours—for she is with the Lord of Glory!”
Perhaps we need to preach more funeral messages like this one.