Woody Allen, the well-known movie director, screenwriter, and actor, once said, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The quirky quotation is famous but fatally flawed. God has the date of every person’s death in his calendar, and there is nothing that anyone can do to have this divinely made appointment canceled or postponed: “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Eccl. 8:8).
For millions the world over, the inevitability of death casts a growing shadow over life. The internationally renowned British artist Damien Hirst, said to be worth more than $300 million, told the Daily Telegraph Review: “Death is definitely something that I think about every day. . . . You try to avoid it, but it’s such a big thing that you can’t.” The Bible speaks of many who “through fear of death” are “subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). In countless cases, their chains are forged by fear of the unknown. As Professor Edgar Andrews puts it, “Uncertainty breeds fear. And fear brings mental bondage, casting its inescapable shadow over life and robbing man of lasting peace or joy.” Yet this sobering scenario ought not to include Christians, supremely because they can have the assurance of being “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17), the One who brought about what John Owen memorably called “the death of death.” As we get a clear grasp of what this means, one word sums up how we should approach death’s inevitable onset, and that word is gratefully.
First, we should be grateful that in the providence of God we were spared until we were saved. Once in my early years and twice in my teens, I was rescued from death. As a young boy on my native island of Guernsey, I fell into a huge barrel of water at the vinery where my father worked and was saved only because a workman happened to pass by. Years later, I was swimming at midnight in rough seas off the island’s south coast cliffs and was on the brink of drowning when rescued by a stronger swimmer. Not long afterward, I slipped while trying to work my way along a cliff face, and my despairing hand grasped a plant strong enough to hold me. Had I not survived all three incidents, this article could not have been written, and my spirit would now be in “chains of gloomy darkness” (2 Peter 2:4), waiting to be reunited with my resurrection body, that I might then be cast body and soul into hell.
When Jesus’ disciples returned from a preaching mission rejoicing at the amazing results they had seen, Jesus told them, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). As our earthly lives move toward their inevitable ends, we should constantly be grateful that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) and that God spared us until He brought us to lay hold on all that Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished on our behalf.
Second, we should be grateful that we have been preserved. The apostle John writes with a breaking heart about those who “went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). Although members of the organized, visible church, their defection showed that they had no part in the promise that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). When we reflect on our lives, not only with so many of John Newton’s “dangers, toils and snares” but with doubts and fears, trials and temptations, foibles and failures, compromise and cowardice, and the times when we have fallen into whatever sin “clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1) to us, how grateful we should be for God’s goodness and mercy. When we add the sobering truth that each one of us shares Paul’s testimony that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), no matter how long we have been Christians, we must surely consider it more than a minor miracle that we have been preserved.
When I visited the Billy Graham Library near Charlotte, N.C., the item that made the biggest impression on me was the rough-hewn stone that marks the grave of the evangelist’s wife, Ruth Bell Graham. She died on June 14, 2007, aged eighty-seven, and the stone bears the delightful inscription: “End of Construction—Thank you for your patience.” As we approach death, we should constantly be thanking God for His patient and sustaining grace.
Third, we should be grateful for the promise of what lies ahead. At the April 2010 funeral of Malcolm McLaren, manager of the rock band Sex Pistols, his hearse was draped with a line from one of their songs: “Too fast to live, too young to die.” McLaren had led a dazzling, chaotic, noisy, glamorous, and expensive life, but behind the hearse, a coach carrying mourners had a sign indicating McLaren’s supposed destination: “Nowhere.” Yet annihilation is no more than wishful thinking; it does nothing to eliminate the terrible truth that the ungodly face “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). For Christians, the prospect is wonderfully different:
Think of what will be absent. “Death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). There will be no temptations to face, no burdens to bear, no guilt to grieve over, no sickness to battle, no unanswered questions to baffle us, no ignorance to humiliate us, and no unsatisfied desires to frustrate us. Nothing that has scarred and stained our lives on earth will be there to shame us. There will be no regrets, no remorse, no second thoughts, no disappointments, and no lost causes. Best of all, there will be no indwelling sin to plague us. As J.I. Packer puts it, “There will be no sin in heaven, for those who are in heaven will not have it in them to sin anymore.” Small wonder that David cried out to God: “In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
Think of who will be present. Heaven is the home of “innumerable angels” (Heb. 12:22), including cherubim, seraphim, and archangels, beings who have never sinned but have been praising and serving God in glorious and harmonious unity since the moment of their creation. All of God’s redeemed people—“a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9)—will be there.
Best of all, our Savior will be there. Ever since my darling wife Joyce was called home last year, I have been sustained in the assurance that, as her memorial stone testifies, she is now “with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23), sharing the unimaginable bliss enjoyed by “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:2). A friend of mine, blind since he was eighteen months old, loves to say, “The next person I see will be Jesus.” It is impossible to imagine the wonder of what it will mean to “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Yet in fulfillment of God’s plan that His people be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29), the Bible holds out an even more amazing promise: “We shall be like him” (1 John 3:3). What a staggering prospect. Picking up John’s “shorthand notes” in 1 John 3, we shall be as holy as He is holy, as righteous as He is righteous, as pure as He is pure. Even the weakest Christian on earth will be a glorious member of what D.L. Moody called “the aristocracy of holiness.” Amazingly, we shall not feel out of place in His presence.
How now shall we die? We may not have an easy journey into “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4); it may be prolonged and painful. Yet however our endurance (and even our faith) may be tested, how can we do other than make that inevitable journey in gratitude that by God’s unfathomable grace we were saved from sin’s penalty, have known His goodness and mercy in preserving us in the faith, and can be assured of discovering that, as John Bunyan wrote, “Death is but a passage out of a prison into a palace”? In a shaky hand just three days before he died, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote on a scrap of paper for his wife Bethan and their family: “Do not pray for healing. Do not hold me back from the glory.” It is no credit to our heavenly Father if we are reluctant to go home. Ironically, in the light of his view on eternal security, John Wesley was able to say of his early Methodists: “Our people die well.” If we die with grateful hearts, we will do the same.