Dealing With Death

Without doubt, the questions and trials surrounding dying and death are among the most excruciating that human beings face. We don’t want to die, and don’t want to think about dying.

For far too many people, this doesn’t mean making sensible choices that optimize health and increase longevity. It means pretending they can abuse their body without consequences, then, when that fails, expecting to be rescued by advanced medicine. And when serious disease or injury intrudes, it means fighting their mortality using any tool science can supply.

The medical profession is the only hope most people have. And that profession is very willing to peddle hope. To patients stricken with fatal conditions, it offers an ever growing menu of treatments—a chance of escaping the inescapable. But it also creates some gut-wrenching conundrums.

Besides that, it raises important questions: “At what cost to others should a physical human life be preserved? What is its value? What is the meaning of a human life? And what happens after death?”

How much medical intervention would you accept to extend your life? At what financial and emotional cost to yourself and your family? How much have you thought about it?

Medicinal and therapeutic innovation expands the decision-making capacity and responsibility for people facing death. The individual with a bad heart can receive a heart transplant. Lungs, intestines, bone marrow, livers, kidneys—all can be replaced through surgery.

Someone with terminal cancer is offered surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, cryoablation and still more options. And machinery makes it possible to keep a body’s vital functions operating—heart beating, blood flowing, lungs pumping—almost indefinitely.

The drive to use any means necessary to preserve life is understandable—some would even say heroic. But these advancements also have a downside. While offering promises to sick patients, the range of possible treatments also creates a formidable set of expectations for modern medicine to live up to.

In most cases, the disease itself has an inevitability to it—yet somehow people think not using a particular technology or applying a certain treatment means deciding to die.

Nobody wants to die. But accepting the reality of a body succumbing to a fatal disease becomes more difficult when accompanied by the notion—however false—that it was a choice. I choose death.

Given that choice, fewer and fewer take it. So health-care costs keep escalating. Each of those transplant procedures cost somewhere between half a million and 2 million dollars.

Cancer treatments easily exceed $10,000 per month and can be 10 times that amount. And the success rate—depending on how you define it in terms of length and quality of life—varies wildly. In the end, most people end up dying in hospitals, often after significant medical intervention.

Doctors are pursuing the fundamentally benevolent goal of giving individuals a valuable, albeit fleeting gift: more years of precious life. At the same time, they recognize that it is impossible to indefinitely defy human mortality. They have no power to heal. And in many cases, their treatments actually harm patients, diminishing quality of life and hastening death.

Besides that, medical mistakes and malpractice in hospitals and health-care facilities are startlingly common. In America, they are the third-leading cause of death. Facing these realities, doctors, along with patients and their families, confront agonizing choices about how much therapy to administer, treading uncertain ground, guided by probabilities and feelings.

Modern medical advances have clearly given years—of varying quality—to many people. At the same time, these advances have enabled us to put off the fundamental questions that our mortality raises. With death looming, we become preoccupied with essentially material concerns—options, treatments, schedules, odds.

For so many, the last days of life are spent not in peace, but in warfare, armed only with faith in the frail weapons of science. We pour what little life we have into fighting the enemy that will end it. And ultimately, that fight always ends in defeat.

Modern medicine promises a kind of immortality. It suggests that our energies are best put toward employing every means to extend physical existence as long as possible. If we are not careful, this fiction can preempt the important spiritual concerns that should dominate our thinking, even our decision-making, as we contemplate the inescapability of death.

Even with faith in God, facing death can be exceedingly difficult, particularly when ongoing pain is involved. Even Jesus Christ, who was perfect in faith, struggled mightily as He faced His own death, praying with penetrating emotion that He could avoid the suffering He faced “He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,  Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.  An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:41-44).

Still, though, there is a serenity that comes from saying, as Jesus did, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) There is tremendous peace in recognizing and understanding the value of the spiritual over and above the physical. What, after all, is the real purpose for life? And what happens after it ends? Using every possible means to stretch it for a few more years effectively distracts people from facing these fundamental questions about life after death.

Three in four Americans say they believe in life after death. But just what that might be remains shrouded in mystery for most people. They simply have never closely examined the subject. Maybe they are afraid to. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

This was a man who faced death with confidence. “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Paul longed to live, as we all do. But what he alluded to was not an empty hope of extending his physical life, but the true hope expounded in Scripture. It is a hope founded in understanding God’s wonderful purpose in creating man mortal, subjecting us to the “trials of the flesh,” an experience that, to fulfill that purpose, He even put His only begotten Son through on the cross.

Many people believe that human beings possess immortal souls, and that when they die, they go to either heaven or hell. The Bible is clear, however, that souls are not immortal—they can die. Scripture says that “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” (Psalm 146:4) and that “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).

Christ Himself said that “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (John 3:13).

The true hope of Scripture is not about our possessing an “immortal soul” or about the “miracles” of medical intercession. It is the promise of “resurrection.” It is the promise that “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22) and that ultimately, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26). To God, human death is just temporary sleep, because He can resurrect humans from the grave!

This understanding supplies a dimension to questions of life and death that science simply cannot address. Paul said for those staring at death, either their own or that of a loved one, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

 After explaining about the resurrection to come, he said, “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18).

Scriptures show that a great many will be resurrected to a second physical life in a future world governed by the King of kings rather than by the evil “prince of this world,” as it is now. However, physical life is only a proving ground, preparatory to resurrection into spirit life. “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15:53)

There is a reason, a wonderful, inspiring reason, that something within us clings to life. There is a reason we crave permanence, even as our physical existence passes like a shadow. The Creator has revealed His purpose for creating human beings, and for imbuing us with thought, intellect, creativity, self-awareness and spiritual yearnings. You have a purpose and a potential that transcends anything this material world can offer. You were, in fact, created to inherit eternity.

Meditate about that purpose, and build your life around it. Then you, like Paul, can look unblinkingly at death. Not with fear, but with sober confidence, saying, Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)