Uncle Will had died. He lived across the street. On Sunday afternoon the whole family went over to see him while we had our good clothes on. He looked natural, everybody said. But when I finally got next to the casket and stood on tiptoe to look in through the polished glass, I thought he looked a little stiff. You see, I was a child, and death is not natural to a child. It is artificial, unreal. But grownups think differently than children and have always tried to make death look natural.

Life After Death

The ancient Egyptian Pharaohs planned it carefully: furniture, reading material, dishes, food, even servants. Treat the dead man naturally. There is a life after death, and it is much more enjoyable to spend it in leisure with a full house, if you can afford it.

The classic Greek thinker did not make much over dying. It happens to everybody sooner or later; your time comes and you go. Accept it stoically, like Socrates who, though his friends cried, took the hemlock with poise and drank it down slowly, unruffled. He knew that he had an immortal soul that would shortly fly away from the prison of carnal flesh to the Elysian fields and philosophic serenity.

The Romans preferred a little ceremony to the matter, a little pomp and circumstance by the burial. They burned the dead man and disinfected his house for sanitary reasons; but they put flowers on his tomb every year. The important thing about dying was to die well. Die like a man, a noble Roman worthy of his country.

The African heathen viewed the dead with mixed feelings. They were afraid the dead man’s spirit would come back to haunt the living, and at the same time they wistfully desired to make use of his supernatural powers. So they made a fetish of his remains in order to give his spirit peace, and they made wailing a tabu and hoped for the best.

All these different outlooks at death and the dying presuppose the same thing, simply that death is a natural transition from life before death to another life after death. It is a look at death that the Roman Catholic church has tried to Christianize. When you die, oh man, there is a long, long trail up purgatory mountain ahead of you. Hope now that the living left behind will light a candle and say a prayer for you to lighten your weary trek through the wastes of time.

Life Instead Of Death

The biblical look at death makes a radical break with this line of thought. The New Testament does not believe in a life after death: it teaches life instead of death. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will not die but have life, everlasting life! The early Christians simply took it at face value. They believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and were certain that they would not die. To partake of Christ’s body in the Eucharist strengthened their belief. But soon they were surprised. Christians died too; at least it looked exactly like death. One congregation was perturbed and wrote Paul about it. Paul wrote back, saying no, Christians do not die; they are only sleeping. Some of the early Christians could not swallow that line, and left. Others held on desperately: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will not die but live! They believed, and listened to Paul who was trying to wean them away from the habit of thought of a general kind of life after death. To Paul the issue was: life or death.

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Jesus saw it that way too. There was death in the world and he had to replace it with life. Death was the greatest enemy of man, the payment for sin, the boundary of a man’s timed existence. Every man is living on borrowed time; death has the power to cut it off, and when your time is up, you are politely and irrevocably finished. Jesus knew that if a man died he became nothing, that the whole man died and that the whole man was finished, eternally.

But Jesus lived through it. Christ came back out of nothing. Only a man who was God could do it. By doing it he paid for sin once and for all, and took away Death’s license to do business. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will not die but live!

The respectable thing to do nowadays when somebody dies is to call the undertaker, and the minister. The minister and undertaker work hand in hand. What follows is just so much secular sentimentality. Something becomes secular when you lose sight of the Christian meaning at the center and start paying attention to details out on the periphery. Once away from the center you lose focus, and details out on the periphery loom up large and very important. Sentimentality is false feeling and selfish love. When somebody dies nowadays a lot of nonsense is carried on in the name of respectability, often simply secular sentimentality.

First, the remains are professionally arranged and made presentable for a showing. Then the pagan rituals are softened down and civilized into a memorial service, maybe at the funeral parlor. Notices begin in Latin, that dead language—In Memoriam—to give it style, the sound of tradition and decorum. Finally, the survivors bear up under the shock and strain, and wear black. The women cry more or less; close relatives come to pay their last respects; and distant friends say it with flowers. It is a sad, artificial affair.

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It is a sad artificial affair because it is sub-Christian and even non-Christian! A Christian knows that a dead man is no longer a man, a dead body is no longer a body: it is a corpse. What is left over is not the temple of the Holy Spirit but a corpse, and the care undertaken to show it off is misplaced tenderness and wasted money, a blatant mockery to the man who was. Jesus would say curtly: let the dead bury the dead.

A Christian knows further that a memorial service, if it is a memorial service, is pointless. How can a service held to the memory of a man fail to degenerate into eulogy or empty appropriatenesses? Eulogy gives superficial edification, and so much of memorial memory is the looking back of Lot’s wife, a gentle kind of idolatry. When all are gathered together at the grave to do honor to the dead man, an angel of the Lord should appear: why do you stand here looking down? He is not here; he is risen!

Finally, a Christian knows it is human to weep when a loved one leaves; it is human to be sincerely sad when a loved one goes away. But, those sorrowing must take seriously the comfort of the Resurrection. Too much of grief is often deep down an understandable but selfish love; you miss the security father gave, you miss the pleasure and help the wife gave, you miss the love and laughter the child gave, you feel sorry for yourself and distractedly do as if you are sorry for the resurrected one. Tears are actually out of place when a man dies—unless he is an unsaved one. Then you may cry! Cry your heart out, cry in chorus, cry until the heavens can hear you! For the terrible tragedy is only just begun with the bizarre funeral procession, and the cries of the loved ones left behind is a poor consolation to the lonely dead man crying himself, weeping and gnashing his teeth for all eternity.

Once upon a time Jesus went to a funeral. He was late, but the people were still crying. Martha ran out to meet him, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus said, Your brother shall rise again. Martha knew her catechism well, “Yes, Lord, I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, but.…” No, Martha, said Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes on me stays alive even if he “dies”; every living person who believes on me shall never die! Do you believe this? Martha edged away to go get Mary who understood the Lord’s talk better: “Yes, Lord,” she said evasively, “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God.” With that she turned impulsively, left Jesus standing there, and ran to get her sister, Mary, a little frightenedly. Jesus stood still and watched her run.

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Mary was in the house with her friends and mourners crying together. Martha slipped in and whispered, “The Teacher is here and wants to talk to you.” Mary got up quickly and went out. The Jews who were trying to console her followed dutifully, supposing that she was going to go to the grave to weep there. When Mary saw Jesus she fell down at his feet and reproached him sorrowfully, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw Mary, whom he loved, sobbing at his feet, and the crowd of mourning Jews around her weeping and wailing, Jesus became indignant and said, Where did you put him? “Come, Lord, we will show you,” and the wailing procession wound its way slowly out to the graveyard, a black huddled group of sobbing women.

Jesus was provoked, vexed by this display. At the same time an unutterable sadness fell over him; it was such a pitiful picture, so human, so earthbound, so stupidly closed to genuine comfort. Here was the Resurrection before their eyes and they could not see it; he had said it clearly: I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes on me does not die but has everlasting life. They had ears to hear and couldn’t hear; all they could do was cry. How could you get through to such people, how could you get through and change such unbelief, people so trapped in their traditional customs? Even Mary whom he loved was in the first row weeping. It was too much for Jesus. He wept.

That impressed the Jews. They got paid for crying; they wept on demand and knew how difficult it was to work yourself up into tears. Their practiced eye had never seen anything like Jesus’ crying before. How he must have loved Lazarus, they said, Look at him cry! Their professional admiration only added insult to the irritation. They mistook divine frustration to preach Life for a technically perfected tribute to death. Jesus was thoroughly exasperated. Roll away the stone! he said. “But, Lord,” protested Martha, “it stinks in there.” Roll away the stone! commanded Jesus impatiently: Didn’t I tell you, Martha, that if you believed you would see the glory of God! They rolled away the stone and Jesus prayed: Sorry, Father, that I was angry and impatient and said ahead of time that your glory would be shown off here; not for my glory but for your glory I said it, to try to teach these people here that you have sent me as Lord of the Resurrection. Then Jesus said aloud: “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus came out, and the crowd was astounded and even afraid. Don’t stand there, said Jesus; unbind him.

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It is 20 centuries ago that Jesus spelled out the meaning of the Resurrection letter by letter, but the Holy Spirit still has trouble breathing it into our everyday look at death and manner of dying. The trouble is we generally think merely chronologically the way the unbelievers do, one thing after another. The Bible talks chronologically too, but it does not speak only that way. It speaks eschatologically, too, one thing instead of another. When Jesus Christ said “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes on me shall not die but have everlasting life,” he did not mean later. He meant now, yes or no. Theologians may debate about a soul-sleep and an in-between period and split hairs about a natural-spiritual-and-eternal death, but the Word of God is more than theology. The Word of God has a simple message and speaks directly to the heart of a man on the street: if you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ you will not die but live!

I believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Resurrection, and know I cannot die. When I shall go to sleep I will not want those who are still awake to cry, to mourn my sleeping—because I am alive, not dead! One thing is certain: the Christian who takes the Resurrection seriously dare not view death in the usual burdensome way, because by default he then falls in line with the prevailing secular sentimentality. Those first women of long ago who took precious linen, costly ointment, and tenderly laid the corpse of Jesus in the grave may be excused. The idea of the Resurrection was new, so strange, so incomprehensible: life instead of death! But after twenty centuries of the Holy Spirit’s working in the Church of the resurrected Christ, who can find an excuse? The Christian does not die and should not carry on as if he were dead or were ceremoniously burying another dead Christian. The sentimental world may find unfeeling the behavior dominated by the Resurrection; but David was living close to the Lord when he paid his respects to his infant son, that is, prayed to God for his infant son while he was alive, and when the son fell asleep David stopped praying, washed his face and went back to work. What the sentimental world finds unfeeling is the Word of the resurrecting Lord: I am the resurrection and the life; let the dead bury the dead.

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When grownups today pay special attention to dying and keep trying to make death look natural, they are busy at a morbid kind of make-believe. To know that death really is make-believe, and to behave accordingly: this is the gracious wisdom of a child, a child in the Kingdom of the Resurrected Lord.

Calvin Seerveld holds the B.A. degree from Calvin College, the M.A. from University of Michigan, and is presently pursuing philosophy studies at Free University, Amsterdam.

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