Can You Defy Death?
I think back often on that brisk autumn morning during my senior year of high school when Mr. Holmes, the coolest English teacher in the school bar none, began a unit on death. “Death?” you might think, “What a morbid topic for high school seniors.” We thought so, too. We were at the prime of our lives, filling out college applications, dreaming hopefully about the exciting future lying before us. Anything was possible, and we were going to do it all. “Death is for old people… something to think about decades from now.” And having lived less than two of those, this seemed like an eternity away.
With his indomitable good nature unfazed by our skepticism, Mr. H. persisted. What good, he asked, was there in all our ambitious hopes and striving for success, if there was a grave already reserved for us, waiting to take it all away? Why did we strive for excellence in our studies? Why did we want to get into the best college possible and get a great job and do great things, if it would all come to nothing in just a few short decades? It might not be a pleasant thought, but it was reality and it was crucial, he said, for us to think about this now, not later when it would be too late to do anything about it.
As fuel for the fiery debates that were to follow, Mr. H. assigned a varied selection of readings including the Epic of Gilgamesh, works by existentialists like Camus, and stories with a theological bent from Flannery O’Connor and Tolstoy. I was a somewhat religious boy myself, going to church and saying a regular “Our Father.” I did these things because my parents did them and not because I was convinced of their validity. They gave me a vague sense of spiritual well being and a rather indefensible assurance that by doing them I would be better off on the day of judgement, if I were to ever face such a thing. I could not say that I knew God.
What good, he asked, was there in all our ambitious hopes and striving for success, if there was a grave waiting to take it all away?
Of the readings, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” was the one that really struck home. A wealthy and very worldly member of Russian high society, Ivan Ilych falls ill with a painful and ultimately fatal disease. As the story progresses friends, family, even his wife, gradually dissociate themselves from his now useless and wretched life, even going so far as to quarrel over who will take his money and positions of influence after his death.
As Ilych’s soul sinks into despair over the loss of all that he had held dear and the terrible darkness that awaits him in death, he begins to notice a servant of his, Gerasim, who patiently cares for him day after day. A simple peasant boy, unnoticed before in the busyness of Ilych’s former life, Gerasim is a model of cheerful contentment and serenity. He even sings amid his daily chores, such as caring for the less than pleasant physical needs of his master. Gerasim’s selflessness works as a catalyst to show Ilych the terrible emptiness of his life. After struggling with many doubts and questions, Ilych himself, just before death, finds peace with God.
I myself did not find peace so immediately. I already knew God, or so I thought. I went to church each week and said my nightly prayers. What was lacking, however, was real assurance. People in church talked about heaven and hell, but it all seemed so unreal to me; fat little angels floating in the clouds or horned demons with tails; the former not particularly alluring nor the latter all that terrifying. Death remained an unmeasured menace. Fear of it, for all its seeming remoteness, was now robbing me of the ability to enjoy life to the full.
Several months later, in a college Bible study, I finally found answers to my questions. Ironically, for all my years of church going, I had never studied the Bible itself. The students leading the study did not just teach their opinions but encouraged us to examine the Bible’s claims, and especially those of Jesus, and decide for ourselves whether they were credible or not. There were quite a few verses on death and what they said made a surprising amount of sense.
To begin with, there was an explanation for the existence of death in the simple verse, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) God did not intend for death to exist. It is rather a direct consequence of human sin and rebellion against God. As a flower quickly withers and dies when cut from its stem, so too does all of humanity face death and decay because we will not submit ourselves to the will of the God who created us and obey Him. In fact, what is surprising given the quantity of sin in the world, is that God allows us to live at all. For “if it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.” (Job 34:14-15)
Yet we do not immediately die, but are given a few precious years of life to live on this earth. These years, the Bible tells us, are a gift from God. They are an opportunity for us to change our minds, to cease from sin and rebellion, and to return to the One who made us, who loves us, who waits with the long-suffering hope of a parent yearning for the return of a wayward and prodigal son or daughter. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. (Ezekiel 33:11) He desires that all repent and come to know Him in all His goodness and love. But He will not force us to come.
But how can we return? If death came because of sin, sin would have to be removed in order for us to return to God. This, as I learned, was the most amazing part of the story. God loved us so much that He was willing to allow His own Son, Jesus, innocent as a Lamb and heir to all the riches of heaven, to become a human like us and pay the penalty that we had incurred for our sin. Speaking of Jesus, the Bible says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
For those who believe in Him, the way is opened up, not just for freedom from fear of death, but for a personal friendship with God Almighty that begins now, while we are on earth, and that will continue on forever.
There will come a day in the perhaps not too distant future, when Jesus will return to bring all who have put their faith in Him to spend eternity on a new earth, created in true righteousness with no sin, no death, no tears or suffering. The Bible refers to the time until then as “today,” and says that “now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
On a quiet afternoon during my first year of college, while sitting alone in the chapel, I prayed to ask Jesus to come into my heart. It has been as life from the dead; peace where there was turmoil, love in place of loneliness, a clean conscience instead of guilt, and the sure knowledge that my life will not end with death, but is already “hidden with God” and will be for eternity. The same choice, the same Jesus, is available to you today. All you have to do is say yes.
Ben Lyons, Columbia U., Grad ’99
© 2000 The Yale Standard Committee