Death is only the beginning. Both for the redeemed and for the rebel.
There have been many tragedies strike the heart of southeastern Kentucky recently. Two young men have recently died and their deaths have shaken communities in Laurel and Clay Counties, and beyond. Two young men, Brian Keith Griffin (28) and Cameron Harville (23), died only days apart. The former died from a gunshot wound while hunting. Senseless tragedy. The latter died from a car accident. Words cannot describe how in shock I am that I just wrote that. These deaths are very close to me and have struck a deep chord in my heart. I went to high school with Cameron, though I did not know him. I did know Brian. He was named after my father and although he wasn’t directly related to me, I called him my cousin. I love his parents and his brother dearly and my heart breaks for his wife and daughters. The amount of tragedy that this family has had to endure is insurmountable from a human perspective. In the words of my aunt on the day of his funeral, “It just doesn’t seem fair.” Amen. My heart has been in constant prayer for this family, as well as for Cameron’s. I have personally struggled with Brian’s death. It brought me back to the tragic death of my first cousin Jon Hooker. Those feelings of searing loss are hard to shake. However, his death also helped awaken me to the things that truly matter. For example, are petty arguments with my wife really worth it? What a waste of precious, fleeting time!
In light of these two tragedies and the frequent chatter I have seen and taken part in about life, death, and the afterlife, I see fit to consider in this post the tragedy of death and the reality of eternity. I pray each heart that is hurting today and in the days to come will be comforted by the words that follow and/or awakened to the impending reality facing every man, woman, and child.
Death Brings Debate
Death is the single tragedy that shuts every mouth before an eternally living God. Death is tragic when a 28 year-old dies while hunting and when an 82 year-old dies warm in bed. Even for those who deny God’s existence in favor of a naturalistic or humanistic worldview are muted in the presence of death’s deafening silence. When someone dies, there is an instinctual sense of moral judgment that arises in the mind and heart. But what happens to a person after they die? This question causes great debate. Existence beyond the grave, to those with some sense of morality, depends upon the way one lived his or her life. For example, most people would believe Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden to be suffering some kind of eternal punishment for the evil they inflicted throughout their lives. On the flip side, most people would believe that the innocent victims of these men, such as Anne Frank or the heroic firefighters and first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to be enjoying the bliss of eternal reward based on their good deeds. Essentially, good people go to heaven and evil people go to hell. When various people die around us, we become gods and start pronouncing sentences based on our own personal estimations. This, I would say, is the most common official/unofficial view of death in America. Many things within Christianity are denied by many people in America, but one thing that many Jesus-deniers will compromise on is their view of eternity when a loved one (or an evil dictator) dies. But is this a sufficient basis for viewing life after death?
Death Brings Fear
The afterlife takes an entirely different place in our minds when someone close to us dies. Death takes us to the edge of life and forces us to look down into the abyss of eternity. The problem is that we fear what we will see, so when we are taken to this edge, we look up or out. We develop our own personal philosophies and beliefs of eternity and we might even deny that there is any eternal state. Oh, how much easier it is for us to construe the belief that everyone goes to heaven, that hell does not exist, and/or physical death is the end of our existence.
However, when a loved one dies, we are taken back to the edge of this cliff and forced to consider the possibility that our existence does not end after death. And for those of us with a keen sense of morality, we are frightened by the height of the cliff on which we stand. Eternity is a deep abyss that holds no hope for those of us who are aware of our constant moral failures. Sure, we are certainly not as bad as Hitler, but if our eternal state is dependent on a good moral report card, we fear we will fall below the necessary grade point average. Death breeds not only grief and anger, but it also breeds fear in the heart of every red-blooded man and woman because we all know we are not good enough to stand before a perfectly holy God.
Death Brings Bad News
Death causes us to pause and consider the brevity of life and the reality of eternity. Life is short. Death is certain. Heaven is real (no one deserves it). And so is hell (everyone deserves it). If you are trying to be a good enough person to merit heaven, you will fail. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). Whether Brian and Cameron were personally kind to you or not matters not with regard to their eternal destinies. Like you and me, Brian and Cameron were guilty of their sin before a holy God deserving of eternal punishment and separation from God in hell (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). There are not enough good things we can do to overcome the overwhelming guilt of our sin against God. Both Brian and Cameron in and of themselves had nothing to bring before God that would merit innocence. What horrible news for them and for us!
Death Brings Good News
Oh, but praise God for his grace in the gospel. The good news of the Bible is that sin and death have ultimately been defeated in Jesus (1 Cor. 15:54-57). Jesus lived the life we could not live (Heb. 4:15). He was holy for the sinful. Jesus died the death we deserve. He bore the wrath of God against us (Rom. 3:23-26; 5:6-8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pt. 2:24; 2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus defeated death and sin by rising from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3-8). God the judge declares sinners like you and me to be innocent solely on the basis of the work of Jesus in our place. “Bearing shame and scoffing rude/In my place condemned he stood.” The innocent bore the sin of the guilty, so that the guilty may go free. By grace through faith in Jesus alone, you will be saved from the wrath of God. By God’s love, God’s wrath is appeased in Jesus. Works do indeed merit salvation, just not your works or my works. The works of Jesus on behalf of sinners merits salvation. And it is for this reason that to him belongs all blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might (Rev. 7:12).
So, there is hope for sinners who are heading toward the deep abyss of eternity. There is hope for the guilty. There is hope in the face of death, because Jesus defeated both physical and eternal death in his life, death, and resurrection. As certain as death is, so is the certainty of Christ’s victory over death!
I close with two questions that will impact your life for all eternity. (1) Will you reject Christ? If you do, you will remain in your guilt. You will live without him now and you will die without him forever. If this is you, non-Christian, death will remain an eternally dreaded enemy that you cannot overcome. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12-15). (2) Will you trust Christ? If you do, then you die with Christ now (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:5-11) and live with him forever (John 11:25). Death for the Christian is not a dreaded foe, but rather a defeated foe that serves as a friend. Death for the Christian draws him or her into the very presence of the One he or she loves more than life itself (Phil. 1:20-23).
But regardless of your worldview and regardless of your response to the Christ that calls sinners to repentance and faith, death is certainly not the end. Either in heaven or in hell, you will continue to exist. I pray that by God’s grace you will be able to say with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Oh, God, this is the end; for me the beginning of life.”
May God be glorified in your life and death.