Love and death shouldn’t be in the same universe. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with Bernice when a Chipmunks song came on (The Chipmunk Song — Christmas Don’t Be late). Suddenly my dad came to mind. (He passed on in 2003.) I remembered that he had bought me three Chipmunk LP records when I was little because he knew I liked the Chipmunks. With the clarity of hindsight, I wonder how much it cost him to do that. He worked as a clerk in a school. He didn’t earn much. He often bought things on credit when he could, including our records. But he loved his son and did what he could to bless him. Suddenly, I realised how much I missed him and was struck afresh with the biggest irony of life.
In life, we love and care for people. Some become very special to us. But in the end death takes them away. Or we die and leave them behind. This really sucks. As Frederick Buechner puts it:
. . .if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, if the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy . . . (A Crazy, Holy Grace [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017], 77).
That’s as good a summary of the book of Ecclesiastes as any. As human beings we are driven by the pursuit of purpose and love. Yet the one undeniable truth of life is that we die. And if death is the end of it all then truly life is a bad and cruel joke because it puts an end to purpose and love. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, life is ultimately meaningless.
Is there something after death that makes life this side of death meaningful? This is Buechner’s response. He believes there is life after death for at least three reasons.
1. It’s logical. “. . . if I were God and loved the people I created and if I wanted them to be the best they had it in them to be, I couldn’t imagine consigning them to oblivion when their time came . . . (A Crazy, Holy Grace, 76–77.)
2. It’s intuitive. “. . . I believed it (life after death) apart from any religious considerations, because I had a hunch it was true. . . . if . . . all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy. It feels like a mystery. (A Crazy, Holy Grace, 77.)
3. Because Jesus said so. (A Crazy, Holy Grace, 77.)
Buechner is no card-carrying evangelical but his honest reflections are helpful. And ultimately he ends with Jesus. He ends with God. And that is where the writer of Ecclesiastes ends too. This life, life under the sun, is ultimately meaningless. We have to locate the meaning of life beyond this life. We need to locate it in God.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 NIV)
This life is not all there is. There will be judgement at some point when things will be sorted out. In the meantime we find the beginning of meaning when we seek a relationship with the God who will make all things right in the end.
Commenting on these verses, Tremper Longman III writes:
To fear God is to establish a right relationship with God . . . . To obey His commandments is to maintain that relationship in a way that is pleasing to God. . . . Then finally, the remembering of God’s judgment gives the whole statement a future-oriented (or eschatological) edge to it. (Job, Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary [Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2006], 333).
No, love and death should not belong in the same universe. But they do. Our hope is in the new heaven and the new earth that awaits. Jesus said so and He rose again after His death to put His money where His mouth was. Merry Christmas.