Lee Kuan Yew’s place in history is assured. The first prime minister of Singapore, he was the primary architect of the thriving city-state, creating a nation on an island with no natural resources, an incredible feat in any generation. Here is a great leader who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Yet in a recent interview with the New York Times, he shows a vulnerable side rarely seen. This vulnerability particularly comes through when he talks about his wife, his companion for 61 years.
His most difficult moments come at the end of each day, he said, as he sits by the bedside of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, 89, who has been unable to move or speak for more than two years. She had been by his side, a confidante and counselor, since they were law students in London.
“She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night,” he said. “She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favorite poems.” He opened a big spreadsheet to show his reading list, books by Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll as well as the sonnets of Shakespeare.
(Seth Mydans, “Days of Reflection for Man Who Defined Singapore,” The Saturday Profile, Asia Pacific, New York Times, September 10, 2010.)
Not surprisingly, at this stage of life, Minister Mentor Lee (Lee Kuan Yew is now Minister Mentor and one of his sons is the present Prime Minister) ponders about suffering, death and the afterlife.
“I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we (he and his wife) were up and about together.” Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.'”
“What is next, I do not know,” he said. “Nobody has ever come back.” (Mydans, New York Times)
Lee Kuan Yew is agnostic about what lies beyond death because no one has come back from the dead to report on what lies beyond. Kuan Yew is right in pointing out the universality of death. Here then is a modern day Qoheleth reminding us that we all die and that indeed, if nobody has come back from the dead, we have no basis for any hope of accurate knowledge of life beyond the grave.
The apostle Paul also understood that death was the one enemy that no one could defeat. Like Minister Mentor Lee, the apostle Paul was no intellectual slouch. Paul too realised that everyone dies and that no one comes back, at least not till the end of time. That is why when Jesus did come back from the dead, Paul realised that Jesus was indeed the promised messiah. Jesus’ resurrection validated His identity and His message. Encountering the Jesus who came back was the turning point of Paul’s life, an event so important that the book of Acts recounts it three times.
If Jesus had not risen again from the dead, it would have been really stupid to worship Him. In Paul’s words,
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1 Corinthians 15: 14-19 NET)
Many of the early Christians suffered and died for the privilege of following Jesus. And all the earliest Christians were Jews, who understood that there was only one God and that only this one God deserved to be worshipped. Something incredible must have happened to have resulted in a community of Jews worshipping a carpenter from Nazareth as Lord, and suffering for the privilege of doing so. Something incredible did happen. Jesus “came back.”
Am I writing this piece for Minister Mentor Lee? No, I am sure he has people in his life trying to point him to Jesus. I do pray and hope that he will consider the evidence for the resurrection and discover that someone did “come back” and the hope that that represents. I am writing this column primarily for myself. Recently we sent our youngest boy away to university, another marker of the passing of time. Minister Mentor Lee may be more than thirty years my senior but I suspect that thirty years will pass quickly. Already I have lost many close friends and family to death. Is death the end for us all? Not if we are in Christ. How do I know this to be true? Jesus “came back.”
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. (1Corinthians 15:20-22 NET)