Captain Yugi Nagata:
We’re going to die!
We are going to die. You’re going to die, I’m going to die, we’re all going to die… just not today.
Last Wednesday I had the privilege of preaching at the Ash Wednesday service of my church community. I focused on the theme of mortality — death. In truth we don’t need any reminders of mortality. Each new day brings news of many, many deaths, from wars, earthquakes, murders…. Then, there are the news reports of our favourite actors, musicians, etc., passing on. Death becomes more real to us when our loved ones pass away. In October of 2021 I was with my mum when she fought for breath — she was always a fighter — till she surrendered to God’s call to go home. I miss her.
But it is when we realise that we will die one day, that death becomes that “existential slap”.
Palliative-care doctors explain the “existential slap” that many people face at the end. Nessa Coyle calls it the “existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/11/the-existential-slap/544790/)
Truth is we are all going to die unless we live in that generation when God brings down the curtain on history, and nobody knows what that will be like. But we live in a death-denying age. Better healthcare means many of us will live much longer than our forefathers. It has also resulted in our postponing any real reflection on life and death.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die. I am not sure how I would feel if I am living in constant agony or in a war zone of endless killing. The fact that I don’t want to die is an indicator of the fact that I am in a good place in life — with many meaningful relationships, with meaningful work to do, and in relatively good health. It feels like each day I live I figure out a bit more of how to do life. It seems like a bad joke that one day this life will come to an end.
In my Ash Wednesday sermon I suggested that the fact of death should provoke us to ask at least two questions — “Why is there death?” and “Is there any chance that we can overcome death?”
Why death? I turn to the Scriptures and read:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Gen. 2:15–17 NIV)
In these few verses we read of God’s overwhelming love and also a love that comes with a warning and prohibition. God wants humankind to live and enjoy HIs blessings. He doesn’t want us to die. Hence instinctively we want to live, not die. But there are choices to be made. And if we choose to disobey God’s warning we will “certainly die”.
The tragedy of the human story is that we chose to believe the Tempter and chose to disbelieve the warning of our loving Creator. In our desire to “be like gods” we rejected the authority of our loving Creator and, hence, as He said, death. (Gen. 3:1–5) As a result of our choice we now live with the irony of being made for life but destined to die. Is there any way we can escape this cruel reality of our own making?
The book of Ecclesiastes honestly examines this question. However we live our life, we will all die. How then can life have meaning? The book’s answer is that if this life is all there is, then truly life is meaningless. But the Writer finds hope in something outside this life.
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.
(Eccl. 12:13 NIV)
If death came because we walked away from God, then it makes sense that the path to life must include turning back to God. Paul summarises it in this way:
. . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:23–25a NIV)
In short, because of our disobedience we should die but God in Christ dies on our behalf and presents us the new life, life beyond the grave, to be received by faith. Other parts of Scripture teach that all that is good in this life — community, meaningful work — will be part of life beyond the grave, though understandably we will have to trade in our imperfect bodies for a perfect one to live in that new life. (2 Cor. 5:1–5)
The gospel is first bad news before it is good news. We shouldn’t avert our eyes from the certainty of death. That is the “existential slap” that launches us on the search for meaning.