Last month, The Atlantic published an article titled, “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death,” by pastor and author Tim Keller. Last year, Keller was unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
In this excellent article, Keller questions how we as Christians face the possibility of our own death. The short answer is: not very well.
Facing Death as a Christian
Keller suggests as Christians in order to seriously embrace our own immortality requires more than just an intellectual understanding of the promises of the gospel. In order to face our own death without debilitating fear, Keller writes “it requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work.” He goes on to say:
But as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day. Theoretical ideas about God’s love and the future resurrection had to become life-gripping truths, or be discarded as useless.
While the denial of death permeates our culture, it is nothing new. In the 16th-century reformer John Calvin wrote in his Institutes:
We undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If we see a dead body, we may philosophize briefly about the fleeting nature of life, but the moment we turn away from the sight the thought of our own perpetuity remains fixed in our minds.” (Institutes 1:714)
There is a very good reason we deny our own death. Deep down in every person, there is a belief that we are immortal, that death is not the way things are supposed to be. And they are right. God made us to be immortal, glorify him, and enjoy him forever. As the Apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”
In Romans 5, Paul is telling us that death is not the way things were supposed to be but was caused by man’s sin. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection he is restoring all things for those who believe in him. Paul goes on to finish the chapter by writing, “…so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 5:21)
A Year of Facing My Own Death
It is hard for me to believe that it has been a year since I shared for the first time on this blog that I had been diagnosed with ALS. It was difficult for me to accept I had been given a death sentence, one for which there was no known treatment or cure. What did I do? I immediately began to pray and ask others to pray for a miracle.
However, one Wednesday morning in late October, my wife found me unconscious and not breathing. She called 911. Our son-in-law began administering CPR. By God’s grace, the EMTs arrived quickly and pulled me back to the land of the living. I shared more about that experience and a vision God gave me here.
I spent the next several months in the hospital recovering. Now I have a tracheostomy and am on a ventilator only breathing on my own for about an hour at a time. Learning to walk and breathe all over again has not been easy. Plus, I still have ALS.
As I look back at the blog I wrote last Easter, nothing has really changed. I still believe that God is working out his master plan to restore the whole of creation, in all things, working for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). At the epicenter of his plan is the event we will celebrate on Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Victory Over Death
This is the most significant event in history. Without the resurrection, nothing else matters (1 Cor. 15:14). Paul describes the resurrection as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Based on this historical fact, it is the believers’ great hope that we, too, will be raised from the dead when Christ returns (1 Cor. 15:51-52). This hope gives us great joy as we anticipate the future but also offers us a compelling purpose to live for today.
If anything, my hope has been renewed/reinforced by the events of the last year. Our hope in the resurrection is not hope as understood in our culture but a biblical understanding. As John Piper writes:
Ordinarily, when we express hope, we are expressing uncertainty. But this is not the distinctive biblical meaning of hope. And the main thing I want to do this morning is show you from Scripture that biblical hope is not just a desire for something good in the future, but rather, biblical hope is a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future.
Our hope should never waver because it is embedded in the faithfulness of God. Therefore, as we approach Easter we will read about and celebrate the resurrection of Christ which is a historical fact. But this event should give us great hope in our own resurrection. My heart is quickened when I read what Paul writes in I Corinthians:
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed… then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (I Cor 15:52, 54-55)
We need to rejoice this Easter knowing that on that first Easter Jesus was victorious. As believers, we have a great hope that we will share in this victory.
As I have faced my own death this past year, I can testify that this hope is sustaining.
Editor’s Note: There is a GoFundMe page for Hugh Whelchel’s medical expenses here. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to Hugh’s continued work through IFWE, you can do that here, just note that the gift is for “Hugh Whelchel Support.”