by ProfDave, ©2020
(Dec. 30, 2020) — That is the slogan of well-funded lobbyists who descend on my state legislature every year to advocate physician-assisted suicide. Excuse me – they call it “compassion in dying” or, in Canada, “medical assistance in dying.” I call it a confession of world-view bankruptcy. Others call it euthanasia, mercy killing, health-care rationing. German healthcare, a century ago, concluded that some lives were not worthy of life – it ended in Auschwitz. Each year a diverse coalition of religious, medical, handicapped, and advocates for the elderly come together to appear before the legislative committee with the slogan – “care, don’t kill.” I testified several times, the last time as my own dear one was dying with Alzheimer’s.
We all want our lives to have meaning and purpose. Despite the fact that the dominant secular ideology keeps telling us that there is no intrinsic meaning or value to life. By this popular view you have to make up something for yourself. You start life as a resource drain. Meaning and significance is the value you add to your life by self-actualization, achievement or popular recognition. That is why the weak and unwanted can be so easily marginalized and disposed of. There is no “scientific” difference between a child and a pig and a cockroach. Really?
Purpose? If our purpose only comes from our material existence, what can it be? Passing on our genes? That has become politically incorrect. Becoming rich and famous? It is never enough – and at a certain point in your life you realize that you are not going to achieve all your dreams. Or worse, you achieve them and discover they do not satisfy. Is your purpose having fun? Again, as you get older it becomes harder and harder – then it ends. No wonder some want to check out early!
“My life, my death!” was the slogan of the Hemlock lobby in the legislative chambers, year after year. Is your life really yours? Don’t you have any ancestors to remember? No man is an island. A man and a woman brought you into the world. Were you raised by wolves? Has no one ever invested anything in you? Do you belong to no one and no one belongs to you? Are you quite sure you will never have an impact on anyone or anything? Really? Are you a hermit living in the woods and not even a squirrel has been effected by your life? Really? At least the mosquitoes will miss you.
Unless something is very badly wrong with your way of life, your family, your workplace, your faith connections, and your community (and you need to make some big changes) – none of the above applies. You are part of others and everybody owns – or should own – a piece of you. Your life and your death matters. The tree that falls in the forest does make a sound. God is always about in the forest.
We all want our lives to have meaning and purpose. What if our lives (and consequently deaths) are not really our own? What if our existence has a cause other than ourselves? Duh! You didn’t bring yourself into the world, did you – even if your parents may not have exactly intended you? Beyond the birds and the bees Theists believe you and all the cosmos have a conscious and intelligent Creator/Designer. Function is the rule, dysfunction is the exception. Function is designed, it is not an accident. You have a purpose, a mission – should you choose to accept it. You are not your own. Every day of your life is pregnant with meaning, waiting for you to discover it.
As a Jesus-follower, my life is a gift from God. It is not mine to waste or terminate. Each day is a trust for me to administer. So it was with my wife Marie, too. The purpose and meaning of our lives is given to us. It does not need to be worked up by our will power or earned by our achievement.
As Jesus-followers, Marie and I were (and I still am) on this planet for a purpose. In general, we believe (with the Westminster Catechism) that our “chief end” is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” but what I am supposed to do tomorrow is not always obvious. Let Him surprise me. One day at a time.
A life is made up of days. In May, 2014, why was Marie still here? She could not do anything. She was there to be loved, of course. Maybe she was to develop my character? Maybe she was to be part of the glue holding together her “family,” her community? The meaning of a life, of a day, is not just in what we do, but in what we are and in what we become. The crucial thing is to trust the One who gave life for the meaning of life – every day – until He calls us home. Then we can enjoy Him forever. Marie and I had already started enjoying Him. Have you?
The Christian worldview gives meaning to my life – and conversely my death – by putting it in a context beyond myself and my amusement. Meta-narratives make post-modernists cringe because they want to write their own script, revolving around them, without responsibility. But that is the recipe for narcissism, a life of pettiness, going nowhere. There is a difference between being free and merely unbuttoned. When you surrender to your impulses and drives, you are hardly in control of your life-script. Death wipes it all away. But when you write Jesus into your script – hang on! It is the freest act of volition you can ever take. Then on, everything has eternal significance, and death is only the gossamer entrance into glory. My life is Christ and my death is promotion. What’s yours?
What difference does it make? Some travel to Tibet to find the meaning of their lives. I found mine in a book – The Book I was given on my seventh birthday and that I read again this morning. Some never find meaning. You can do fine without it? Really? How would you know you are doing fine?
Material life, “scientific” or otherwise, works great as long as you are successful. You can “sing in the sunshine . . . laugh every day.” Why would you want to curb your pleasures for others, let alone some far off and invisible deity? But real life isn’t like that. It rains. The deck is stacked against you. [Play the Jaws theme] Eventually it gets you. The law of diminishing returns returns: the more you consume, the less you enjoy. Bad stuff happens to bad people as well as good people. Then you die. He who dies with the most toys is still dead.
How do you deal with life’s inevitable suffering and losses if power, stuff and pleasure are all you have? If the only context of your life is you? Your humanity cries out for something more. It’s easy to be an atheist when the sun is shining and everything is going right. But where do you go when the bad stuff happens?
Evil is a problem. Materialists have no objective basis for distinguishing between good and evil. On their flat earth Mother Theresa is just as illogical as Adolph Hitler and the choice is only a matter of taste. Time and chance and luck will make everything right? My chemistry made me do it and chemicals will make the consequences go away? Jesus-followers recognize the brokenness of the world. Evil is real and present because we invited it onto our planet by our rebellion against Good. We are not promised a free ride. When we follow Jesus, the path leads through Gethsemane, through Golgotha, through this world of suffering and death – to resurrection. You have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter.
“My life, my death?” Back in 2014 we got going on the subject of life and death because of the “aid in dying” bill in the Connecticut legislature. Simultaneously it became apparent that Marie and I were facing the imminent end of her life. Then came Holy Week. It all fits together, doesn’t it? This is where the rubber meets the road. I’m not saying that Christianity offers the only way to find meaning in life and death – all successful religions and worldviews must address such matters of “ultimate concern” – but it does so in a manner that is both effective and realistic – unlike the “scientific” materialism promoted by our secular elites. It works for me.
The Christian worldview provides a more effective way of life and death than materialism or other secular points of view. Reminder: we are not talking about nominal assent or institutional membership, but serious, thinking, Jesus-followers. First, those who follow Jesus become outwardly focused, constructive in a manner healthy for themselves and for society. Second, they place their lives in an eternal frame, maintaining optimism and a forward outlook until death and beyond.
Self-centered hedonism simply does not provide support for a meaningful life, protracted contribution to society, or resilience in the face of adversity. The Christian worldview encourages us to place our lives in a larger framework. It is not all about us. Jesus was right: he who would save his life will lose it; he who gives his life will find it. By all measures, givers are happier than takers. Christianity encourages and Jesus demands that lifestyle. Jesus-followers see themselves as part of His body, members of each other, world-wide and down through the centuries. Seeing one’s self as part of something bigger, in space and in time, is extremely good for society, practical and functional for mankind.
Second, Jesus-followers place their lives in an eternal frame, maintaining optimism and a forward outlook until death and beyond. As the materialist ages, he/she gradually loses capacity to enjoy life, options narrow and hope fades. Decline and disability are frightening. As the Jesus-follower ages, they experience some of the same things, but see them as temporary. Their hope grows brighter instead of fading. There is always more to look forward to – an after-the-bucket list. Looking beyond physical death and relying on our faith community, we expect continued spiritual growth, contribution, and fulfillment as we age and matriculate into eternity. We look forward to the end of our struggles and imperfections. The outward man may perish, but the inner man is renewed. Life begins at death! So we tend to live and die well – certainly better than we would without Easter.
Christianity offers meaning in life and death in a manner that is both effective and realistic. Realistic? Yes, as in common sense and the way life really is. It takes a brilliant mind to avoid the obvious. Every viable worldview must deal with the ultimate questions of life: where did I come from? where am I going? what is the meaning of life? and how do I distinguish between right and wrong? (Ravi Zacharias) We know that stuff doesn’t just happen without a cause, that there is order and design in the cosmos. We know that life should have meaning and that death should not be final. We know that the most important things in life – more important than life itself – are not things. We know that there is a real and objective difference between right and wrong and that evil is real and ubiquitous. That is why all utopian schemes, from Walden to the Soviet Union to Obama Care, falter. Christianity is not rocket science, it is the way things really are.
“My life, my death?” What is my life? My life – my existence – is a gift from God. My parents were just the instruments. My life is a purchase. I am not my own: I am bought with a price – the blood of Christ. My life is a partnership. Christ, by His Spirit, lives in me and the life I live – when I really live – is by His power.
My life was given to me, so it is mine to give or to withhold, to embrace or to resist. That is the freedom of the will that Adam and Eve seized in the Garden, that Jesus exercised in another garden, that cost the Father his only-begotten Son. It is my choice.
And yet, my life remains in the hands of God. He holds my very breath. He numbers my days, the day of my conception and the day of my death. “My” life is not at all in my control. I did not choose its circumstances – my heredity and environment – and most of its events are out of my hands. But I can choose to embrace or resist the Lord of it all.
What is “my” life? It is my responsibility, but not my property. It is one thread in a tapestry of time and relationships, of family, of community, of the body of Christ, of nation and of western civilization. It is an inheritance from the past, my ancestors and mentors, to be handed on to the future, my descendants and mentees. To cut myself off, as I am tempted, would be to leave a hole. I am responsible to God and to all the other threads in the rug.
What is my life? A vapor? A puff of smoke? A moment in eternity? “I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air . . . till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity” (John Wesley, 1747). It is in view of that eternity that I should consciously live.
Life is only the beginning. Born again, with the Spirit of the Resurrection in me, eternal life has already begun, but I am not fully conscious yet. With dementia, Marie’s consciousness of this world slowly faded for fourteen years. Conversely, our consciousness of the eternal has been slowly growing, but will not be complete until we leave these “shadow lands.” God isn’t finished with us yet!
“My life, my death.” No, I’m not suicidal. The doctor asked me the “thoughts of death” question at the VA and I alarmed him with the wrong answer. The “other side” looks better and better when you are in pain – and as you get older it happens more and more. Discomfort gets you ready to leave. I did say I wanted to go with Marie, didn’t I? Seriously, I believe what Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” And his resurrection proved it – conclusively, I believe. I am His and Heaven is my home – and it’s got to be better than this world! But there are two ways to end the race: cross the finish line or step off the course. Only one of them gets you to the winner’s circle. Marie has now won and, by God’s grace, so will I. I’m on a mission down here. God gave me this life and he isn’t done with me yet.
Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” True words are often spoken in jest. Jesus-followers do not fear death because they see beyond it. But it is not their friend, either. Guilt, shame and regret are laid at the foot of the cross. There is no fear as we look in the face of our Judge and see a Savior welcoming us home. The more that has been forgiven, the greater our love and gratitude. Instead of a termination of pleasure and accomplishment we see the opening of vast vistas for both. Instead of permanent separation we see the ultimate reunion.
At the same time, most of us do fear death – for good reason. Death itself is “the last enemy,” hideous and obscene. It is, according to the Bible, the penalty of humanity’s separation from God – the curse of entropy. Even though everything organic dies and rots, we cannot bring ourselves to accept our own death, and that of our loved ones, as natural. It was so painful watching Marie waste away – there was nothing good about what death was doing to her body. Love and medicine could keep her comfortable but could not change her trajectory. “It is appointed unto mankind once to die, and after that the judgment.”
Christ has defeated death. His resurrection takes away its finality. Death itself is never a good thing. It remains an opaque barrier through which we all must pass. Because of Him, we know that there is something on the other side. For those who have accepted His gift, there is a welcome – a Welcome-er with nail prints in His hands.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.