Death and Taxes

By Derek Thomas

This time of year, we might be forgiven the thought that the reference to the "king of terrors" in Job is to the IRS, but in fact it something much worse--death (Job 18:14)! It is Dr. Johnson who is credited with the remark that when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. But we live in a society that has sanitized death, removed it from you as much as possible. Increasingly, there are folk in their 30s and 40s who have never seen a corpse. It is all a long way away from the middle ages where paintings and sculptures frequently depicted death. Tombs were adorned with images of naked corpses, their mouth agape, their fists clenched, and their bowels devoured by worms. One of the most popular depictions was the Dance of Death. Death, in the form of a skeleton, appeared as a dancing figure leading away its victims. None could escape its grasp--not the wealthy, or the peasant, or the corpulent monk. An hourglass in the corner served as a reminder that life was swiftly passing away.

Christians of previous ages, particularly the Puritans of the seventeenth century and Methodists of the eighteenth century, thought it wise to teach the doctrine of "dying well." Few captured the thought better than John Bunyan: "Consider thou must die but once; I mean as to this world, for if thou, when thou goest hence, dost not die well, thou canst not come back and die better" (Works 1:686). Life, they taught, is transitory and we must view it as a gymnasium that prepares us for heaven. Preparation for heaven--having one's bags packed and ready to leave--they saw as the only safe way to live. True, in an age without tranquilizers, aspirin, ibuprofen or even good coffee, life in heaven was viewed with greater anticipation than we are wont to view it. But the image of life as a pilgrimage towards the Celestial City (as Bunyan views it in Pilgrim's Progress) is thoroughly biblical and sound. Having a matter-of-fact realism about our mortality is neither morbid nor defeatist; it is, in fact, the way we are meant to view life in this world--as preparatory for a city "that is to come" (Heb. 13:14). It is the devil's lie that we have believed when we fear death (Heb. 2:15). Well did Robert Murray M'Cheyne paint a setting sun on the dial of his pocket watch, to remind himself of how short time is and how every Christian must live sub specie aeternitatis--in the light of eternity.

A year before his death, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, then in the throes of cancer, reflected on the need to prepare for death: "We do not give enough time to death and to our going on. It is a very strange thing this: the one certainty, yet we do not think about it. We are too busy. We allow life and its circumstances so to occupy us that we do not stop and think.... People say about sudden death, 'It is a wonderful way to go'. I have come to the conclusion that is quite wrong. I think the way we go out of this world is very important and this is my desire now that I may perhaps be enabled to bear a greater testimony than ever before." (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981, Volume 2, by Iain Murray [Banner of Truth, 1990, 730]). That's the way.