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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Facing Up To Death

November 17, 2015 •

It is the unavoidable certainty in life; but also the great taboo. In the midst of life it is never far away; but many are afraid to contemplate it. Yet we find it in Scripture: a dark thread running all the way through its message. From the first warning about it in Eden (Ge 2.17) to the final declaration of its being banished forever from the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev 21.4), death is an all-too-real facet of our fallen existence. So how should we face up to it?

First and foremost we need to face it personally. To ignore our own mortality (and what lies behind it) is a fatal error of eternal proportions. We need to face up to death, not in light of popular myths and euphemisms that try to sanitise it, but in the cold clear light of what God has to say.

We need to realise it is not ‘natural’. It was never intended to be a part of the ‘all very good’ creation over which God pronounced his satisfaction. It was the dark invader that entered our world when Adam rebelled against his Maker. And ever since that moment it has been the ‘last enemy’ that will tyrannise our race until the day of Christ’s return (1Co 15.26). So to claim it is nothing more than the last stage in the process of life is cruel self-delusion. The fact Jesus reacted to death so violently when he stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus – ‘he was deeply moved in his spirit and troubled’ (Jn 11.33) – gives a glimpse of the Creator’s anger at the curse on all creation.

We need to appreciate why everyone deserves it – why it was the only response God could make to Adam’s act of defiance in the Garden. His sin was a breach of God’s law and a gross offence to God as his Creator and King. God could not maintain his own integrity and remain in fellowship and harmony with a creature who had behaved in this way. Separation – death – was the only option. In the first place as a living death: although Adam was still alive after the fall, he was ‘dead in his trespasses and sins’ (Eph 2.1). But that in turn led to his physical death – separation in the form of dis-integration of the human entity: body and spirit divided. Then, finally – for all who die in their sins – it issues into eternal separation: the second and irreversible death of Hell. Death is the only wage sin is able to pay (Ro 6.23)

Most of all we need to not only recognise, but to personally receive God’s antidote to death in salvation. God loved the world and sent his Son ‘that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life’ (Jn 3.16). Jesus died in order to ‘abolish death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel’ (2Ti 1.10). But these truths are declared not just to be admired, but to be received in order that the life they promise may become our very own. Only then will we have a solid basis for facing death without fear.

We also need to face this pastorally. This is true not just for pastors, whose calling will in no small measure involve ministering to the sick, the terminally ill, the elderly and the dying; it is true for every Christian. Every human being comes face to face with dying relatives and friends sooner or later in life. And each of them faces the challenge of knowing what to say (or not say) when they do. For those who have the hope of eternal life in Christ, there is a very special opportunity to offer unique care under the most poignant circumstances of life. So knowing how to use these opportunities appropriately and sensitively is vital.

There are indeed times when no words are better than words spoken for the sake of saying something. To ‘weep with those who weep’ (Ro 12.15) can be a ministry in itself. But at the same time, being ‘ready with the reason for the hope you have within you’ (1Pe 3.17) is its necessary twin sister. 

The great challenge for pastoral care to those in the end-stages of life in our day is that so many people in those stages find themselves sedated, with their mind and senses dulled, making it very difficult to engage with them as they near the end. Even so, it is also true that the ability to hear and understand remains intact much longer than many people realise. It is not uncommon for individuals who have been unconscious for some time to respond to familiar verses read from scripture, or thoughtful words offered in prayer. (The fact their response is more often than not by a squeeze of the hand, or a brief opening of an eye, highlights the value of holding a person’s hand while speaking to them.)

If it is true that our humanness means we need each other’s company and support in life, how much more in the face of death. And if the glory of the gospel is seen in Christ’s triumph over the last enemy through the cross, then Christians are best placed to bring its hope to those who are in most urgent need of it.

We need as well to face death evangelistically. By that I do not mean that we wait until people are at death’s door before we make a concerted effort to share the gospel with them. Rather, that we should not be embarrassed about speaking of death as we make the case for God’s promise of salvation and offer it in the name of Christ. ‘Salvation’ is not some kind of spiritual cosmetic surgery; it is nothing less than deliverance from sin and death and hell.

It is one of the poignant ironies of the Christian ministry that funerals are among the greatest opportunities for declaring the good news of God’s salvation. Again, if those opportunities are taken with due sensitivity and care in our choice of words and manner of delivery, seeds of gospel truth can be sown that will change lives and destinies for eternity.

We live in a death-denying culture. People are so preoccupied with living, they give little or no thought to dying. They are fed on fine-sounding, but cruel myths – born out of the all-pervasive myth of human origins – that blinds them to the sobering realities of eternal destiny. To tweak the well-known mission statement of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, there is not only a place for issuing a ‘call to the church, amidst a dying culture, to repent of its worldliness…’ but, to remember the church finds herself more significantly among a dying race. We need to face up to death and its implications afresh and proclaim the only words that truly have an answer to it – through the One who has conquered it.



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