For every news story like the Virginia Tech massacre, we see countless other reminders of the brevity of life: the hundreds who have died in the slaughter between the Sunni and Shiite forces in Iraq, the more than 300 people who die in DUI accidents each week in the United States, the thousands of others who die every day from disease, poverty, war, accidents and old age. Every loss of life is a vivid reminder of the inevitability of death.
This inevitability creates an uneasiness about the consequences of life. This uneasiness separates humans from other creatures. We dread death because it is separation from all that is known, especially from all that is loved. Leaving love always hurts. Often, loved ones will have a sense that something has been taken or is missing; they say, “We lost Mom a year ago.” People seek closure, and this explains why even in severe circumstances there is an effort to recover bodies or gather whatever personal effects that can be found. However, closure never closes the hole in the heart. The greater the loss we experience, the longer the memory.
Death separates the soul from the body, the visible from the invisible. The Scriptures describe the feelings of death as suffering, a bitter taste, fear, bondage, pain and corruption (Hebrews 2:9, 14, 15; Acts 2:24; 1 Corinthians 15:53-54). The Lord Jesus experienced “extreme sorrow unto death” (Cf. Mark 14:34). All these are the stings of death as the final enemy of mankind. Death seems to laugh at life as if it has conquered it (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). It reigns in the body, a force slowly destroying life. As David wrote in Psalm 23, it is the lingering shadow. This helps to explain the personal profile of a mass murderer, who brings death in a desperate effort to control it, creating an illusion of power against the ultimate enemy.
The question, “What is death?” is answered by the question, “What is life?” For humans death is not annihilation or oblivion but the cessation of physical life. For animals and all other forms of life, death simply is the loss of existence. Man was created a living soul in the image of God. He is also a physical being with the capacity to transcend the physical with intellectual, emotional and volitional ability to know the meaning of himself and God.
The Bible describes the death of the believer in Jesus as absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). The body is asleep, but nowhere does Scripture say that the soul sleeps. Because of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the soul of the believer will return to the body–changed and glorified–at the return of the Lord Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. … For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23, NKJV). In mocking metaphor he seems to be speaking to death, “‘O Death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?’ But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57, KJV). “Our Savior Jesus Christ has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10, NKJV). Despite the circumstances of the believer’s physical death, Jesus Christ ultimately conquered death and offers the believer eternal life when our physical life has ended.
In Luke 12, Jesus was asked about a dispute between two brothers regarding property left them at the death of their parents. In reply, Jesus told a story that illustrates the folly of forgetting about death and of providing only for physical needs. In the story, a man is trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life. He is a thoughtful man, Jesus said. There is no suggestion that he was wrong by planning and thinking ahead about his future. The man decided to recycle his financial portfolio, take a break and enjoy life, not unlike most people who in the short-term are glad to say, “Thank God it’s Friday.” But this man wanted Friday to last forever. The Prophet Isaiah defines this life goal as, “Let’s eat, drink and be happy, for tomorrow we die” (Cf. Isaiah 22:13). The man in Jesus’ story had no reason to think otherwise.
While thinking through his options, the man forgot the Source of what he was able to produce. God provided the ground, the very earth from which the man gained his living. Like so many people do today, this man acted as if he had accomplished his success through his own ingenuity instead of recognizing that God provided it. He forgot that the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness” (Psalm 24:1, NKJV). The Lord of creation was the last thing on his mind. He fulfilled the proverb that “the fool dies for a lack of discernment” (Cf. Proverbs 10:21). He failed to see true reality, the fact that no person knows the exact time of death or what a day will bring forth. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (NKJV). Man has a watch but God knows the time.
A person can survive almost anything in life–except for his or her own death. Life’s one absolute is that we will leave it. In Jesus’ parable, God asks the man, “Whose will those things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:20, NKJV). The psalmist described life as a vapor–something that appears and dissolves (Psalm 39). Vapor is hot air in a cold atmosphere. The temperature of death is cold.
Everything was in this man’s favor. He had everything going for him. But during such times a person is prone to forget the eventual loss of life itself. This was the man’s greatest mistake. His thoughtlessness also showed his complete lack of interest in anything other than himself. The needs of his family, of his neighbors, of others, certainly of the poor, never crossed his mind. He was wrapped up in himself. His happiness was self-interest and self-indulgence. He never reflected on his soul. No consideration of an afterlife entered his head. And above all, he never thought about God, who said, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20, NKJV).
What was the man thinking? Every person knows that he or she will die (Ecclesiastes 9:5). But so many people choose a way that seems right to them, not realizing that that way leads to spiritual death (Proverbs 16:25). And physical death is not the end; we still must face the consequences of our decisions, including our neglect of God. Tragic events such as we have seen in recent months should stun us, but they should also cause us to reflect on our own lives.
Have you repented of your sin, asked for God’s forgiveness and received salvation through Jesus Christ? The Bible says, “The righteous have confidence in death” (Cf. Proverbs 14:32). Do you?