I vividly remember the times in my ministry when I gathered with a family around the physical remains of their loved one and offered a moment of prayer and presence. I remember helping a funeral director transfer a church member’s lifeless body onto a mortuary cot. I resonate with the words of the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch who wrote in “Father Andrews” about a pastor’s role in death: “You met the mourners at the door, and pressed the heavens with their lamentations and tried to make some sense of all of it, then saw them to the edge and home again.”
As a pastor, I encounter death. But I still remember my first interactions with it — burying the neighborhood dog in my friend’s backyard, holding my grandfather’s hand as his life began fading away. Since those early days, a lot has changed. I feel much more comfortable around death and talking about it.
I recently spent some time thumbing through a collection of old hymns and noticed something interesting. Many of them spoke of death and “crossing the Jordan River.” There was a focus on heaven and the sweet rewards that were to come to faithful Christians. It occurred to me that in the mid-19th century (when many of those hymns were written), most people in the U.S. were only living into their 20s. Today, on average, Americans are living to be about 79 years old. Two centuries ago, a person’s life had hardly begun before it ended. If they were expected to live life at all, they had to confront the ever-present reality that life would end. It was a fact that couldn’t be avoided. Due to health care, hygiene, lifestyles, and medicine, people live much longer today. Not only is this a physical reality for us, but it seems to affect the way we think about death. Specifically, because we can delay death physically, we like to also delay thinking about death.
A hymn that sings about death and promises joy when Christ shall come to “take me home” lands a little differently when a person will probably live to be 75 as opposed to 25. Within the context of these old hymns, I assume people were feverishly trying to make the most out of their lives because they knew they would likely end soon. Back then, singing of heaven and the “sweet by and by” was probably less an attempt to forget about death and more so a balm to soothe the soul in case death brought one’s hopes and dreams to a quick conclusion.
Unfortunately, however, Christians today have inherited these hymns (and the theology about heaven within them) and applied them inadvertently to our own lives — focusing on eternal life and not addressing the reality of death. Don’t get me wrong. Within the church, I think it’s good and important that we talk about bodily resurrection and life after death. The problem occurs when our theology of heaven gets mixed with an unhealthy neglect of death. In other words, it is a problem when we approach life as something that serves our pleasure and then skip right over death, getting straight to heaven. I can’t help but think of the lyrics to the AJR song featured in some TikTok memes: “Can we skip to the good part?”
By denying death, we rob life of its urgency. The reality is: Christian theology has always had a “realized” eschatology. In other words, the kingdom of God has always been “here and not yet.” Heaven is accessible here and now. As Jesus said, it is “at hand” (Matthew 4:17). When we think of heaven as distant and inaccessible, it leads us to sit around twiddling our thumbs thinking about it instead of living our lives with urgency.
By acknowledging and admitting the reality of death, we put our own lives into perspective; we put our suffering and the suffering of others into perspective. We actually live more fully into the reality of the resurrection and eternal life by allowing that life to flow through our ministry and into the suffering of the world right now. Death is certain. It happens all around us and will happen to us. Christian hope is not based on ignoring death until it happens. Our hope is based in the reality that our deathless God walks with us through the valley of death’s shadow. By thinking more of death, we help ourselves to see where God’s life is still absent in the world and to be God’s healing hand that reaches out.