A subject no one ever wants to think about has now been unavoidably thrust in front of our faces: death. The COVID-19 virus and its potentially fatal consequences have captured the headlines and newscasts, hour after endless hour, reporting infections and death tolls ticking upward incessantly. Regardless of whom we might blame as the perpetrator, Pandora’s Pandemic Box has been opened, the dreadful contents let loose like invisible dogs of war, aggressively stalking us at every turn, every time we get within less than six feet of another possibly asymptomatic human being.
Of course this is not the first time our species has dealt with the onslaught of a rampant global disease. Nature at its most virulent has been against us ever since we were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Sixth Century’s Bubonic Plague is thought to have killed up to 25 million people, perhaps half the population of Europe, in its year long reign of terror. The infamous Black Plague (1346-1353) ravaged three continents, with an estimated death toll between 75 and 200 million people, thanks to rats and fleas invading urban ports from merchant ships. In more recent times, the Spanish Flu of 1918, tragically just after the horrific suffering and death of World War I, infected over a third of the world’s population, ending the lives of an additional 20 to 50 million people. Adding to the list nameless outbreaks of cholera, smallpox and influenza, it makes me wonder how any of us have survived this far. Science and medicine are the obvious difference makers; the experts, however, are yet struggling with a remedy to the scourge dominating our particular time in history.
Looking at examples of macabre artwork produced during the Middle Ages, especially in times of rampant disease, it appears that most folks must have been quite accustomed to sickness, the dying and the dead, accepting even death itself, personified by dark shrouded figures and animated skeletons, as a familiar part of everyday life.
Most civilizations and cultures throughout history have proposed their own particular interpretation of what happens after man’s fateful final moment. The suppositions are limitless. The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death and preparing for the voyage into the hereafter, spending what could be seen as an irrational amount of time and treasure to insure those who could afford it a safe passage into the great beyond. Vikings reveled in the hope that death brought them into Valhalla, the great hall in Norse mythology where heroes enjoy an eternity with Thor and their fellow warriors in endless opportunities to feast and battle. Many English Romantic Period writers lamented over whether or not the grave might be the end. Poets like Blake, Wordsworth and Keats all hopefully portrayed death as possibly a new beginning, the doorway to a happier life. In his poem “On Death,” Shelley ponders,
“Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?”
By sickness, accident or natural causes, we all come inevitably to our own death. The question is, then, how will we prepare?
Today as the Christian world celebrates what is commonly called Easter, I personally am believing and take comfort in the words of an ancient hymn sung by the church down through the centuries as a Paschal Troparion in the liturgy to celebrate Resurrection Sunday:
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”
And thus we find the answer to Shelley’s poetic query.
At this difficult time when the realities of life and death are more pressing than usual, may I suggest, if you have not done so, that you pause to examine the claims of Jesus Christ. He said He would rise from the dead (Matt. 16:21). He promises eternal life to anyone who would but believe in Him (John 5:24). He states that because He died and now lives, He alone holds the keys to death and the afterlife (Rev. 1:18). He declares that He is the only way to a right relationship with God (John 14:6). These astonishing assertions are either true or false. Being made aware of these statements, one must make a decision about Jesus. He is either the Son of God who came to save sinners (John 3:16) or He was a delusional maniac, and if so, then not even worthy of being characterized as just another religious “good teacher.”
Writing to the young church in Rome, the apostle Paul summed up the prerequisites for the assurance of an eternal life with Christ after death: “. . . if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10) Saved from what? you might ask. This “salvation” is so much more than a “get out of hell for free” card. The biblical word carries with it the meaning of wholeness, pardon, restoration, healing, and soundness in spirit, soul and body, freedom from the penalty of sin (Romans 5:9-10) and from the dominion of sin in this life (Romans 6:14). It’s being “born again” as a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17)!
“In [God’s] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Because of the unfathomable love of God, the grave could not hold the crucified Christ. Death has been defeated and the grave will be forced to likewise ultimately release all those who believe in Him (Romans 8:11).
What better time than now to make a decision, to be certain that whatever this life presents, whether it be the distress of a plague or the blessings of peace and prosperity, your eternal heavenly destiny beyond this mortal life can be secured by simple, childlike faith in the Risen Christ! I pray you choose rightly today.