The inveterate gambler is always on the lookout for the sure thing, the bet he can't lose. The only problem is, the sure bet doesn't exist-with one exception. If you are a gambler, there is one thing you can bet your life on. The odds of losing this bet are nil.
Of course, the payoff may come when you least expect it. And, even though you're sure to win, winning this bet is no fun. But all of us, whether we place the bet or not, are sure to win.
The sure thing I'm speaking of is death.
Death is far more certain than life. A newly conceived human has a 20 percent chance of never seeing birth. However, there is zero percent chance that, once born, you will not ultimately see death.
Is this not a pleasant subject to find yourself reading about?
Indeed, it is not pleasant, and it's no surprise that so many are uninformed about the subject. Refusing to think about death does not make it go away. It just makes it harder for those left living to deal with this unpleasant fact of life once it has occurred.
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that the only sure thing in life is death and taxes. History has proven him right. Taxes are a reality of life whether we live in Africa, Europe, the Far East or North or South America.
But taxes do change, even though usually for the worse. Most nations levy heavy taxes on their citizens, and everyone has to pay them. Personal income, fuel, airline tickets, property, hotel accommodations-you name it and it is taxed.
Consistent and inevitable
The taxes we are levied can vary, but death doesn't change. Events leading up to it may vary, but death itself is always the same. Some forms of government may bring the onset of death about more quickly, and some economic conditions may hasten it, but death catches up with people of all nationalities, creeds and backgrounds. No one is exempt.
Francis Bacon said that "old men go to death, but death comes to young men." It is never expected by the young. When it comes, it is usually unbidden and unwanted.
When death arrives early in life, the result is devastating. Hopes and dreams are snuffed out. Some ill or elderly may welcome it and die willingly, but in other cases they may fight it with a warrior's ferociousness.
Although some people in some circumstances die willingly, death is never really a friend. It is an enemy that at times is heroically fought, but ultimately it is given in to.
When death occurs, how should you feel about it? Should you be angry? Is it wrong to be relieved? Should you be destroyed by the death of a loved one? Should you grieve? Should you mourn openly and unashamedly? Should you weep behind closed doors, concealing your feelings? How much should you grieve?
We'll get to those questions, but first let's understand more about the subject.
When does death occur? Only in our modern age has there been a need for such a question to be asked. Pages of opinions have been written and hours of arguments have taken place over this simple question. Does death occur when one stops breathing, when the heart ceases to function or when all brain activity has ceased?
These are important questions in this day of medical miracles. The body can be maintained artificially long past the time of consciousness and potential recovery by simply forcing the continued action of the heart and lungs through a life-support system. In some cases, pregnant women have been kept on life support for weeks so their baby can be born. The debate continues on the ethics of these procedures in medical and religious circles. It is one that is never fully answered to everyone's satisfaction.
You are going to die. No one can change that. Death may be delayed for a time, but the inevitable will come to pass. All living things are subject to death, from the lowliest microscopic animal or plant to the giant sperm whale and all living things in between, from a simple spore to the majestic giant sequoia and redwood trees. Scientists say even stars die and eventually dissipate into the vastness of the universe.
What happens at death?
At death, the plant or organism ceases to function and then begins to crumble and disintegrate. What once was is no more. This may be all we need to know about the death of plants and animals, but what about people? Surely, man does not simply cease to be. What occurs when a person dies?
The body ceases to function. It decays and before long returns to the dust of the earth.
But isn't man more than just a body? He, of all creatures, seems to have an inner being. If this is so, what happens to that inner person?
More basic than that, why do we have to die? How did death come to be? Why can't life go on? The answer to those age-old questions is found in the second law of thermodynamics. In essence, it states and acknowledges that all physical things have a beginning and then start the process of running down.
Death is one of the subjects about which none of us likes to think. This is partly because we may not have an answer and partly because we are afraid of finding the answer. Fearing what the answer might be, we would rather ignore the question and hope we don't have to face the reality for a long time.
But face it we shall, so we might as well try to understand more about the subject.
What happens after death?
What happens when we die? Do we go somewhere? Many tell of out-of-body experiences during which they feel they have died, or been close to dying, and then recovered. In most cases, they say the incident was a pleasant one.
Some describe a near-death experience as like being in a long tunnel with a light at the end while listening to lovely music and feeling comfortably warm, then returning to their body. Are these people experiencing something real or an illusion? Why? Why do they come back? If they have no control over whether they leave their body or stay, then who does?
Any discussion of death can quickly take on a theological or religious tone. In Westernized nations, most people claim to be either Christian or recognize the Judeo-Christian roots of their civilization. They may not attend church or synagogue, but they are at least aware of the claims of a First Cause, Creator or God.
So let's look into the handbook for living that has been given by God, the Bible.
The first mention of death in the Bible is in Genesis 2:16, 17. It is a part of the knowledge, the instruction if you will, God gave to the first man and woman. "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.'"
Adam's penalty for disobedience
As the narrative goes, Adam ate of the tree and did not die, at least not until much later. Others died before he ceased to live, as revealed in the example of Adam's son, Abel, who was killed by his brother, Cain.
Adam did eventually die, however, because of his rejection of God's instruction. Although delayed for Adam personally 930 years, death entered the world-for Cain and everyone else-at the time of Adam's rebellion and disobedience to the Father. This is clearly stated in the New Testament:
"... Through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned ..." (Romans 5:12).
Death exists because it is the penalty for sin. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life . . ." (Romans 6:23). Death came upon mankind because of the actions of one man at the beginning of human life on earth. Along with the guarantee of death came the even greater promise of the opportunity for eternal life. We mustn't lose sight of that promise, although that is a subject for a different article.
The responsibility for the actions that led to his death lies with Adam, even though the cause of Adam's action was Satan, who tempted the first man and woman. Death is a weapon Satan uses against mankind to thwart God's purpose for man. Satan inspires man to wield death and the threat of death against his fellowman through hatred, fear and jealousy. The devil delights in the pain caused by death.
How death comes
The cessation of life comes about in three ways: accidentally, naturally and deliberately.
- Accidental death is difficult to deal with, occurring when least expected, often to those in their prime years of life. It leaves no time to prepare oneself. The shock of accidental death is numbing, sometimes overwhelming. "He died of natural causes" can mean someone has lived his years and gently slipped into the deep slumber of the grave as the result of his body simply wearing out. The heart just turns off. You seldom read of this kind of peaceful, natural cessation of life today. In the modern age, death by natural causes is often premature, including death by disease in its many forms.
- Premeditated death includes murder, loss of life on the battlefield and suicide. These deaths are perhaps the most senseless and difficult for those remaining and trying to understand. God frequently ends up being blamed. "Why did God allow it to happen?" is the anguished cry of those left behind.
Suicide can be the result of extreme unhappiness and the pain that a person is trying to escape. A successful suicide, however, brings great unhappiness and pain on family and loved ones.
Everybody, rich or poor, noble or base, will die. The One who created all things says that "it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). You may not do anything else in this life, but you will die.
Death is hard to describe
Death isn't adequately described by expressions such as kicking the bucket, passing away, falling off the perch, buying the farm, shuffling off this mortal coil or meeting our Maker. You don't go anywhere, other than the grave, when you die. You don't do something when you die. You just die.
"For what happens to the sons of men also happens to beasts; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20).
In the sense of the preceding scriptural reference, man is no different from the plants or animals, an amoeba or the stars. Man does have something these other created beings or things do not have. He has the promise of the judgment and the possibility of eternal life. But, again, that is another topic.
Even though it is a morbid subject, you should make some preparations for your death. Don't leave the "final arrangements," as they are called in advertisements for mortuaries, to bereaved family members. If your expiration is decades away, so much the better, but be prepared for whenever it comes.
We can control our affairs while we live and make it easier for our loved ones after we die. In the past few months, several of my friends have died, some young and some older. Their families have had to live through the experience. In some cases, death was expected, but in others it was a complete surprise. It was traumatic in every case.
Preparing for the inevitable
One of the first steps you might want to take is to face the reality of your mortality. When all is over, the greatest value is not the cash value of the life-insurance policy in your spouse's bank account, but how content you were with your life. "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out" (1 Timothy 6:6, 7).
The examples of the men and women of the Bible show they often prepared for death's inevitability. They bought burial grounds or tombs for themselves and their families. They knew where they would be buried and took comfort and satisfaction from that. Conscious of their mortality, they prepared for it.
"A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children . . ." (Proverbs 13:22). Not everyone can leave an inheritance, but we can all be certain not to leave the burden of the monetary cost of our death to add to the ordeal of a grieving family.
Most people have never bothered to make a will. It is a simple action but one they do not want to take. Yet by that simple act you can assure your family, husband, wife or children of receiving what should be theirs.
In some countries, not having a will means the government takes a much larger portion, or in some cases all, of what is left. It could mean the forced sale of the home you thought you were providing for your family. Other relatives might decide they have a claim to your estate, and a hopeless muddle could result.
In spite of advances in technology and medicine, the life span of man today is much the same as mentioned in Psalm 90:10: "The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." Verse 12 continues: "So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom."
It is true, at least in the United States, that there are more centenarians today than ever before. A few have lived to even 110 or 120. They are the rare exception. Although life expectancy has increased in some countries, in others it is still low. The average hasn't changed much. Recognizing the limitation we may have can help us to use our allotted time more effectively.
Expressing our feeling of loss
When death occurs, we need to realize that grief is natural. It should be allowed; it should be expressed. Various cultures express themselves differently. A funeral in Africa is a major event. Family, friends, neighbors come from miles around to help grieve as well as to express their feelings for the one who died.
In some cultures, a prolonged time of mourning takes place. In others, it is almost business as usual. Whatever the culture, we shouldn't try to console with platitudes about how the individual has gone to a better place or how one should buck up and not let others see one's sorrow.
Sorrow is a personal thing. There is nothing wrong with feeling it and expressing it. King Solomon acknowledged that there is a time to weep and mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:4). A certain amount of sorrow is a good thing. In cases in which there has been prolonged suffering, sorrow can be a relief. Whatever the case, most people need time to express their sadness, whether alone or with friends.
It is inane and cruel to say to a child whose mother has just died, "God wanted your mother more than you do." What a dreadful saying, and I am aware of this actually being said. The poor child who hears this is devastated by the loss and is made to feel guilty because he didn't want the mother enough, even though the child loved his mother with all his being.
Realize that your friend who lost a loved one may desperately need to talk about the deceased. Honor that need. You can bear with your friend for a few days. It may well be that all you can say is a sincere "I'm sorry." Death is sad, and it affects us all in different ways. You need to be understanding and sympathetic and take your cue from the bereaved. Time will heal.
There is hope
The apostle Paul addressed the subject of death: "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Paul didn't intend that we should not sorrow. Grieving is a natural process. It is therapeutic, scriptural and a part of life.
What Paul did say is that we shouldn't mourn as those who have no hope, knowledge or understanding about death. In the book of Job, the truth of the state of the dead is given: "If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands" (Job 14:14, 15).
There will come a time when all who have died will live again. They will rise to a life much better than the one they have known and to a time of great joy and happiness.
There will come a time when deaths will no longer occur. Mankind's greatest enemy shall cease to exist (1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 21:4).
Death will be no more, and life will reign supreme. Look to that day with confidence.