It is said that there are two things in life that are certain: death and taxes. The second is not universally true - for instance there are no taxes in many countries in the Middle East. The first, however, is. Death comes to all and there is no escaping it. Many of us dread death, either our own and/or that of those we love, but for the Christian there is really no reason to fear it. Rather we should look upon it with confident expectation.
Most of those who were martyred for Christ went to their death joyfully and this is no more evident than in Stephen, the first person martyred for the faith. Ever since he had an encounter with the living God Stephen went about preaching about him and as he did so signs and wonders followed him. As is often the case such miracles arouse the jealousy of many and some of the chief priests and elders trumped up false charges against him and hauled him in front of the Sanhedrin. Much to the fury of the court, Stephen began preaching to them, accusing them of being responsible for the death of Jesus. Finally, they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Stephen gazed up at heaven where he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God waiting to receive him. In moments, after a prayer asking God to forgive those who were stoning him to death, he died unafraid and confident.
How do we get such confidence? Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, writes a lovely treatise on death that tells us how.
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor 5:3-10)
Our Dwelling on Earth is Temporary
Paul compares our existence on earth to living in a tent. These days only refugees and campers live in tents and both understand that the dwelling place is temporary. This temporary state brings hope to the former and enjoyment to the latter. Should either (or both) believe they are going to live in a tent forever, they would surely despair because tents are insecure and uncomfortable. You can’t lock them or otherwise keep them safe from predators, human or animal. Tents are hostage to the vagaries of the environment. You never know when the rains might pour down crushing the tent underneath its weight or when a storm might blow it right off you. They tend to be hot and claustrophobic; stuffy and dirty. Other things can also happen as evident from this joke involving Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
The famous duo once went on a camping trip. After sharing a good meal and a bottle of good wine, they retire to their tent for the night. Some time in the morning Holmes nudged Watson and said to him, “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see?”
Watson replied, “I see thousands and thousands of stars.”
Holmes asked him, “What does that tell you?”
Watson answered, “Astronomically it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Theologically it tells me that God is great and we are small and insignificant. Horologically it tells me that it’s about 3 AM. Meteorologically it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes retorts, “It tells me that someone stole our tent!”
Life on earth is like this. There is no security. You can amass a fortune but it can be lost overnight. Your health can fail at any moment. You can meet with an accident and lose a limb - or worse. Your spouse may leave you. Your children might take to drugs. And while these aren’t reasons to opt for death over life, understanding that all these matters are just temporary puts things into proper perspective, giving one more confidence in facing death, especially because life after death is extraordinary. Which brings us to another reason for confidence.
What Awaits us in Heaven is Extraordinary
Paul says that “we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Co 5:3) Can you imagine what such a dwelling place that is prepared by divine hands would be like? Even the best house on earth would be nothing in comparison.
Jesus, himself, assures us of this abode when he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (Jn 14:1-3)
Imagine a woman gets married to a prosperous man living in a foreign country. Although she lives with her family and is happy with them in their little house, she longs to be with her spouse. It should be the same for us, whose spouse is Jesus. It was for the apostle Paul. Writing to the Philippians, he declares: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Phil 1:21-23)
Towards the end of his life, Paul told his friend Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:7-8)
This crown is promised to all of us who await the coming of the Lord with eager anticipation.
What Awaits us in Heaven is Guaranteed
Also giving us confidence is the fact that our future in heaven is secure. In this passage we have been examining Paul writes, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (2 Cor 5:5)
Elsewhere to the Ephesians he says something similar and even more reassuring: “Eph 1:13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”
Jesus gives similar assurance. After the death of Lazarus, he tells his grieving sister Mary: “Jn 11:25 “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? If you do, then be confident in your future. It is secured by faith in Christ and the resultant consquences of a life that is in Christ.
What happens after we die?
One of the main reasons we are afraid of death is because we don’t know what will happen to us once we die. Some knowledge here will help take away this fear. The Catechism explains this beautifully as it answers the question: How do the dead rise?
What is “rising”? In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Who will rise? All the dead will rise, “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
How? Christ is raised with his own body: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself”; but he did not return to an earthly life. So, in him, “ all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear,” but Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” into a “spiritual body”: But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel. . . . What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. . . . The dead will be raised imperishable. . . . For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. (1 Cor 15:35‑37).
This “how” exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith. Yet our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration of our bodies: Just as bread that comes from the earth, after God’s blessing has been invoked upon it, is no longer ordinary bread, but Eucharist, formed of two things, the one earthly and the other heavenly: so too our bodies, which partake of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.
When? Definitively “at the last day,” “at the end of the world.” Indeed, the resurrection of the dead is closely associated with Christ’s Parousia: For the Lord himself will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thess 5:16)
The fear of death is also eliminated by the confidence that God walks with the person before, while and after the transition from life to death. The psalmist says: “Ps 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” It is a combination of both these that accounts for the joy of the martyrs while they died. This is why it is paramount for a Christian to constantly walk with God. Only that eliminates fear, even the fear of a death to come or fear of an ongoing death. Whether we say that we are living or that we are dying, we are speaking the truth and neither is better or worse than the other.
Dealing with the death of those we love
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “Rom14:8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
If we believe these words to be true, then a proper understanding will help us to deal with the death of those close to us.
Imagine that you borrow a book from a friend who goes away to a distant country before you can return it to him. You get to love this book, which you read several times. About three years later your friend returns and asks for his book. Can you keep it? Obviously not, because it doesn’t belong to you.
In the same way the people in our lives belong to God, not us, and if he should want to take them, he is free to do so whenever he wants.
This, together with the understanding of other truths pertaining to death, will help us to deal with those who have left us to go to God.