Everybody dies. We can try to delay it, but in a world of anxiety about the future, a world of uncertainty about what may or may not come to pass, our own death is one thing that is absolutely coming for us. But what comes next? If you think about it, your answer to that big, looming question of your ultimate destiny will change everything about how you live.
There is a new album by one of my favorite bands, Lord Huron, that will be released April 20th, 2018, which deals intentionally and explicitly with this question in a philosophically beautiful way. Stories drive Lord Huron’s songs, captivating the heart and provoking the mind to consider what kind of life we are living. In “Ancient Names, Pt. I,” we are introduced to a character who is terribly dismayed at a fortune teller’s prophecy that death is coming for him. In her words, he is “alive for now, but good as dead.” What would you do if you believed that your death was imminent – if you didn’t even know whether or not you would “live to see the next sunrise?”
The character chooses to run away. Perhaps he “can’t evade [his] fate,” but he does not intend to “sit around and wait” for death to claim him. He refuses to accept the news of his impending death and his solution is to “get away” from both the message and the messenger. Most of us would resonate with that response. After all, death can be terrifying. But fear is not the only response available to us.
None of us knows whether or not we will live to see the next sunrise. On a philosophical level, 18th century empiricist David Hume illustrates that we cannot truly know, for a fact, that the sun will even continue to rise at all! The Bible gives us a similar perspective in James 4:14: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” However, we are called to live in fear of the Lord, not in fear of death. For the Bible does not shy away or run from death. Instead, we are taught that to think about our mortality, “to number our days,” will not deliver us into a heart of fear, but rather “that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Why does the Christian worldview offer such a markedly different perspective of death from a secular one?
Lord Huron’s album is titled “Vide Noir,” which translates from French to mean “Black Void.” The full significance of the title may become clearer as the rest of the album’s tracks are released, but based on the three already available, it speaks volumes into establishing one worldview of what might come after death: nothing. But if nothing comes after death, if there is no afterlife, how then should we live? What overarching purpose could our existence possibly bear for us? Stephen Jay Gould, who was a scientist, historian, atheist and professor at Harvard, claimed that no objective purpose of life exists. In his book, I Have Landed, he states, “Why are we here? We are here because one particular group of fish had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs…we may yearn for a ‘higher answer’ – but none exists…we must construct these answers ourselves – from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.” Bertrand Russell, mathematician and philosopher, goes one step further, saying that all our good deeds come to naught, that the universe will end in ruins and that “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” They strongly believed that, because there is no higher spiritual power, because nothing awaits us after death but a ‘vide noir,’ life itself has no inherent meaning.
Lord Huron’s follow-up track, “Ancient Names, Pt. II,” brilliantly depicts what his character’s spiritual journey into the black void is like: running full speed in the opposite direction! Everything from the high energy music to the highly distorted vocals to the lyrics themselves emphasize that this all-consuming fear of death has destroyed everything of worth in the character’s life. The opening line of the song declares: “Gone are the days of laughter and love” – the joy of living has already departed from his heart as the man rages against the dying of the light. “I scream and shout like this just to prove the world that I still exist.” He desperately wants his life to matter, but deep down, he doesn’t believe that it does. “I don’t believe in life, and I won’t believe in death til I die.” Driven by fear, he is in complete denial of death, and it is causing the remaining time he has on Earth to implode, disintegrating the things he had that were still worth living for.
Conversely, in the Christian worldview, we do not fear death and therefore we are empowered to cherish life. We cannot actually increase the number of our days, but we can increase our laughter and our love because we are promised an infinite number of days – eternal life – in Christ Jesus. Reflecting on this promise, the Apostle Paul boldly declares: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:55-58). This is a stark contrast from persisting in ‘unyielding despair’ while the universe crumbles around us and all memory of our life’s work and love fades into dust. What we do matters. How we live matters. The Lord’s work will endure forever, along with all who receive him and believe in his name – God has adopted us into his everlasting family. In Christ, we have become children of God! (John 1:12). So we see that a biblical understanding of death and what comes after will fill our hearts with courage to be a light in the darkness, with strength to face the day and with gratitude for all that Jesus has done and will do in our lives.
But what if it is not your own death that you fear? What if you might lose – or have lost – someone you dearly love? How then could you endure the pain of life in the face of your loss? This is precisely the subject that the next song, “Wait By The River,” contemplates. A man has lost the one he loved, and he cries out to Heaven, “if we can’t be together, what’s the point of life?”
This is a question that, tragically, became all too real to my family nearly a year ago when my wife’s dad, a strong Christian leader in his community, died of a heart attack in his early 50s. As we have grieved together for the wonderful man that we have lost, I heard this question asked aloud many times and in many forms. Sometimes we feel, intuitively, that the best option would be to hasten toward our own deaths, to forsake what little this world seems to have left to offer us and to press on in hope that we will see our loved ones again. This is the course that the character in the song considers as he waits by the river: “If we can’t be together, I will leave this world behind. If I can’t touch your body, can I touch the sky?” However, rather than some vague hope of transcendence into God knows what, God has actually revealed to us a fairly good idea of where exactly we should place our hope.
Recently, my wife and I visited an old Dutch church in Sri Lanka while we were traveling on holiday. We were moved by the last words that loved ones had left on the gravestones of their beloved, mostly Bible verses and inspirational messages about their faith in life after death and their belief that they would see each other again. One which struck us as particularly hope-filled read: “Not lost but gone before.” And this is precisely the picture that Paul gives us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” So even deep in the midst of our grief, our family did not lose heart. For though outwardly we felt as though we were wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day, by the faithfulness and for the glory of our Redeemer (2 Corinthians 4:16). The same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead lives in us and in my wife’s father. He is not lost – he’s just gone before. We know that will see him again.
In contrast to the attitudes and actions that Lord Huron’s characters choose in the face of death, the apostle Paul offers a life-giving alternative: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from that love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Paul exhorts us that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). For we are promised, in the end, that God will make all things new, that “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will pass] away” (Revelation 21:4). Death is not the end, nor are we consigned to a black void for our eternal fate. Instead, gratitude for who we are in Christ will leave us full of life, full of laughter and full of love until the end of our numbered days.