COVID-19 has shoved the reality of death into our faces. Singapore recently reported its 6th COVID-19 death and at the point of writing the world total is now at 74, 697; it is now undoubtedly higher. The fear of death has driven us to extreme measures like social distancing and obsessive hygiene. Whole economies have collapsed as the entire world attempts to hinder the spread of the virus. Nations fight over limited resources, engage in political and moral posturing, all in an attempt to preserve their own lives. Nobody wants to die.
Then there is the kind of ‘death’ that we experience on a more regular, but no less real, basis. For some working adults, there is the death of whole careers that might have otherwise spanned a lifetime. For university students, end-of-semester celebrations are replaced by a solemn and premature eviction from campus housing . For citizens under the new ‘circuit breaker’ measures, there is the death of personal freedom as we are confined to our homes. For everyone around the world, there is the death of general security, with our plans for the future having been thrown into disarray. Death knows no boundaries and encroaches into every area of our life. Even our attempts to flee death themselves bring about death.
The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this well. After a lifetime of searching out meaning in life, he came to the sobering conclusion that man is no different from a beast, resigned to becoming dust.
‘For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from dust, and to dust all return.’ (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
Death makes everything meaningless. The career you built your life upon will fade away and collapse. Your wealth will go to another and will no longer be yours. The people whom you love and have invested in will either forget you or themselves be taken up by death. ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.’
The Bible’s sober reflection on death is disturbing, but not surprising. From the very beginning we see that death is an encroachment on goodness. Genesis 3:19 tell us that death is a consequence of sin, a disruption in a perfect world. Death should make us uncomfortable, because we were not supposed to die; it was our sin that brought death into this world. God’s perfect world was one where His people dwelled with Him, delighted in Him, worshipped Him forever (Revelations 21:3-4).
But now, death is what surrounds us. It is the ultimate answer to human pride, for it has no respect for status, wealth, relationships or any other number of things that we might build our lives on. Certainly, we should continue to fight it as we have done so in the face of COVID-19 with our various measures. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes urges his readers to live wisely and enjoy life despite the abiding threat of death (Ecclesiastes 4:13, 7:4-5, 9:9). But we cannot remain ignorant to the main message of Ecclesiastes: as long as death holds power over us, life is vanity, a striving after wind. COVID-19 highlights the reality and power of death with cutting clarity and technicolour vividness.
It is perhaps our unfamiliarity with death that explains why we often don’t treat the words of Jesus seriously, or see them as spectacularly bold and supernatural. When Jesus claims that He has come to bring eternal life, we look towards our health, our wealth, our comfort, and in our hearts we think, ‘I am going to live forever, what need do I have of eternal life?’ We might not profess it with our mouths, but we reveal it through the way we live. We behave like little children taking pride in the sandcastles we have built, blind to the incoming tsunami on the horizon.
But Jesus was not blind. He was crystal clear on why He had come. This is what he says: ‘this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on that last day’ (John 6:40). He came to reverse the destructive effects of sin by taking it all upon Himself, taking on the death that should have been ours. And while others have died and remained dead, God raised Jesus up and did not let him see the corruption that the rest of the world faces (Acts 13:36-37). Jesus not only lived, but lives. And He is calling us now to Himself, to turn away from every other dying thing we have put our hope in and instead, trust in a risen Saviour who brings real life to His people (1 Cor 15:20-24).
We live in the in-between, where the promises of God have been made but not fulfilled. Until the Lord returns, we will have to continue burying our friends and family. We ourselves will return to the dust, whether sooner or later, by virus or by natural causes. The ‘mini-deaths’ we experience like the end of careers and disruption of our plans are ones we will have to endure for as long as we are on this earth. But the hope that God gives to His people is this,
‘He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ (Revelations 21:3b-4)
This is the hope that we as Christians have, that this temporary world will soon give way to the bright reality of God’s kingdom. If death is no more, than all the consequences of death will also be no more. No longer will our labour feel futile, our relationships fleeting. In a world without death, there will be perfect work, perfect love, perfect satisfaction. And who can save us from death, to be our living bread and water? Only Jesus.
So rightly grieve the current state of this world. Mourn with those who have lost much during this season; it might have been the death of a loved one, separation from other members of the church, or the collapse of personal plans and aspirations (Romans 12:15). They are real consequences of death that rightly warrant our sorrow. But I pray that what will be more real than the pain is the abiding peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone stands in victory over sin and death. Though our sin had called us to death, He has in His mercy and grace called us to life in Himself.
PS: (For a more thorough reflection on death, I highly recommend Matthew McCullough’s Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope. The ideas and thoughts I have expressed in this piece, though processed through my own experiences, were deeply shaped and inspired by this book. It is a wonderfully encouraging read that goes into much greater, God-glorifying detail regarding what the gospel’s answer to death is.)