‘I’m not bothered about life after death,’ one student told me after a talk I had given in their university, ‘I want to enjoy life before death!’
His objection is a common one. It could seem that religious people are only really worried about what happens after you die. But most people today want to enjoy life before they die. In a culture where death is a taboo subject, we don’t want to think about it or what may or may not lie beyond. We want to enjoy life now.
Yet could it be that the only way to really enjoy life before death is to know that there is life after death? Indeed, could it be that our loss of any belief in life after death in western society is preventing us from really enjoying life now either?
Can death be eradicated?
You would have thought that the Covid-19 epidemic would have forced us to face up to the reality of death and ask if there is hope beyond it. Yet I am not sure it really has. At least, not yet.
Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and an atheist, explains why in a fascinating article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper early in the pandemic. He asked, ‘Will coronavirus change our attitudes to death? Quite the opposite.’ He continues:
For scientists, death isn’t a divine decree – it is merely a technical problem. Humans die not because God said so, but because of some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. Cancer has destroyed the liver. Viruses multiply in the lungs… Whereas traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians in black cassocks, now it’s the folks in white lab coats. If the heart flutters, we can stimulate it with a pacemaker or even transplant a new heart. If cancer rampages, we can kill it with radiation. If viruses proliferate in the lungs, we can subdue them with some new medicine.
True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. The best human minds no longer spend their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy extending life…
Harari has incredible faith in science to be able to solve every human problem. He is not alone – he is simply echoing the thoughts of many in western society that look to science for the answers to all of life’s problems.
Indeed, in his book, Sapiens, he goes even further and suggests that ultimately science could give us eternal life. Not Heaven, but the final removal of all illness and ageing leading to the eradication of death itself.
The increase of fear
Yet imagine a world where every illness can be cured, every cancer treated and every virus vaccinated against. There is still a problem. What if I get run over by a bus? Harari asks, ‘What would it be like to live in a world where I could live forever or I could get killed tomorrow? Would we not become incredibly risk averse?’
Yet we don’t have to wait for some future hypothetical day to see this. We just need to look around us today. The world we live in already is incredibly risk averse.
In his book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out a surprising paradox about contemporary culture. Despite being far safer than almost any previous culture we are more fearful and anxious too. Haidt coined the phrase ‘safetyism’ to describe the malady of western society. He demonstrates how a near obsession with safety is actually depriving children and young people of some of the most fun and formative experiences of their childhood. By trying to remove all risk we have also removed so much that is so good about life.
Although his book was written before the Covid-19 epidemic I believe that recent events have only served to show how right he was. In an attempt to try to control a virus and defeat death we have lost so much that is good and meaningful about life.
As a society we pour massive resources into trying to extend life. On the one hand this is not wrong. But when you consider that 80% of the United Kingdom’s health budget is spent on the last 6 months of life it does make you wonder. Are we fearful of death? Have we become a society that will stop at nothing to try and avoid the inevitable?
No matter how hard we try, we can’t avoid death forever. But our fear of it does seem to be stopping us from really being able to live.
The answer to death
How wonderful then that Jesus, not only claimed to have the answer to death, but claimed to be the answer to death. Speaking to friends who had recently been bereaved, he said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Jesus claims to be the one that has defeated death. He claims that if we know and trust him that death will not be a full stop on the sentence of life, but merely a comma leading to the next part of the story. Death is not a dead end but merely a gateway into a new dimension of life that will be ever fuller than we could ever imagine.
Yet Jesus didn’t just make this outrageous claim. He backed it up. Firstly by bringing back to life the man who had just died, but secondly by coming back from death himself.
Many today would dismiss the resurrection as incredible. Yet what so many fail to do is to actually look at the historical evidence for it. Once you consider the weight of historical evidence it is not the resurrection that is incredible but all the alternative theories. As one scholar said ‘There is a resurrection sized hole in history that only the resurrection will fill.’
Those who know and trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection can know hope in the face of death. Knowing that there is life after death also frees us to experience real life before death too.
Jesus said that those who want to save their lives will lose them, yet those who lose them will find them. We live in a society where people are trying to save their own lives from the inevitability of death. Yet, not only will they fail to avoid death, they will miss out on life too. Real life is found when we give our lives away in love and service of others.
One of my all-time heroes was Jim Elliot. His life has had a huge impact on our world despite the fact it was far shorter than most. He was killed when he was just 28 as he and his friends attempted to reach a remote South American tribe with the gospel. Yet ultimately, their sacrifice not only led to that tribe coming to know the love of God in Jesus, it also motivated thousands of others around the world to dedicate their lives to serving others in the way that he had.
Not long before he died, he had written these words in his journal:
‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’
We cannot avoid death, but if through Jesus we are freed from the fear of it then we can also be set free to really live.