A biblical case for fighting death throuhout our lives.

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. (Isa. 38:1–3; all Scripture quotations from the NIV)

Ray had been in a coma for four days. Once powerful and muscular, his arms lay quietly at his flanks. Physically exhausted and consumed by his two-year struggle with colon cancer, he lay in his hospital bed motionless, a living chrysalis in an inverted cocoon. He would soon die, most likely within the day.

My hospital visit that morning brought me to Ray’s room at 5:30. The nursing station and patient rooms were quiet and, in one of the paradoxes of hospital life, even peaceful—if such a thing as peace is possible in a place where life and death constantly vie for dominance. Sitting silently at his bedside, Ray’s wife of 40 years, Jean, had placed her small hand softly on her husband’s right shoulder. No examination would be necessary today. In deference to Jean’s vigil, I pulled a chair abreast of hers and joined her silent watch, conjointly marveling at the physical stamina and endurance of the human body and pondering the mystery of the approach of physical death. Lost in our private thoughts and beset by personal memories of this marvelous man, we sat together, bonded by our grief and captivated by the drama slowly unfolding before us.

Suddenly, an awesome thing happened. Lazaruslike, Ray sat bolt upright in his bed. Fiercely clutching the sides of his bed, Ray contracted his arms as he gazed with apparent abject horror into the void at the foot of his bed. This totally unanticipated activity was immediately followed by an equally unexpected loosening of his vocal cords—silent for these four days—in a terrifying scream that cascaded down the quiet hospital corridor.

In four short clauses that reverberate even today in my mind as I reflect on his death ten years ago, Ray screamed into the early morning surrounding his bed: “No! I don’t want to go … I don’t want to die … I won’t go!” Completely exhausted by this emotional and physical outburst, Ray collapsed into the bed, gasped the humid air of the hospital room two or three times, and died.

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King Hezekiah would understand.

Facing the wall

Ascending the throne as king of Judah after the death of his godless father, Ahaz, Hezekiah put into motion one of the greatest religious revivals in the history of the southern kingdom. Idols were destroyed, the temple in Jerusalem was repaired and rededicated for worship, the Mosaic covenant was renewed, and the Passover was celebrated by a joyous and thankful nation.

But 14 years into Hezekiah’s reign, crisis struck in the form of the Assyrian army. Judah watched in terror as the mighty Assyrians overran the small nation, ultimately beseiging the capital city of Jerusalem. Yet, because of Hezekiah’s decision to trust in Jehovah, God miraculously delivered the nation from Assyrian captivity.

With the withdrawal of the Assyrian troops from Jerusalem, however, Judah’s great and godly leader became desperately ill. As the king’s illness intensified, the prophet Isaiah, on whose help Hezekiah had undoubtedly relied as he fashioned the spiritual renewal of the nation, was sent by God with a pointed message to Hezekiah. In words that left no room for doubt and no possibility of escape—and that must have deeply grieved Isaiah personally—the great prophet declared, “You are going to die; you will not recover.” Thirty-nine years old and political leader of God’s chosen people, Hezekiah learned that his future had thus been decided by the very God he had worshiped so faithfully. All hope had been removed; his death was both inevitable and imminent.

Hezekiah reacted swiftly and passionately. Withdrawing from personal contact, the king “faced the wall,” poured out his distress as a complaint to God in prayer, and “wept bitterly.” In a reaction analogous to Ray’s when faced with the overt reality of his death approaching, this great religious leader simply could not accept the words of Isaiah without an intense emotional and spiritual struggle.

Ray would understand. Do we?

A fragile truce

As a medical oncologist, I have had the privilege and responsibility of accompanying many women and men on the journey to their physical death. We have struggled valiantly together, these patients-turned-friends and I, with the physical, emotional, and spiritual ramifications of their terminal cancers. And long after their deaths, I continue to struggle, both emotionally and spiritually, with the ugly fact of death.

Death and I have gradually come to a fragile but significant truce, a truce that provides my soul with the shield it requires as I render my service to the dying. It is a truce that has been forged only with the aid of Ray, Hezekiah, and the message of God himself.

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Of all people, Christ’s followers surely need not fear death, and, in fact, they should serve as examples for others in their response to death. Paul writes to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ; to die is gain.… I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (1:21–24). But while this passage is foundational for a biblical perspective on death, I have found that Paul’s words are often used in a manner that minimizes or ignores the very real emotional and physical pain of the struggle. Many times I have wondered how much room there would be for Ray or Hezekiah and their agonized questions and complaints in today’s churches.

If we are to assist our fellow Christ-followers in the forging of their individual truces with death, we would do well to study other biblical teachings—those that accept, and even embrace, the honest emotional and spiritual reactions of people in the Scripture story. In my personal quest for biblical understanding, the following facts have emerged, which have helped to guide my way.

1. Although inevitable, death is not natural. The inescapability of physical death is one of the great and terrifying realities of human existence. Confirming the certainty of death, the psalmist wrote, “Remember how fleeting is my life.… What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?” (89:47–48). Likewise, the New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews emphasized the view that we are “destined to die once and after that to face judgment” (9:27).

But although the certainty of physical death is clearly imbedded in reality, it is not the complete reality. The complete reality is that although physical death is a certainty, it is not “natural.” Humankind, as originally created in the image of God, was not created to die. Physical death is an aberration that has plagued women and men because individually and collectively we have rebelled against God’s just rules for right living (Rom. 5:12–14).

Understanding this crucial fact has become one of the foundations upon which my uneasy truce with death has been built. I have not been created to die; I have been created to live. Physical death is a reality through which I must travel, but it is a reality that was no part of God’s original plan.

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As a doctor, I found this truth liberating. My mind was now free to rebel at the certain fate awaiting my patients—and me. It became both acceptable and appropriate for me to be angry as death approached. I felt my faith no longer required me to accept physical death passively. My questions and fears became a confirmation of my common humanity with my patients. And the fact that I, with them, had these fears revealed that death is not natural but the universal and direct consequence of our common rejection of God.

2. Although a deep mystery, God’s reaction to physical death parallels that of his creation’s. Distress (2 Sam. 22:5–7; Ps. 116:3) and despair (Ps. 88:15; Job 6:26), as well as fear and terror (Heb. 2:15; Ps. 55:4–5) were all emotions recorded as experienced by individual people of God when confronted with physical death.

And God does not appear as a passive bystander in this drama of life and death. He has involved himself passionately and, indeed, redemptively with the struggles of his creation. Paul describes our physical end as God’s final adversary in this world, finally to be overcome through the death of his Son on the cross—“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).

God does not condemn the flood of emotions we experience when confronted with death, forcing us to stuff them deeply into the recesses of our souls as hidden psychic skeletons. He understands our fears, provides us with human examples for our instruction, and personally involves himself with us in the emotional outflow of our questions and concerns.

3. Although a daunting adversary, physical death is neither the ultimate enemy nor the ultimate victor. Serving as a great counterbalance to my emotional reactions to physical death is the assurance in Scripture that life extends beyond the physical. I have learned that although an awesome adversary, physical death is neither the ultimate enemy nor the ultimate victor in the battle that has engaged all of humankind.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus’ teachings—often delivered with considerable passion and intensity—underscored the significance of soul life. Jesus sought to convince his audience that this unending conscious selfhood represents the ultimate reality of existence and the ultimate focus of God’s concern in his intercourse with his human creatures. In his most direct indications that physical death is not the ultimate adversary of life, Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). He also asked them, “What good will it be for a man if he gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Ultimately, according to Jesus, we live on a level of ongoing selfhood and not merely on a physical plane, and the spiritual death of a person separated from God, rather than the physical death of a person separated from his or her body, is our final and most fearsome foe.

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Given the foundational nature of these facts for my faith, I have found my day-to-day acceptance of them to be surprisingly difficult. Somehow, though I acknowledge their veracity intellectually, the principle of death being a limited and defeated adversary does not help as I discuss physical death with my patients and their families. It is precisely at these challenging and dangerous times that I have learned I must choose to believe God’s astonishing promises concerning our victory over death through Christ our Lord.

Like the disciples and crowds Jesus taught, the concept of a soul life that goes beyond physical life represents a deep mystery to me. But as I have groped my way through the mystery and majesty of these awesome assurances, I have repeatedly found the God who is the rock of my faith reaching to me even as I struggle to find him.

“How do I look in the face?”

On May 10, 1863, in Chancellorsville, Virginia, eight days after a furious battle between Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army and the Grand Army of the Republic, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the most trusted and admired of Lee’s field generals, lay dying. He had been inadvertently shot in the left arm by one of his own troops as he patrolled the battle lines in the aftermath of the Confederate victory. Attempting to prevent tissue gangrene, physicians had amputated Jackson’s arm. Despite their best efforts, however, the 39-year-old general developed a progressive pneumonia. As his death neared, Jackson, a devout Christian, gazed into the faces of the physicians and aides who surrounded his cot and allegedly asked, “How do I look in the face?”

Looking into the face of death in others is a fearsome and daunting experience that has shaken and changed me. I wonder how I will “look in the face” as that time nears for me.

The forging of my personal truce with death has become a seminal fact of my life. Understanding the basic “unnaturalness” of physical death, the universality of my instinctive “no” to it, God’s identification with my emotional response to it, the supremacy of soul life, and the forthcoming destruction of this “last enemy” has not caused my inward questions and churnings to dissolve in doctrinal triumph. But such understanding has allowed me to deal with one day after another, one patient-friend after another, one “faith leap” after another, one look into the face of death after another.

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My friends—Ray, a 61-year-old coppersmith from northern New England, and Hezekiah, the 39-year-old Hebrew king and spiritual reformer—understood. And as we listen carefully to both the anguished cry of our Savior on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), and the triumphant declaration of the angelic messengers at the tomb, “He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:6)—we, too, can understand.

Paul Brand is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist. Now in semiretirement, he serves as clinical professor emeritus, Department of Orthopedics, at the University of Washington and consults for the World Health Organization. His years of pioneering work among leprosy patients earned him many awards and honors.

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