Our friend David, in Beijing, is a relatively new Christian and the only one in his family’s history; so he is learning as he goes with relatively little support — unlike those of us who grew up not just in Christian families, but in a largely Christian culture. The older gentleman who was his primary mentor in the faith just died, and David naturally was deeply grieved. But, much as was Helen when she went to her first Pierce family funeral a couple of years ago, he found himself taken aback by how little apparent grief the family members seemed to feel, and couldn’t help but perceive it (as practically any culturally Chinese person would without long training in Christianity) as a deficiency of love: how can you claim to love somebody if you are not distressed by his death?
He asked Helen about it, and she asked me to write a response; so here it is.
There are several critical verses from Paul’s letters we should start with.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” – Romans 8:18
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 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.” – Philippians 1:21-24
“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….we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with those words.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 17b-18
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” – 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, some of the last words Paul wrote before he died.
And finally, some of what Jesus said to His disciples the night before He was crucified:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” – John 14:1-3
Christianity says certain things about death and eternity, and the only reason to be a Christian is because you believe this is actually true – and that is precisely why I am a Christian, is because the evidence has convinced me that this is actually and eternally true. Paul is not 阿Q; he is not finding ways to lie to himself so that he can feel better – in fact he explicitly says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But Jesus did rise from the dead, and death has been swallowed up in victory.
So here is what Christianity says is true about death:
1. Those who die with their faith in Jesus, will live with Him forever.
2. Heaven is infinitely better than this present life.
3. This life is less than an instant in comparison with eternity, and so the only real purpose of this life is to prepare us for heaven and to give us a chance to help other people prepare for heaven.
4. Therefore the very best thing that can happen to a Christian, is when God says, “Your work is done; come home; enter into my joy that has been prepared for you.”
I will say again: no matter how many wonderful things happen to a Christian in this life, none of them are as good as dying; dying is the best thing that happens to us in our whole lives. But, that is on condition that we do our job while we are here, including not leaving our post until Jesus calls us home. So dying is the best thing that can happen to a Christian, but suicide is so deeply non-Christian that there have been many Christian theologians who have believed that anyone who committed suicide would go to Hell, and in many parts of Europe for a long time nobody who committed suicide could be buried in the church graveyard where all the Christians were buried.
So while the death of a Christian is partly a time for grief for those who love him and are left behind, that grief is both entirely selfish (not in a sinful sense, just in the sense that we feel sorry for ourselves rather than for the person who died), and entirely temporary; and underneath it all lies a constant song of joy.
It is “selfish,” because we are feeling sorry for ourselves – the last person in the world anybody should feel sorry for is the dead Christian, for he has been relieved of duty and allowed to go home. For him, we have nothing but joy; we are happy for him, and the better we know Jesus, the more we look forward to the day when we too are told by Jesus, “OK, your work is done; you can come home now.” But of course for those of us who aren’t yet allowed to go home, life is worse now, because until our own time comes we will never again get to hear the loved one’s voice, or share our happiness with him; we will never get to show him our newborn children or call him with wonderful news; we can never again get his advice when we don’t know what to do. Our life just got worse, and so it is natural for us to feel some grief for ourselves.
But this grief is tempered, because:
1. We know we will see him again, in heaven. So our grief is temporary, and we know that it is. It is not, “Farewell;” it is, “See you later.”
2. We know that time heals grief without destroying memories: if we allow ourselves to grieve, we will heal, and the day will come when looking back on all the good memories we have with him will still bring us joy, but the grief will be gone.
3. Most of all, we are very, very happy for the Christian who died, as today is the first day of true freedom and joy for him. He has finished the race; he has fought the good fight; and we know that he has been greeted by his Savior with the crown of life. This is especially true for loved ones who have bravely suffered through painful illness; they are released from their suffering into joy. How could we not rejoice on their behalf? Why would we want to see them linger on in pain and suffering when unimaginable joy is waiting for them on the other side?
Does that help you see why, when a Christian dies, the more his fellow Christians loved him, the more joy they feel on his behalf?
I’ll close with some extracts from the Anglican burial service, starting with a prayer addressed to God just before the congregation leaves the church to accompany the body to the graveyard:
“You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!’”
And at the very end, out at the graveyard (not infrequently in a pouring rain as it is God who gets to decide the weather for every funeral), literally as the dirt begins to be thrown onto the coffin, the priest says:
“In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother [or sister], and we commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
And the very last thing said before the congregation turns and leaves the body to its rest is this:
PRIEST: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
PEOPLE: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
PRIEST: Let us go forth in the name of Christ.
PEOPLE: Thanks be to God.
Every Christian funeral, you see, takes place in the glory and the eternal sunrise of resurrection. Every Christian death is the beginning of our true life; every Christian death is more life than death; every Christian who dies is more alive after his death than he was before it. And therefore even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Note: The reference to 阿Q (pronounced “Ah Cue”) is a reference to a character that literally every educated person in China knows; he is more or less the Chinese equivalent of Polyanna, except that the creator of 阿Q had a much bleaker outlook on life than did the creator of Polyanna. You can read about 阿Q here.