Category Archives: death

Not in denial about death

Ben Witherington has an insightful post about death and the Christian. I’ve mentioned our culture’s denial about death before, and I think he’s spot on about the world’s thinking and how it can subtly impact Christian thinking.

I was struck by the old Southern custom of traffic stopping as a funeral cortege passes. I experienced exactly that situation one day a few years ago in Newry, Co Down. I suspect that the South probably preserves something of the widespread customs of a bygone age, just as more rural Northern Ireland does.

Since we live opposite a cemetery on the extreme outskirts of the city, I can’t escape the almost weekly occurrence of funerals right outside the window of the room I work in. But the invisibility of death has made considerable inroads among Christians in this part of the world. I was very surprised to discover my 17-year-old nephew had only been to his first funeral last year. By his age I had been to quite a few funerals, including that of my own mother. Distressing as the latter was, I suspect it would have been considerably more traumatic had I not been prepared by attendance at other funerals before. I’m not convinced that Christian parents are helping their children by shielding them from realities of life, like death. Christians, of all people, should realise that death is not a morbid subject that is off-limits for civilized folks.

Fear Not

I got a copy of Fear Not! by Ligon Duncan yesterday and have started reading it. My interest was piqued by a recent blog post of the closing paragraph.

I hesitate to go as far as Jonathan Edwards in the opening quotation in chapter 1:

Resolved, to think much, on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

But I do think about it more frequently than I used to. It is much nearer than ever before, unless Christ return before it happen to me. Perhaps I miss the hymns that I sang in earlier years, that spoke realistically and comfortingly about it. And yet I think Christians are more touched by death than others, for several reasons.

Our circle of friends in our church fellowships typically has a wider age than that of our increasingly self- , peer- and close-family-centred pagan neighbours. We will know more older people more intimately and thus experience death at much closer quarters than others.

But at a deeper level, since Christian faith is in a Saviour who died and rose again, our faith sprang to life because of a death. And at that time we will have faced the wages of our sin — our death. And then, on a continuing basis, as we participate in the Lord’s Supper we are regularly (weekly as a baptist) confronted with the reality of a death we dared not die and a death that was not deserved, but for which we are immensely grateful as we will eternally be.

Despite such intimate acquaintance with death, Fear Not! promises to be a practical help for those times when death comes close, a touches family and friends. I trust it will be a preparation for personal authentic Christian grief and compassionate Christian comfort in the presence of death.


Ligon Duncan, with J. Nicholas Reid, Fear Not! Death and the Afterlife from a Christian perspective. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2008.

Temporary Death Certificate

Yesterday I attended a funeral for the 23 year old son of friends. The young man, who poignantly had been with his parents at our wedding as baby, had spend the last 4 months battling against a rare neurological disorder.

At the graveside, his uncle read a passage from John 5 centred around verse 25 that brought very clearly into focus the Christan hope in the face of death. in his brief remarks, he told us that because of the medics’ inability to diagnose the cause of death accurately they had issued a temporary death certificate. He pointed out that this is the only kind of death certificate that can ever be issued for a Christian. How true, indeed, for “the sky, not the grave, is our goal”.

The words uttered glibly over the coffins of so many are most assuredly true, and comfortingly so, for genuine believers in Christ — we lay them to rest in an earthly grace “in sure and certain hope of resurrection”.

The challenge for us, who in the providence of God must continue our earthly pilgrimage a little longer, is to exercise the same obedient hearing of the voice of Christ that those who are asleep in him will exercise when her returns at the last day.

Dead Hymns Society

Mark Dever comments on the decline in hymns about the grave and the afterlife in current hymn books:

Our reluctance to sing about the grave in church on Sunday only reveals how much our hopes have been entrusted to this life–and we do not wish to conceive of them being lost. Our treasures have been put too much in this world.
Completely Unavoidable Optimism, Together for the Gospel blog, 22 Feb 2007

I’ve previously pondered the decline in singing about death. This is certainly another important factor in the decline. It’s a very long time since I heard the hymn

This world is not my home
I’m just a’passing through
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue

It may not be the best example of Christian hymnody, but it’s certainly not as popular today as it was in my youth. Perhaps the reason lies not so much in changes in musical taste but in changes of hope.

Singing about death

In today’s service from Tenth Presbyterian, Philadelphia we sang the hymn “I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art” (no I didn’t commute between services in our own church in Belfast—we participated via the Internet). As we sang, I thought how unusual a hymn of praise it was, compared to many modern praise songs. And yet, it is not unusual as a hymn, compared to the great old (and some newer) hymns of the faith. What stood out was:

O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy power.

How many modern songs let us sing about death? Just as modern western society is sanitised, and has eliminated references to death wherever possible, so too has our praise. It may be acceptable to sing about Jesus’ death (though even that is under threat). That is at the heart of the Gospel, so we dare not neglect to sing about that (unless we no longer believe the Gospel).

Bus as we have been delivered from the fear of death to which everyone is enslaved (Heb 2:14-15), it is appropriate to sing about our own death. Singing about it helps us face its reality. It is an inevitability, no matter how much our culture proclaims our immortality. But such contemplation is not morbid, for the stanza that brings us face to face with our own mortality starts by reminding us of the source of our life:

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;

Death is inevitable, but this is not fatalism. The strength we receive in life from God is the same strength with which we may face death, A hymn such as this forces us to confront our death long before we stare death in the face.

Such songs in and of themselves will never provide the strong-heartedness with which the Christian believer may face death, but they must surely help us prepare to face our own death well. And in so doing we may face life well, so that we may sing the final stanza of Philip Ryken’s hymn “Now I make my good confession” truthfully:

Here’s my life–Lord, take and use it,
use my gifts to spread your fame;
I will go where Jesus calls me,
live and die for His great name.

If we have not taken time to contemplate life and death when we are in health and strength, it is doubtful we will face death strong-heartedly. For us Philippians 1:21 will be merely a Bible verse, unlike Paul for whom it was reality:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

I’m sure Paul sang those Psalms that led him to contemplate death in the light of God. May we follow in his footsteps, and not shy away from contemplating and singing about death, that we may be strong-hearted then to face it by God’s power.