Facing Death Through Death

(John 11:25-26 NKJV) Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. {26} "And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"

Most of us have had to endure yet another shocking revelation of just how far people can go when they really believe something. The Heaven's Gate cult, which recently committed the mass suicide of 39 individuals, did so purely because they believed that they would join an alien ship hiding in the tail of the comet. The videos left behind did not reveal some crazed people (though some have wondered about the sanity of the leader) who were the outcast of society, but people very similar to ourselves. The only difference was that they really believed that this alien ship existed, and that by leaving their bodies, they would join it. So much so, that they went through with committing their own deaths.

Often I have had people say that what we believe is not so important. Doctrinal differences are just splitting hairs. In some cases that may be true, but to deny the importance of what one believes is to deny who we are and why we act in certain ways. As the Heaven's Gate cult has graphically shown us, what one believes can have very practical and real consequences.

As I was listening to some of the reports of the cult and what had happened, and their reasoning for their death, I couldn't help but begin to compare them with those Christians in centuries past who also were ready to die for what they believed. Ignatius, a first and second century bishop writing to various churches in route to Rome where he was to be fed to the lions for the simple fact that he was a Christian, writes in such a way about his impending death that tends to make us wonder about his sanity. He tells the Christians who will be there to witness his death that no matter how much he cried out for help, that they were not to even so much as plead for him nor to rescue him. He was ready to be martyred for Christ, even looking forward to it as part of his salvation.

Then there were those who actually went out seeking martyrdom. Some in the Roman army voluntarily went before their commanders and confessed to being Christians knowing full well that they would be put to death for it and endure great hardships. There is even the story of one man who went to Rome in order to by a martyr, but was disappointed because it did not take place. These are alien attitudes and thoughts for most of us. We don't go looking for death, we avoid it and fear it. It is something to be hid in a coffin, and buried in the ground. A time of great sadness that we have lost a loved one. And indeed, those feelings are there.

As Jesus' words reveal to us, death is no longer something which we should fear. It is interesting that this mass suicide happened during the Western Holy Week, against the backdrop of Easter. For what they really believed would happen to them was not death, but a passage into a better life...a resurrection of sorts. Definitely not the Christian version of the resurrection, but one none the less. Thus, they did not fear death, rather they welcomed it.

St. Paul illustrates this same attitude for us when he confesses that he does not know whether he wants to stay in this world or go onto the next. The only thing keeping him here was his spiritual children and their well being. Yet, he longed to move onto the next life, and was welcoming it with open arms. Why? Because he truly believed that our physical death was not the end of things, but only the beginning of an everlasting joy in Christ.

Why is this? Because the early Christians really believed that though our physical death had not been destroyed, it had been transformed by the death and resurrection of Christ. It is said that when Christ died, he descended into Hades, the place of the dead, and it swallowed Him up. But, it gave Hades such a stomach ache that it vomited Christ and all those who were locked within it out. Christ, who is the Life, could not be contained by death, and so it transformed death from a prison into a passage to true life. This is expressed so succinctly in the Eastern Paschal hymn that is sung so often at Pascha, the Easter of the Eastern Church (which will take place April 27 this year), "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."

This year my grandmother passed away. She was up in her 90's and had lived a full life. A dedicated Baptist, she was always concerned about the work of the Lord. She taught Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and was one of the pillars of her small country church. I don't know how many Bibles she had given us over the years, or how many prayers she has prayed for us, but it was through one of the Bibles she gave me that I learned about Christ and was lead to Him as a teen.

At her funeral I came to her coffin for the last time. Though there was much sadness from those around me, especially her children and cousins, I felt a real peace and happiness for her. I can't really explain it, but I didn't really see her as dead anymore...just transformed. As I passed by, I said under my breath so as not to offend any of those in deep sorrow, "See you later Grandma."

I must add, that because we see death in this light, does not mean that we have the freedom to make the decision when this life should be over. We could get into specifics and situational ethics, but self-imposed suicide is not a valid option. We don't decide when to leave this life, God does. When we are finished with this life, we will move on at God's discretion, but until then we continue to move toward Him and grow. Often it is not that we have anything left to do or accomplish for Him, but rather we have not yet become what He has intended for us to be.

I wonder just how much we really believe. Does it make a difference in how we view death? Do we welcome it with open arms or do we fear it? Do we really believe that Christ is the Life, the Resurrection, and the Truth? The proof is in the pudding, as they say. And whatever one may say about those of the Heaven's Gate cult, one knows they really believed what they said they did. True belief, I mean real deep down heart felt belief, really does make a difference in how we view reality and life. It affects what we do and how we live. It is not just doctrinal hair splitting. If it is, it is not belief. But ultimately, it is belief in the one who is the Life, the Resurrection, and the Truth. He who believes in Him though he dies, will never die. If we really believe that, it will make a difference. We will not be able to look at life or death in quite the same light, but will be transformed by it. To God be the glory for His life given freely for us.

In His grace,

Rick Copple