“How to Die” – an excerpt from Be Not Afraid

The following is taken from first chapter of Samuel Wells’s recent Brazos book Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith.

How to Die

Perhaps the biggest fear for the contemporary imagination, captivated as most of us are by the realization and fulfillment of the individual self, is that beyond death lies simply oblivion. It is rationally hard to square the myriad complexity and texture of human existence before death with total emptiness afterward. But when we witness the mundane biological process of death in animals and plants, there can seem little observational reason for arguing that humans will be significantly different. As Johnny Carson is rumored to have said, “For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow—but phone calls taper off.” We’re left with just our bodies and the worms. All the restorative qualities of sleep suddenly go out the window, and we are faced with a sleep without end, a complete annihilation of the self—for many of us, a horrifying prospect.

In the face of this, St. Paul writes these stirring words, which conclude the eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul is addressing precisely these overwhelming fears—the fear of judgment, or at least of being eternally alone or perpetually in pain, and the fear of oblivion, of one’s consciousness being wiped out of the drama of existence. He is telling his readers, “Each one of you is precious in God’s sight. You are not merely biological human products. You are known, loved, called, redeemed, chosen. And you will be glorified. A whole set of forces may be against you—hostile others, troubling and extreme circumstances, even yourself—but if God is on your side, none of these will overcome you; indeed, you will overcome them, with something to spare. No power, nothing in the past, nothing in the future, no biological necessity, no demise of human cells, no amount of pain, and no sense of isolation will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

So in the face of our fear of judgment, the good news is that God in Christ is for us. This is what we discover in Jesus’s healing ministry in Galilee and what we see when Jesus takes the world’s punishment on our behalf on Golgotha. And in the face of oblivion the good news is God in Christ is with us. This is what we realize is God’s earthly purpose when Jesus comes among us as a baby at Christmas, and what we discover is God’s eternal purpose when Jesus returns to us as our risen Lord at Easter. God is for us and God is with us. “If God is for us, who is against us?” writes Paul (Rom. 8:31). This is the essence of the good news of Christ.

To bring these claims back to our mundane and needy emotional experience, our biggest fears about those we love are that either they will come to hate us or they will forget about us. Paul is telling us that in our eternal relationship with God neither of these eventualities is possible. God cannot turn against us and God cannot forget about us. Because of Jesus we will remain perpetually at the forefront of God’s heart and mind. This is the gospel. This is the good news about the future that enables us to see our lives through to a good death.

©2011 by Samuel Wells. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without expressed written permission is strictly prohibited.