Death and the Church, Part IV

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This final essay in my series on “Death and the Church,” was intended to be a summons to the local church to provide hospice training for its members. Clearly, there is hardly a better present-day ministry for a faith community to practice a Christian view of dying than a hospice program constructed on sound biblical premises. Certainly, an Intersections article needs to be written on the dignity and comfort that hospice provides to an incurable patient, not to mention the transformational effect such service brings to a team of caregivers. However, due in large part to an article in a recent Trinity Journal, this piece is taking another direction.

In an issue devoted to a discussion of death and dying, Western Theological Seminary professor—and cancer patientJ. Todd Billings offers a provocative critique of our present-day Western culture that places its “messianic hope” in medicine rather than the death-conquering work of Jesus Christ.[1] Unfortunately, our life-sustaining technological advances have too often created false expectations about the limits of human existence, specifically, that there should not be any if we do our medicine well. Citing the findings of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Billings observes that “many religious patients act as if even preparing for death is an unforgivable surrender, an unpardonable heresy.”[2] This attitude is hardly a trivial matter since it “mutes” a fundamental truth of the Christian message—namely the hope of the resurrection! Consequently, I would like to share the following regarding how pastors might address these issues in their preaching and pastoral ministries.

In our death-denying culture (including the evangelical church), it is very rare to hear sermons on Christ’s resurrection except at Easter. Even then, many messages tend to be apologetic in nature, namely, how the empty tomb vindicates Christ’s claims to deity. While I have heard many pastors sermonize on Paul’s “resurrection magnum opus” in 1 Corinthians 15, too little time has been spent on the extensive treatment that the Apostle gives to its implications for believers facing the reality of even untimely earthly death (cf. vv. 35–58).[3]

This existential absence has, in my opinion, only exacerbated a secular-like trust in the achievements of modern medicine in the Christian community. This misplaced faith is often seen in the context of a funeral. Billings comments:

many Christian funerals today collude with death-denying forces as they completely avoid the language of dying and death. For many, the body of the dead person is not present as funerals are turned into a one-sided “celebration” of the life of the one who has died, complete with color photos, Christian contemporary music, and a “hero-making” process for the dead loved one. It has become common to use the word “homecoming” rather than “death”—since God has been victorious over death and the loved one is in a better place, speaking of “death” is seen as morbid.[4]

While Billings certainly paints his picture of Christian funerals with a bit too broad of a brush, his observations nevertheless demonstrate the presence of a problematic trend. Also, I do not believe his words are intended to perpetuate a “Funeral Grinch” syndrome or some snide theological cynicism. I would hope that my children and colleagues would have positive things to say about me at my funeral. However, the “memorial milieu” reveals that Christian people, too, have succumbed to their contemporary culture’s belief that life is best lived this side of the grave. Undoubtedly, comforting Scriptures like Psalm 23 and John 11:25 (“I am the resurrection and the life,” ESV) still find a place in many Christian funerals, but too often these are appendages to a series of eulogies. This absence of a resurrection emphasis at a funeral is but a symptom of a larger pastoral problem, namely regular preaching that draws attention to the liminality of earthly existence, that is to the transitory nature of human life, and our resurrection hope.

Undoubtedly, some of this neglect is due to the evangelical church’s general disregard of the Old Testament. While there is admittedly a paucity of material on the intermediate state in the New Testament, the Old Testament is filled with many “colorful” (or more accurately, “colorless”) descriptions of death. Sheol is dark, devoid of God’s praise, and unavoidable; it is an ongoing reminder of the consequences of the Fall.[5] It is something to be mourned and not celebrated.[6] In short, death “stinks.” And, while there are glimpses of a future “awakening” of the faithful dead (cf. Dan 12:2 and Ezek 37), a solid confidence about embodied life beyond the grave is a New Testament reality actualized in Christ’s resurrection. While Paul uses the far more encouraging term, “sleep,” to designate dead believers, it is not a denial of the inevitability or harsh reality of death but rather an unmasking of its ultimate power (1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thess 4:13). The event of Christ’s resurrection and the hope of Paul’s own future raising enables Paul to sustain his difficult but eminently fruitful ministry (Phil 1:20–21; 2 Tim 2:6–8).

No doubt, we can readily see the relevance of this proclamation in a first-century context where Christian mortality rates were high due to poor health conditions (and martyrdom). But coming from the other end of the spectrum—where contemporary Western believers can expect to enjoy eighty-plus years and little to no persecution—we miss the same timeless truths: Everyone dies, death is a foe, it will not be conquered in this life, and our only hope is to be found in the resurrection. Physical longevity does not negate the sting of death. This is deserving of more than a once-per-year Easter message.

Thus, I offer this bit of pastoral counsel: Pastors, help your people recognize and oppose a popular and subtle siren that lures them into the false medicinal hope that death must and can be avoided. In truth, when it does come, no amount of pleasant memories can erase the loneliness of the moment—and days and years. A regular diet of resurrection preaching, however, just might allow us to address death in a manner more fitting with a Christian worldview: death is a time to mourn—and hope.


[1] J. Todd Billings, “Resurrection Hope and the Dying,” Trinity Journal 38, no. 1 (2017): 7–27.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Cf. also Paul’s similar statement in 1 Thess 4:13–18.

[4] Billings, “Resurrection Hope,” 14.

[5] See, for example, Gen 2:16; 5:3–31 (“and he died”); Ps 6:5; 23; 90:3–6; Eccles 9:10.

[6] One can also see evidence of this mourning environment in the gospels, notably in Jesus’ raising of a dead girl (Mark 5:38; cf. Matt 9:23; Luke 8:52).