Covid-19 has changed our society in many ways, and one of these is its view of death. For the pandemic has shaken our complacent confidence about sickness and death, hasn’t it? Just as the early 21st century disproved the late 20th century claim by Fukuyama that the end of history had arrived with the collapse of the communist bloc, so we have now learned that our complacent belief that we have defeated infectious diseases is false too.
We thought we had conquered cancer, with more effective treatments making most cancers seem manageable if not curable; we thought we had licked heart disease and stroke disease with these major killers dropping enormously in frequency; we thought that all we had left was to defeat dementia and other complex brain diseases and we would be immortals! Okay, not quite, but the conviction that somehow all diseases were potentially beatable had taken hold, and if immortality was never quite expressed, then the reality that our invincibility was delusional was not acknowledged either.
Infectious diseases were the first major illness group to be defeated. Improvements in sanitation and then vaccines and finally antibiotics made them seem a thing of the past. We might read novels in which people died of tuberculosis or pneumonia, or watch films of someone succumbing to typhus or cholera, but that was all history. And then came Covid.
Along with our conviction that we had defeated such diseases came the belief that we could manage death. Death was something we could control. Death was therefore something we could choose when we wanted and how we wanted it. Autonomy about end of life decision making has grown to the dominant force in ethical thinking about end of life decisions. We as individuals were free to choose and if we wanted to end our lives now, then we should be able to choose to do so.
We had become convinced we had learned how to manage death and take control of it. The idea that an infection (a mere virus of all things!) might be untreatable and kill us in a few days or weeks has shaken people and destroyed (temporarily at least) the relaxed and confident conviction that we were free to choose how we would die. But death has not been defeated by our technological advances. Our helplessness before the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed this fallacy for what it is.
As Christians we are part of society and are prone to absorb its views and assumptions. Have we absorbed this complacency about death? As we have found ourselves living ever longer and ever healthier lives, have we too perhaps joined those around us in assuming death has been defeated by the powers of modern medicine and made manageable? Have we found ourselves as shaken and fearful as the rest by the exposure of our vulnerability and mortality?
Learning to die well
When we read our history we learn that our brothers and sisters in the past used to die well. Now I’m aware that some Christian biographies are hagiographies, painting idealised pictures rather than presenting the unvarnished truth about people, as the Bible does. And I’m sure Christians struggled in the past in the face of death, the last enemy, as we do today. Bunyan was realistic about this in his portrayal of Christian sinking as he crossed the river of death, wasn’t he? But because they entertained none of our modern beliefs about the manageability of death, I’m also sure they approached the dying process and death more assuredly than we do today.
They also had the tough task-master of regular experiences of death, didn’t they? They often experienced people young and old dying and they lived daily in the knowledge that they too might die soon. They were forced by their circumstances to confront death, and as a result they read much more carefully and paid much more attention to the Bible’s teaching on this sobering subject. And perhaps we, in our pampered society, need to learn the lessons they learned. We need to learn how to die well.
To do so we need to teach more on Christ’s resurrection and exaltation, which included his personal triumph over the last enemy death (1 Corinthians 15:26), more on his reign in heaven, more on our future life beyond this world, and more on our resurrection bodies. But crucially we need to do so not simply as an exercise in orthodox theology. We don’t want to merely correctly comprehend these important aspects of the Bible’s teaching. We must avoid such a box-ticking approach to any doctrinal teaching. Rather we need to preach these truths experimentally. We need to proclaim these truths from our hearts as well as our heads and meditate on them day and night.
But as well as feeling and enjoying them, we need to think on their relevance for us now. The truths that we have a heavenly home where we will live in glorified and powerful and immortal bodies, and that there we will be with our Saviour and see him face to face, are greatly encouraging. But perhaps we think they are only part of our future, whereas they ought to transform how we live now, oughtn’t they? We need to live them now, reflect on what they mean for us now, and not leave such reflections until death perhaps becomes an unavoidable reality. Next time we will think at more length about some of the biblical teaching pertinent to facing death.
Alan Thomas is Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.