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Facing death: Have the humanists got something to teach us?

October 2021 | by Chris Hand

The second week of May was ‘Dying Matters Awareness Week’, an initiative of Hospice UK. Death is indeed a serious subject worthy of reflection, and with the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ at the heart of our faith, we as Christians have the best perspective on the topic.

Or at least we should. We were not long into the pandemic before it became increasingly clear that many church leaders were making very uncertain sounds on the subject of death. In early 2020, when Covid was a largely unknown quantity, we were anticipating extreme mortality rates from the disease. Death had made it onto the front page.

For the Christian, death is a known quantity, yet news was coming back from the front line that the fear of death was a worryingly active ingredient in the heart of many a believer.

Humanists UK

Humanists UK rose to the challenge of the Dying Matters Awareness Week and published the thoughts of 49 of its supporters. Humanism is the philosophy of ‘atheists in search of a basis for morality’. It is avowedly opposed to the supernatural, so for a movement denying any afterlife to tackle head-on the subject of death is, it has to be said, somewhat plucky.

Nonetheless, reading through the humanists’ contributions, one is struck by the honesty of those who made contributions on the subject of dying. Many had suffered the loss of loved ones in early life, and many were shockingly calm in the face of mortality. They happily mused on their bodies supplying the raw material for the ongoing ‘circle of life’. Talk was of leaving a good legacy for descendants while focusing on the here and now.

In fairness, such a mentality does accord with the cold, hard tenets of Darwinian evolution which undergird humanism. Reflecting on death, the humanists could only go as far as their philosophy allowed them, and they denied themselves any belief in the afterlife or hopes of something better to come.

However, although the humanists’ writings on death were hampered by their rejection of biblical truth on the matter, they still presented a challenge to believers.

Could you or I sit down to write a calm, coherent, and thoughtful reflection about our own demise? Could we step back from our current experiences and articulate an intelligent, warm, and readable account for our children, relating how we as believers are facing death?

Facing death in the Bible

David had words for his son Solomon when the latter was about to ascend to the throne of Israel: ‘Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying, “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man”’ (1 Kings 2:1-2). David faced his own mortality head on, and advised his son to be what he himself had been in life – strong, and proving himself a man.

The Christian faith is not a matter of talk or theory. It is a set of convictions based on God’s revelation in Scripture, and meant to be manifested in the kind of people we are.

David spoke realistically and openly about his death and was determined to see his son established for the future. He knew where he was going, destined for a ‘good inheritance’ (Psalm 16:6) with ‘pleasures forevermore’ (Psalm 16:11) at the right hand of God. He showed us the way to think about death.

David’s voice is not alone on the subject of dying in Scripture. The apostle Paul, soberly surveying his prospects from a Roman prison cell, reported his conclusions to the church in Philippi in memorable fashion: ‘To me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labour; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better’ (Philippians 1:21-23).

Christ’s resurrection

Paul’s well-known words exude confidence in the promises of God. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ makes this confidence possible. It is a truth that has consequences that cannot be overstated. It means we have a clear view of what lies beyond death. It is the hope we have in the face of any kind of death – death from Covid, cancer, a road accident, old age – whatever and whenever it may be.

But do we believe it is so? Are we able to access this truth so that it influences the people we are in everyday life, giving us strength and confidence as we navigate our way through the uncharted waters of a pandemic, for example?

Or are we too pre-occupied with our own health, trying to prolong that which one day must end? Are we too busy filling each waking moment with mindless and trivial pursuits, leaving us without time or the spiritual equipment to properly and seriously reflect on the matter of death and prepare for it wisely, as did David?

The humanist mirror

Many of the humanists speak about the legacy they hope to leave behind. In truth, many of them are too cheery about the contribution they think they have made to the good of society or the model of love they think they will leave behind.

As Christians, we would strongly dispute the value of the legacy which a movement supporting abortion, assisted death, and transgender activity bequeaths to society. Humanism, at its worst, has presided over moral decay and death.

Yet despite this, there still rings through a warmth, a love of humanity, and a care for future generations in much of their writings that holds up a mirror challenging us with the question: ‘Are we like that?’

This takes us to the claim which humanists make of living and savouring the ‘present moment’. Many of the writers are lovers of nature. They see a world full of life and interest. They are right!

Regrettably, many of us Christians can succumb to a ‘moaning and groaning’ mindset. Granted, there is much to grieve over in our society, but there is also much to enjoy in the common things of life, even in a fallen world.

A meal with friends, good music, a fine sunset – many humanists seem to get this. Do we? Maybe we are too driven to notice or appreciate these things. Maybe we are so busy extracting the negative from every positive that we fail to thank God who has given us many simple and good pleasures, ‘which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth’ (1 Timothy 4:3).

Appreciation of the ‘now’ helps us be less self-centred and frees up valuable space in our minds to love others more and think about their needs better. The humanists have perhaps helped us see things a little more clearly – but the same lessons, and better, are actually there before our eyes in the Bible, if we only look for them.

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