What is a “good death”?
What does it mean to “die well”?
In part nine of this series I raised the question concerning the meaning of a “good death” within the context of the historic Christian faith.
When my father passed away almost 25 years ago the thought struck me that I was now the next generation in line to die. Prior to this event, I hadn’t given much consideration to my own death. But after that I realized that my turn would inevitably come. It was an existential epiphany. This insight motivated me to focus upon living a full and authentic life.
When I was gravely ill of a bacterial infection several years ago I thought deeply about something my favorite Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), had written in his classic work Confessions
Is this a life that leads to death or a death that leads to life?
The historic Christian world-and-life view proclaims that both are true. Other than those who will live to see the glorious second coming of Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-32), our short temporal lives on this planet will unavoidably end in physical demise (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). However, Jesus tells us that bodily death is the doorway to eternal life (John 11:25-26).
According to the New Testament, the passing of a believer will lead to immediate entrance into conscious fellowship with the resurrected Christ. Consider two of the apostle Paul’s statements about what happens in the intermediate state (the temporal realm that exists after death but before the final resurrection):
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (Philippians 1:21-24).
What makes death an attractive option to Paul is his obvious conviction that he will stand consciously in the presence of Christ immediately following death (for further biblical support of conscious fellowship with Jesus after death for believers, see also Luke 16:22-23; Luke 23:43; Revelation 6:9-10; 14:13). The Bible does not support the position popularly known as “soul sleep,” where the believer enters a state of unconsciousness or extinction while awaiting the resurrection. For Christians, death is a doorway to eternal life with Christ.
On Dying Well
For many people, dying well is greatly complicated by the fact that the aging process takes a heavy toll on a person’s body and mind. Since the Bible presents human beings as a union of body and soul (the material and the immaterial, Genesis 2:7; Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 7:1), the decline of the body severely limits the expression of mental and spiritual faculties. Weakness, along with physical and emotional suffering, makes the dying process often very difficult and challenging.
Yet in spite of the difficulties, many Christians have exhibited a “good death.” It was said of many Christian martyrs in church history that they “died well.” They faced death with faith, hope, courage, and resolve because of their deep belief concerning Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave. They were convinced that Jesus’ bodily resurrection had defeated death and the fear that it wields (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
The good news for those of us who don’t have faith quite like the martyrs is that God always provides exactly what we need to face trying times (2 Corinthians 12:9). In this case he grants us what many have called “dying grace.”
For further discussion of the historic Christian view of death and the afterlife, see Loraine Boettner Immortality. For some excellent theological analysis of the Christian view of individual eschatology, see John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts.