Christians often talk about what it means to live well but seldom do they discuss what it means to die well. So what is a “good death”? In the context of hospice, the concept of a good death involves the easing of a dying person’s suffering. But in the broader scope of life, what constitutes a good death?
To speak personally, since childhood I have found death both intriguing and puzzling. As a youth, I was always more fascinated by funerals than by weddings. Just how and why a person could be alive one day and dead the next struck me as one of life’s greatest enigmas. Of course, I came to understand that biological systems break down, but still death remained mysterious.
My father and I had a number of candid discussions about the subject. As a frontline combat soldier in history’s bloodiest war, he had seen more than his share of death. (An estimated 60 to 70 million people died in World War II.) While he found it difficult to talk about his feelings, he conveyed to me that life is short and death inevitable. He also shared with me his deep conviction concerning immortality borne of his historic Christian belief of anticipating an afterlife in the presence of his risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Two of my close childhood friends, Paul Goff and Scott Claud, both died in automobile accidents when they were young adults. Though it has been many years, I still think of my friends and remember the pain their families and I experienced. It is especially difficult to see your friends die when you and they are only of high school or college age. They were literally here one day and gone the next.
When I was just out of high school, my older brother Frank took his own life after a long battle with drugs, alcohol, and mental health challenges. At the time, I was not a Christian and was embarrassed by my brother’s reckless lifestyle and horrified by his final desperate act. Upon reflection, however, I realized that, just like my brother, I myself was looking for meaning, purpose, and hope in life. To paraphrase the great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), I was looking for “a reason to live and a reason to die.” Through my brother’s premature death, I was forced to come to grips with death and all of its scary implications. By God’s grace, I discovered Jesus Christ and His extraordinary life, death, and resurrection. I came to believe that because He rose then I will also rise from the dead on the last day.
For many people, dying well is greatly complicated by the fact that the aging process takes a heavy toll on the human body and mind. As the Bible presents it, human beings are a union of body and soul (the material and the immaterial, Genesis 2:7; Matthew 10:28; 2 Corinthians 7:1). Thus, the body’s decline severely limits the expression of mental and spiritual faculties. Weakness, along with physical and emotional suffering, can make the dying process very challenging.
Yet in spite of the difficulties, many Christians have exhibited a “good death.” It was said of many 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 return from the grave. They were convinced that Jesus’ resurrection had defeated death and the fear 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,” helping believers face death with the deep assurance of Jesus Christ’s historic, bodily resurrection from the grave.
For more on a Christian response to death in light Christ’s resurrection, see chapters 1 and 2 of my forthcoming book 7 Truths That Changed the World (May 2012).