When thinking through the big questions of life, we must include honest reflection about our mortality. Just as we are born, so also shall we die. Medical technology may lengthen the human life span somewhat, but it will not succeed in curing or eliminating death. So while it isn’t always easy to think soberly and realistically about our inevitable demise, the living of a truly reflective life requires it.
Yet for those who embrace the historic Christian world-and-life view, there is deep strength and comfort to be found in the biblical message that this life is only the beginning of true and eternal life. Because Jesus Christ conquered death in his resurrection, all who know him as Lord and Savior will also rise on the last day.
Hear Jesus’s words regarding his power to raise the dead and the great resurrection to come:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:25–27)
In part 1 of this series, I discussed my enduring interest in coming to grips with death as well as provided an introduction to the five stages of grief. In this second part, I will offer some philosophical and theological reflections upon these common mental and emotional stages that define aspects of our grief.
To all people who are grieving, let me say that it is of critical importance to seek out professional medical, psychological, and spiritual assistance during this challenging time. My reflections given here are intended from a merely philosophical and theological point of view.
The Five Stages of Grief
Again, psychiatrist and thanatology (the study of death and dying) expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five stages of grief in her groundbreaking writings on the topic. This five-stage model applies to people who are facing a terminal illness as well as to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one:
Brief Reflections on the Stages
According to the scholarly literature on the topic of death and dying, many people avoid thinking about their mortality. That is understandable since death is a mysterious and scary reality. But of course, death is not a matter of if but rather when. So reflecting upon the big issues of life, including death, can lessen the shock and state of denial that so often accompanies the grieving process. Nevertheless, even a philosopher like me who had spent many years reflecting upon death was numb when my doctor told me that I had a potentially life-threatening illness.1 We can theoretically know that we’re going to die, but it is another thing entirely to hear your doctor say, “Get your house in order.”
The word “death” seems to always carry a jolt that we’re not quite ready to hear and process. Yet Scripture tells us plainly the bad news: “the wages of sin is death.” Thankfully, the same verse goes on to reveal the good news: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
When death’s shadow makes an appearance either in our life or in the lives of our loved ones, it is easy to feel the sting of a seeming unfairness. “Why me?” “Why him/her?” Anger often results when our deepest desires are not satisfied. And many people face lots of suffering in life only to be followed by an early death. The challenging problem of pain and suffering can leave anyone angry at God or at providence.
However, historic Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ, the divine-human Messiah, came into the world and suffered with and for human beings. The basic Christian response to the problem of pain and suffering is that God in his love and sovereignty brings good out of the challenging and difficult circumstances of life.2 Contemplating these great philosophical and theological truths can help to soften the raw emotion of anger that so often accompanies grief. Yet every grieving person may have to experience a season of anger.
In part three of this series, I will offer reflections upon the other three stages of grief.
Reflections: Your Turn
What promises and assurances does the Christian worldview offer believers in light of death? How do you go about helping someone who is grieving?
- For a philosophical discussion of death in light of Jesus’s resurrection, see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, chapters 1 and 2.
- For a philosophical discussion of moral issues relating to life and death, see Life and Death: Grappling with the Moral Dilemmas of Our Time by Louis P. Pojman.
- On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (book)
- For my own thoughts about what I think it means to die well, see my book Christian Endgame: Careful Thinking about the End Times (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2013), appendix B, 63–66.
- For a defense of God’s goodness in light of evil and suffering, see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), chapters 13 and 14.