In the TV series 1883, the final episode shows Elsa Dutton, slowly dying from an arrow to the liver, lying in her father’s arms under a tree. Watching a jack rabbit carelessless munching on grass, she asks: “What is death? What is this thing we all share? Rabbits. Birds. Horses. Trees. Everyone I love. And everyone who loves me. Even stars die. And we know absolutely nothing of it.”
For some reason, that episode haunts me.
For much of my life, I have been relatively sheltered from death. Going to funerals sums up the vast majority of my experience. But in the last two years, I have had to look death in the face.
During COVID it happened twice. In the fall of 2020, my dad died of general age-related issues; he was 81. And two months later, my sister succumbed to sepsis. She was 56—the age I am now.
In both cases, I stood by their bedsides and watched them slip away. I saw the moment their eyes faded into that cold, empty stare and they expelled their last breath here on earth. I watched their struggling bodies as all movement simply ceased.
For me, this was traumatizing.
I experienced death again recently, only this time with my thirteen-year-old dachshund. She had seizures all night long. It was as if I was watching her organs shutting down. And once again, I saw a seizing body, that had been so full of life, abruptly cease movement, and watched the life go out of her eyes. Again, I witnessed that final breath.
And a plethora of emotions utterly overwhelmed me.
I have been struggling with the idea of death. There’s nothing fair about it. We don’t get to choose to enter into this thing called life, yet we all have to endure loved ones ripped from us through death, time and again, until we must ultimately face it ourselves.
It feels so senseless–such a violent tearing away.
In my head, I can recite the theology. Death is now a reality in the universe because of humans’ desire to choose for themselves—ourselves. We wanted to be like God. We wanted to be God.
And, contrary to the serpent’s promise to Eve that she wouldn’t die, death did enter the universe.
Everything dies: a loved one, a close friend, even a beloved pet.
And even though Paul taunts death in his letter to the church in Corinth—“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)—death still stings.
There’s no getting around that.
As Elsa concludes above: everything dies. Eventually, we will all feel the unbearable tearing away of death.
That seems pretty hopeless.
If everything and everyone dies, and death is one hundred percent fatal, then what’s the point?
Because for the Christ-follower, there is hope.
When Jesus rose on the third day, he conquered death. When Paul asks where is death’s sting, he is looking toward the not-yet. Death no longer has the final word.
However, we still live in the now.
Despite Christians’ different interpretations of scripture, I think nearly all would agree that it tells God’s story in three basic acts.
Act One is Creation. Act Two is the Fall. And Act Three is Redemption.
Act One–Genesis 1–2, Creation—describes our origins. It answers the worldview questions: Who are we, and what is our purpose? Genesis 1 says we are beings created by God, in his own image (we are not God, but we are reflections of him). And Genesis 2 shows that our purpose is to steward creation and to enjoy deep, unbroekn relationship with him.
Act Two—Genesis 3–11, the Fall—answers the worldview question: Whar’s wrong? It explains how sin and death entered the world, ripping through God’s seamless universe with horror and chaos. Death was never a part of the original creation. That’s is why it stings so violently.
Then comes Act Three—Redemption, in the rest of the Bible.. It answers the worldview question: What is our end? It shows how God is continually working to restore the universe to its pre-death condition. Through promises and covenants, God works to redeem sinful humanity. He tells Abraham to go to a foreign land and promises that through his seed will come not only a great nation (Genesis 12:1-4), but also the very Messiah himself—the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Note that this third act covers all but the first eleven chapters of the Bible. In other words, almost all of the Bible is about God’s redemptive work.
Also note that the book of Revelation hasn’t happened yet. In other words, we’re still living in Act Three. We are living in the now, not in the not-yet.
That is why death still stings. Yes, Paul’s statement is true: Death has been defeated, and victory has been won through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are still in the battle. From Abraham to the present, everyone must face the pain and loss of death. And we will continue to do.
But only for a time.
And in this, the follower of Jesus has hope.
Death will continue to tear at creation.
In the now.
But we are still looking forward to the not-yet.
I wish there was an immediate answer to the pain of death.
But even though death currently has the last word, one day it will not. The naturalist worldview sees death as final; but the Christian worldview knows a better reality is coming. There will be a new creation. And we, as followers of Jesus, will steward that new creation with God himself.
In the now, we have only the fleeting present to enjoy our loved ones. But in the not-yet—when we finally do experience death—we can run for comfort into the arms of our Savior, who has already experienced and conquered it himself.