Eventually, bodies give out, all biological processes cease and then . . . utter and unsettling stillness of the flesh. Facing the reality of death is one of the hardest moments in life. When it arrives for someone we love, there is a host of emotions to work through; fear, sadness, despair, anger to name just a few. Seeing the deceased lying in the casket at a wake, we might wonder as people have throughout the ages: What is death? What happens when we die? Will I see this person I love again?
Some have answered the question of death with emptiness, saying that death means “the end” and the person simply ceases to be. Most cultures across history, however, have had a notion of the afterlife. One tradition believes in incarnation, another views the afterlife in terms of worldly and sensual delights and material riches, while others believe in ascension to another plane to exist as disembodied pure thought and energy.
Christ’s answer to this question and death’s arrogant claim of finality – the Good News he offers the world if it will only accept it – is that death does not have the last word. Jesus died too. He truly died and his body laid in the coldness of the tomb. But then he rose again, truly alive. Jesus returned victorious from the dead. His death was as real as our own will be. But if we die with him, we will rise with him who is life itself. If we die without him, however, we will remain in death eternally.
Jesus challenges us to believe that he is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and that he makes “all things new,” so that “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Revelation 21:4-5). Nowhere is this more beautifully said than in the Christian funeral liturgy where we are poignantly reminded, “Life is changed but not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lied in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
Christian faith neither denies the profound reality of death nor yields to despair because of it. Rather, it is more powerful than death. Trusting in the Lord, a Christian mourns but faces death with confident hope, “by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in God’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817). In this hope, we are already saved and in a sense already begin the new life.
Death brings us face to face with the last great experience in our earthly life. No one escapes this inevitable reality. Yet when our worldly flesh is dissolved in death, something of our very being most proper to us can still live. This is the Good News of Christ. Worldly death is not the evil which we should fear the most. Our life on this earth is not an end in itself – in fact this was never our final destination in God’s plan (cf. Hebrews 13:14) – but is a preparation for what is to come.
This is the second entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.