Fear of death is a powerful motivator. Right now, this fear is imprisoning masses of people in their homes. It is inducing people to strap on awkward, ugly masks anytime proximity to other humans is inescapable. For fear of death, passersby in groceries are eyeballing each other warily; neighbors are spying and reporting each other for infractions. Politicians are enacting policies that doom millions to hibernation, inactivity, solitude, joblessness and deprivation; rules that wreck businesses, ruin industries and ground national economies; decrees that obliterate hard-won, long-cherished civil liberties—and justifying them with the need to save “just one life.”
The world’s response to covid-19 is the most sweeping example of the extremes to which people will go to repel death. And most people apparently deem the economic, financial, mental and emotional costs acceptable if they reduce the death rate. Many speak as though it is immoral to consider any factors besides the sanctity of life itself.
Without doubt, the questions and trials surrounding dying and death are among the most excruciating that human beings face. We don’t want to die, and don’t want to think about dying.
For far too many people, this doesn’t mean making sensible choices that optimize health and increase longevity. It means pretending they can abuse their body without consequences, then, when that fails, expecting to be rescued by advanced medicine. And when serious disease or injury intrudes, it means fighting their mortality using any tool science can supply.
This tendency was vividly illustrated in the covid-19 scramble to mass-manufacture ventilators. People spoke as if these machines are a failsafe cure for respiratory distress in covid patients. Not so. The aggressiveness of the procedure often permanently damages the lungs, and can introduce pneumonia. You’d never know it from the media coverage, but the overwhelming majority of ventilator users with coronavirus—indications are in the 80 to 90 percent range—die before leaving the hospital.
But the medical profession is the only hope most people have. And that profession is very willing to peddle hope. To patients stricken with fatal conditions, it offers an ever growing menu of treatments—a chance of escaping the inescapable. But it also creates some gut-wrenching conundrums.
Besides that, it raises important questions: At what cost to others should a physical human life be preserved? What is its value? What is the meaning of a human life? And what happens after death?
Extending a Life
How much medical intervention would you accept to extend your life? At what financial and emotional cost to yourself and your family? How much have you thought about it?
Medicinal and therapeutic innovation expands the decision-making capacity and responsibility for people facing death. The individual with a bad heart can receive a heart transplant. Lungs, intestines, bone marrow, livers, kidneys—all can be replaced through surgery. Someone with terminal cancer is offered surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, cryoablation and still more options. And machinery makes it possible to keep a body’s vital functions operating—heart beating, blood flowing, lungs pumping—almost indefinitely.
The drive to use any means necessary to preserve life is understandable—some would even say heroic. But these advancements also have a downside. While offering promise to sick patients, the range of possible treatments also creates a formidable set of expectations for modern medicine to live up to. In most cases, the disease itself has an inevitability to it—yet somehow people think not using a particular technology or applying a certain treatment means deciding to die.
Nobody wants to die. But accepting the reality of a body succumbing to a fatal disease becomes more difficult when accompanied by the notion—however false—that it was a choice. I choose death.
Given that choice, fewer and fewer take it. So health-care costs keep escalating. Each of those transplant procedures cost somewhere between half a million and 2 million dollars. Cancer treatments easily exceed $10,000 per month and can be 10 times that amount. And the success rate—depending on how you define it in terms of length and quality of life—varies wildly. In the end, most people end up dying in hospitals, often after significant medical intervention.
Doctors are pursuing the fundamentally benevolent goal of giving individuals a valuable, albeit fleeting gift: more years of precious life. Yet they recognize that it is impossible to indefinitely defy human mortality. They have no power to heal. And in many cases, their treatments actually harm patients, diminishing quality of life and hastening death. Besides that, medical mistakes and malpractice in hospitals and health-care facilities are startlingly common. In America, they are the third leading cause of death.
Facing these realities, doctors, along with patients and their families, confront agonizing choices about how much therapy to administer, treading uncertain ground, guided by probabilities and feelings.
Facing the Big Questions
Modern medical advances have clearly given years—of varying quality—to many people. At the same time, these advances have enabled us to put off the fundamental questions that our mortality raises. With death looming, we become preoccupied with essentially material concerns—options, treatments, schedules, odds. For so many, the last days of life are spent not in peace, but in warfare, armed only with faith in the frail weapons of science. We pour what little life we have into fighting the enemy that will end it. And ultimately, that fight always ends in defeat.
Modern medicine promises a kind of immortality. It suggests that our energies are best put toward employing every means to extend physical existence as long as possible. If we are not careful, this fiction can preempt the important spiritual concerns that should dominate our thinking, even our decision-making, as we consider the inescapability of death.
Even with faith in God, facing death can be exceedingly difficult, particularly when ongoing pain is involved. Even Jesus Christ, who was perfect in faith, struggled mightily as He faced His own death, praying with penetrating emotion that He could avoid that suffering (Luke 22:41-44). Still, there is a serenity that comes from saying, as Jesus did, “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”
And there is tremendous peace in recognizing and understanding the value of the spiritual over and above the physical. What, after all, is the real purpose for life? And what happens after it ends? Using every possible means to stretch it for a few more years effectively distracts people from facing these fundamental questions.
Life After Death?
Three in four Americans say they believe in life after death. But just what that might be remains cloaked in mystery for most people. They simply have never closely examined the subject. Maybe they are afraid to.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
This was a man who faced death with confidence. “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand,” he wrote. “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day …” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Paul longed to live, as we all do. But what he alluded to was not an empty hope of extending his physical life—but the true hope expounded in Scripture.
It is a hope founded in understanding God’s wonderful purpose in creating man mortal, subjecting us to the trials of the flesh—an experience that, to fulfill that purpose, He even put His only begotten Son through.
Many people believe that human beings possess immortal souls, and that when they die, they go to either heaven or hell. The Bible is clear, however, that souls are not immortal—they can die (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). Scripture says that when we die, our “thoughts perish” and that “the dead know not anything” (Psalm 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5). Christ Himself said that “no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).
The true hope of Scripture is not about our possessing an “immortal soul,” or about the “miracles” of medical intercession. It is the promise of resurrection. It is the promise that, “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”—and that ultimately, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:22, 26). To God, human death is just temporary sleep, because He can resurrect humans from the grave!
This understanding supplies a dimension to questions of life and death that science cannot address. Paul said for those staring at death—either their own or that of a loved one—this truth enables you to “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” After explaining about the resurrection to come, he said, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Scripture shows that a great many will be resurrected to a second physical life in a future world governed by the King of kings rather than by the evil “prince of this world” (John 14:30), as it is now. However, physical life is only a proving ground, preparatory to resurrection into spirit life. “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).
There is a wonderful, inspiring reason—that something within us clings to life. There is a reason we crave permanence, even as our physical existence passes like a shadow. The Creator has revealed His purpose for creating human beings and imbuing us with thought, intellect, creativity, self-awareness and spiritual yearnings. You have a purpose and a potential that transcends anything this material world can offer. You were, in fact, created to inherit eternity.
Learn about that purpose, and build your life around it. Then you, like Paul, can look unblinkingly at death. Not with fear, but with sober confidence, saying, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”