Anyone who has been watching or listening to the news this week cannot have avoided hearing about death. There has been continuing coverage of the fate of the 298 victims of the destruction of the flight of MH17, there has been report after report of the ever rising death toll in Israel and Gaza and there have been stories about the deaths of individuals such as Peaches Geldorf, Dora Bryan, and Joseph Wood, the American convict executed in Arizona.
In addition, last week saw extensive discussion in the media of the topic of assisted dying in the light of a debate in the House of Lords’ on a bill sponsored by Lord Falconer which would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients to end their own lives.
All these news reports remind us that death is an inescapable part of life. As the Prayer Book puts it, ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’ This being the case those of us who are Christians need to think theologically about death both so that we can understand it rightly ourselves and so that we can help others to do the same. A helpful resource for such thinking is provided by the homily ‘Against the Fear of Death’ in the First Book of Homilies, the collection of model sermons published by the Church of England in 1547.
As its title suggests, this homily is concerned with people’s fear of death. The Homily begins by suggesting that there are three reasons why what it calls ‘worldly men’ (by which it means those people whose lives are focussed on this world rather than on God) are afraid of death:
- ‘because they shall lose thereby, their worldly honours, riches, possessions, and all their heart’s desires;’
- ‘because of the painful diseases, and bitter pangs, which commonly men suffer, either before or at the time of death;’
- ‘the chief cause, above all other, is the dread of the miserable state of eternal damnation, both of body and soul, which they fear shall follow after their departing, out of the worldly pleasures of this present life.’
For these three causes, the homily says:
‘be all mortal men which be given to the love of this world, both in fear and state of death through sin, as the holy Apostle saith (Hebrews 2:15) , so long as they live here in this world.’
Because people in our culture increasingly choose to avoid thinking about what will happen to them in the world to come, and because medical treatments have improved since the sixteenth century, the weighting given to these causes of the fear of death by the homily is now inaccurate. It is not now the possibility of eternal damnation that worries people the most, but the loss of the good things of this life and concern that death will be painful and undignified. Nevertheless, all three reasons for fearing death do still exist today.
Having explained why non-Christians are afraid to die, the homily goes on to give thanks to God that the same is not true of those who are Christians:
‘But, everlasting thanks be to Almighty God for ever! there is never one of all these causes, no, nor yet they altogether, that can make a true Christian man afraid to die, which is a very member of Christ, the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 3:16), the son of God, and the very inheritor, of the everlasting kingdom of heaven; but, plainly contrary, he conceiveth many and great causes, undoubtedly grounded, upon the infallible and everlasting truth of the word of God, which move him, not only to put away the fear of bodily death, but also, for the manifold benefits, and singular commodities which ensue, unto every faithful person, by reason of the same, to wish, desire , and long heartily for it. For death shall be to him, no death at all, but a very deliverance from death, from all pains, cares, and sorrows, miseries, and wretchedness of this world, and the very entry into rest, and a beginning of everlasting joy, a tasting of heavenly pleasures, so great that neither tongue is able to express, neither eye to see, nor ear to hear them, no, nor for any earthly men’s heart to conceive them (1 Corinthians 2:9).’
The reason Christians can view death in this way is because of the resurrection of Christ which has transformed death into a period of sleep from which we shall awaken to a new and more perfect life:
‘And we ought to believe, that death being slain by Christ, cannot keep any man that steadfastly trusteth in Christ, under his perpetual tyranny and subjection, but that he shall rise from death again, unto glory at the last day, appointed by Almighty God, like as Christ our Head did rise again, according to God’s appointment, the third day. For St. Augustine saith, the Head going before, the members trust to follow and come after. And St. Paul saith, If Christ be risen from the dead, we shall rise also from the same (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). And to comfort all Christian persons herein, holy Scripture calleth this bodily death a sleep, wherein man’s senses be (as it were) taken from him for a season, and yet when he awaketh, he is more fresh then he was when he went to bed (John 11:11,13, Acts 7:60, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). So although we have our souls separated from our bodies for a season, yet at the general Resurrection we shall be more fresh, beautiful, and perfect then we be now. For now we be mortal, then shall we be immortal: now infected with divers infirmities, then clearly void of all mortal infirmities: now we be subject to all carnal desires, then we shall be all Spiritual, desiring nothing but God’ glory, and things eternal. Thus is this bodily death a door or entering unto life, and therefore not so much dreadful (if it be rightly considered) as it is comfortable, not a mischief, but a remedy for all mischief, no enemy, but a friend, not a cruel tyrant, but a gentle guide leading vs not to mortality, but to immortality, not to sorrow and pain, but to joy and pleasure, and that to endure for ever, if it be thankfully taken and accepted as God’s messenger, and patiently borne of us for Christ’s love, that suffered most painful death for our love, to redeem us from death eternal.’
The homily concludes, as all the homilies do, with a practical application. In this case the application is that it is true Christians, and true Christians only, who have no need to fear death. It therefore follows that if we want to not fear death we have to live as true Christians, having faith in Christ and showing forth that faith in a life of good works:
‘Therefore let us diligently foresee, that our faith and hope which we have conceived in Almighty God, and in our Saviour Christ wax not faint, nor that the love which we bear in hand to bear to him, wax not cold: but let us study daily and diligently to shew ourselves to be the true honourers and lovers of God, by keeping of his commandments, by doing of good deeds unto our needy neighbours, relieving by all means that we can their poverty with our abundance and plenty, their ignorance with our wisdom and learning, and comfort their weakness with our strength and authority, calling all men back from evil doing by godly counsel and good example, persevering still in well doing, so long as we live: so shall we not need to fear death for any of those three causes afore mentioned, nor yet for any other cause that can be imagined.’
The overall message of the homily can be summed up in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28 ‘And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’
The worst that can happen to those who know and love God is that they will die physically. This may be distressing and painful, but the end result will be that we shall depart from this world and go and be eternally happy with God for ever in the world that is to come. However, in the case of those who do not know and love God the result of their dying will be that as a result of their own choice they will be subject to God’s wrath and condemnation (Romans 2:8), entering into eternal separation from God and all that is good and suffering not only the temporal death of the body, but the eternal death of the soul.
All this means that we need to re-think our current cultural priorities when it comes to death. Our chief priority needs to be neither to preserve people from physical death (important though that is), nor to ensure that their death is as painless and dignified as possible (important though this is also). Our chief priority needs to be to save people from eternal death, the only form of death that needs to be truly feared, by bringing them to a living faith in Christ.
Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com