On Facing Death

“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

Of all Jesus’ stunning and somewhat counter-intuitive sayings this one surely ranks near the top. Jesus has taken on the supreme fear of all humanity, the fear of death, and His statements at first appear contradictory and perhaps even flippant. On reflection, however, they are perfectly in keeping with what God might say about the topic.

We need to remember the context. Jesus was good at making friends, a jovial and outgoing kind of person (quite a contrast to the way we normally think about Jesus). He had become quite close to two sisters and their brother, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. While in Jerusalem, He was told that Lazarus was seriously sick. Even though the journey from Jerusalem to Bethany, Lazarus’ home, was only two miles, Jesus did not immediately go. In fact, He waited four days, and in that interim time Lazarus died.

One of several possibilities explains His delay. It’s quite possible that upon hearing the symptoms, Jesus knew they were so serious that Lazarus would not survive. You do not have to be a physician to know that certain circumstances likely do not turn out well. Of course, it’s also possible Jesus had a divine insight that Lazarus would die. Whatever the case, Jesus obviously was “setting up” a situation which would bring Him face to face, in the most public way possible, with death. And in the confrontation He would teach us all we really need to know about death.

So what do we learn?

1. Death is an enemy. God’s first gift is life, and the Bible is a record of His effort to defeat death, the wages of sin. So when Jesus stood outside Lazarus’s tomb, He didn’t say “what are all you people crying about? He’s only dead!” No, in fact, Jesus Himself wept, and I believe He did so because more than anyone Jesus knew what life could be and how horribly damaged it is by death.

We learn from Jesus that He cared deeply for people, and had certain ones He called friends in a special way. To think of their suffering in death evoked a deep sadness. “This is not the way we intended it.” He wept for some of the same reasons we weep.

2. Even though death is a horrible reality, for the Christian it is a negligible experience. I’m speaking specifically here about the one who dies. The person approaching death certainly may experience tremendous pain and discomfort (though we are thankful for the wonderful ministry of hospice). However, Jesus’ words have a certain absurdity to them unless they are true: “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” I have to imagine that even a few moments after the final earthly breath, the person you love would say to you “Everything is all right. I am fine. We need never have feared this.”

By the way, I put no stock in the grocery store check-out line books about surviving a terminal moment or period of time. Some such books claiming to chronicle after death experiences certainly appear to have more validity than others, but the ones claiming angelic guides or talking pets are just plain schmaltzy. A Christian does well to remember that when the Apostle Paul was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2) he was too overwhelmed and humble to even attempt to describe the experience, much less put it in a 50-page pamphlet.

Our best guide to having the right attitude about death is not the description of heaven in Revelation, or extrapolating from Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, or trying to imagine what a “heavenly body” is (1 Cor. 15). Jesus’ words in John 11 are our best guide, and He said death as you fear it, is not real. As a Christian, you will never die.

Do you believe this?


Dr. Terry Ellis

November 6, 2012