• A straightforward treatment of the only existential issue that matters from the Christian perspective
• The author is a renowned preacher, esteemed homiletician, and well-published author
In What Happens When We Die? Tom Long provides information about the promises and convictions of the Christian gospel concerning death and life after death. He surveys in simple terms the major themes surrounding death, dying, and hope for an afterlife.
About the Author
THOMAS G. LONG recently retired as Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of
Theology, Emory University. Previously he was professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written a best-selling homiletics textbook, several biblical commentaries, and a book on Christian funerals. For the past 25 years, he has been widely regarded as one of the top ten preachers in the English language.
Read an Excerpt
In the Hour of Our Death
The Fear of Our Mortality
A good friend of mine read the New York Times bestselling book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a professor at Harvard Medical School. The book is a very frank physician's description of what it is like for us, as human beings, to come to the end of life. Dr. Gawande describes what it means to grow old, what it means for our bodies to wear down and to fail, and especially what it means to encounter the inevitable truth that we will all die. When my friend got about halfway through the book, he confessed to me, "You know, this book scares the heck out of me!"
I understand. What frightened my friend about this book, and what would frighten most of us, I suppose, is right there in the book's title: Being Mortal. We are all mortal. We will all die. We know that, of course, but until death actually draws near, we know it only in the abstract. There is an old Jewish saying, "Everybody knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it."
When he was seventy-one years old, the former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson wrote to another former president, the seventy-eight-year-old John Adams,
Our machines have been running seventy or eighty years and we must expect ... here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring will be giving way. ... There is a ripeness of time for death ... when it is reasonable we should drop off and make room for another growth.
Notice how Jefferson, while frankly admitting that he and Adams will die, still distances himself from the raw reality of it by speaking of death as "reasonable" and using metaphors for body parts such as wheels and springs. What can be so frightening about a book like Being Mortalis that the author does not gloss over the biological facts, nor does he disguise the bodily deterioration with metaphors. Our blood vessels narrow and become stiff from calcium buildup, Gawande says, causing the heart to pump harder. By age sixty-five, more than half of us have hypertension. At eighty, we have lost between one-quarter and a half of our muscle weight, and after age eighty-five, 40 percent of us have lost all of our teeth. Gawande goes on:
Although the processes can be slowed — diet and physical exercise can make a difference — they cannot be stopped. Our functional lung capacity decreases. Our bowels slow down. Our glands stop functioning. Even our brains shrink: at the age of thirty, the brain is a three-pound organ that barely fits inside the skull; by our seventies, gray-matter loss leaves almost an inch of spare room. ... [A]fter a blow to the head, the brain actually rattles around inside.... Processing speeds start decreasing well before age forty. ... By age eighty-five, working memory and judgment are sufficiently impaired that 40 percent of us have textbook dementia.
In sum, Dr. Gawande forces us to face the truth that what happens to the human body over time is not pretty. We are all aging, and along with aging comes physical and mental diminishment. There's no way around it, no way to stop it. Despite all the vitamins and exercise and healthy diets and strong medicines in the world, our minds and our bodies will ultimately decline and fail; we will all eventually come to the end of our days.
Ways We Respond to Our Mortality
There are three main ways that people in our society respond to this reality of aging and the inevitability of death.
When we are young, most of us don't think much about the end of life. It seems so far away that it doesn't even feel real. We know that death happens to people, but to other people, to old people, but it's not a part of our experience or expectation, not our concern. But, of course, our youth eventually fades, and we do grow older. Even so, we may still try to pretend that we are somehow immune to the aging process, exempt from mortality, that it's not happening to us. Many companies have discovered that there is plenty money to be made in helping people fool themselves that they can beat the mortality clock. Beautiful young people on television and in the movies joke about old people, and the message is clear: to be "old" is an embarrassment, an insult, and an outrage. So we make believe that we can somehow avoid it. "Seventy is the new fifty," we say, lying to ourselves. Or as the commercials on TV reassure us, just a touch of color to take out the grey hair, and we're "still in the game," or just a dab of miracle facial cream to smooth out the wrinkles, and we can be as ageless as supermodel Cindy Crawford.
"There are substances on the market now that claim to prolong life — and people are spending billions on them," said a New York Times interviewer to Professor Leonard P. Guarente, an expert on aging at M.I.T.
"Well, that's really simple," replied Guarente. "Any product on the market that claims to extend life-don't believe it."
Indeed, at some point, the inevitability of death becomes harder to deny, the illusion of everlasting life more difficult to maintain ... and then impossible. In one of Wallace Stegner's novels, there is an elderly man who writes in his Christmas letter that when anybody asks him if he feels like an old man, he says, "No, no. I feel like a young man with something the matter with him." As we age and move inexorably toward life's end, we can't shake the feeling that there's something the matter with us, something wrong about our mortal journey. To be old, we fear, is to be nearing the end, the end of our attractiveness, the end of our usefulness, the end of our strength, the end of our health, the end of our life. But all cosmetic attempts to deny this reality are just that — cosmetic.
For scientific medicine, the goal — and often an unquestioned goal — is to postpone aging and death and to extend the length of life as far as we can. Historians tell us that the average citizen of the Roman Empire could expect to live a little less than thirty years. But today, medical science — through antibiotics and surgical breakthroughs, improved hygiene and nutrition — has made it possible for the average citizen of developed nations to live almost three times that long. And there is no reason to think, as we move into the future, that modern medicine will not be able to add higher and higher numbers, longer and longer lives. Some researchers are even contemplating uploading our consciousness into the digital cloud so that when our bodies give way, our minds will go on humming in perpetuity.
We should be grateful, of course, for many of these advances in medicine. Children who a century ago would have died from smallpox or would have been paralyzed by polio now do not have to fear these diseases. Men and women who would have had their lives cut short by tuberculosis now may live long and productive lives. And we can pray that someday the ravages of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and other diseases will also be a thing of the past.
But there are some darker tones to this medical quest to provide longer and longer lives. First, there is the suspicion that many physicians see the death of a patient as a personal defeat, and, as a result, are willing to perform extreme measures, even at the expense of the quality of life, to keep their patients technically alive. The physician Sherwin Nuland, in his groundbreaking book How We Die, pictures a team of doctors, nurses, and technicians desperately attempting to resuscitate a heart attack victim with only the minutest chance of surviving. Despite their furious efforts, the patient's eyes widen into blackness, and the emergency room moves from a mood of "heroic rescue to the gloom of failure." The patient, says Nuland, "dies among strangers: well-meaning, empathetic ... but strangers nonetheless." Nuland adds, "The only certainty, whether spoken or not, is that the doctors, nurses, and technicians are fighting not only death but their own uncertainties as well."
More and more, the wisest physicians are acknowledging that there is an upper limit to the human life span. No matter how many medical advances are made, and even if cures were developed for every single disease, the human body is not designed to keep striving past about 100 years of age. Science can keep pushing the limits, but there is a brick wall of mortality ahead.
Ironically, the quest of medical science simply to add more time — more minutes, hours, and days — to the human life span, can end up causing more harm than good, cutting people off from the people who love them and from the substance of a meaningful life, adding more days but subtracting the goodness of the days we have.
In an Easter sermon, Pope Benedict XVI wondered what it might be like if medicine were to succeed. What if medicine figured out a way for us to live to, say, 200 or 300 years of age?
Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation. The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity....
Numbering Our Days
In the face of the culture's attempts to deny our mortality and medicine's desire simply to extend the human life span, the Hebrew poet who composed Psalm 90 has a more profound response. He wrote, "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12 RSV). What the psalmist is asking for is not that the number of his days grow bigger and bigger, but instead that the limits on his life teach him how to value his days and to gain wisdom. In other words, the psalmist asks God for the ability to count each day as precious, to cherish the gift of the days that he has been allotted, so that the psalmist can gain wisdom in the living of those days. The goal is not simply the quantity of life, but the quality of life — the depth and breadth and height of life, not just its length. What makes life good is not just longevity, not just living more and more days, but becoming a certain kind of person, a person of character and depth, a person whose heart is wise before God. As the philosopher and essayist Montaigne said, "The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it. It lies in your will, not in the number of years, for you to have lived enough."
It is right at this point that faith must raise a provocative challenge, both to the lies of those who would deny death and to the overreaching ambitions of modern medicine. The reality of our mortality cannot be covered up cosmetically, and while people of faith join with all others in giving thanks for the many ways that medicine gives us strength and health and freedom from unrelenting pain, what must be challenged is the false idea that the only way to seek a good life is the never-ending quest for more of it, for more and more days, for longer and longer lives. Lying just beneath the surface of this medical quest for unending life is the false promise, the science fiction dream, even the idolatrous claim, that science and medicine will one day give us immortality, that someday medicine will genetically engineer death out of the human equation — the dream that human beings on biological grounds can live forever and that living forever would be a good thing.
Our quest for immortality, for a life that just goes on and on forever, is actually based on fear, a fear of running out of time.
"I don't think people are afraid of death," said a thirty-year-old man dying of leukemia. "What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their life." When the New York Times columnist Anatole Broyard was dying of cancer, he wrote, "I want to be a good story [for my doctor]." Down deep, that is what all of us fear, that we are incomplete, that the story of who we are supposed to be is not good enough and is never finished. Indeed, fear comes from believing that there is not enough to go around, not enough to finish the story. Not enough time, not enough joy, not enough strength, not enough love, not enough nourishment, not enough me, and not enough grace. We are afraid that we are running out of time; and when the end comes, there will only be nothingness — darkness, an empty hall, a bare table, and an unfinished story. And so we turn in desperation to medicine, pleading, "Give me more time. Give me endless days. Don't let me die. Don't let my life be incomplete." "What I am really afraid of," said the dying man, "is the incompleteness of my life."
But medicine cannot give us immortality, and it cannot even give us a sense of the completeness of life. It can only, at best, postpone the inevitable, prolong life a few more days, a few more months, or a few more years. Only God can give us a sense of completeness; and because God is the one who gives us completeness, from the point of view of faith, it is actually good news that we are not immortal. When we acknowledge that we are mortal — temporary, provisional, unfinished, incomplete — when we gain the deep knowledge that we are limited in days and incomplete in ourselves, this can draw us ever closer to the God who is immortal and who brings our life to completion. That is what the psalmist means when he prays, "Teach us to number our days that we gain a wise heart." Teach us to number our days so that we will gain the wisdom of knowing that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
Often people will say something like, "I know that one day I will die, but I want to die a dignified death." What this means is that people hope that their deaths, and the deaths of those they love, will be peaceful, serene, and without pain. Unfortunately, death is itself an indignity, and it rarely comes without wreaking its undignified destruction and leaving its cruel marks. As one woman said to the attending physician, after watching her mother die of breast cancer, "It was nothing like the peaceful end I expected. I thought it would be spiritual ... [but] there was too much pain, too much Demerol. ... [T]here was no dignity in my mother's death!" Thinking about this remark later, the physician frankly admitted to himself, "I have not often seen much dignity in the process by which we die."
To number our days seeking wisdom, however, points in a different direction. We are not guaranteed a dignified death, but what we are offered is a sacred death, a holy death. Jesus did not die a dignified death; he was executed as a criminal by the state, nailed cruelly to a wooden cross. There is little dignity to be found in that. But his life was a sacred death because his life was shaped as an offering given to God, and his life was received by God and redeemed. As Sherwin Nuland said, "The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it."
The last book that the great philosopher Ernest Becker wrote before his own untimely death at age forty-nine, was The Denial of Death. He wrote about our futile attempt as human beings to defeat death by setting up ourselves and our achievements as somehow immortal. But such attempts ultimately come crashing down, and what is left to us? In the last sentence of the book, Becker provides his keenest insight: "The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something — an object or ourselves — and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force."
For people of faith, what Becker calls "the life force" is, of course, God, the God of all life. It is in "numbering our days," and in knowing that each day is a gift from the living God, a day to be lived in joy and gratitude, lived in self-giving love, and in the end fashioned as an offering to God, that life is made complete and whole. It is also knowing that when we do not live this way, when our joy turns to bitterness and our gratitude into resentment, that we are finally surrounded by the mercy and forgiveness of God, which redeems even our brokenness.
That is why the first word of Easter, the first word from the risen Christ, is "Do not be afraid." The risen Christ is saying to us, "You are so anxious and fearful about how your life will end. But do not be afraid. This is how it ends ... in resurrection. To belong to me is to be given the gift of an ending to life that you could never achieve in your own power, that no earthly physician can provide, no medicine can produce-the gift of being gathered in glory and joy into the eternal life of God. That is how it ends. So, do not be afraid."
The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney died in 2013 at age seventy-four. After collapsing on a Dublin street, he was rushed to a hospital and then taken into the operating suite, where unfortunately he died before surgery could take place. Minutes before he died, Heaney, the poet who loved and mastered language, communicated his very last words on this earth in a text message sent to his wife, Marie. Two words in Latin: "Noli timere," which means, "Do not be afraid." Heaney learned these words from Jesus, learned them from the biblical story of Easter, where the risen Christ said to his followers, "Do not be afraid" (Matt. 28:10). Heaney was raised in the Catholic Church, but he had his quarrels with the church and even with the faith. Nevertheless, there at the end of his life, these old words came back to him. His mortality drew him toward this ancient affirmation, this scriptural promise, toward the assurance that our restless lives find their rest in God and that we are calmed by the certainty of God's grace. So, "noli timere; do not be afraid."
Excerpted from "What Happens When We Die?"
Copyright © 2017 Thomas G. Long.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
In the Hour of Our Death,
The Fear of Our Mortality,
Ways We Respond to Our Mortality,
Numbering Our Days,
On the Other Side of Death's Curtain,
Possible Answers to the Question "What Happens after Death?",
Looking at Death through the Lens of the Resurrection,