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The Last Enemy

by Kevin Ford
Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash
 

“In the midst of life we are in death” goes one expression. Another, in a lighter vein, claims, “There’s nothing more sure than death and taxes.” The Toronto congregation have had special reasons to ponder the reality of death in their recent loss of two much-loved sisters in the Church, Marg Cunningham and Betty Angus. Those who have passed middle age will have no difficulty in relating to these words of the Psalmist: “Seventy years is all we have – eighty years if we are strong; yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over, and we are gone.” (Psalm 90:10, TEV)

The noted Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote a remarkable short story on the subject of death. Entitled The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it tells of a successful judge in Czarist Russia who sustains an apparently minor injury in his home which in fact turns out to be fatal. In the course of the following weeks and months, as his health inexorably deteriorates, we are given a chilling insight into the physical and mental sufferings of a dying man, sufferings made worse by his awareness of the hypocrisy that surrounds him.

The doctors, concerned for their reputations and their fees, will not answer the only question that really matters to him: “Is there hope for recovery?” His professional colleagues view his plight largely in terms of the possible promotions that may arise on his death. Even his own family, while naturally sorry for him, cannot help viewing his condition more as a trial for them, a hindrance to the happiness they have a right to expect from life. Worse, they refuse to even acknowledge the reality of the situation, pretending that he has only to follow the prescribed treatments to recover, which for him trivializes the “terrible, solemn act of his death.”

Tolstoy’s characters are not, of course, Christians as we understand the true meaning of the expression, and for them death is unimaginable and unmentionable because it is seen as a descent into oblivion.

How does the Bible instruct us to view death? First, it teaches us that the dying are the responsibility of the living. Jesus Christ was constantly “moved with compassion” by the sufferings he saw around Him. Of the miracles recorded in the New Testament, almost all are miracles of healing. We may not have the gifts of healing possessed by Christ and the first century apostles, but we do have His teachings of the vital necessity to care for the sick and dying.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), He gave us the example of the despised Samaritan – the only one to come to the aid of the dying traveller. In Tolstoy’s story, Ivan Ilyich’s only comfort comes from the peasant servant Gerasim, who ministers to him with unaffected kindness.

“Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed clearly that he alone understood what it meant, and saw no necessity to disguise it, and simply felt sorry for his sick, wasting master. He even said this once straight out, when Ivan Ilyich was sending him away. ‘We shall all die. So what’s a little trouble?’ he said, meaning by this that he did not complain of the trouble just because he was taking this trouble for a dying man, and he hoped that for him too someone would be willing to take the same trouble when his time came.”

A journalist once asked Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to caring for the disadvantaged, a penetrating question. He had seen her take in a number of the dying off the streets of India and wanted to know why she was going to so much effort for those who were obviously not going to survive. Her answer was simple: “Yes, they will die”, she conceded, “but before that happens, they are going to know that somebody cares about them.”

Secondly, we learn that mourning for the dead is natural and right, notwithstanding our understanding of the impermanence of death. These are just a few of the many examples of mourning for the dead.

“So Sarah died in Kirjath Arba (that is, Hebron) and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Genesis 23:2). “Then Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days.” (Genesis 37:34). “Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1) Perhaps none is as moving as David’s great lamentation over Jonathan and Saul recorded in 2 Samuel 1:17-27, which is all the more remarkable when we recall how Saul had treated David during his lifetime.

Finally, and most importantly, we are assured that death is not the end. During the Second World War, German troops were instructed how to inform a captured Allied soldier of his position. “Fur Sie ist der Krieg vorbei!” they would say, adding the English translation, “For you the war is over!” For many who heard this, the words must have been a relief. They might have to spend a prolonged period in a POW camp, but they now knew that unlike many of their comrades who has fallen in battle, they had survived the war.

In Revelation 14:13 (RSV), God offers us these comforting words: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. ‘Blessed indeed’, says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”

In effect, God is telling His saints, “For you the war is over!” – the war against Satan, the world, and especially their own human nature. He who has the power of the resurrection does not view death in our puny, human way. He exhorts us to “be faithful to death, and I will give you a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10) and “...whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Death is the culmination, not merely the cessation, of our physical life, and it is not the end.

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” (1 Corinthians 15:22-23) As long as we are in this human flesh, physical life will always seem precious to us, something to be clung to at all costs, and death will be the dreaded enemy. But we have God’s promise of ultimate victory.

“The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

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