By Ben Swift
‘Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.’ Martin Luther.
While at a boxing class recently, I found out that a guy I used to partner up with in training had quite suddenly died of brain cancer. I didn’t know a lot about this man except that he was only about sixty years of age and that he had dedicated much of his time in life to learning and teaching martial arts. Hearing this news stirred up my thinking about the things of life and death yet again.
We all dedicate our lives to a whole range of pursuits but in the end, what do any of them really mean? Does most of what we do mean anything at all? One thing that often stands out at funerals is that everyone, once pronounced dead, was the greatest person to ever have lived and that it seems important in some respect, that the person be able to live on, whether in our hearts, minds or simply on a well-worded inscription in a graveyard.
What is it about humanity that makes us obsessed with living on, or to put it another way, to live forever? Take for instance the lyrics of Fame by Irene Cara: ‘Fame I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly, I’m gonna make it to Heaven, Baby remember my name.’ Could this song sum up why we in the West are so caught up in fame? Do we really believe that through fame we can live forever? We’ve all the seen the legacy of rock stars such as Prince being kept alive by the power of the media, but how does Prince benefit from this approach to achieving immortality? He’s dead!
While there are many religious beliefs and teachings about immortality, for now, let’s focus on what science has to offer. Charles Darwin through his Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest, teaches us that we can live on through the passing on of our genes. That is to say that we have the potential to achieve immortality through reproduction, an ability that is shared throughout the animal kingdom.
Take for instance lions. A lion pride consists of a group of closely related females and a smaller group of separately interrelated males present for a shorter time. When a new male enters the pride and earns his right to take over the pride, he kills the young cubs fathered by the previous males. Why? I believe Darwin would argue that he is playing his role in the survival of the fittest and passing on his genetic information. You could say he is living on through his genes.
This logic isn’t exclusive to the animal kingdom. Humans have been reproducing their way to immortality for as long as history has been recorded, especially when it comes to royalty. The film Braveheart has a classic line that highlights the importance to a king for his bloodline to continue. When the cruel King Edward the Longshanks was approaching his final breath, Queen Isabella whispers in his ear, “You see? Death comes to us all. But before it comes to you, know this: your blood dies with you. A child who is not of your line grows in my belly. Your son will not sit long on the throne. I swear it.”
Death does come to us all. True immortality, that’s another question, bloodline or no bloodline.
What can we learn from the Christian Scriptures about death? The writer of Ecclesiastes reflects:
The same fate awaits man and animals alike. One dies just like the other. They are both the same type of creature. A human being is no better off than the animal, because life has no meaning for either. They are both going to the same place – the dust.
This gloomy reflection provides us with a reality check as to who we are. Human beings are not God. We are not immortal and no attempts that we make can change that truth. Thankfully the Scriptures don’t leave it at that. There is a way that our thirst for immortality can be satisfied. This is what lies at the heart of the Good News of the Gospel message.
‘When what decays puts on imperishability and what is mortal puts on immortality, then this passage in the Tanakh will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin; and sin draws its power from the Torah [Law], but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Yeshua [Jesus] the Messiah!’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)
When Jesus was dying on the cross between two convicted criminals, the following message of hope was given.
‘One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at him. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other one spoke up and rebuked the first, saying, “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same punishment as he is. Ours is only fair; we’re getting what we deserve for what we did. But this man did nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Yeshua, remember me when you come as King.” Yeshua said to him, “Yes! I promise that you will be with me today in Gan-‘Eden [paradise].” (Luke 23:39-43)
In the end, we can choose to put our hope in a vast array of things but the only true way to immortality requires us to enter through what Jesus referred to as ‘the narrow gate’. What Christ achieved on the Cross gives us an exclusive hope, in that we mere mortals can receive the gift of immortality through Him.