Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man that would live forever?
– Vanilla Sky (2001)
It’s not just the young who think they can cheat death. Most of the time, none of us dares to hold that stark reality before us. We live in a world of double-think, simultaneously knowing that the end is coming while living our lives as if it were all limitless. We refuse to look death in the face.
Religious people are particularly good at this. We know intellectually that we can’t cheat death in this life, so we project our fantasies of immortality into the afterlife. In heaven, we’ll be even smarter, richer, healthier, and happier than we are now. Death is swallowed up by dreams of Cloud 9.
Despite all our resistance, deep down we know that death is real. It’s fearsome, and it’s coming for us. Death is an end to everything we think we know. It will strip us of every plan we’ve made and possession we’ve accumulated.
Death is egalitarian. It doesn’t care who you are. Your good deeds won’t spare you. No amount of foresight and planning can hedge against it. Death exposes the fact that, no matter how much we might like to imagine we’re in control, we are finite creatures of an infinite God.
Most of the time, we just can’t handle this level of reality. We hit snooze, postponing the moment of awakening. We flee awareness of our own impotence. In a society that worships the self-made individual, the last thing we want to do is look death in the face.
So we accumulate endless tokens of our own strength and self-sufficiency. Whether it takes the form of base materialism, idealistic causes, or dedication to family and friends, we seek immortality through our possessions, accomplishments, and progeny. We’ll cling to just about anything if it means we can keep sleeping.
But the cost of slumber is high. Ignoring death means shutting our eyes to the truth of who (and whose) we are. As death-deniers, we shut out anything that reminds us of our own finitude. We doze in a fitful, anxious sleep. We linger alone, with our isolating and selfish dreams.
As much as we may fear it, waking up to death is a gift. A life lived with the end in sight is categorically different from the zombie existence of death-denial. There’s incredible freedom in knowing that nothing lasts – accepting that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Death is an antidote to the megalomania and despair that has gripped our civilization. It is a cure for the sense of trapped anxiety that seizes our hearts. Contemplating the certainty of your death, you come to see as never before what your life is worth. This amazing existence is a limited-time offer, and we don’t get to set the terms.
When all is said and done, only love endures. Only truth, hope, and open-eyed joy can redeem the annihilation of death. That’s the message of the cross. That’s the saving power of the gospel.
Look death in the face, and smile.