If you have been anywhere near social media in the last few days, you can’t fail to have noticed the outpouring of emotion in the wake of the deaths of, amongst others, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. It’s not that surprising that people who do not claim to have any particular religious affiliation or faith should react in this way. If you do not believe that there is a God, death really is the end.
What is perhaps more surprising is that Christians should react in a similar way. I’m not suggesting that we should not feel sorrowful that families of celebrities suffer loss or that a celebrity dies relatively young. That would be entirely unfeeling and lacking in humanity.
That kind of response is, however, very different to what feels like a disproportionate reaction that sometimes borders on the hysterical, flooding social media.
How do we explain this reaction?
In all honesty, I do not have an explanation. It is more than a little bewildering.
However, I will make four suggestions as to why people of Christian faith might be tempted to be swept along by the culture in responding to the events of the past week or so.
Firstly, the death of anyone, but the death of a high profile figure in particular, is a reminder of our own frailty.
In other cultures in other times, people spoke about death. Death was ever present. Not so in our culture. Many have limited contact with death or dying until it touches their own family. Death has become a taboo subject. Compared to most people, in most places throughout most of history, most of us lead sheltered lives.
Secondly, we live in a culture that believes it can fix anything that needs fixing.
If we don’t like something we can – we think – just change it. Don’t like your Christmas present? Sell it on ebay? Don’t like your gender? Change it. Disappointed with your holiday? Complain. Uncomfortable with how God is presented in the Bible? Alter it.
It’s a great shock when we find that the semblance of control we have over life is just that – a semblance. We have limited control over our lives.
Death does not fall within the category of things we can control. It is no slave to fashion or the pressure of public opinion. There is no celestial customer service desk to which we can complain about death’s behaviour.
“It is appointed unto man once to die,” declares Hebrews 9.27. It is an appointment that cannot be continually postponed.
Thirdly, we often desire to attribute faith where there is no evidence it was present.
Part of our discomfort with death might also be found in our understanding on the afterlife.
The second part of Hebrews 9.27 says “…and after death to face judgment. ”
Someone on social media suggested that George Michael had not “found the light”. It clearly upset some people and was reflected in their posts.
Whether George Michael, Carrie Fisher or anyone else had a death bed conversion, I don’t know. The dying thief was promised paradise when he made His request to Christ. But it is worth remembering that that the other dying thief rejected Christ even in death.
I understand the desire to attribute a last moment conversion to people we love or respect. But when the evidence is absent, we have no right to. Some people choose not to follow Christ. God has given them the ability to reject his love. We do people a disservice if we try to finish their story in a way they never wanted it told.
When Christopher Hitchens died, his friend and opponent, Reformed theologian Douglas Wilson commented in Christianity Today:
“The subject [deathbed conversion] came up repeatedly, and was plainly a concern to him. Christopher Hitchens was baptized in his infancy, and his name means “Christ-bearer.” This created an enormous burden that he tried to shake off his entire life. No creature can ever succeed in doing this. But sometimes, in the kindness of God, such failures can have a gracious twist at the end. We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right. Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.”
Wilson’s comments are a generous blend of humanity and faithfulness to scripture. We would do well to preserve something of his balance if we feel we have to pronounce on the possibility of a deathbed conversion, especially if there is no existing evidence.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our reactions over the last few days might reveal our fear of death.
I have had two conversations recently with different families living over six thousand miles apart. In the last year, both faced terminal illness within the family. In both cases palliative care professionals had related that Christians were less likely to want to talk about death than non-Christians.
If that is an indication that we believe God is able to heal today, then I can understand the reluctance to talk about death.
If it reveals that we have become fearful of an enemy that Jesus has already defeated, then the situation is more serious. Could it be true that we have lost our grip on hope? On the life to come?
Consider some of the songs we used to sing:
“On that bright and cloudless morning / When the dead in Christ shall rise / And the glory of His resurrection share / When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies / And the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.
There’s a land that is fairer than day / And by faith we can see it afar / For the Father waits over the way / To prepare us a dwelling place there
Those hymns might not have been lyrically the greatest ever written. And they might not have been as accurate theologically as some would like. But they did capture the imagination and impressed upon us that our best life was still to come.
If the Christians are afraid of death and no longer sing about heaven, what hope for those who don’t know the Conqueror of death?
Following Jesus means that we follow One who has taken on and beaten the greatest enemy of all:
Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now? (1 Corinthians 15.55 MSG)