The Meaning of Death: A Funeral Meditation

The most prominent reality at a funeral is also at the same time the most difficult subject to discuss. That reality, of course, is the subject of death. As one man has noted, “Death is the one experience that will be shared in common by every person …. Every moment we live, the sand in the hourglass of our existence continues to flow, bringing our final end ever near.”1 And yet, despite the “commonness” of death, most people prefer not to talk about it. There seems to be a kind of natural aversion to death. If we had our choice, we’d much rather celebrate the birth of a new child or the wedding of a close friend. If we had our way, there would be no funerals, no sad and uncomfortable occasions associated with the passing of a loved one.

Yet, we cannot escape reality. Death confronts us on the front page of the newspaper. It shakes us when we have to bury a family member or friend. Finally the day comes when death knocks at our own door. Indeed, the moment you and I were born into the world, we began our lifelong journey to the grave. And so, we can’t avoid the reality of death. With this inescapable reality in view, I’d like briefly to address the meaning of death. Specifically, what is death? And why must we die?

What Is Death?

Webster’s Dictionary defines “death” simply as the cessation of life. Thus, to understand “death,” we must first understand “life.” Webster’s offers two primary definitions:

(1) “Life” refers to the properties of growth, metabolism, response to stimuli, and reproduction. But this definition is unsuitable for human life, since it would place us on the same level as bacteria or fungus or garden weeds.

(2) “Life” refers to the physical, mental, and spiritual experiences that constitute a person’s existence. Unlike bacteria and garden weeds, we are personal beings. We do not merely have a body, but we have a mind and a spirit.

Someone may ask, “How do the mental and spiritual experiences of a person differ from a bacterium’s responses to external stimuli?” Here’s the answer: People attribute meaning and significance to their experiences; bacteria do not! People write books; people visit libraries; people engage in philosophy and science; people come to an event like this one today and ask questions like “What is it?” or “Why does it have to happen?” Neither bacteria, nor plants, nor insects, nor animals ask those sorts of questions.

And so, if we put Webster’s definitions together, we end up with something like this: “Death” is the cessation of those meaningful physical, mental, and spiritual experiences that constitute a person’s existence. 

That immediately leads to another question.

Why Must We Die?

This is where it gets interesting. When we ask the question “why,” most of us betray a feeling of unhappiness with the prospect of death. For most of us, death is an unwelcome intruder upon our existence. We would much prefer that life continue. Thus, when we ask the question, “Why?” the very tone of our voice conveys the feeling that death is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Death as meaningless

Despite our feelings, there are many people who tell us today that there’s no meaning to human death. In other words, there is no answer to the question of “why?” Death just happens! It’s part of nature. In fact when you boil it down, there’s really no huge difference between life and death—human life is simply dust in motion and death is simply dust come to rest. As one atheist philosopher has put it, human life is like the whitecap on the wave, and in death the whitecap disappears. And so, in reality, there’s no real, lasting meaning either to life or death!

Perhaps some of you view life and death in that way? Perhaps you view an event like today as very normal and natural. Just part of the way things are and should be. You’re certainly welcome to believe that. But for some of us, that answer is woefully inadequate. Which leads me to

Death as meaningful

The Christian view of life and death is quite different. Below are some of the many ways in which God’s revealed word invests both the life and death of human beings with meaning.

(1) According to the Bible, human life is a gift from God (Genesis 1:26, 27; 2:7; Deuteronomy 8:3; 30:20; 1 Timothy 6:17).

(2) And as such, human life includes meaningful physical, mental, and spiritual experiences that constitute our personal existence.

(3) More than that, life also includes the enjoyment of sharing those experiences with other human beings, and above all with God Himself. Indeed, the highest blessing of life, according to the Bible, is the enjoyment of a loving relationship with God Himself. Jesus said it this way: “This is eternal life, that [men] might know the only true God” (John 17:3).

(4) It was God’s original intention that this experience of life continue forever! (Genesis 2:7)

(5) But there was a condition—if man would enjoy this life as a gift from God, he would have to demonstrate his love and loyalty to God by submitting to God’s lordship and by obeying God’s revealed will (Genesis 2:15-17).

(6) Man failed to keep this condition. Man chose to be his own master; he rebelled against God, and he plunged the whole human race into sin (Genesis 3:6–24; Romans 5:12–14). That’s why there’s lying and cheating and hatred and terrorism and U.S. soldiers engaging in the perverted torture of Iraqi prisoners. Sin!

(7) This is why human death has entered the picture. Death is God’s judgment upon sin. To be precise, man dies physically. Then comes the judgment (Hebrews 9:26). Then comes spiritual death where man is forever banished from any hope or happiness. And lest we think this is cruel punishment, let me assure you that those who go to hell are so full of hatred for God that they would much rather suffer away from his presence, than have to serve before His presence. God simply gives them what they’ve always wanted—a Godless eternity (Romans 1:28; 2 Thessalonians 1:9).

(8) This is why the Bible refers to death as man’s “enemy.” This is why men live in the constant fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). This is why we prefer not to come to funerals.

(9) Thankfully, death does not have the last word! At the very point at which God first pronounced a death sentence upon the whole human race, He also made a promise! He promised to send a Deliverer—One who would redeem humanity from sin and restore eternal life (Genesis 3:15).

(10) The Scriptures go on to identify this Deliverer as Jesus of Nazareth who gave His life as a ransom for sin upon the cross (John 3:16; Romans 5:6–11), and who rose from the dead to provide us with the basis for the hope of eternal life! Jesus Himself affirmed this truth just before He died: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).

(11) Because of Christ, we don’t have to live in the constant fear of death. Yes, it’s still painful. Yes, it’s still our enemy. Yes, we would avoid it if we could. But it is possible for you and I to look death in the face and to know that it will not have the last word (Romans 8:31–39; Philippians 1:19–23). There is a resurrection. There is a world to come. There is eternal life (Revelation 21:1–7).

(12) The one condition is that we believe in Jesus Christ: “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). This is more than believing in the historicity of Jesus. This is more than taking the name “Christian” and joining a Christian church. To believe in Jesus Christ as Savior means:

  • You accept the Bible’s interpretation of life and death and God and man and sin and salvation.
  • You acknowledge your own personal sin against God and your need for salvation.
  • You renounce any trust in your own goodness or good needs to earn you favor with God, and instead you trust in the perfect life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ as an atonement for your sins.
  • You express your willingness for Christ to be the lord of your life, rather than being your own little god (Romans 10:9).

Conclusion

The Christian writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis said, “There are, aren’t there, only three things we can do about death: to desire it, to fear it, or to ignore it.”2 I don’t believe anyone really desires death. I suspect many fear it. And I believe it’s foolish to ignore it. It’s inescapable.3 We must face it sooner or later. My prayer is that coming to grips with the sober reality of death will you to turn to the One who said of Himself, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

Notes

1 Terry Glaspey, Not A Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C. S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia (Cumberland House, 2005), 197.

2 Cited in Glaspey, 197.

3 For the folly of ignoring death, see my “All Fun and No Funerals Makes Jack a Dumb Boy,” July 1, 2017.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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