The only spiritual question that truly haunted me in my youth was this one: Is there life after death? Because if there is no life after death, then faith means nothing. Nor do the “rules of religion” apply – the constraints and guilt of which I was already looking to escape. We simply end life like a tree struck by lightning or road kill. The only thing left to fear is the pain of how you die. That part in itself is frightening enough.
The fear of my youth was captured ominously in a black and white painting I saw in a large white book called The Guiding Light: The Bible in Pictures. My parents had it lying around. I was a voracious reader and we only had so many books in the house.
The painting (shown above – I still have the book) depicted Abraham with a man beside him, surrounded by angels, looking down at another man in agony and in darkness. The inscription read: “In torment, he looked up and saw Lazarus with Abraham, to whom he cried, ‘Send Lazarus to comfort me!’ Abraham’s reply further deepened my fear: “Son, there is a great gulf fixed between us which none can cross.’
If there is life after death, we definitely have something to fear according to Jesus who told this parable in Luke 16. If not, then these fears are simply grounded in ancient stories from superstitious old men who wanted to scare us into believing what they believe.
Is hell why we instinctively fear dying? Why else would the word ‘cancer’ strike fear in our hearts? Perhaps dying is simply the fear of missing out on the promises of our future – enjoying romantic love, having children, traveling the world in our retirement?
Each of us has to come to peace with our eternal destiny. My dear friend Phil Small recently shared one of his many heart-warming stories with me. A woman in her forties, married with young children, was facing death from cancer. He described her last days like this:
“It won’t be tomorrow,” she said. By now Ginny knew that the cancer would eventually have its way with her, that it would rob her of the years ahead she had always assumed would be hers. But she also knew that it wouldn’t happen tomorrow. She still had today and almost certainly the day after as well. Living in the present was now the only option left to her. And she found such peace in living like that. She would be thankful for the now of each day and the comforting assurance that she would have tomorrow too. All of reality was to be found within this very limited horizon. This was where she could still love God and those whom God had given her to love. Anything beyond this was no longer her concern.
There were times when Ginny would voice her gratitude for the grace of seeing life in this unfamiliar way. Even if the cancer were suddenly to disappear, she would not want to lose the peace that came from receiving the precious gift of each new day with such a grateful heart. And leaving all the rest to God.
We only have true peace when we are at peace with dying. Only then it seems, do we truly learn to live. To have that peace, we have to decide if there is life after death and if so, where we are going.
What have you decided and how do you know you’ve got it right? There is much at stake…for your present life as well as your future.