Is it wise to avoid talking about death?
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (First Thessalonians 4:13-14, ESV)
One of the most studiously avoided and uncomfortable topics of conversation is the subject of death. Our tendency is to go to great lengths to avoid this topic, and to quickly change the subject on those rare occasions when it does happen to come up in conversation. When the reality of death does intrude into our world, such as through the death of a loved one or friend, we have a whole range of euphemisms to choose from which have the effect of sanitizing and sentimentalizing this grim and unwelcome reality. And so, for example, instead of saying “Cliff has died,” we say “Cliff has passed away.” I once officiated at a funeral where the deceased individual’s death was described by those who eulogized her as her “sunset.” When talking about Christian believers we in the church often like to say things like, “Cliff has gone home to be with the Lord.” Of course, I’m not at all suggesting that it is necessarily wrong to substitute more sensitive and less jarring terms when speaking of an individual’s death, especially at times when the shock and rawness of a loved one’s death is hard enough to deal with, and when comforting words are needed. But these sanitized euphemisms for death do serve to underscore just how uncomfortable we are in facing the ugly reality of death, and just how much we would like to avoid dwelling upon the subject.
But here is the question: Is it really wise to so studiously avoid the subject of death, except on those occasions when we are forced to confront it? Perhaps, some might argue, it is wise to avoid the subject as much as possible, since it is such a morbid subject and makes people feel so uncomfortable.
Of course, it is possible to be too preoccupied with the reality of death. One could become so obsessed with the brevity of life and the eventual inevitability of death that one neglects to live life in the present to its fullest, which would not be a good thing. And, of course, for those of us who have received God’s undeserved, merciful gift of forgiveness of sins and eternal life through trusting in Christ as Lord and Savior, we need not face death with paralyzing fear, but rather in the confident hope and expectation of entering into our Savior’s presence once we close our eyes in death. After all, Christ has taken the punishment for our sins upon Himself on the cross, dying in our place, that we might rise to newness of life in Him. As Jesus said in John 5:24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (ESV) But even in the case of the death of a believer, death represents a radical transition, a radical change from one mode of existence to another; and thus even for believers it can be an uncomfortable topic that we would prefer to avoid. But, again, is this a reason to avoid talking frankly and openly about the subject at those times when it is not an immediate reality in our lives?
The theologian Lorainne Boettner, in his book on Immortality, has some wise counsel to offer us on this subject, especially when it comes to teaching children about the reality of death:
“Most people are reluctant to give serious consideration to the reality of death until it is forced upon them. This, however, is not the part of wisdom. The Bible frequently confronts us with the fact of death. We read there of the careers of many and great men. But no matter how long they lived, the repeated comment is, “And he died.”
“Sooner or later death is sure to come in the experience of each of us. When it does come the most sensible course is to meet it squarely. Unfortunately, in some homes children receive no proper teaching concerning its meaning. The subject is scarcely mentioned, and the children may even be forbidden to attend funerals. But some day those children, perhaps alone and without warning, will be forced to stand by the death-bed of mother, father, brother or sister, or perhaps face it on the battlefield in its cruelest form. What then will be their reaction? Nothing is more certain than the fact of death; nothing is more uncertain than the time at which it will come.
“Surely it is the part of wisdom to be prepared for this certain attack. Modern psychology is showing that the most effective way to deal with a situation that causes intense distress or grief is not to suppress it or drive it down into our subconscious mind where it continues to harass and upset us, but to meet it openly, discuss it with others, and, so far as possible, seek to understand it. If we try to suppress it or ignore it much damage may be done to our minds, bodies and souls.” (pp. 38-39 in Immortality by Loraine Boettner; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, copyright 1956 by Loraine Boettner)
In conclusion, the only note I would add to Boettner’s wise counsel is the sober comment that those who are outside of a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ ought to give much thought to the reality of their own inevitable death, for the Scriptures indicate that they have much to fear from death. Holy Scripture teaches that those who die apart from Jesus Christ die in their sins and thus face a sad eternity cut off from the loving, favorable presence of God. For the unbelieving and wicked, death is the doorway, not to heaven, but to eternal damnation. Jesus Himself taught about the reality of hell and judgment often, and in Scripture He presents Himself as the only God-appointed remedy to humanity’s sin problem. He is the only One who can provide atonement for our sins and the gift of perfect rightouesness we need in order to gain entrance into heaven. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, ESV) And as the Apostle Peter testified of Jesus in the presence of the Jewish Sanhedrin: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, ESV) Christ’s mighty miracles and bodily resurrection from the dead prove these claims to be absolute, universal truth applicable to all people in all times and all places.
If you, dear reader, are presently apart from Christ but value your soul, then heed the gracious call of the gospel. Flee from your sins to Jesus Christ, and rest upon Him alone for your salvation as He is freely offered to you in the gospel. Then you can face death with confidence, not terror. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, ESV; emphasis added) “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV)