by Reinder Bruinsma | 7 February 2024 |
This essay is about life and death, and about life after death. It is an intimate and personal topic, because it touches directly on my own life and inevitable death.
I know that I am alive. The fact that I am writing this is sufficient proof that I am still in the land of the living.
But I also know with absolute certainty that one day I will die. It would be foolish of me were I not to recognize that most of my life is over. I don’t want to ruminate too much about my inevitable demise, but I have reached the phase that, according to Psalms 90:10, “by reason of strength” I’ve made it past three-score-and-ten, and now beyond four-score.
I’m certain I’m old, but I do not know with the same kind of certainty what comes next after the curtain has fallen on my earthly existence. As a Christian, I affirm what Christians throughout the ages have professed when quoting the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
What is life?
We share our human life on planet Earth with some eight billion people. Every day worldwide about 150,000 people die, but this is more than compensated for by the 365,000 births. People differ in many ways, with respect to culture, gender, age, skin color, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics, but whether we are white Americans and Europeans, Asians, Africans or Inuit; whether we belong to the contingent of older women or male adolescents; or any other age, gender or ethnic combination, we all belong to the same species of homo sapiens.
But of course we’re not alone as representatives of life. There are some 5,500 different species of mammals on our planet. Bird-watchers tell us that the mammal species are by far outnumbered by the 9,000 species of birds. Add to that 33,000 species of fish and a million-plus kinds of insects.
Oh, and at least 300,000 species of trees and plants.
What do all these living things have in common? Or to rephrase the question: What, in fact, is life?
Over the years, many definitions have been proposed. As Jack Hoehn wrote in these pages recently, it is not so easy to unambiguously define the boundary between living and non-living things, and the question deserves much debate. For example, are viruses, which cause so much disease in living organisms, even living organisms themselves?
We would agree that the kind of life that humans possess is unique. I conclude this from the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Human life is much more than an assembly of chemical and biological processes; in addition to physical characteristics, there are also intellectual and spiritual dimensions. We are living beings who not only can reproduce and respond to general stimuli, but we can love and hate, use language, understand symbols, and are capable of aesthetic and spiritual feelings.
I have many questions about the first chapters of Genesis, but I continue to believe in Divine creation. How and when creation happened, I don’t know. But I believe that life resulted from a divine initiative—it did not arise by mere chance, but it was created. I do not know what that exactly means. Creating (in the absolute sense) is not something we humans do. God is life, and God created the life we see around us. God created us.
The creation story informs us that human life differs from other forms of life. I do not know what will become of these other forms of life when this present world has come to its end. In a number of places the Bible hints at the existence of animal and plant life in the world to come, but we can only guess about the degree of continuity between now and then. Will there be lions and lambs, but no dinosaurs? And what about rats and sharks?
However, as far as human life is concerned, God’s Word is quite clear about a definite continuity between our present lives and our re-created existence in the hereafter. Because our human life is so special, it holds the promise of eternity. Jesus, along with the Father and the Spirit, underlined this when He declared that He is Life (with a capital letter) and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.
I recognize that this requires some huge leaps of faith and trust, and it raises more questions than we can ever find answers for this side of eternity. So be it. The bottom line for us is: Life is a beautiful gift, but in final analysis it is something inexplicable.
That’s because it comes from God.
It seems that the older we get, the more funerals we attend. As a retired pastor I have in recent years been asked far more often to lead funerals than to conduct weddings.
All life ends in death. As we grow older most of us lose our parents, our friends, the people we grew up with. Many lose a partner or even children. If we have pets, we have to accept their limited lifespan: we will outlive most of them.
Most of us want to protect life, but we exterminate pests and kill mosquitoes and flies. Some of us eat parts of animals, at least of certain species! Even trees will eventually die, even though a few may be centuries old.
Death is a stark reality. People can die of old age, but death can also come as the result of war or a natural disaster, or through a fatal traffic accident.
Paradoxically, while most people want to push death away as far as possible, it is simultaneously becoming increasingly familiar in our culture. Crime novels and television series about shrewd detectives who unmask killers are hugely popular, though they offer a constant menu of violence and death. In most video games, the players must kill enemies if they want to score points. By age eighteen, most young people have already seen thousands of murders on television and film.
Yet we also find that for many in our Western world, talking about death and dying is taboo. In general, people do not want to be confronted with the reality of their finitude any more than is absolutely necessary. This is even reflected in the terminology that is often used. People no longer “die,” but they “pass.” They “leave us” or “are no longer with us.”
Death is often placed at a distance. A major percentage of people die in a hospital or hospice and are cared for in their final days by professionals rather than by their loved ones. And once they die, in most cases, professionals tend to their lifeless bodies. In our aging Western world, the “funeral industry” (the term is meaningful in itself!) has become big business. In the United States, 130,000 people are employed in this “industry,” which has a turnover of more than $20 billion a year.
But whatever we think of death, we cannot stay ahead of the grim reaper. Time is relentless: we live and we die!
Yet just as it is not easy to come up with a definition of life that satisfies everyone, there is also no simple answer to the question of what death exactly is. Most dictionaries agree in defining an important aspect of death as the permanent end of all vital functions. This may seem quite obvious, but dying can be a slow process, and a person may be “brain dead” before all functions have completely stopped. Is a person who is in a vegetative state still alive in a meaningful sense of the word?
Of course, the question of the nature of death is not just a matter of biology, just as life is not confined to the realm of chemistry and biology. What is death from a philosophical or religious point of view? What happens when life ends? Is death the absolute and final end of who and what we are now? Or is it the gateway to a new kind of existence?
To be or not to be is the very existential question we all face in one way or another.
My leap of faith
I take a leap of faith to believe that both life and death involve a dimension beyond our human comprehension. Because life has its origin in the divine Source of life, “death” is ultimately caused by a total separation from this Source of life. Both life and death have supernatural dimensions. The traditional Christian response to the phenomenon of death is that human sin is its cause. I accept this premise, but realize more and more sharply, as I continue to reflect on this topic, that this Christian solution raises many other questions.
The biblical story tells us that humans were created perfect, and originally lived in a paradisiacal situation where death was unknown. As a result of the failure of the first humans to follow the rules God had given, they were punished, and death made its entrance, not only for the first humans but for everything living.
Through the centuries, many have racked their brains about whether they like such a God. They have wondered why God could not have dealt with the violation of His commandment in a gentler way. Many of us shudder at the explanations of theologians who speak in terms of “original sin,” and of “man’s corrupt, sinful nature.” They ask: Was death the only disciplinary measure a God of life (and of love) could think of?
Another question that keeps coming up: What would have happened if the first human beings had not gone against God’s commandment? Would they have continued indefinitely to obey the instruction to be fruitful and fill the earth? Or would there perhaps have been a point at which, for lack of space—when the earth had, say, ten billion inhabitants—human reproduction would have slowed down or even stopped altogether?
Or would death have occurred anyway, even if there had been no sin? According to the biblical story, the earliest diet of the first humans and of animals was plant-based. Doesn’t this imply that there was already some kind of death from the very beginning, since the plants that were eaten clearly ceased to be alive?
The Christian hope
Perhaps you, too, have these questions about life and death, and especially about our hope for what comes after we die. I have been thinking more and more about the subject of death and resurrection—even wrote a book about it a few years ago. I agree with the apostle Paul, when he wrote to the church in Corinth that without the hope of the resurrection the Christian faith no longer makes sense (1 Corinthians 15:14).
For me, a few points are central:
- God exists. God is eternal life. And in final analysis all life owes its existence to God.
- Christ came to this earth to heal the breach between God and humanity that resulted from man’s failure to trust the Creator.
- God provided information about God’s gracious dealings with humanity through the life of Jesus Christ and in the revelation that found its way into our Bible.
- Christ lived an exemplary life, suffered and died, but rose from the dead and thereby gives us the hope that, if we believe in Him, we will also one day rise from the dead.
These basic beliefs are my starting point. I take a further leap of faith and build on this basis, as I try to think through the issues surrounding life and death, and as I focus particularly on the question of what follows death.
Many questions remain. I am not trying to ignore them, but I realize that they will remain unanswered because on this side of eternity our knowing will always be partial (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that my appreciation for the miracle of life may continue to strengthen my devotion to the God of life, and will fortify my faith in the new miraculous kind of life He wants to give me after my present existence has ended.
Paul thought a lot about life and death, and what his faith told him about it. He came to the conclusion: “Whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord!” (Romans 14:8). What more can I add? I know deep down that “Whether I live or die, I belong to the Lord!”
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching, and writing. He blogs at http://reinderbruinsma.com/.