Die Well

“Just thinking about D-Day,” the old man replied.

I had noticed him walk into the coffee shop, his back hunched over almost parallel to the ground. He took his seat and immediately, almost choreographed, a barista greeted him with a cup of coffee, a donut, and the kind of smile that only makes sense for a regular.

“How are you today, Jack?” she had asked.

It was early June, and the man had to be in his eighties — these were more than enough reasons for me to ask more. So I pulled up a chair, and on an unsuspecting early morning, almost directly from where I am writing now, I became friends with a WWII veteran. His name was Jack.

Throughout the summer, before the kids’ new school year started in August, I came every Friday morning and pulled back up a chair beside him. Jack told good stories, several of which I heard more than once. He was America’s “greatest generation” right in front of me. He was a soldier. He was an educator. And he was old. He would not live much longer, even by the most generous estimates.

This was something I thought I knew until one morning, after not seeing him for a while, another regular at the coffee shop told me Jack had died. I was blindsided. I should’ve had a plan to find this out sooner. I should’ve anticipated this happening. But I didn’t.

I didn’t think about Jack dying because I rarely think about death. You probably don’t either.

As a society, especially those of us in the younger generation, we haven’t come to grips with what dying is all about. We don’t really know what it is or what it means. At best, we’re confused. At worst, we’ve invoked a kind of intentional ignorance, smudging the details and turning our heads. We’ve all at some point, and often painfully, been affected by the deaths of others. But when it comes to our own death, we just don’t go there. We don’t know how.

But we can know, and we should go there. Without it being too morbid or exhaustive, there are three basic truths about death that form a foundation for how to think about it going forward. These are straightforward, big-picture realities that, though they don’t say everything, they at least get us started.

1. Death Is Terrible.

We often err in one of two ways when it comes to death. We either celebrate it as a ticket out of this crummy world or we let its impending reality paint despair over all of life. The first mistake is to shrug death off like it’s not a big deal. The second mistake is a straightjacket that can’t see past the material world. This latter option is certainly out there, at least among some philosophy majors and marginal ideologies, but it’s by far the less popular of the two. Nietzsche might have been fun to read in college, but it rarely holds up over time.

The more serious problem, it seems to me, is the positive spin on death that has subtly crept into the mainstream mind. Back in the mid-90s, during hip-hop’s renaissance, 2Pac and Biggie Smalls didn’t expose pop-culture to the harshness of death so much as, in one sense, glorify it. The fact that two young, famous figures actually died was easily lost in the tributes and fanaticism. Death was romanticized. Twenty years later, as seen in our music and movies, the common understanding of death within our generation is no less murky and conflicted.

Peter Leithart explains that “the attempt to dress death in beautiful robes is a reoccurring theme of Western civilization” (Deep Comedy, 55). Whether it’s the Greek heroes of ancient literature or the machismo lyrics of “One Hell of an Amen,” it seems like we’ve always been bent on making death something it’s not. Something poetic. Something pretty. And the problem with dressing it up is the same problem as ignoring it — neither call death terrible.

But death is terrible. It is the final consequence of sin, the ultimate antics of our adversary, the epitome of a broken world. Death is, as Joe Rigney puts it, essentially the separation of things that should be united. If we are alive, and if we’re paying attention, there is nothing good about that. There’s nothing good about death itself.

And in case our own experiences don’t say enough, the fact about death’s terror was made crystal clear in the resurrection of Jesus. If death is to be celebrated, Jesus would’ve left the stone where it was. If death is just the way it goes, there wouldn’t have been a stone there in the first place. But because the stone was rolled away — because the tomb is empty — we learn that death will be neither dignified nor discounted; only defeated.

Death will be neither dignified nor discounted—only defeated.

Jesus kicked the teeth out of death, crushing its power over his people (Revelation 20:6) and promising one day to destroy it forever (Revelation 20:14). But because death has been conquered, it doesn’t mean peace has been made with it. This isn’t a tennis match. Death is no less terrible, and should be no less hated.

And this means, for starters, before we tweet platitudes about beheaded Christians being welcomed home, we should feel the outrage. We should feel something more similar to those who buried the first martyr of the risen Christ: “Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2).

Death is not our simple escape. It is our enemy — and it is terrible.

2. You Will Die.

There is Enoch, Elijah, and those who will remain at Jesus’s second coming, but for the rest of us, we are going to die. In fact, if we’re judging by the track record of the last few millennia, it is pretty safe to say that you, and everyone you know, will die.

This is important to nail down because we won’t really hear this message anywhere else. The entertainment industry profits from distracting us from it, and our own plans sometimes betray the subterranean belief that we’re going to live forever. Here. Like this.

Understanding the probability of our own death need not deteriorate into grim pessimism; it’s realism that should affect what we do now. Jonathan Edwards writes, “Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.” Sufjan Stevens reminds us, “Make the most of your life, while it is rife — while it is light.”

Now, to be sure, this is sobriety, not something like “Epicureanism,” which tells us we better get ours now because now is all there is. That is the violent kind of carpe diem that doesn’t have anything to lose. Sobriety, on the other hand, is the calculated movement to live now in light of tomorrow — knowing that indeed there will be a tomorrow after the grave. Life is neither the endless circle of reincarnation nor a straight line that slams into the wall of sudden non-existence. Rather, life (which once did not exist) comes into existence and follows a straight line that will experience two degrees of reality — a temporal reality on this side of the grave, and a permanent reality on the other side. Sobriety gets this, but only because it gets the grave.

Sobriety understands that we will die — that our lives in this world as we know it will eventually end — and instead of depressing what we do, this fact infuses it with more meaning.

3. Prepare to Die Well.

So death is terrible, which means we shouldn’t glamorize it, and you will die, which means we should think soberly about life. The worst part of death, though, is that we rarely know when it’ll happen. Much of the terror is in the interruption. It’s a thief, busting down our doors, ruining our plans. This means that if we’ll die well, then we’ll have to prepare for it now.

We all have a built-in sense of justice that tells us life after death should be, in some way, affected by what we do in this world. Whether it’s seventy virgins or a sacred cow, every culture and every person has this implicit idea that the good boys and girls should get paid, and the Hitlers, well, they don’t. But when I say we should prepare to die well, I don’t mean for our lives after death, but the actual dying part.

How do we die well, horrible as death is, as sudden and shocking as it may be?

We die well when we call death gain — which is not about what death gets us, but what death can’t take away. There is a major difference here between false gain and true gain. It’s one key distinction between a Muslim jihadist blowing himself up and an Ethiopian Christian being beheaded. The former is trying to use death to earn himself something. The latter is saying that death, cruel as it is, can’t touch that which he already owns and to which he has ascribed surpassing value. The jihadist buddies up with death in search of an empty promise. The martyr looks his fiercest enemy in the eyes with the inextinguishable rage of hope.

Death for the Christian martyr is entirely different than death for the Muslim jihadist.

For the Christian, death is not gain because it gives us something great, but because, even though it takes away everything else, it can’t take away Jesus. Death is gain because when all is lost, we still have all we ever really wanted, and now we have him in a deeper, richer experience that, as the apostle Paul says, is “far better” (Philippians 1:23).

And therefore, instead of this meaning that we’ve now made friends with death or that it’s somehow not as bad, it means that one day we will mock it. We will celebrate its final destruction (1 Corinthians 15:54–55).

That’s what you do with pompous enemies who think they’ve won. You say, “O death where is your victory?” It’s not here, not over me.