The Skies We Die Under

Common Deathbed Deceptions

The sky was the kind of blue if blue could burn, blue on fire, lit by the sun blazing high above the hills in winter on a morning when there are no clouds. A sky like that makes it easier for a soldier to die. It’s the last thing he sees, and there is comfort in knowing some things will live forever. (The Well-Spoken Thesaurus, 16)

Have you ever seen a sky like this? A sky ablaze and serene, reaching down to dying men with the warmth of a mother’s arms or the caress of a wife’s hand? This sky, burning blue, eases the soldier’s passing. He is dying — he knows the wound. Among thoughts of loves lost, future days unlived, last words never spoken, he gazes up, and there, a painting more beautiful than he ever remembers. What a Sistine Chapel to canvas this theater of war — unsmeared, unshot. Beauty amidst death. Loveliness amidst terror. A flower sprouts in a bloody field. As his eyes begin to stare beyond this world, he almost smiles.

A sky like that makes it easier for a soldier to die.

This world has many such skies, skies (figuratively speaking) that make it easier for us to face death. They seem to say, in their own way, Everything is going to be alright. But earth’s burning skies do not always (or even often) tell the truth. As much as they may quiet the conscience at the end of a life we thought well-lived, we may still, in fact, be unprepared to die. Then, such skies deceive like a decorated hallway on our way to a place we never meant to go. Men, women, and children have slipped into death with a degree of consolation, only to awake in confusion. They died under the comfort of a burning blue sky that gave way to a living nightmare.

If our soldier could have heard the speech of the sky that day, he would have heard a fiery sermon about the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). A sermon rebuking his thankless and dishonoring life toward his Creator (Romans 1:20–21). A sermon pleading with him to turn from sin to a faithful God who remembers his own with mercy (Jeremiah 31:34–37). The sky burned blue-faced, yes, with earnest appeals: “Confess your sins; look to the perfect sacrifice — Jesus Christ — who died under a skyless night that sinners might wake to eternal Day. Trust in him completely, before you lose your soul forever!”

Earth’s Best Skies

Reader, do you know what sky would ease your death, if death came sooner rather than later? Is it trustworthy? Let us turn our gaze to some of the most vivid skies earth contains, skies that, apart from Christ, will cheat us in the end — the true, the good, the beautiful. These firmaments put man in touch with something beyond himself. Yet we can die beneath these heavenlies without being welcomed into heaven.

The True

Many men have died under the serene skies of a thoughtful life. They have wondered and thus wandered beyond the maze of carnal stupidity. They will not die as a cow eating grass. They are men, not beasts. They agree that the unexamined life is not worth living. They believe in true and false; they believe in logic and mathematics and science and philosophy, and even that a higher power must reign above.

Such men ask hard questions and cannot be satisfied with shallow answers. They read and listen and converse and challenge and will follow where the evidence leads. They think and test their thoughts. What they believe, they know, and what they know can correspond very well with God’s reality. They answer some questions correctly. They do not bow to Jesus as the Truth — they too have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and for this they shall perish — but they stand more approximate to truth than their unthinking, unserious, uninterested, and easily distractable peers. To trap them, Satan must at least use the good cheese.

When they come to die, they recognize that they die in a nest perched on a higher branch. They have read better books, dined on better thoughts, lived more efficiently, productively, rationally, humanely. Worldly wisdom, perhaps, but better than worldly idiocy. They die under a sky of thought, yet never fearing the happy prayer of Jesus:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (Luke 10:21)

The Good

Another brilliant sky is the virtuous one. The great Village of Morality boasts the most captivating atmospheres for sons of Adam to die beneath. Creeds and religions of all sorts coexist under these colors and pat themselves on the back till death.

These feed the conscience memories of goodness, offer their doubts the wine of good works — You weren’t perfect, but you did your best. They despised the pellets and dirty water left in the hamster wheel; they never ran after those lusts. They have learned some version of decency, civility, discipline, which, at points, overlapped with the right, agreed with conscience, acted in accordance with God’s law.

Such a man believes that without morality, he is no better than the dog he pets or the worm he puts on the hook. He may not get it all right, but he cannot live without attempting goodness. Reading C.S. Lewis, he cries amen:

The man without a moral code, like the animal, is free from moral problems. The man who has not learned to count is free from mathematical problems. A man asleep is free from all problems. Within the framework of general human ethics problems will, of course, arise and will sometimes be resolved wrongly. This possibility of error is simply the symptom that we are awake, not asleep, that we are men, not beasts or gods. (Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, 313)

Such may conserve traditional ideals of right and wrong, may warmly embrace sanity and live in friendship with natural law, may still know the meaning of duty and honor, and thus sicken at the decadence of a culture bartering Christian constraints for pagan perversions.

“Faith in the Son — dwelling in him and under his blood — is the only safe sky for mankind.”

But still, they themselves do not follow Christ. Yes, obviously boys are boys and girls are girls. Yes, of course murdering children is an abomination ladled from the bottom of the pit of hell. Yes, our government should end its war on the natural family. But no, I personally don’t worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of my life.

This is a pretty sky, prettier than the drab and polluted grey of the demonic ideologies of the time, but an unsafe sky to die beneath nonetheless.

The Beautiful

Overlapping with the first two, the beautiful is “an intrinsic quality of things which, when perceived, pleases the mind by displaying a certain kind of fittingness” (Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord, 9). As paint in the right place and proportion gives us a lovely painting, and as music in the fitting keys and proper sequence soothes the ear, so a life well-proportioned, bright with varying colors, gives off a sort of beauty, even if unredeemed.

Such lives unveil a father worth imitating, a friendship we want, a great romance we envy. They pursue high ideals; they live, in some sense, for others. This initially pleasing (but Christless) life fills the world’s novels, television series, plays, and movies. It is the beauty of the human experience: The replaying of moments — special and common — that make this life worth living. The beautiful contours of the human story that we relate to, know, and can glimpse as inexplicably precious. Our story — filled with tragedy and triumph, family and failure, music and misery — is still authored in pleasing font, still valuable.

And if we can look back at the four seasons of life and see love, or at the faces surrounding our deathbed and see it returned in their tears, this can soothe the sting of death as it overwhelms us. The burning blue sky is the wife’s hand or the memory of a beloved mother you hope to see again.

This compelling aesthetic is the hope of many. She is a smiling sky, a beautiful expectation. Yet while it imitates the second great commandment (loving your neighbor as yourself), it doesn’t pretend to attempt the first (loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength). The loveliness toward man is spoiled by the heart’s unloveliness toward God. The “love” is seen as idolatry in the end, a pleasing mural painted on a rotting house. More unjust is this love than a man who adores his dog and neglects his wife, or the woman who feeds her cat and starves her grandmother. Lightning will soon erupt from this clear sky.

Parting Clouds

Christ, dear reader, Jesus Christ. All loves inevitably fall and die and decay while we still serve the world, the flesh, and the devil. No matter what sky makes it easier for us to die, faith in the Son — dwelling in him and under his blood — is the only safe sky for mankind. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

All truth is found in him — “I am . . . the truth” (John 14:6). All goodness is his, and he is “the righteous one” (Isaiah 53:11). All shafts of beauty beam from his crown to earth — “He is the radiance of the glory of God,” “the king in his beauty” (Hebrews 1:3; Isaiah 33:17). Apart from him, this world’s best truths, highest goodness, and most suggestive splendors spoil, fester, and stink. The corpse, though embalmed, decays, smells, and returns to dust.

But what a sky, burning blue and gold and silver, is Christ to the soul. Gaze up, as Stephen in his death, and prize not the horizon for its colors, but heaven for its Christ. “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Look to him — as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty himself — and die looking to him. He is the only sky that makes it not only easier to die, but far better.