That’s the question posed to me by my son, Tyler, and a group of his high school friends ten years ago following the death of a fellow student in a car crash.
Their friend Melissa, an amazing and deeply spiritual girl had been at a beach party at our cottage on Lake Michigan with most of her junior class and having a great time. She and her boyfriend, Jordan, left for the drive home and a mile from the lake, he made a fatal error and another car slammed into them.
I was at the scene in minutes. I was relieved that no alcohol was involved, but that didn’t matter now. I had to return to our cottage and tell her friends that Jordan was injured, but okay. However, their friend Melissa had died. As you can imagine, it was a scene I’ll never forget.
Several weeks later a dozen students were hanging out at our house and our son came in our bedroom, woke me up and asked if I would speak with his friends. So I dressed and walked into a very somber, even angry gathering. “Mr. De Graaf, why do bad things happen to good people?”
“Well, what makes you think something bad happened to Melissa?” I asked them.
They were momentarily stunned by my answer. But before they could respond, I quickly added this. “I’m not referring to the unbelievable anguish and sadness Melissa’s family, you her friends, her boyfriend and the person who hit their car are going through right now. Something very tragic and bad happened in their life and yours. I’m sad myself and for all of you and them and it’s okay to weep with those who weep.”
“But here’s my point; Melissa is happier right now than she’s ever been, or ever would have been in her whole life! And if we don’t believe that, then we don’t believe the gospel. I’m not just trying to put a good spin on a horrible death. It’s a promise of Jesus and others in the Bible that we can take to the bank.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 17:1-3
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” II Cor. 4:17
Paul himself was so convinced of the glories of heaven that he wrestled with whether or not he even wanted to go on living. “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” Phil 1:22-26 Paul was convinced he should go on living, but only because he believed that by doing so the work of the gospel would benefit, but personally he’d prefer to be with Christ. That’s not just bravado on Paul’s part – that’s faith!
Hanging on to life
Humans, even Christians hang on to life, for dear life and it must surprise God that we do, so tenaciously. Here’s an illustration that may help you to think differently about death for a Christian.
Suppose you were a child born in a concentration camp in Germany in WWII. You’re now six or eight and life in the camp is your only reality. As terrible as it is, you know no other life, so it seems “normal” to you. Then one day allied troops show up to liberate you and tell you you’re going to Switzerland. But, you don’t want to leave. This is the only life you’ve ever known and you know little of Switzerland except what’s been whispered in the camps. And perhaps that’s all they are – rumors. “Oh, no, please don’t take me to Switzerland,” you cry as they drag you onto the truck, away from your friends and everything familiar. “Don’t worry,” the solider reassures you, “Switzerland is amazing and your parents and friends will hopefully join you there”.
A day later, you get to Switzerland. It’s cleaner, brighter and more glorious than anything you could have imagined. And sure enough, soon your friends and parents begin showing up and you can’t believe that you fought so hard to stay in the camp when this awaited you.
Death and eternity for Christians
Life with Jesus, for followers of his is our promise, not a penalty. Truly believing that will allow you to live with far less fear of death for yourself and others. I’ve made this statement many times: Compared to eternity with Jesus, this life is just a bad afternoon.
Having said all this, when I’m at a funeral or visitation I rarely address their suffering with pithy stories like the one above, or remind them that, “All things work together for the good…” Bible verses. I’m just sad for them, try to celebrate the memories of their loved one and leave it at that for the time being.
By the way, you can read the story of Melissa’s death and how her family dealt with it in a wonderful book written by her father, David Branon, entitled Beyond the Valley or you can also just Google Melissa Branon.
I’ve had conversations with all our adult children and our older grandchildren (over 10 roughly) on these thoughts regarding my own death. I’ve told them that someday they’re going to get a phone call that I have died. ” When that happens please, please don’t be sad for me or angry with God. God has given me my reward and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. If you really love me, then love God so that someday we’ll be together again forever. Personally, I’m not brave, but I don’t fear death at all. To be perfectly honest what scares me most is the process of dying – chemotherapy, losing my mind to dementia, the pain, loneliness, but not death itself. When Jesus said, “Fear not.” he wasn’t kidding, so to you I also say, Fear not.”
The reason I’ve intentionally had this talk with my grandchildren now is because I’ve sat with too many people who’ve walked away from God because he took their godly mother, father or wife. I don’t want my family to go through that. It’s my job as the patriarch of my family to prepare them for the inevitability of death- mine and their own.
In all fairness, I’ve not addressed what appears to us as “senseless suffering” of good people, but I will in the next few weeks. However, next week I will blog on the subject of what happens one minute after we die another talk I’ve had with our older grand kids.
Questions: Do you think it’s wrong for Christians to fear death?
Following Jesus in Real Life