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13.10.2014 Feature Article

Hope In The Shadow Of Death

Hope In The Shadow Of Death
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On any ordinary day, death is not a subject most of us would like to occupy our minds with. It is that dark spot in human experience which we all wish was not there. In Ghana, posters with the words “What A Shock!” and “Gone Too Soon” often express how we feel about the death of loved ones. Even when euphemisms like “Home Call” and “Call To Glory” are used, they still do not sit comfortably with many of us. We cannot think of death without feeling uneasy. But I am convinced that the thought of death would not be as frightening, as crippling and as devastating as it is in our experience if we were on good terms with the Giver of life – God. This is a bold statement, yes, but I think facing the truth is a wise thing to do.

We fear death because we are not sure what will happen after death. And the reason we are concerned about what will happen after death is because somehow we know deep within us that physical death is really not the end of our story. We have this profound sense that there is something beyond making a descent living, being good to others and having our bodies decomposed. “Life can't be that simple!” we reason in the quietness of our minds.

Whatever or Whoever was the cause of our existence surely did not fill us with such intricate design and information just to last for three score years and ten or at the most one hundred and twenty years. Even without any exposure to the Bible, many people around the world believe that there has to be something more beyond the grave for this world to make sense. Perhaps justice? Or a better life to make up for the harsh one they had down here?

C. S. Lewis once made the brilliant observation that our repeated astonishment at time as demonstrated in our exclamations like “How he's grown!” and “How time flies!” actually go to show how little reconciled we are to time. He notes that our surprise is as strange as the case would be if we found a fish that was always surprised at the wetness of water. Such a fish would be really strange unless that fish was destined to become a land animal one day. Similarly, our souls were not made for time but for eternity. This is why we are uncomfortable in this space-time dimension. The Bible teaches that the original intent of God was for human life to go on and on but sin has interrupted this plan.

Our Fear of Death
When you have rebelliously run away from home against your parents' wishes, the thought of returning home can fill you with an overwhelming fear because you know deep down that you did not do the right thing. We all feel a sense of guilt; we feel we have missed the mark somehow. “All we like sheep have gone astray” declared the prophet Isaiah. A prominent theme in the Bible is that we have all rebelled against our Creator in one way or another. Paul the apostle of Christ wrote:

“God's anger is revealed from heaven against all the sin and evil of the people whose evil ways prevent the truth from being known. God punishes them, because what can be known about God is plain to them, for God himself made it plain. Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made. So those people have no excuse at all! They know God, but they do not give him the honour that belongs to him, nor do they thank him. Instead, their thoughts have become complete nonsense, and their empty minds are filled with darkness.

They say they are wise, but they are fools; … Because those people refuse to keep in mind the true knowledge about God, he has given them over to corrupted minds, so that they do the things that they should not do. They are filled with all kinds of wickedness, evil, greed, and vice; they are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, and malice. They gossip and speak evil of one another; they are hateful to God, insolent, proud, and boastful; they think of more ways to do evil; they disobey their parents; they have no conscience; they do not keep their promises, and they show no kindness or pity for others. They know that God's law says that people who live in this way deserve death. Yet, not only do they continue to do these very things, but they even approve of others who do them.” – Romans 1:18-22; 28-32 GNB

Which of us does not need forgiveness? In the history of the world and in the various religions men have always cried for atonement – something to be sacrificed to appease the higher powers whom we believe we have offended. Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, has offered himself a sacrifice for our sins and as the resurrected Lord of Lords, he extends forgiveness to all who believe in him. This is the heart of the Christian gospel – God's act of reconciling all mankind to himself. And the Apostle Paul, after converting to follow Jesus, declared to the church in Rome saying, “I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God's power to save all who believe, first the Jews and also the Gentiles. For the gospel reveals how God puts people right with himself: it is through faith from beginning to end. .. ” Romans 1:16&17 GNB.

Unlike any other religious teaching, the teaching of Jesus Christ on sin is at once the most challenged yet also the most empirically verifiable truth about humanity. We are all depraved, if not in our deeds then it is in our thoughts. At the same time that we are publicly crying out and fighting for justice and human rights, we find that we are also privately lying, cheating, deceiving others, being adulterous at heart and hating some people. Jesus' teaching about the wickedness of the human heart has pinpoint accuracy. But in all honesty, if this is all that Jesus did or was able to do then I must confess that he has not helped mankind in any extraordinary terms compared to all the other founders of the world religions. For they also had some useful teachings for mankind, even if some of their teachings were wrong.

The Christian Hope
What makes Jesus unique in the history of the world is that he did not only correctly diagnose our fundamental problem, he also provided the solution in himself. He offered himself as a sacrificial lamb to atone for our wrong doing. He did not give us guidelines for preparing our own medicine, he prepared the medicine himself and said to us “here it is, take it and you'll be cured.” This is a major difference between Jesus Christ and the other teachers and prophets. They gave us tall lists of things to do to cure ourselves but they could not grant us the power to do them because after all they themselves did not even have the power. They had to depend on God's power and mercy. But Jesus Christ says things like, “he who believes in me shall live,” “I will come and live with him,” “I will not leave you comfortless,” “Lo, I am with you till the end of age,” and “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus never intended to leave us in doubt about his divine status. He told those who could not believe in him because of his teachings to at least believe because of his miracles. The Bible says Jesus is the son of God and that whoever believes in him will have his soul reunited with his resurrected and glorified body and live in a heavenly city – the new earth devoid of evil, sadness, sickness and death – after the judgement day.

The historical records tell us, Jesus was crucified and on the third day his tomb was found empty. His enemies, who made sure that his tomb was guarded to prevent the disciples from stealing the body and claiming he is alive, did not have any answers for the missing body. It was inexplicable! Jesus had resurrected! He appeared to several people after his resurrection. His disciples who had become so scared to come out of hiding suddenly were filled with boldness to preach outdoors, and stand before the authorities and claim they were followers of the resurrected Christ. The disciples were rational people who often wanted evidence in order to believe and thus would not have put their lives on the line knowing very well they were preaching a lie.

The resurrection of Christ is the bedrock of Christianity and the apostles defended it to their deaths. The Apostle Paul once declared that if Christ did not rise from the death then Christians deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world. This was the level of confidence they had! They saw him with their own eyes and testified of it to the point of death. “… he appeared to Peter and then to all the twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than 500 of his followers at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have died,” wrote Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 GNB.

This was a claim which could have been easily cross-checked at the time since he emphasized that, “most of whom are still alive.” No sane person puts his life on the line for what he knows to be a lie. A person may die for a lie when he believes it to be true, but it take insanity to die for a lie when you know it is lie. Throughout the gospels we see that the disciples were not only sane but were also people who did not believe things too easily and Jesus, often frustrated with their unbelief would say things like “you of little faith,” or “Have you no faith?” These were people who wanted to have evidence of the resurrection before believing, even when the women from their own number testified that Jesus had resurrected. These are the kind of men who wrote the part of the Bible which is generally called “New Testament.”

Jesus, the Son of God, has been to the world of the dead and come back and is presently alive. He has overcome death's power and he assures you that all who believe in him will be taken safely through death into a glorious eternity with him, instead of suffering a damning eternity away from God in hell for sins committed.

I once read of a parable about a very wealthy man whose son used to go out to the city street and talk to a particular beggar. The beggar took a liking to the son and one day gave him a portrait he had painted of him. The young man took it to his father who was an art connoisseur. His father thought to himself, “This is not a very good painting, but we'll hang it up in the gallery because it's supposed to be of my son.” Several years went by and the young man stopped coming to visit the beggar. One day the beggar went to the gates of the palace where the young man lived and said, “I don't see that young man anymore.” The palace guards replied, “He died very suddenly.” The beggar was sad to hear this and he said, “Can I see his father?” And they said, “Yes.” The beggar said to the father, “I have done another painting of your son, just like the other one. I want you to have it.” He gave it to the father and he hung it beside the first portrait.

Not long afterwards, the father also passed away and the beggar heard about it. He also heard that all the art works in the palace were going to be auctioned. He asked if he could go in to observe the auction. An auctioneer came in, looked around and saw all the paintings on the walls and the connoisseurs who had come to bid on them. He also noticed that in the middle of the art collection was hanging the two paintings of the wealthy man's son done by the beggar that were not good at all. So the auctioneer said, “We're going to have an auction, but the first paintings to go are the ones of the young man here and then we'll proceed with the rest.“

The connoisseurs said, “We're not interested in them, just get on with the ….” The Auctioneer insisted, “No, no, we must begin with these.” But nobody bid. So the beggar put his hand in his pocket and took out a handful of pennies to bid. The gavel was sounded and he got the son's portraits. As the beggar took them and was about to leave, the gavel sounded again and the auctioneer said, “I have some news for you. Behind the paintings of this young man are the words, 'Whoever bids on these gets the whole gallery.'” The beggar got the son's portraits and also got everything else that the father had to offer.

Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, gives you all that his Father has to offer: forgiveness, hope, eternal life in God's glorious presence in the world to come, meaning in this present life and also victory over the fear of death. When you believe in him, he has promised to come to live with you even while in this life. He will walk you through life and guarantee you a safe landing in the next life. The state of the believer in Christ can be summed up in the words of the hymnist, Stuart Townend: “No guilt in life, no fear in death; This is the power of Christ in me.”

When you have this assurance, this hope, which extends beyond the grave, it profoundly influences how you view not only death but also trying times, suffering and life in general in this world. The hope of resurrection is what filled the early apostles of Christ with boldness and led to the eventual establishment of the Christian faith. “Because I live, you shall live also,” were the words of Christ to his disciples. Their hope was not baseless, for it was based on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his promise to make them have the same experience. Their hope was based on a person who was able to deliver on his word always – Jesus the Son of God.

This same Jesus who rose from the dead and is alive today is calling all of us who are tired from carrying heavy loads – including the fear of death – to he will give us rest. In Jesus Christ, man's finally enemy, death, loses its sting. The Bible says Jesus Christ is the person going to judge the whole world on the Judgement day. And what better hope is there than to know that your eternal destiny has been secured by the very Judge of the world because you have already committed your life into his hands! When you know Jesus, you know the truth and this truth will set you free even from the fear of death.

Death is not a tragic end for the believer in Christ. It is rather the door through which he passes to be with his Lord in his glory. “I can only imagine what it will be like,” sang Mercy Me, “when I walk by your side; I can only imagine; what my eyes will see; when your face Is before me; I can only imagine; surrounded by your glory; what will my heart feel?; will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still?; will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall?; will I sing hallelujah?; will I be able to speak at all?; I can only imagine.” Yes! We can only imagine. For meeting the resurrected Christ in his unveiled glory, his thunderous majesty, power and dominion will be an experience like no other that we have ever known! Let us not fear death but rather put our faith in the King of Glory.

Author: Robert G. Coleman
E-mail: [email protected]

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