2020 vision. New year, new me. Best decade yet. These are just a few of the declarations I’ve seen flooding social media as we begin a new year. Of course, the start of a new year does bring new opportunities. There’s something refreshing about, well . . . a fresh start. As 2020 dawns, we all long for this year to be better than the previous one. We hope for positive change.
But what if someone told you that the path to such hope was to remember that you will die? 2020: The year where I’ll remember that I’m a mere mortal. That I will, in fact, die one day. That this year could be my last. Doesn’t quite have the 2020 vision ring to it, does it? Such thinking seems counterintuitive at best, dark and morbid at worst.
Yet, whether we like it or not, it’s true. It’ll never be trending on Twitter, but the fact of life is that you—and I—will die. 2020, nor any year that follows, can do anything to change that. But far from leading us to despair, remembering death—for the Christian—is the means to living a life of hope.
That’s precisely what pastor and author Matthew McCollough argues in his book Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope.
McCullough opens the book by encouraging Christians to cultivate what he calls “death-awareness.” As a pastor, McCullough wants to help believers grasp the reality of death so that the promises of Christ will shine as brightly in the face of it. But the problem is, many of us live (or at least try to live) blissfully unaware of death, and therefore “. . . the promises of Jesus often seem detached from our lives. [They] seem abstract, belonging to another world from the one I’m living in, disconnected from the problems that dominate my field of view.” (23) McCullough argues that our lack of joy in the promises of Christ stems from an absence of death awareness.
What’s fuelled this absence? Many things. But McCullough notes one thing in particular, which Sherwin Nuland—a Yale professor and medical surgeon—calls the “modern method of dying.” Today (in the West, at least), many people die in pristine hospitals or nursing homes. Contrast this with recent history, where most of our ancestors would have died at home—in their own bedrooms or living rooms, surrounded by family and members of the local community—and you can begin to understand why we’re so unfamiliar with death. Ironically, death is no longer part of normal life. It’s unusual, foreign, unanticipated.
While all of this is true generally in the West, it’s undeniable that a lack of death-awareness is one facet of privilege. In poor communities across the world, you’re far more likely to come face-to-face with death at a young age. Not only is death more prevalent in deprived communities, it’s less hidden. Whether it be the death of a family member or close friend, it’s not unusual to grow up acquainted with death.
However, this doesn’t negate McCullough’s point: on the whole, death is still socially taboo. Rich or poor, people don’t like to face the fact of their own mortality. Living in a poor community may make one less able to ignore death, but that doesn’t mean people don’t try.
Essence of Futility
McCollough draws heavily from Ecclesiastes, a book in which King Solomon repeatedly highlights the futility of life. Consider the opening words:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (Eccl. 1:2–4).
These may seem like surprising words from a man who had it all. But if you read the whole of Ecclesiastes, you’ll see that it makes perfect sense. As McCullough explains: “Ecclesiastes offers an explanation for futility. . . . Everything is meaningless because everyone dies.” (96–97). Death will topple every one of our earthly kingdoms, no matter how impressive they seem to us now. Death will erase every last word of significance from the pages of our lives because, in the end, everything comes to an end. That’s the sting of death. It’s inescapably final.
So how is any of this good news? Given what we’ve considered thus far, remembering death doesn’t seem very hopeful. But this is precisely where McCullough wants to take his readers. He wants to help us see the futility of life in the face of certain death, so that we might lift our eyes to Jesus, who faced death head-on, conquering it entirely. This is why ignoring death is the essence of futility: when we ignore death, we consequently ignore Jesus, the only One with the power to defeat it.
Only when you’ve felt death’s painful sting will you truly stand in awe of Christ’s triumph over it. After highlighting the futility of life if the resurrection of Christ is a mere myth, the apostle Paul writes:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:20–22).
That’s the life-giving hope of the gospel: in Christ, death doesn’t have the last word. Jesus removes death’s sting by taking away its ultimate power. This is not to say that we won’t experience the very real pain of death. We will. But that only bolsters McCullough’s point—the catastrophe of death is no longer catastrophic when we embrace Jesus for who He is.
“[Jesus] doesn’t offer us more of what death will only steal from us in the end. He offers us righteousness, adoption, God-honoring purpose, eternal life—things that taste sweet to us only when death is a regular companion.” (25) So whether you’re a pastor, church planter, or church member, you can embrace this kind of hope in 2020.
Lift Your Eyes
For many poor communities around the world, 2019 was a rough year. I’m aware of several people in such places who’ve endured the pain of losing loved ones. Our pastors and church planters here at 20schemes have had a brutal year, with death affecting every single one of them. 2020 may be no different in that regard. In fact, I was made aware of one friend pastoring in a poor community who’s already having to plan his first funeral of the year. Death looms until Christ returns.
But this year—and every year—we can look to Him whom death could not hold. “We see the victory he won over the grave. And we know that whatever may happen to us on our journey—however great the pain of disappointment, of grief, of death itself—we’ve been there already in Christ and we’re headed where he has already gone.” (183) So if you want some ‘2020 vision’, look at Jesus. And don’t take your eyes off of Him until He calls you home.