By Daniel Darling
“Good Friday is always so somber. So we are going to have a celebration service tonight,” the minister said as he introduced a service with mostly upbeat worship choruses. I cringed my way through it, not because I didn’t love the music that rightly celebrates Jesus’ victory over sin and death, but because we skipped right past the death part.
Evangelicals, it seems, don’t often like to talk about death. Death doesn’t exactly look good on the marquee. It doesn’t fit nicely among bullet points about strategic vision and growth. Death is the skunk at the garden party.
It’s as if, because we are not afraid of death, we are afraid of death. This should not be, for Jesus, the one who shed the grave clothes and triumphed on the third day, talked often about death. I’m particularly struck by the way John, when writing his Gospel, evoked some of the strongest language in the Greek to communicate how Jesus felt when he stood at the tomb of his best friend, Lazarus.
Most versions describe Jesus’ reaction in John 11:33, 38 as “deeply moved,” but English translations don’t really do it justice. John was conveying Jesus’ visceral anger. The New Living Translation says, “a deep anger welled up within him.”
Jesus looked into the dark face of death and was angry. Death, as Paul says, is the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death is not some trifling passing from one life into the next, but the most wicked work of Satan, the fruit of Adam’s deception in the garden (James 1:15). Since that fateful choice in Eden, humans have been poisoned by death. It corrupts every part of our existence. It turns us in on one another. It motivates us to strike out, either rhetorically or violently, against other image-bearers of the Creator.
Jesus hated death. So should we. We cannot ignore the death around us. We see it in images that cascade across our social media timelines and flash up on the evening news. Terrorist attacks around the world. School shootings. The enslavement and trafficking of boys and girls. Abortion on demand. Racist attacks.
We also see it up close in our communities, our families, and our churches. Cancer eats away at the health of people we love. Suicide robs friends of their best years. Violence reaches into the safest of our communities.
Death is all around us. And yet, those of us who know the One who tasted death for every person (Hebrews 2:9) are most tempted to change the subject. It seems that death is on everyone’s lips except those of us who know the end of the gospel story. We have a message for a world that is besieged by death.
Mourning with Hope
Which brings us back to that lonely hill on Good Friday. It is interesting to note how much space the Gospel writers give to the death of Jesus. Even Mark, who rushes through Jesus’ life, stops and lingers over the cross. Why?
It could be because the Holy Spirit wanted us to know that Jesus died. The curse of sin, carried out by the enemy, wormed its way all the way up to the Son of God. Fully human, Jesus did not evade death, because this death—ignominious, ignoble, ugly—was the Father’s will. Isaiah says that it “pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isaiah 53:10, New King James Version).
It pleased the Lord to bruise Jesus because the only way to defeat death was for Jesus to suffer death for his people. His resurrection three days later was the death of death. He was triumphant over the enemy powers and declared victory over this last enemy (1 Peter 3:10). Now death, for the Christian, is but a toothless foe. Paul says to us in 1 Corinthians 15 that it no longer has sting. It has no power over the Christian.
But . . . we still mourn death. Paul, speaking to the believers at Thessalonica, who likely saw more death up close than most of us in Western countries see, said, “Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
This means we do mourn. We lament, as the prophets did, as the apostles did, as every believing Christian does, at some point in our life. We stare at death and, like Jesus, are angry at the work of Satan. Every single innocent life that is extinguished is an assault on the Creator, who crafted humans in his image. We should not skip happily past the grave. We should not communicate to those who attend our funerals, who watch us in the bitter aftermath of loss, that we are okay with death. To make peace with death is to make peace with the enemy.
However, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We know, we understand, we feel that the sting of death has been removed. We can linger on death—both the death of loved ones and the death of Christ—because Christ has conquered this foe. We can stare into the abyss because we, too, have died with Christ and are risen again. Our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4).
Unlike the world, who has no adequate story to explain its brokenness, we don’t have to be afraid of death—neither the dying part or the talking-about-death part. We don’t have to self-medicate. We don’t have to pretend we are fine. We don’t have to project a false sense of peace. We can lament. We can linger. We can hope.
Sunday Is Coming
There is a country song I like to play around the house that always irks my wife. Josh Turner croons, “Everything is fine, fine, fine.” Angela detests it because she says that this is my go-to answer whenever there is a problem at home. While I won’t stop playing Josh Turner, I have to acknowledge that she is right.
Everything is not fine. Though we are redeemed, rescued, chosen, forgiven, and risen, we still live. On mission. In the world. We are already in the kingdom of God and not yet experiencing the full reality of this world’s restoration and renewal. This is why our teaching, our preaching, and our conversations should reflect the world’s brokenness.
Christianity is not a plastic smile. It is Jesus visiting us in the midst of our mess, walking us through our temptations and brokenness. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies. When we drink from the cup and eat the bread on Sunday, we are acknowledging Jesus’ victory even as the war rages around us.
Sometimes those of us who live semi-comfortable lives in the West are tempted to speak as if conversion to Christianity will usher in a panacea. But Jesus offers no such short-term salve. He promised his disciples a life of peace, but also a life of suffering (John 14-16). Both Peter and James assured their audiences that suffering accompanies walking with the Savior. But we press on, we cling to the goodness of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, knowing that even a lifetime of pain is but a fading dot on the timeline of eternity (Romans 8:18-31). We look to Jesus’ victory over death as our hope.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you (2 Corinthians 4:6-12).
We draw from the deep well of gospel hope, believing the words Jesus whispered to Martha, Lazarus’ sister: “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).
This is the essence of real faith. We are triumphant and victorious, but we are also not afraid to face death, to talk about death, to lament over this most bitter of enemies. In this we show the world around us that God has visited us in the midst of our brokenness and offers us himself.
Daniel Darling is a freelance writer in Hermitage, Tennessee.