Time and again we hear the reports. It used to freeze us in our tracks. But no more. In October 2015, a campus shooting stopped foot traffic in the airport I was in. Eyes on screens, feet pause, hearts beat.
By the weekend, the shock and horror we first felt at the news out of Roseburg, Oregon (read about the incident here: “Roseburg, Oregon: A small, little town that has suffered big trauma before”), transitioned into somber reflection, sorrow, and prayer. A shooter killed a professor and eight students in a community college classroom. This disregard for life and ravaging of peace is not natural in God’s order, and it shrieks of the perversion and pain of the sin-stricken world. The creation groans. Death is inescapable, and sometimes it comes violently and unexpectedly.
If through our tears for the families of the victims we study the responses of the world, what would we see? There has been appropriate mention of the untimeliness of the deaths and heartfelt attention to the personalities lost and dreams cut short, but within two days, most of the talk devolved into social debates about guns and media handling and political posturing. Move along, move along, no need to inspect death too closely now.
A comfortably numb demeanor eschews all thoughts about death and eternity and banishes them until that distant moment in time when we get “old”, filing them year after year in the “I’ll think about that later” drawer. Surely, the Grim Reaper will send out a save-the-date, alerting us when to start getting ready. I don’t feel ready yet, so it must not be soon.
Because we don’t want to talk about it, we solemnly and wisely pronounce at the funeral, “It must have been her time” or “He seemed at peace”. Leave it for fate to sort out. But don’t invoke Christianity. Christianity’s only purpose at the time of death is to prop up the weaklings, soothe the mourners, and perhaps give the grieving survivors a place to hold a service, but not to offer answers about dying and eternity.
Having craftily relegated the claims of Christianity to the status of myth and legend, the citizen of this world navigates life with a carefully cultivated newsfeed that repeats what he wants to hear. There’s no inconvenience of dialogue. Retweeting and reposting, he taps that “Like” button on articles or segments that cast aspersions over the historical inaccuracies, scornfully dismiss the evident prejudices and cultural predilections, and classify believers as anti-science, anti-intellectual, legalistic, fanciful, hypocritical —whatever. Pseudo-scientists mock the Bible while liberal theologians dissemble it. Comedians blaspheme the name and person of Christ. Cultural celebrities attack the institution of the church and advocate for discriminating against and persecuting Christians. All is well with the world.
As long as we keep the topic to being about this world.
All of that confidence and bravado sweeps away like October winds clear the leaves from the trees when talk turns to death and the next world.
Death is inescapable.
“What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” asks the psalmist (Ps. 89:48).
Nothing highlights folly like the escape routes designed by worldlings, diversions and amusements to distract from the end ahead of us all. We are enticed by the promise of fat life insurance payoffs, sustainable preservation of tissue through cryonics, blissful death scenarios, and the latest health craze to prolong life, but can any of these derail the end? Are we so technologically and medically advanced that we are able to thwart death?
“Therefore, I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
The scientific answer (science being a study of that which is observable) is no. It has not been done. The Christian answer is that being technologically and medically advanced is as useful to the significance of this question as a bump on a log. Death cannot be avoided, but . . . BUT, the sting of death can.
Nine people in Roseburg, Oregon, started their Thursday morning routine unaware it would be their last. The victims of the Oregon shooter never expected to die that day, but if reports from the witnesses are true, it seems that some, if not all, of them had already settled in their hearts and minds in Whom their identity, their trust, and their future was safely secure. Several of the witnesses have said that the shooter asked each student whether he or she was a Christian. Those who said yes were shot in the head, and they died that day. The rest of us have another day.
“It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
I think back to the days before I came to Christ, yet I believed I was saved. I am convinced the answers they gave would have haunted me. They were asked this side of eternity if they aligned themselves with Christ. That’s not quite fair! What happened to the save-the-date? Why didn’t they hedge their bets? Why didn’t they regard the good works they could do and the good lives they could influence here in this life, and reason that God would agree and give them a pass? Why didn’t they take the “Rahab lied about the spies” route? How could they be so sure that yes would be the right answer? And once the shooting began, how could the rest continue to answer that way?
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim-turned-Christian has an answer for that, “To go back is nothing but death: to go forward is fear of death, and life everlasting beyond it. I will yet go forward.” Fear is palpable; it breathes down our necks and pushes us to act, either in unbelief to the immediate threat, or trusting in the only One who must be feared:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
A popular meme circulating through social media says, “The bravest person in the shooting incident at Umpqua was the second person who was asked if he was a Christian.” With all due respect to the second person asked, I don’t think we can measure degrees of courage in this situation (except we know the shooter was a coward). As believers, crossing that river into the celestial city only happens because Christ has made a way for us (Hebrews 9:24), and hope in him is hope in the Rock of Salvation. “Let your hope of heaven master your fear of death,” writes William Gurnall.
The most theologically and eternally significant yes in redemptive history was Jesus’s willing acceptance of the cup of wrath apportioned for our sins. From that act of submission and sacrifice, there is now no sting of death, no victory for the grave. Heaven’s gates are opened wide!
For anyone who knows Christ, there is no hedging of bets, no rationalizing, no debating the answer. When the judgment comes, he will answer for me.
The question is not what answer would you give. The question is whether Jesus’s answer includes you.