During my years of study in seminary, I worked at a funeral home. It was the best laboratory in which to learn the Bible and theology. Frequently, I saw dead bodies and attended funerals as I helped direct the families and friends of person after person to a hole in the ground where a once vibrant life would find its final resting place in a cemetery. One night as I was reading through Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, a phone call came from Houston, Texas informing me that an entire family had been killed in an automobile accident.
I remember the shock as I wrote the details of the incident. The bodies of a mother, a six-year-old boy, a four-year-old girl, and two 18-month-old twin boys were on the way to the funeral home where I worked. The father was just about to be told what had happened to his family by the police department. I’ve never forgotten that experience, and I’ve never forgotten what the funeral home parlor looked like when I saw three caskets open containing the lives of five people who died a horrible death.
I was young (23 years old), but I had already experienced death in my own life. By this age, my father, mother, and brother had all died tragically. Two of my uncles had died and one of my cousins was killed when he was five years old. One of my best friends from high school was killed in an automobile accident. I’ve also experienced the death of relationships and the loss of jobs. By the time I was 30, life had become a series of losses that shaped my worldview in ways I once thought impossible.
I wish Matthew McCullough’s book, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, was available to me back then. Now, at 50, I am able to better understand all that death has taught me, and this book has been the catalyst for a deepened hope in the promises of God in Jesus Christ. But just what about this book is all that helpful? There are numerous titles about death and dying. The grief industry is a subculture all to itself. What is it about McCullough’s thoughts that are even worth reading in an already crowded space?
Of Losses and Crosses
Observe the modern Evangelical movement, and just beneath the surface, you see a pronounced death-avoidance. Some of the largest churches in the United States are led by pastors who preach the exact opposite of what McCullough writes in this book. Health, wealth, harmony, and prosperity are seemingly the byproducts of an accurate Christian theology. McCullough is aware of that, and he uses a skillful pen to dismantle these thoughts built on such flimsy scaffolding.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a book for the faint of heart. McCullough states the obvious fact that no one really wants to accept: “Death makes a statement about who we are: we are not too important to die,” he writes. “We will die, like all those who’ve gone before us, and the world will keep on moving just as it always has.” He admits when this fact finally penetrates our defenses, it is a “harsh, even terrifying statement.”
The book kindly bludgeons its reader. Yet, it is a mercy. “The truth is that nothing lasts, that you can never go back, and that therefore everyone loses everything to death.” Think about this for more than five minutes and it becomes disorienting. What exactly is the value of my life? This is where McCullough pushes hard.
Death raises questions about where our place actually is. Besides an organic mass that eats, sleeps, reproduces, and decomposes, who am I? What is the value of a life that doesn’t even exist in someone’s memory? The question is this: if my life turns to dust in the end, am I more significant than the stray dog picked apart by buzzards, the goldfish flushed down the toilet, or the cockroach crushed under foot? You still end up dead, just like the animals. In the end, no one resists nature. So, remind me, where do you get this idea that humans matter more than animals do?
The Horrible Truth
McCullough is a pastor in a university city. Holding a Ph.D. in history from Vanderbilt University, he stands before doctors, lawyers, and aspiring business leaders in the prime of their life every week in a rented school auditorium just off the Vanderbilt campus and teaches them about Jesus and the promises of God. He does this week after week not because he couldn’t do something else (he could), but because reading, thinking, and studying deeply about the Bible’s words has created a crisis of sorts for him that is not unique to him.
The truth is that life works like a savings account in reverse. Zoomed out to the span of an entire life cycle, you see that no one is actually stockpiling anything. You’re spending down, not saving up. Everything you have—your healthy body, your marketable skills, your sharp mind, your treasured possessions, your loving relationships—will one day be everything you’ve lost.
McCullough knows what he is up against. Modern culture lies to modern people. And in order to fully experience joy in this dying life, a new way of thinking must be learned. It is not automatic, and it does not come naturally to human beings—especially to the modern “church” culture that has been taught life is a continuing series of successes and wins. Knowing this, he helps his readers trace their thoughts home to their logical conclusion. By doing so, he helps Christians better know, understand, and apply the promises of God in the future to the problems of the present.
He does this by clearing away cobwebs around areas of the Bible often avoided. Case in point: the changing of the water to wine at the wedding in Cana—John 2. Far too often (if this text is even read or preached) this account in John’s Gospel is not understood for the true “sign” it is. “Packed into what may seem like a little random or offhanded showboating is a concentrated version of everything Jesus came to do,” he writes. This miracle is vitally connected to Isaiah 25 where the promise of God to remove death and its sting forever is clearly promised to the people of God. It is an incident packed full of meaning that points to the promise of Jesus to remove the ultimate experience of loss so that eternal life—both a quantity of life (eternal, never dying) and a quality of life (“a life beyond the reach of death”)—can be experienced by all who trust in him.
Ever the exegete, he is careful to mine the truth of the trajectory of John’s Gospel for his readers. With every turn of the page, McCullough’s readers are led first to the precipice and then to the promise (you really can’t appreciate the power of the latter without realizing the peril of the former). Jesus helps people “understand where his signs are pointing” all the while he is “warning of what blinds” them to his work. Many modern readers will find themselves numbered with the crowd who hurried to Jesus for yet another free meal (see John 6:26). “You’ve seen my power, but missed my point,” McCullough writes in what is surely the best phrase to explain so many modern readers of the Bible.
The Christian hope hinges on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Nothing else will do. No other hope can provide anything other than a growing nihilism. Discontentment, envy, and anxiety are exposed for the frauds they are and how they rob life of its joy because they feed on what dies a little more with each passing day. By admitting the horror of the present life, McCullough reframes grief as he brings forward words from the past into the sorrows of the present so that the promises for the future can comfort and bring true and lasting joy. Moving from honesty to grief to hope is the clarifying process of growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. All who walk in this way will find an anchor for their soul even as their body dies.
Matt McCullough is the featured speaker of Taking Death Personally on Friday, February 22. Learn more and RSVP for this free event here.