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Christianity gets death backwards. You see, our advanced civilization tells us constantly to look forward to a long life, healthy and sexy bodies, a bright future in a steadily advancing career followed by an early retirement filled with travel and leisure.
Yet at the same time, we have more depression, anxiety, and chemical dependence than ever before. We have wealth but not fulfillment, leisure but not contentment, Instagram-worthy lives but not peace.
In all this, no topic is taboo except, perhaps, one: Death.
What’s going on here?
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Remember Death: Book Review
Death is no less inevitable than it’s ever been, but many of us don’t have to see it or even think about it as a daily presence in our lives. When people die, it is more likely than not in a medical facility, cordoned off from where we live, a sanitized, carefully managed, even industrial process that occurs when professionals decide to stop giving care. Death is still inevitable, but it has become bizarre.
– Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, page 19
In Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, author and church pastor Matthew McCullough argues that maybe our culture’s aversion to death (real, actual death, the kind from old age or cancer or an unexpected event, not the Hollywood version of unsolved murders and zombie apocalypses) has something to do with the overabundance of contemporary angst and despair.
Christians are not immune to this problem, either. The Scriptures, the promises of Jesus, the good news of the gospel – do these things still stir up your soul, or do they seem somewhat remote or dry or irrelevant? McCullough argues that “when the reality of death is far from our minds, the promises of Jesus often seem detached from our lives… abstract, belonging to another world from the one I’m living in, disconnected from the problems that dominate my field of view.”
Does that sound like your experience? When you read that we are “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3), do your eyes glaze over a bit? Does it just sound like a series of biblical keywords?
Perhaps this is because you haven’t thought enough about the one problem shared by everyone, everywhere. You are going to die.
Problems & Promises
So death presents the ultimate problem. McCullough’s claim is that Christianity provides the solution to that problem, and does so through the promises of God to his people in the Bible. This is “the surprising path to living hope” of the book’s subtitle.
The central or ultimate problem of death comes at us in many ways; some subtle, others not so much. These are the big questions in life, and include topics like:
- Identity – who am I?
- Futility – what is my purpose?
- Loss – what can I truly hold on to?
- Life – how do I find joy when I know I am dying?
The book’s arrangement sets up each of these problems and answers them with the hope-filled promises of God. Each of these subjects are covered in its own chapter (chapters 2-5), with chapter 1 serving as an extended introduction to a biblical view of death and chapter 6 addressing the subject of grief.
To see this, let’s look at chapter 3.
The Problem of Futility and the Promise of Purpose
Here McCullough describes how the quality of life in America has dramatically improved over the last 50 years. For example, we all (95% of homes) now enjoy central heat, when in the 1950s only the wealthiest had it (15% of homes). This trend holds true for housing square footage, overall wealth, leisure time, and on and on.
And yet happiness and contentment has not grown alongside all the wealth and prosperity. Instead, clinical depression has increased tenfold since fifty years ago. Why is this? Or, in the question asked by the chapter’s problem, what is my purpose in life, and why do I feel so much futility?
To answer, McCullough looks to Ecclesiastes.
The Preacher’s perspective is remarkably modern. Things keep getting better; we keep feeling worse. No matter what we accomplish or how much we’re able to enjoy or how much we acquire, still we feel like we’re striving after wind. We never really gain anything. The Preacher’s experience sounds exactly like ours. But Ecclesiastes offers an explanation for futility that has mostly faded out of view in our time and place. Everything is meaningless because everyone dies.
– Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, page 97
You see, what we really want is more than just relaxation, pleasure, the financial freedom to do whatever we want, or the satisfaction of a job well done. All of these things are short lived and ultimately unsatisfying because we will die. We will be gone, our stuff will be gone, and even the memory of us will disappear. It’s all futility, all meaningless.
Unless there is something more after death. Unless the resurrection of Jesus is real, and faith in him means that we are to be joined with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5). Everything – everything – is futile, unless the promises of the gospel are true.
Throughout this book, I have tried to establish an ironic claim: facing up to the truth about death can lead us to deeper hope in life. My first goal, then, has been to encourage greater honesty about the facts. Perhaps more than any other culture anywhere in time or space, we in the modern West have detached ourselves from the reality of death. We’ve lost our feeling for death’s sting.
– Matthew McCullough, Remember Death, page 173
In Remember Death, McCullough does what he sets out to do. He shows the ways in which we as a society have detached ourselves from the reality of death, and details our solidarity with the rest of the human race. Just like they died, so we, too, will die.
But in Christ we have solidarity with a New Man, whose resurrection foreshadows our own. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the foundation on which our faith rests.
Christianity gets death backwards because we put death front and center. Rather than trying to ignore it, medicate it, fictionalize it, or avoid it, we celebrate the death of the one who died, then rose again. Because he lives, we have a real identity, purpose, and life.
In this we find hope, even in the face of death.
Even, perhaps, because of it.
Crossway, First Printing 2018
Format & length
Hardcover, 192 pages