In our day, it is less common to see someone die in the United States than it was in previous eras and generations. The Center for Disease Control that at around the year 1900, of every 1,000 infants born alive, 100 would die before their first birthday. If that infant mortality rate of 10 percent had continued, 500,000 live-born children would have died before their first birthday in 1997; instead, the number of infant deaths dropped to around 28,000. The infant mortality rate had dropped by more than 90 percent.
Hospitals were certainly less common a century ago than they are now. This reality created a society in which death was forced into the open. Loved ones would not be taken off life-support in a medical facility behind closed doors; instead, they would breathe their last breath on their deathbed, likely in the care of their family in their home. Death was not so sanitized and routine like an oft-rehearsed procedure of some sort as it is today. People faced it, saw it — breathed it and experienced it firsthand.
Seeing someone die forces you to think about death in the most honest and vulnerable light possible. However, most children in America today will not see someone actually die like they would have in yester-year. Rather than their family member die in their own home, death takes place behind closed doors. Ironically, they are still bombarded with images and portrayals of death through the violence of television shows, video games, and other forms of media. Data gathered from a survey conducted in the 1990s enabled researchers to determine that on average a person 18 years old had seen 40,000 murders portrayed on television. That number would likely be much higher today.
And today we’re seeing not only murders in dramas. While we may seldom see actual murders depicted on television, we’re regularly assailed with the locales and the aftermath of real-life killing — perhaps around the world in times of war, perhaps in the neighborhoods, schools, and churches of communities like our own. Not only do we see this death; many of us — particularly young people — mimic it. Experienced video gamers calculate that the number of “kills” (not necessarily of human figures) made by regular teen players of video games can easily top 100,000 by the time a player reaches age 18. One gamer figured that he had probably made 100,000 “kills” in his first six months of playing; another, more than 73,000 “kills” in just 30 days.
Death has become so common, in fact, that we have forgotten that it is an inversion of the way things are supposed to be. In some media depictions, for example, death is so woven into the fabric of humanity that to not die is seen as the inversion, the abnormality. For example, in the 2007 animated movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the plot is driven by an ancient warrior king who is unable to die, and who seeks the release of death after centuries of living.
Death certainly is the norm in our culture, but in this case the norm is not the way things are supposed to be. The invasion of death into our reality is a reminder that the fabric of our reality is torn — and that it must be mended. But we don’t always remember that when we encounter death and dying.
Knowing that all of us will one day face death doesn’t make death any less difficult to face — especially when it is unexpected: when an unborn child is taken from his or her parents just days before the anticipated birth; when the doctor tells your spouse that he or she has only two years to live; when a semi crosses the centerline and wipes out an entire family; when a gunman, committed to slaughter, enters a church and opens fire on unsuspecting worshipers. Death’s sting is still felt. The lack of meaning found in that dark place where you face the shadow of death is paralyzing. The anger you feel when you’re confronted with death is no less real and no less meaningful. Death cuts like a knife smelted from futility.
We aren’t always given a reason why some people die in the way they do. We aren’t told why one child is taken and another is left to flourish, grow up, and live a prosperous life. We aren’t given a reason why one person will experience the loss of many loved ones and another will see death only through the sanitized lens after years of a good life.
The comfort we are given in Scripture is not in answer to “Why?” but in answer to “Who?” Though having rained terror since Adam’s defeat (Romans 5:14), Death will one day die (Revelation 10:14). The comfort we take from the fact that the King of Kings was given up to Death is found in the fact that He endured that ordeal so that we would not face the second, eternal death. Does death still hurt when our loved ones are ripped from us? Definitely. Do we still get angry when another life is claimed? Yes, we do. But Death has been put on notice.
We desperately need to jettison the unnecessary and inaccurate portrayals of death and to embrace the reality of death as God has described it to us. Those who place their trust in the Who of the risen Lord can look Death squarely in the eye and see that Death is dying. His grip is weakening. His power is waning. And his domain cannot hold the dead in Christ forever.
Because Christ rose from the dead, from the place thought to represent finality, we can have hope that we, too, will one day rise again (1 Corinthians 15:12-28). Death — the last of Christ’s enemies — will be put under the feet of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:26). The sheer futility, pointlessness, and emptiness of those undeserving of death being taken from us is a wound that will be closed and healed by the risen King. Through His own wounds, we will be made whole. Because He lives, we too will live.