And what he has written about the prospect of dying is worth reading. You can find it here and you should read it.
None of us can promise how we will navigate dying. We all do it once. There is no dry run, no practice session, and – try though we may – there is no way to visualize the experience itself. As Keller notes, not even sitting with one another through that last challenge can prepare us for our own death, and generally speaking, we don’t do that all that often anymore. We have outsourced the experience to specialists and, instead of dying at home, most of us die in hospitals or nursing homes.
So, no one can say with certainty how they will react or what they will do, and there is even less certainty when one factors in the endless variety of ways in which we might die. Some of us will “see it coming.” Some will not. That does not mean that it isn’t a subject worth reflecting on and Keller has offered those thoughts at a juncture in his own life that reflects a lifetime of thoughtful, faithful work.
Three things that stand out here from my own thinking on the subject that I pray will undergird my own thinking when the time comes. But I would amplify some of the points that he makes and put others somewhat differently. I offer those thoughts here not as a criticism of Keller’s thoughts. He has been both courageous and honest in outlining his thinking and his struggles. My intention here is simply to extend the kind of conversation that we do not have often enough.
The first thing that Keller notes that death is “the last enemy.”
This is a point that he only mentions in passing. But it is a major watershed separating the way that materialists necessarily think about death and the way in which the writers of the New Testament and Christians think about it.
Many people blithely observe that death is a “natural” part of life, and some people undoubtedly believe it deeply. From a materialist point of view there is really no alternative, and for emotional reasons, it is also the way in which many people attempt to neutralize the power of death, hold it at arm’s length, and domesticate it. There is also a certain kind of atheist that argues that Christians’ fear of this “natural” phenomenon is what motivates them to believe in God in the first place. They fail to observe, of course, that the Christian faith is also what leads and has led a countless number of believers to face death in the defense of what they believe about God and Jesus Christ.
This apparent contradiction underlines the complexity of the Christian faith as it applies to the subject of death and dying. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that death is natural. It is, as Henry Nouwen put it, “a dark contradiction.” As Paul noted, if it triumphs we are without hope.
Why? Certainly not to spare Christians “all that unpleasantness.” The theological subtext, instead, is this: If God is the author and creator of life, the extinction of life is a contradiction to that claim and as such, death is “the last enemy.” It is this enemy that Christians down through the centuries, have faced, continuing to “sing Alleluias,” and the gravity of that confrontation is confirmed in the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. May God help us all to see that truth about our deaths.
Second, Keller notes that God’s answer to that enemy is the Resurrection. And so it is.
For Keller, however, the weight of that answer lies on our deliverance from death. He writes at length about the extent to which we all deny the reality of death. Admirably, he acknowledges the ways in which he has not grappled with that fact and how – in the course of his ministry – the Resurrection has not factored in all that often.
That last acknowledgement may come as a surprise to some. But for those of us who preach and who know something about large, well-staffed parishes, that is not all that surprising in one way. All too often clergy are insulated by their calling and its associated busyness from dealing with mortality. The insulation offered by being clergy is not all that different from the insulation that physicians experience from contemplating their own frailty.
What I think does need to be said, however, is that the Resurrection is far more important that what it promises by way of eternal wellbeing. That is certainly in the promise of the Gospel. But the Resurrection is far than that because – as I have said often elsewhere – the Resurrection is the vindication of God’s claim to be God – the reassurance that in Christ life has, indeed, triumphed over death.
This is either true or nothing else about the Christian faith is true, because if death has the last word, then God is subservient to death and not God at all. The Gospels are structured to make that point. Paul makes that point. The Book of Revelation ends with images of that triumph and the central creeds of the church insist upon. Centuries of materialist thinking may recoil at that conviction, and preachers who have lost their faith in it may defend their intellectual credentials by offering up the Resurrection in metaphorical diapers, but the conclusion Paul embraced is inescapable. Without the resurrection, those who embrace Christianity are without hope.
The third point in Keller’s reflection that stood out for me is his frank acknowledgment that he had not fully anticipated being exposed to suffering or death.
That is, even for seasoned and sane preachers like Keller a constant peril. Pragmatism and utilitarianism have so deeply shaped American life that it is almost impossible to consider any belief or way of life without asking “What good does it do?” As a result, across the theological spectrum, churches have offered up the Gospel as a “fix” for something: Our lives, our relationships, our social interactions, our civic life, the fate of the world. That impulse is so deeply a part of our DNA that even when we believe that the truth of the Gospel, not its utility, is paramount, it is still perilously easy to lapse into thinking that the utilitarian value of our beliefs still prevails.
I have been clear for years – and I pray to remain clear – that it is not God’s task to spare me from suffering or death. Nor is any suffering that I have experienced or the death that will claim my life a contradiction to my faith in God. The Gospel is not the good news that I won’t suffer. It is the good news that come what may, in Christ God has entered into both suffering and death, breaking its power and robbing it of the last word. Similarly, the hope of the Gospel does not rest in the conviction that I can evade suffering and death. It rests in the one who loves us and retrieves us from death, come what may.
In my own prayer life, not long ago, I put those thoughts in this way (and prayer is often a better aid to our formation):
As the days grow shorter
And life’s demands recede,
It becomes clear that the striving
And longing for control
Is wasted effort.
A surrogate for surrender,
For deeper connections with the world,
For attention to the Word that spoke,
For vulnerability to the Spirit
That whispers in a still, small voice.
When breath finally slips from my body,
I will return to the earth
To await the promised life once given,
To rejoice in a world made new,
The triumph of the Lord of Life.
May the moments between now and then
Be marked by the faithful preparations
That were once promised as a gentle yoke
And a burden that is light,
A journey into the Lord of Life
Where singleness of purpose offers meaning
Where love fills all that moves
And life’s several journeys end
In the one who made us all.
We all owe a word of thanks to Tim Keller, for his faithfulness, for words offered in a difficult and vulnerable moment in his life. If any of this is helpful and extends the conversation that he has begun, I am thankful. If not, do ignore it. In either case, God’s embrace, Tim Keller.