On January 9, 2018, I came face to face with death. Not my own, but the death of my 87 year-old mother-in-law, Virginia Wilson. She had suffered a debilitating stroke in August 2016 leaving the right side of her body paralyzed and her speech slurred. She found it hard to accept her diminished condition. Yet her love for God and for her family (especially for her grandchildren!) continued to shine through the cracks in the earthen vessel that was her body (2 Cor 4:7-11).
A few days before Christmas, her condition rapidly deteriorated. She became more confused, less responsive, and more agitated. A medical evaluation revealed a new, significant stroke, along with other complications. She would not recover. This once vital woman literally shrank daily before our eyes. Over one particular 24-hour period she seemed to age ten years. Her appearance changed from frail but with both feet in this world, to failing with one foot here and the other in the water, ready to cross the Jordan. It was beyond painful to watch. It was excruciating, especially for my wife. Dying is ugly. Death is awful.
In my fantasies, I see myself aging gracefully, sitting in my favorite chair, a source of wisdom and wit to my extended family and friends until my dying day. And then, full of years, with a sound mind and a (slightly) more frail body, I just slip away one night into Jesus’ arms. (Do I desire that for my own sake or for the sake of my family?) I realize that some people have that experience and it is a gracious and merciful decline when the Lord gives it. But such a decline is not the norm. More often the decline is either sudden and violent—a stroke or a terrible fall—or agonizingly relentless: a gradual loss of hearing, sight, taste, smell, mental acuity, ability to walk, even to eat.
There are no good deaths. Death is the enemy every person faces. To borrow a phrase from Stephanie Hubach it is a “normal part of living in an abnormal world,” a world broken and twisted by humanity’s fall into sin. Death is a wretched and pitiless enemy without mercy.
But death doesn’t get the final word. Our triune God does. The Son of God donned flesh and blood, died an agonizing death on the cross, and was raised to new life by the Father through the power of the Spirit so that this enemy might be ultimately defeated. Paul puts it this way as he speaks of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:53-57:
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are no good deaths. But there are good reasons for hope when believers in Christ come face to face with death. Jesus entered death’s gaping maw and rose triumphant from the grave. What was true of him will be true of those united to him by faith (Rom 6:5; Rom 8:31-39). Death was not the end of the story for him. Nor is it for believers in Christ . . . including Ginny Wilson.