The Apostle Paul once wrote, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve as the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) Since the first century, the Christian worldview’s approach to death has been one of its core strengths. Contrary to what Christianity is often accused of, it does not hide from the hard realities of pain, suffering, and loss. It, instead, calls adherents to face such struggles head-on with strength and grace, confident in the hope that lies beyond this world. For over a millennia, the Christian perspective in dealing with pain is one of the strongest links in the chain for the cumulative case of the veracity of the faith.
The Reality of Suffering
Sunday marked the first time the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs held a service since a lone gunman walked into the building and murdered 26 people. I remember watching the report on CNN. I held back tears as the reporter marveled at how Pastor Pomeroy, who lost his own 14 year old daughter, was still able to comfort others. In their written report, Texas Senator John Cornyn was quoted as saying:
“I saw him standing there at the front of the church, comforting others,” Cornyn said. “It’s remarkable, but it’s a testament to their faith and their compassion for others during this very difficult time.”
This isn’t an isolated Christian response to such horrific events. In 2015, Dylan Roof walked into a church bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people. The surviving family members made headlines by publicly, and bravely, forgiving Roof for senselessly killing their loved ones:
A Historical Legacy of Grace Through Suffering
The often moving resilience in the face of such tragedies by my fellow Christians is not a modern invention. It’s part of who we have always been. In fact, as Rev. Thomas Browne shows in his book “Testimonies of Heathen and Christians Writers,” authors in the first two centuries were already identifying Christian perseverance in the face of death. As Browne explains of the writing of Epictetus:
“…That the fortitude and patience of the early Christians in suffering…had become notorious, almost to a proverb.”
“A Narrative of the Sufferings of the Martyrs at Vienne and Lyons” recounts the plight of Christians, under horrific persecution, as they gracefully endured unspeakable tortures. Browne asks:
“What could have induced men to embrace the Christian profession, under such circumstances, but a thorough conviction of its truth?”
He goes on to say, “Accounting the greatest afflictions to be small, they hastened to Christ; thus showing, in fact, that the ‘sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.'”
Confidence That Emanates From the Resurrection
It was the Apostle Paul himself who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
While it may be true that other worldviews may have belief in an afterlife, or encourage its followers to resign themselves to death, only in Christianity can you find the reason for hope in an afterlife anchored in a historical claim. Only in Christianity do you have one of it’s lead Apostles hanging the entirety of a new faith from a thread, almost daring unbelievers to cut the chord and find Christ’s body. But as Dr. Craig Hazen quipped, “That thread appears to be made out of titanium because no one’s been able to cut it…”
As it’s been noted at A Clear Lens here, here and here, plus, apologists like J. Warner Wallace have written at length on the subject here: the fact is that there are rational reasons to believe that the resurrection of Jesus was an actual, historical event.
If that is the case, that the resurrection actually occurred and wasn’t a “hallucination“, then the early Christians had a very good, reality-based reason to believe that a life beyond death existed. I mean, who better to believe on such matters than the guy who rose from the dead?
As such, both early Christians and us modern Christians, have a very good reason, a reason anchored in history, to believe when Jesus said, “In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and welcome you into My presence, so that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)
Celebrating a Life That Was and the Life to Come
“Not long ago I had a debate…and at one point we were asked to speak about how our differing worldviews allowed us to deal practically with personal suffering. My interlocutor implied that he didn’t think Christianity offered a real advantage over atheism…citing the fact that, at the end of the day, whether it is a Christian funeral or an atheist funeral, everyone is devastated.
“I disagreed. The last funeral I had been to happened to be a Christian funeral…The brother of the deceased invited people to show their appreciation for his brother’s life with a round of applause…people had climbed onto the pews and were pumping their arms and hooting and hollering louder and more joyfully than any sporting match I have ever been to…every face was smiling -no, beaming- through tears, and every inch of the room was filled with hope.”
In Timothy 4:6 Paul writes, “…for I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand.” On this, Bible.org writes that, “…the Greek word for departure here is analusis which is (a) a nautical term which is used for a ship that sets sail; (b) it is also used in a military way of breaking camp…for the Christian, is what death is-it’s setting sail, it’s breaking camp, it’s being freed from this life so we can go home.”
Worldviews Matter in Suffering
All of this reminded me of my own family’s experience with loss. When my parents married, my dad was, at best, a “nominal Christian”. However, one would only need to look at his life and see that he was truly an agnostic. My mother on the other hand, was raised as a Mennonite and her belief in Jesus never wavered.
Everything changed for my family when my sister Wendy passed away at the age of four. She wandered off, fell into my aunt’s pool, and drowned. By the time my dad found her, she was lying at the bottom of the pool. He tried to breathe life into my sister, but to no avail. Losing Wendy was a very deep blow to my family.
How my parents individually coped with that loss leaned heavily on their worldviews. My dad, who was unsure of God’s existence, became convinced God didn’t exist. He became a militant atheist: calling God a “baby killer”. He came to despise all religion and religious people, which sadly included my mother. His anger and bitterness eventually resulted in my parents divorce.
My mom on the other hand, while she grieved deeply, reacted differently than my father: there was hope in the midst of her grief. That hope stemmed from her belief that separation is not permanent for believers in Christ.
Victory Over Death
The Christian approach to suffering and death has always been one of its core strengths; a strong link in the cumulative case for the veracity of the Christian worldview. The patience and grace Christians exhibit through the many tragedies of life, often attract others to the faith.
This is often the case because Christianity not only acknowledges suffering, it gives hope beyond those sufferings. And, when gracefully exhibited, it is potent evidence that the Christian worldview offers something valuable. Where other worldviews struggle for answers or, resign themselves to the oblivion of nature’s “…pitiless indifference”; Christianity offers hope and peace.
About 15 years ago, my dad finally gave his life to Jesus and he was filled with hope. He still aches for the loss of my sister, but he has found peace. To my dad, death no longer has its sting.
For all the mockery Christianity has received over the centuries, there is one thing Christianity offers that can’t be taken away: hope. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57:
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory!’
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”