(1) THE PUZZLE
From late March to early June, I had my internship at Bethany Christian Care. Apart from that three-month-working experience, here I came to understand something which was hard to even have a glimpse at in other industries: death.
Several days as this internship started, I merely sit beside my supervisor, Peter, to observe how he does things. In those days people died even now and then under any of the age care departments. So he asked me to handle the discharge procedures. It was first that all the staff in the administration office will receive an email notifying someone’s death with a very detailed time, in a short but sad tone. The charge of the fees is deducted from the resident’s bank account on a basis of 20 days. Therefore whether the death occurred before or after 12pm was really important. Died within this 20-day-period, the office needs to calculate how much to refund. This is basically the discharge procedure.
I can’t remember how many discharge procedures have I handled, neither the admission procedures. However during this time death was nothing more than ink on the paper to me. One day I talked with Peter. And I could even recall the description of Yama (the god of death in Hinduism and Chinese mythology, who accounts the life span of people) in literature. We seemed to play in his role, while the difference only fell over the fact that we were accounting for the spending of someone’s very last phase of life. I also thought of a Japanese movie, Departures. The main character looked for jobs and he went into ‘NK travel agency’. As soon as he went through the door he found it was funeral service. NK means No-kan, the abbreviation of 納棺 (embalmer)’s romanization. Embalmer was regarded there as the assistant who sends the deceased to paradise.
It was one day Peter gave me a list of assets, asking me to go into each age care unit to verify the company’s assets. With a swipe card and a list in hand, I started to come back and forth between age care units and the office. What impressed me most during that time was: an old man leaned on a big, thick chair under the sun. He was trapped in the abyss of sleep. His body looked as heavy as a mountain. Dead was the word come to my mind. It was once I heard someone crying for help so I ran into a room according to the voice. The nurses were probably in other rooms and no one heard his moaning. It was between summer and autumn. I saw a blanket on an old man’s legs. He said: “Put the chair onto me”. I was confused, because the literal meaning didn’t make any sense. After quite a while I realized what he meant. I took a chair, facing to him, and pushed it to his chair. Then I put the blanket on with another end on the empty chair so the blanket won’t fall onto the floor.
What impressed me, other than many ‘dead’ people, was the smell of disinfectant and pills. The purpose of life were not that significant here, (you can) mere survival, (that)is what matters! When we were young we got vigor and passion, thinking we were capable of changing, even to be sovereign of our lives. In our minds belief was a byproduct of fear. When aged, pills abode in our palms, destination through our teeth. Carefree was the description of youth but sin overwhelmed the twilight of life. Look at what destructions sin has made!
Man starts to march to death from the point of birth, because of sin. In this age care facility I saw the consequence of sin——how death corrupts the mortal bodies to accelerate the termination of life. But what Christ felt was far more profound than I have seen here. When Jesus saw Martha, Lazarus the deceased’s relative wept, he groaned, and was troubled. At Lazarus’ tomb, he wept (John 11:33-35). He saw death and he is the son of the eternal God. When he saw the consequence that man sinned——death and sufferings, God’s wrath seized him, he felt sad and indignant. His tears were shed in sympathy for Mary, Martha and all the sorrow resulted by sin and death.
“People die in every second and minute in this world.” This is so true but unfortunately, many are spitting this as a perfunctory statement. Before the end of this internship I performed a statistics of average age care resident stay. Peter used to think it’s five months. The result I got was two years, ten months and ten days. The maximum and the minimums looked exaggerating but they didn’t bring any great impact to the overall result. The average deceasing rate was 4 people each month and 56 each year. Over 50% in the sample survived one year after their admission. Although the statistics suggested more optimistic than Peter’s estimation, in those days from late May to early June came a death email every two days. While we were busy at shocking, we came to know how powerful death, the wage and weaponry of sin is, just as it said in Ecclesiastes 8:8:” There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death.”
Death, appears in our recognition as a negative thing very often. In ancient Chinese, people summarized it extremely briefly as “over”, because it can bring forth the loss of control and disorders. No precautions can be taken against such disorders which can neither be stopped. Death separates us and our loved ones. We weep, because something that we have been maintaining for long disappeared all of a sudden.
(2) NO TRAVELER RETURNS
What on earth is this thing called death? In physiology it is defined as the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. Bethany used a very precise word: departure, which was the same used in airport. I knew such feeling and experience as I’ve been seen off by my parents, as a starting point to be an oversea student. However we were talking about departure from this world here, soul departs the body. “Death is like a light goes off” might probably the excuse that people commit suicide.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare narrated man’s intertwining complex over the issue of death:
To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
“No traveller returns” presents man’s fear and confusion upon the unknown things after death traditionally. No one truly knows where he will be going after he dies. All he knows is merely “the beginning of losing control over present life matters”. There is nothing new in war and slaughter as all points to that. What so-called “having power over other’s lives” is a prodigious joke.
Someone might be able to send people into where “No traveller returns” at certain points of time, but he can’t escape the same fate at a later point of time. This paragraph of Shakespeare also tells the toil of life. Pretty often people ask Christian such a question: “why bad things happen on good people?” in order to question the righteousness of God. The answer is simple: There are no good people. This seems to be a great paradox, but don’t you think the question itself is a greater self-contradiction?
“There is none righteous, no, not one: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God ;”( Romans 3:10, 23) Sin entered this world through Adam (Genesis 3, Romans 5:12), wherefore all submit under the power of sin. Perhaps some people think that they never sin. But this is merely the definition under the modern framework of legislations. Let’s look at God’s standard! “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22).
The definition is not limited at the external behaviors. God looks straight into man’s heart. Mankind’s good and evil standard could be very absurd and ridiculous. Cursing, hurting the innocent, or destroying other’s assets is justifiable under the name of patriotism. Killings and terminations are open practices as long as there are sufficient excuses. And that excuse, is only a prospective, which cannot cease anger and bring peace. It’s fair to a group while unfair to the other. Man seems to be capable of distinguishing good and evil, but he can’t, for sin has become part of him. He can’t assess sin, so he sins without knowing it. Rendering evil for evil has become an instinct.
(3) PEOPLE REMORSE
All in all started in Eden, God exhorted man not to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, because He is a jealous God. He hates evil, knowing very clear what it will bring to mankind. Man wants to know good and evil like God. He got that indeed, but not as object as God. It became part of him.
Like a nightmare, sin attaches to each corner of man’s soul. Mankind has no capacity to remove it. And sin left a whole bunch of consequences. First is the abuse of sin and its interactions. In Chinese we have idioms saying:” A fire on the city gate brings disaster to the fish in the moat.” Someone people might never do things defined as illegal under modern laws while bad things happen on them. Are you going to seal these cases by ‘chance’? Now this is the whole thing called preordained fate. Man commits all kinds of sin, and then he shall bear according consequences. Eating and drinking are faultless. Good food pleases people while gluttony and drunkenness brings harm to the body. This is the consequence of being greedy; Energy drink might refresh someone a little bit but excessive caffeine can cause cardiac dysrhythmia which leads to death; everyone knows how much destruction a tyrant or a fatuous leader of the country can bring to a country, as it says in Proverbs14:34: “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.”.
No matter how sound your argument is, bad things happen on anyone, let alone that which is brought by the sovereign sin. If there is no sin-committing, one shall receive punishment in no wise. We deserve all these turmoil on the world known and unknown because we sinned and had transgressions against God! Second is the separation from the life of God.
Since man cannot have the fruit of the tree of life, he will not have perpetual life (Genesis 3:22). As sin becomes part of man, he was expelled from Eden. This brought the third consequence: Remorse. The New Testament Bible which was written in Greek used a word to describe sin: μαρτα, meaning missing the mark, which fails to reach and do what’s expected. Here it means fail to reach God’s standard. People remorse very often when they cannot do what they are supposed to do. We can also see this remorse at the fact that after the banishment, he lost that carefree life, that in the sweat of his face shall he eat bread. Wherefore human have all kinds of technology to lift the standard of life. And we see all these efforts paid are actually attempts to return to Eden.
People would rather bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, and in addition to these, the calamity of so long life resulted from the dread of something after death! Sin has brought its most powerful weapon: death. God has told Adam very plainly:” But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Mortal death is the consequence of death. Darkness is not an entity. It’s only the absence of light. A dark room can become bright soon as light is turned on. Death is the absence of life. Being deviated from God, the source of life and righteousness, man lost his supply of life. Death becomes the end of man very naturally. This is like the turning off of a light and the house went dark. Sin has spoiled the creation and death became a king.
(4) STANDARD OF JUDGEMENT
Shakespeare didn’t tell us what is “others that we know not of” is like. “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” Hebrews 9:27 gave out the answer. The Scripture mentioned this judgment many times. What judgment? Romans 2:12 says:” For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” This law is the standard of God we have mentioned previously. All God’s demands upon man were condensed in the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament era. In New Testament Christ summarised them as the duty to God and man:” And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Luke 12:30-31). As we have discussed previously, sin has contaminated each aspect of humanity.
No one can escape the judgment of the Law as all are under this sin-spoiled creation. Technology which human are proud of can’t even fix all the problems once for all, let alone the power of sin. A verdict follows after the judgment. Mortal death is merely the consequence of sin but the second death is the punishment of sin. People normally think that the evil goes to hell after death. We have discussed who is good and who is evil previously and no more discussion will be repeated here. Hell is where sinners will head to after the judgment before the great white throne. But before that final judgment, sinners will go to Sheol. No matter it’s Sheol, hell or fire lake, it has been understood prevalently that it’s somewhere opposite to heaven.
That’s the logic of dualism, thinking that God created hell. However this should be understood as to be despised by God. In the gospels Christ had some description about that eternal punishment, the second death:”their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). And in Luke 16 in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man suffered in the flame. Christ mentioned that there was a great gulf fixed between heaven and there. No one can go to the other side from either, because it’s not all referring to real places. Heaven is real entity (Revelation 21-22), full of God’s glory, righteousness and love. Hell is somewhere you cannot find God’s love. In the other word, it’s ‘to be totally despised by God’. All those description about worm, fire and the lake which burns with fire and brimstone on the scripture are more likely to allow people to have detailed contemplation about them, that they might have at least an understanding about the pain of that eternal punishment, so that they become awake and start to think about their eternity. In Chinese we say ‘be burning with anxiety’ ’eyebrow’s on fire’, all these idioms are describing specific feelings but you never see ‘fire burning’.
Here the Bible is talking about eternal things to us mortals. The infinite reveals itself to the finite. The finite cannot contain the infinite. Written language fails to describe all the details, because the pain of such eternal punishment is far beyond 10,000 times than what has been described by written language! In human language we used ‘heart break’ to describe some extreme emotions and feelings, which can cause appetite withdrawal and lead to suicide when they are severe. Emotion can be more powerful than any cruel tortures as it comes from within. Compelled by extreme emotions, some can get rid of them which are less-severe. Deeper compels people into depression and suicide when further.
(5) THE ETERNAL PUNISHMENT
In the night before crucifixion, Christ prayed in Gethsemane. Facing the cross approaching, His soul is exceedingly sorrowful unto death (Mark 14:34). We stare at here. We haven’t come to the cross yet! He had already seen the suffering of the eternal punishment. This extreme emotion compelled Him to a step that the skin of His palm went very tender, the capillaries around the sweat glands rapture and tinge the sweat. And His sweat was as great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:44). Being the Son of God, Jesus had foreseen that horror of eternal punishment.
Extreme feelings can lead to the extent of wishing to die. It would be unimaginable that someone is totally despised by God. Man is born for relationship. This can be seen quite clearly in the Creation of Man. Man are created to walk with God. The creation is made through God’s word. All were there as He spoke. But God made man specially by making him out of dust and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. “You” and “I” only exists in a true relationship and they are the most frequently used vocabularies in human language. Everyone longs for relationship. Solitude and loneliness is only the transition and window period between two relationships. Whatever more fortunes are earned for love and respect.
In China where filial duties are emphasised, it would be a very sad thing when someone died with no relatives accompanied. It is mutual relationship that we cherish so much, how much more when that’s from God, the source of love and all relationships. For instance, you are walking on the street. The sun spills its warmth upon you, because the earth is at a perfect distance from the sun. And suddenly one day God withdraws all these away, you will be in the great affliction of extreme chill. One of the greatest reasons that prisons are always used as an ‘effective’ punishment is that prison cuts almost all the human relationships although it’s much better than the past. However in prison you might still be able to bring some nice memories with your beloved ones. But what about in your memory you cannot find anyone that loves you, even have pity on you, even your biological parents? The Russians and the Chinese had such kind of experiments done in 1930s and 1960s-1970s respectively when close family members turned on each other. Sinners! This is not even real ones in eternity! This is only the preliminary sketch I, as a lowly human can present here for a slight imagination.
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” I think of the words in Chinese Paladin IV: life is a dream, but death is a greater dream. Although we shouldn’t take it as truth, this is a decent parable. Dear friend, if life is a dream, whatever it will be end up with death or the ultimate judgment witnessed by eyes, waking up from ‘dreams’, you stand in the presence of God and God reveals all the clear and secret things in life with all your sins (Psalm 44:22, Daniel 2:22). When He tells you that all your attempts on blotting your sin are vanity, how are you going to defend? When the time given by God has come to the end of Tolerance, God tolerates no more.
Dear friend, you are still alive. The destiny of mankind doesn’t end here. Solution for sin is still available. We can see there is a judgment. Satan allured human to sin. And after that he took the plaintiff’s position, suing us before God. According to the Law are meant to be perished. Nevertheless God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17). Jesus Christ replaced us, taking the position of the defendant. As the result, he died on the corss for our stead.
As it is written in Isaiah 53:
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed…Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:4-5, 10)
(6) TRIUMPHANT OVER DEATH
Truly He suffered that eternal punishment for us! Suffered the searing pain on the cross is only the extreme that the early world can do. In the cross He cried with a loud voice: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”(Matthew 27:46). The pain of cross will end with physical death, but to feel utter lonely, when God has withdrawn His love, His connection with His beloved son Jesus, is impossible to tolerate. When Christ is on earth, we can see how deep relationship with the Father and He is always in Him, receiving strength from Him although He Himself is a Person of three under the Godhead. We might have a glimpse of such heart-breaking feeling as we have discussed previously.
As He is the Son of eternal God, He bears the sins of many by His sinless body. This is very good news. But this is only one aspect. Jesus was crucified on the cross and buried. There was great stone on the door of the tomb. Upon the stone it was the seal of Roman Empire, the most powerful government of the then world. Outside the tomb stood the soldiers, representing the most powerful force in the world. These three powers united together, attempting to stop Jesus to resurrect, as Christ had prophesied Himself to rise from the death. Upon all these physical powers, there is death. Death clutches a man very tight. We already have the idea of how the earth devours people. The earth swallowed Korah and his company (Numbers 16:32-33). We also know how the earth clutches our beloved ones. No one can ever escape from death. It’s the power of sin behind. The wages of sin is death (Roman 6:23). Any scepters of kings are no match to the iron rod of death. Death gets whoever he wants before Christ came. Christ died for our sin. But He laid His life down Himself, He had the power to take it again (John 10:18).
Satan thought that death can devour Jesus like other devouring other people. Nevertheless Jesus rose again on the third day. Physical powers have no capacity to stop Him. Death, ever invincible, cannot do anything with Jesus, cannot keep his prey. As it is written in the Scripture, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54b-56). Not only do we have this good news of being forgiven of sin, but also the hope to reign together with Christ, because He has conquered death, the last enemy that shall be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Now you only need to confess your sins, and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and your LORD. By doing this, mortal death would not be a dreadful and tragic thing, because through the grace of Jesus, you are justified in the presence of God and you are reconciled with Him. The lake of fire is no longer your end. Life continues, rather than “a weary life to grunt and sweat”. Although we still have pain and suffering in life, through faith Christ has borne our sin, what else we commit not unto Him?
He said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29). As receiving Christ as our Saviour and Lord, our old, sinful lives died with Him on the cross. And we gained new life with Him resurrected. With sin forgiven, no longer haunted by sin, absent from the shadow of death, we have a peace within.
Therefore He said: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. ”(John 14:27) He is the God created the world. We knew He holds the future. Life has become joy. We live joyfully to be living testimonies for His great triumph over death.
Therefore, death is no longer a puzzle, because Christ has risen, triumphant over the power of death.
I would like to end this ink spill by a hymn.
1 Low in the grave He lay,
Jesus, my Saviour!
Waiting the coming day,
Jesus, my Lord!
(Chorus) Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes;
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He loves forever with His saints to reign;
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose.
2 Vainly they watch His bed-
Jesus, my Saviour!
Vainly they seal the dead-
Jesus, my Lord!
3 Death cannot keep His prey –
Jesus, my Saviour!
He tore the bars away –
Jesus, my Lord!
(by Robert Lowry)
Written by: Bether Chen
M. E. Head Photograph