or: The Dark Side of Christian Hope

It seems that religion has a monopoly on providing answers surrounding death. Especially Christianity is good in providing comfort, with the streets of gold and a new earth where every tear will be wiped off our cheeks. All our loved ones (or well, those who believed as well) will be there too. Preachers say the loftiest things about the dead who are now at peace with God. I have fervently believed this for some three decades. It was called hope.

Compare that to a secular funeral, at least from a Christian perspective. Death is death, there is nothing more. No afterlife, no hope of ever seeing each other again. This is it, or more accurately: this was it. Gloomy and bleak, right?

Or is there more to it?

An Important Question

A few weeks ago I heard some terrible news. One of the national church leaders had died, from the country where I used to ‘serve’ as a missionary. I met him only a few times, he was really a kind, funny and passionate man. Lots of missionaries knew him, including some with whom I am reasonably close. Obviously they were all devastated. I was also truly saddened by his loss. Really, he was a great man as far as I knew him and the fact that we don’t share a common faith doesn’t make that any less.

While I was thinking about his sudden death, and the impact it had on the other people I knew, lots of questions came to mind. How many thousands of people would mourn his loss? Who would be at his funeral? What would happen to the work that he left behind? How would churches respond? What would this mean for the motivation that some people have to stay in Thailand? Etcetera, etcetera.

But I was really struck that I totally missed the main question that my Christian friends and colleagues were asking. A simple one word question:

WHY?

It honestly didn’t occur to me. The moment I heard about his death, I heard he had a heart attack. That settled it for me. A heart attack: that is why.

Any ‘why’ question beyond that, shows for me a certain irony. It dawned on me that the comfort of believing in an all-powerful God is actually creating a lot of discomfort. As a Christian, this question would have been bugging me as well for days or weeks… Why?

Because God is apparently in control, everything must happen ‘for a reason’. “Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny? But your Father knows when any one of them falls to the ground. Even the hairs on your head are counted” (Matthew 10). Or Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Or what to think of Proverbs 16:4 “The LORD works out everything to its proper end—even the wicked for a day of disaster”?

So believers face the challenge that this horrible sudden death – while this man was obviously doing a lot of good for the church – somehow has to fit in with God working ‘everything for the good of those who love him’. How is this good? How is this a ‘proper end’?

The Burden of Gods Plan

Somehow the sudden tragic death of this man made me realise what a burden has fallen off my shoulder. I don’t have to worry anymore about the Grand Plan in which everything has to fit. No more mental gymnastics to look for any ‘good’ that comes out of this death, because, well, it has to be part of Gods Plan and some good must come from it, right?

I read of another missionary who was asking if this has anything to do with ‘spiritual warfare’. What a sad state of affairs we are in, if we think that a random heart attack has something to do with fighting in the spiritual realm. This leader who died was steeped in prayer, so if even he gets to die so suddenly, how are any of us safe? Obviously this missionary was left with more questions than he could answer.

Which is no surprise if we think any further. What could God possibly have thought when this man had a heart attack?

  • “Although he is doing great work for me, I cannot interfere with nature” (the impotent God?)
  • “He sinned in secret so he should die” (the harsh random God, since everybody sins a lot?)
  • “It is time for somebody else to take his place, even though there are no suitable candidates and the candidates are doing useful things already” (the terrible management God?)
  • ?

As a believer I had been trained to never ask these kinds of questions. No, God would have his reasons. But when we actually engage our critical thought process over such an event, it becomes clear that life is nothing but a random walk. The reasons God can have never make sense, especially when one remembers that God is trying to have some sort of strategy to save the world by the gospel. The strategy God is using, including random heart attacks on Christian leaders, is exactly like having no strategy at all:

  • Good people die suddenly, and sometimes good people are saved miraculously
  • Bad people die suddenly, and sometimes bad people are saved miraculously (e.g. think of the failed attack on Hitler’s life!)

The Need for a Daddy

We all need parents. It’s just that we need them so much, that when the duty of the natural parents is gone, we want to depend on some celestial father/mother figure to guard our lives. Sure, that would be great. Natural laws seem like a very cold guardian to us. Why not have a warm father figure who guides our every step?

But as said, life is a random walk, there is no indication whatsoever that God is actively interfering with anything at all. If you know counter-evidence, please post it in the comments section. I know of no grand scale peer reviewed research that show that the randomness of our lives have any divine pattern to them.

And even though this may sound like a fairy-tale to those who believe in a heavenly Father, I can give you my testimony: life can be great without Him, too. Perhaps even better. Just like living on your own is eventually better than living with your parents. We can shape order into the randomness. We can be kind, we can be loving, we can fight poverty, we can fight climate change, and we can fight diseases. We can do it ourselves. Not that we always succeed, but we have to be adults, and carve our own path. Has God ever really done that for us? Or will He ever do it?

And for the Christian leader in Thailand? He died. Perhaps you had a recent loss as well. This is hard, for sure. What helps me is to remember that death is nothing but the absence of life. It’s only us, the living, who feel the effects. So let’s celebrate the life of the deceased, their accomplishments, their love, the inspiration they were to others, their relationships. And then move on, with pain our hearts, but at least without irrelevant questions in our minds.

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