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The Great Equalizer
On the end and everything that comes before
The past couple of weeks have me thinking a lot about death. Having never died personally, it is hard to fathom what that is like. It is hard to imagine what might or might not be on the other side. I know what I have been taught happens after death. But even then, since none of the people who told us what was there had ever really experienced it themselves, it becomes equally hard to take them as experts on the matter.
Fascinatingly, those who claim to have had near-death experiences, or at least the ones who make the headlines or write the books, claim to see what culturally we have been told happens when we pass. I will be honest: I have not looked into it, but I would not be surprised if the experiences are similar in different cultures. If those who claim to die and come back experience whatever their specific culture claims about life after death.
I was raised to believe that when we die, there are only two options. If a person has accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior, they go to heaven immediately upon taking their last breath. If they have not, they will go to hell and be tortured for all of eternity in a lake of fire.
When I went to college, I was introduced to the idea of "soul sleep". Basically, when we die, our souls remain in our bodies and "sleep" there until the resurrection of all the dead when Jesus comes back to establish his permanent kingdom here on earth. I actually remember one class period where this came up and the discussion turned into a heated debate, with people holding opposing views on the matter nearly calling each other heretics.
Then, there are the explanations by those who do not believe in any kind of god or spirit whatsoever. For them, when we die, it is just the end. There is nothing after. There is no "other side".
Here is another college experience.
In one of my courses, we were asked to write a paper about what it meant to die well. I will readily admit, looking back, that I missed the mark on that one. I was in my most conservative Calvinist days, and I read the chapter on death that we were assigned as our starting place for the paper and all I could think was that to die well we needed to live well. So I wrote what I felt was an impassioned piece on living a life that would glorify God. I was so stuck on my own views at the time that I could not see past them to any deeper underlying truths, or even the flaws in them. I do not recall even mentioning death in the paper other than at the beginning.
For the past week or so especially, death has been a constant companion. An internet acquaintance's father passed away. Being a couple of steps removed from myself, I felt a slight sadness, but it was minimal without being fleeting.
A few days later, through a high school classmate, I received word that a mutual classmate who I have fond memories of and who was, while not close, I would place in the category of friend that is slightly more than acquaintance, had passed unexpectedly in her sleep. This one hit. Not so much because we were close, but because we were the same age. We were in school together. We saw each other every day. This made death seem close in a way that it had not before. It is hard to put words to that feeling.
Then, it came across my news feed that Bob Barker had died. Memories of being home sick from school watching "The Price is Right" came to mind, but not much else.
Around this same time, a friend posted to his page that a good friend of his had passed. He actually found out through the local news when they announced the identity of a body that had washed up in the river.
Maybe it is just the varied proximity to my own life of each of these people, but it is hard to understand how I am supposed to feel about each of these. If I should feel much at all. It is numbing in a way.
Which leads to the question of "why?" And fairness. It is not fair that so often good people die young or at all while some of the worst people live long and full lives. It can make a person question God and their motives and even existence. Because a good God would not create a world where those who perpetuate suffering would be the same who were rewarded with longevity, right?
Sometimes the good do live long. Jimmy Carter comes to mind. But more times than not, it feels like it is those who have done the most harm who linger.
But what if that is the point?
I believe we are here for a purpose, or at the very least we should live as though we are. That purpose being to make the world better. To care for each other. To “be excellent to each other”. The pain and suffering that we cause is a betrayal of this purpose. On the other hand, the good that we do pushes us toward fulfilling this purpose, both individually and collectively. The thing about having a purpose, though, is that eventually there is nothing else for you to do. You have done your part and there is little to nothing else for you to contribute.
Your work here is done. And maybe that is when we pass. Individuals die when they do because they have fulfilled their part of the task.
Death often feels like an injustice. Like something that is not supposed to happen. As though it pilfers the best of us, leaving only the worst. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe death visits when someone has arrived at the place where they are the best version of themselves they will ever be. And that those left are here because they still have work to do. They can still be better. And their purpose is to pursue that goodness until they attain it. That is why we are so often left with fascists and abusers and all the worst kinds of people. They live long lives because they are being given a chance to pursue goodness.
They are having grace extended to them.
Like I said earlier, there are also good people who live a long time. But maybe they are given that chance because we are supposed to look at them as an example of that which we are all capable; of that which we are all being given the chance to be.
The same goes for the bad guys too. Maybe another reason they are often allowed to live a long time is to also show us what we are capable of. Because every single one of us is capable of not only great good but also great evil.
I guess it is possible that the atheists are right, though. That all of this really has no purpose. That death is random and it just happens when it happens. If that is the case, we should still strive for lives of goodness and justice so that, when we die, it is not our death they are celebrating, but the life we lived beforehand.
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