“I don’t want to die,” I said to my friend last summer, hooked up to a baby heart rate monitor and overwhelmed by the constant intrusion that is life in a hospital room.
Not wanting my baby to die was a given. I’ve faced those fears with every pregnancy. My worst fears were realized twice. But never had I also been hit with my own mortality. Pregnancy is safe and routine in America—until it isn’t.
For three weeks I lived there, with the reality of death ever before me. And then I had Ben, spent a week in the NICU, then we came home. Life returned to normal, right?
There are have been moments (many, in fact), in these last nine months where I have wondered if I will always have this lingering anguish over my impending death and the impending death of all those I love. Will we ever feel normal? Or is this just what life is like on the other side—the side where you almost died, but didn’t? Now you now how fragile life is and you have to live with that fragility until you actually die.
We live in two worlds now, the world where we remember life before the hospital and the world that contains the life after. The world before seems simpler—safer. This one doesn’t feel safe at all.
When I was a new believer I often would fantasize about dying for Jesus. Death is gain, I thought. And I do believe that. But that doesn’t mean that death is easy. Death is awful. It’s unnatural. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a person. It screams at us with every final breath that this is not how God intended his world to be. The prospect of death is terrifying, whether you are eighty five or thirty five. But death is coming for all of us, so we have to wrestle with it at some point.
I’ve been extremely comforted by Christ’s response to his own death in the moments before his crucifixion. Granted, he was also facing the wrath and curse of God, but he was facing death. There was no way around it. He had to die. He was going to die. This is where his humanity is such a gift to frail humans like me. He agonized over it. He screamed in pain at his death. It was an ugly scene. There was no way to make death look pretty here. It was awful. On top of it, he was bearing every single sin and being judged by God for it.
Death is absolutely a gain for those who are in Christ. Leaving this broken world and getting God in return is better than anything else we can receive. But we have to walk through a horribly tragic loss to get there. We have to die before we can be resurrected. We have to lose our life in order to gain it. And while I’m still processing what it looks like to hold this tension, I think a healthy level of anguish over death is appropriate. Death reminds us that this is not how God intended his world to be at all.
This is why Easter has been so hopeful to me this year. All of my fears over death are legitimate. But they aren’t the final story. Jesus didn’t just die on the cross, he rose from the death, defeating death and securing our hope for resurrection. He chose it. We went towards it. Most of the time, we spend our life avoiding death, but Jesus lived knowing he would die. And die for us.
As Christians who hope in this resurrection, we do have an answer to the fear of death, but it doesn’t remove the pain death causes. Yes, we will rise again. Yes, death isn’t the end. Yes, to die is to immediately be with the Lord. But to die is to die, and that is never pretty. To die is to leave people you love. To die is to often suffer immense pain. To die is to lose everything, and even for the most sanctified among us, that is so contrary to how we are wired. We were made to live, not die.
So I hold this tension, knowing that death is coming, fighting for faith in the midst of crippling fear, and holding on to hope that even though I will die, I will also live because Christ’s death means death isn’t the end for me.
The end of Dangerous Journey, the children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress, tells the story of Christian finally getting to the Celestial City, and before he gets there he has to walk through waters that overflow him. The waters kill him because death has to come before you get to the other side. As the waters rise, so do his fears. But the writer says, “this was no sign that God had forgotten him.” So too with us. Death is no sign that God has forgotten us. Praise the Lord, Jesus conquered death. He has risen and so will I.
The agony of Good Friday reminds me that death is ugly and real. I know that. I feel that. But Sunday is coming. The resurrection is coming. Death might come for all, even me. But death won’t win.