There’s an old story of a slave who travels with his master toBaghdad. Early one morning, milling through the marketplace, the slave sees Death in human form. Death gives him a threatening look, and the slave recoils in terror, convinced Death intends to take him that day.
The slave runs to his master and says, “Help me! I’ve seen Death, and his threatening look tells me he intends to take my life this very day. I must escape him. Please let me leave now and flee on my camel so tonight I can reachSamarra, where Death cannot find me.”
His master agrees, and the terrified servant takes off on the fifteen-hour journey toSamarra.
A few hours later, the master himself sees Death among the throngs inBaghdad. He boldly approaches Death and asks him, “Why did you give my servant a threatening look?”
“That was not a threatening look,” Death replies. “That was a look of surprise. You see, I was amazed to see your servant today inBaghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight inSamarra.”
While the imagery is pagan, the central moral of the story is biblical. “No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).
The time of our death is unknown to us. But the fact of our death is inescapable. We may spend our lives running from death and denying death, but that won’t stop death from coming at its appointed time.
As human beings, we have a terminal disease called mortality. The current death rate is 100 percent. Unless Christ returns soon, we’re all going to die. We don’t like to think about death; yet, worldwide, 3 people die every second, 180 every minute, and nearly 11,000 every hour. If the Bible is right about what happens to us after death, it means that more than 250,000 people every day go either to Heaven or Hell.
In his book Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, Matthew McCullough writes this about the taboo of death in our culture:
When is the last time you heard a sermon about death, or heard the subject raised in a small group or a Sunday school class? We don’t talk about death anymore. Why not?
Geoffrey Gorer, an English sociologist, was among the first to examine this roping off of death from polite conversation. In a groundbreaking essay called “The Pornography of Death,” Gorer draws a telling analogy between the place of sex in the nineteenth century and the place of death in the twentieth century. Even as the prominence of sex has broadened—in conversation, in a mainstream television, in what kids are allowed to see and know—death has been shoved out of sight and out of mind.
In the 1870s, when death was everywhere, it would have been embarrassing to bring up sex at a dinner party. It would have been shameful to admit you think much about sex. It would have been irresponsible to talk to your kids about sex. But by the late 1950s, when Gorer wrote, the taboo had shifted. Death had already become in the twentieth century what sex has been to the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century adults told children that babies came when storks dropped them at the front door. Those same children stood bedside as their loved ones died. Now kids learn that grandpa’s death means he’s gone to a place where he can play golf or go fishing all day. Meanwhile, kids have 24/7 access to sexual content in their Instagram feeds.
How about you? Have you and your family talked about the certainty of your deaths, and how that should impact your lives now? Not talking about death won’t postpone it a moment. Talking about death won’t bring it a moment sooner. But it will give us opportunity to be better prepared when it comes.
David said, “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath” (Psalm 39:4-5). Picture a single breath escaping your mouth on a cold day and dissipating into the air. Such is the brevity of life here. The wise will consider what awaits us on the other side of this life that so quickly ends.
Since life’s greatest certainty is death, it only makes sense to prepare for what lies beyond this life. Any life that leaves us unprepared for death is a foolish life. Matthew Henry put it this way: “It ought to be the business of every day to prepare for our last day.”