Human beings, no matter how courageous we appear to be, whether we are people of faith or not, we always seem to be drawn back to this question: If a man dies, will he live again?
Is it nobler to stay alive and suffer . . . or to go ahead, die, and then sleep?
Shakespeare makes a similar observation in Hamlet. The main character of this complex tragedy, Hamlet, struggles with whether he should end his life. It is at this point in the play that he utters the line “To be or not to be, that is the question.” In his soliloquy, Hamlet weighs his options. Is it nobler to stay alive and suffer . . . or to go ahead, die, and then sleep?
He reasons that if he takes his own life he can sleep and end his heartache, but he wonders what might await him beyond the grave. He fears “the dread of something after death.”
He goes on to describe death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler ever returns,” and he realizes this is what “puzzles the will.” Hamlet reasons that we can choose to stay on in this life instead of flying off to some other realm of existence “that we know not of,” concluding that the fear of death and the uncertainty of its aftermath makes cowards of us all.
Shakespeare lived in the 16th century which was described as the “Age of Discovery.” It was a time when ships set out to explore distant lands, and many of them never returned.
Now imagine you lived in the late 15th century and you were there watching as Columbus set sail to explore the possible distant lands that lay to the west of Europe. But let’s suppose, hypothetically, that Columbus had never returned from his voyage. Furthermore, suppose that all the explorers in the sixteenth century who set out to find a new distant land had never returned. At some point, with no one returning after having set sail into the west, exploration of the sea would be very much like death itself – the dark, great unknown.
Eventually, there would be no belief in a distant land because no one had ever returned to describe it. Long voyages out into the sea would be feared and avoided at all costs. Isn’t this the view of the religious skeptic? There is no afterlife because no one has ever been able to look over into the other side. There is no scientific proof that God and eternal life exist – for if they did exist, wouldn’t science have discovered them by now?
Christianity rejects this view of life, because of the fact that Jesus Christ died a very public death, and three days later returned to demonstrate not only his power over death, but that it is not to be feared. In fact, the New Testament specifically reveals that one of the reasons Christ came into the world was to deliver humanity “from the fear of death which we are subject to as slaves all of our lives.” (Hebrews 2:15)
Jesus has revealed all that we need to know about death and the afterlife. It is so important to know that God became a man, and, most significantly, suffered a human life and death in its fullness, just as each of us will, and He came back to share with us what to expect and what awaits us.
Who else in world history provides such credentials, and who else purports to validate the legitimacy of an afterlife? Who could better provide guidance, greater comfort, and a better understanding of life after death? More significantly, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus not only serves as our spiritual foundation, we learn that when we travel to that distant land, He will be with us.
At one point in His teaching, Jesus makes a truly remarkable and astounding statement about Himself. He says “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” It is quite clear that Jesus came to liberate us from the fear of death and that through His resurrection we can find peace and hope as we face our mortality. Clearly, it is His resurrection that can transform a person’s approach to life and death. It has happened to countless lives down through the centuries.
When we consider, for example, the early life of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who lived in fear of the prospect of his inevitable death, we find that he failed to grasp any hope in religion. For many years of his adult life he deeply pitied the Christians in his native Russia. How was it, he asked, that these miserable, impoverished peasants confronted death with peace and with dignity, content that their days should end and that they would be with their God? A God who doesn’t exist?
After many years in the comfort of his aristocratic surroundings – a world of ideas without purpose and privilege without consequence, insulated from the hardships of poverty, physical stress, and psychological trauma – Tolstoy’s pampered existence slowly began to unravel and eventually he contemplated ending his life at his own hands.
The dark menacing figure of death was transformed into the bright promise of life
However, his imagination and creative spirit took a radical turn. His life and perspective on death was completely transformed, and, ironically, he began to find encouragement and optimism in the community of old, uneducated Christian peasants in his town, whom he now realized were wiser and more in touch with the realities of human existence than his educated aristocratic friends.
Tolstoy turned to the New Testament. As he searched for the answer, he read the words of Jesus and each page seemed to speak to him lucidly. Over time, by faith, Tolstoy embraced the love of Christ, and as he did, he tells us that the dark menacing figure of death was transformed into the bright promise of life.
For thirty-five years of my life I was, in the proper acceptation of the word, a nihilist – not a revolutionary socialist, but a man who believed in nothing. Five years ago, my faith came to me. I believed in the doctrine of Jesus, and my whole life underwent a sudden transformation. Life and death ceased to be evil; instead of despair I tasted joy and happiness that death could not take away.