I have a deep appreciation for theologians who know how to write with clarity and depth. Mike Wittmer, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, is one of those theologians. His latest book, The Last Enemy: Preparing to Win the Fight of Your Life, tackles an important but ignored topic. I'm glad that Dr. Wittmer was willing to answer a few of my questions.
Death isn't the most popular topic. Why did you decide to write about it?
I was watching the Tom Brokaw television special, Boomers, and I noticed that this large group of aging Americans was desperately trying to stay young forever. I felt sorry for them, and then I realized that I was probably in denial about death too. When I looked around for help, I noticed that most books and essays on death are over their heads in denial. They repeatedly say that death is natural or at least not our end, for we will continue to live on in the memories of those who loved us. These platitudes simply aren’t true.
It's easier than ever to avoid the topic of death. What do we lose when we do so?
We lose the reason to be a Christian. Every religion attempts to solve some problem: Buddhism focuses on suffering, Islam on pride, and Hinduism on bad karma. The problem that Christianity solves is sin and death. If we aren’t terrified of death, we’ll see little reason to become a Christian. What Jesus did is no big deal if death is not so bad. Paul declares that death is “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26), and it really is. Death is literally the last thing thrown into the lake of fire, four verses after Satan is banished there (Rev. 20:10-15). In sum, if we minimize death, we also minimize the victory of Christ’s resurrection. If your opponent is not intimidating, then you don’t get much credit when you beat him.
The gospel provides the answer to sin and death, yet we tend to avoid talking about death even in our churches. Why is this?
I suspect it’s because it’s just too painful. Death is the ultimate downer. I was speaking with a friend yesterday who was excited to be dating a young man who might soon ask her to marry him. When the topic of my book came up, I laughed and said that I hope she gets married and has a happy life, but ultimately it won’t matter, because we’re all going to die.
It’s funny, but there is truth in it. We know that death is the great leveler that steamrolls everything in its path, and that one day it will come for us. So even in church we try to spritz it up by saying death really isn’t that bad, that it’s our graduation to glory or our ticket to heaven. I think we mean well, but the better we make death the less we esteem Jesus’ triumph over the grave.
How is the biblical vision of the New Earth better than what most people think of when they think of heaven?
The needle is beginning to move, but most Christians still seem to think that when they die they will live forever as angels in heaven. This is why I devote a couple of chapters in The Last Enemy to describe our biblical hope in the new creation. Scripture clearly teaches that our loved ones who died in Christ are not gone for good, but they are on the first leg of a journey that is round trip. When Jesus returns he will bring their souls with him, resurrect their bodies and put them back together, and they will live forever with Jesus and us on this new earth.
I think this biblical hope is far more exhilarating than an ethereal, overly spiritual vision of the end. Last fall I was teaching an urban class of pastors and some of them objected to returning to the new earth. They said that so many in their community have such an awful existence that it truly is a celebration to send them off to a place where they will never suffer again. I understood where they were coming from, but rather than say “your life on earth was horrible but thank God you can close the book on that chapter and move on,” wouldn’t it be much better to teach, “You will return to the scene of your bitterness and humiliation, but this time to reign with Christ. You will not live forever with the burden of what happened the first time around, but you will return in triumph. The very place of your suffering will be the realm of your success.”
Luther said, "We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move." How can we do this?
It’s as simple as pondering our inevitable end. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says it just right: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.”
We must regularly remind ourselves of the truth that, unless Jesus returns, we are going to die. When we rise we should tell ourselves, “I could die today.” If we keep this thought in the front of our minds, we will take an extra moment to kiss our spouse, look our friend in the eye, and play games with our children. If we practice this now, long before death is in range, we will find that we invest many more days than we waste. When we die we’ll not only have fewer regrets, but we’ll have daily practice in rolling them over onto the shoulders of our Lord. And there is no better preparation for death.
Find out more about The Last Enemy at Amazon.com.