1 Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (NIV)
26,097 days. The average human lifespan. So, if people were born at consistent rates throughout time and there were no lifespan variations on an individual basis, one person would die today for every 26,096 that would live. That would mean that 12,467 of the U.S.’s 325 million people would take their last breath within these 24 hours. 389 out of North Carolina’s 10.15 million. In my city, Durham, 10 would die. Of course, the world doesn’t adjust itself to these mathematical perfections, but it’s an average nonetheless.
It’s really unlikely that I will know any of the 10 people that die on average every day within my city of 260 thousand, especially since most of my friends are my age and healthy. In my insulated environment, I have gone months (years?) without knowing someone who has died. Before this summer, I hardly ever thought about death other than as a far-off concept with few everyday implications. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. Popular music frequently utilizes death-denying lyrics such as the Chainsmokers’ “We ain’t ever getting older” or Alessia Cara’s “We don’t have to grow up, we can stay forever young.” How often are healthy, young people forced to consider the inevitability that they will grow old and die? Unfortunately, denying it does not stop it.
This summer, I have been working as a hospital chaplain at UNC Medical Center. I have watched a man take his last breath, I have sat with a grieving mother as the doctors informed her that her 5-year-old son died from an asthma attack, and I have prayed every day for weeks that a woman would get out of her coma… only to be pronounced brain dead. I have been present for seven deaths. And they have stuck with me. A fellow chaplain lovingly referred to this job as “drinking from the firehose of human suffering.” And sometimes it can feel like I am observing a deeper reality that contradicts the incessant homogeny of millennial living. It has been hard for me to reconcile the hospital and the university. I have been asked so infrequently in the university setting to consider my own demise or the demise of those around me.
But in the hospital, the prevalence of death and illness is palpable. And I have been struck by how many people in the hospital believe in a God. The old saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes” certainly applies. When death is glaringly imminent and the mystery of what lies beyond is creeping steadily closer, people tend to turn to religion. When people are forced to consider the throes of death, they are pushed toward the comforting solace of God. But we in the mainline live in a fairly irreligious culture – perhaps it is because we do not feel the pressure that death provides. I don’t mean the shallow “YOLO therefore I will do what I want.” I mean the deeply contemplative, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
We will all die. There is no denying it. And I argue that we would all benefit from contemplation of our vaporous earthly existence. On the other hand, we will also live. As Dawes asked in their dangerously addictive and repetitive anthem When My Time Comes, “If heaven was all that was promised to me, why don’t I pray for death?” A decent question indeed. If we treat religion as something that is only worthwhile when we are approaching our earthly end, there is no point in following Christ on the easy days. If we oversimplify Christianity and solely focus on salvation, we are disservicing ourselves and the world. Christianity isn’t just about what happens when we die, it is about what happens when we live in Christ.
It is a necessary property of fleshly beings that we are limited: in scope, ability, and in time. We have a certain number of days… on average 26,097. And then, we will cease to exist in the same state. Our bodies will fail us. As a Christian, I believe that we will outlive our body in some fashion (how that will be, I am not equipped to understand). However, if we reduce the telos of Christianity to entrance into heaven, we are missing a wondrous opportunity for the present: a lifestyle in which “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. I have not brought up our limitations, the imminence of our death, and the ubiquity of suffering as fear tactics for judgment day preparation – I have incited these things because I believe our culture is in the habit of denying them. And I believe that it is in contemplation of our own limitations that we can truly begin to live into the ineffable, timeless, and incorporeal Creator.