Msgr. Charles Pope: On the Fear of DeathNovember 7, 2017
Chronic Confusion Worse ConfoundedNovember 7, 2017
After a long day of teaching and counseling at our church, I drove home to sit in my chair. When I pulled up the news on my phone, the headlines were haunting with words such as, “massacre”, “gunned down”, and “church”.
As I scrolled through the news stories, I read that among the dead was the fourteen-year-old daughter of Pastor Frank. There should be no safer place for a precious young woman than in the church worshipping God where her father lovingly leads as the pastor. Reading this, I started to weep. I married a pastor’s daughter and have the joy and honor of raising two daughters as both their dad and pastor. As I read the stories, my anxiety spiked as our own 13-year-old daughter was on her journey home from a missions trip to Mexico. All I wanted to do in that moment was hug her and give her a kiss, thanking God that she was okay. The thought of a fellow pastor not being able to sit down for dinner with his daughter and give her a hug and kiss on the head before bedtime because someone shot her in his church is beyond the ability of human emotions to even articulate.
As the days and weeks roll out, there will be a lot of speculation regarding motivation. Mental health, life stress, relational strife, or domestic problems might be offered as the root cause of such horrific, inexcusable, and purely evil mass murder. In the end, there’s no good reason to walk into a church and start shooting grandmas carrying Bibles and little kids who came to play with their friends. Sadly, some will also try and politicize the tragedy for their own social and/or political agenda as is the way these things play out in public. As a Bible teaching pastor, there are six things I believe that we must not forget after the Texas church massacre. Why? Because believers grieve differently than unbelievers due to their hope in Jesus. Paul says this very thing in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.”
1. We must never forget that human life is uniquely sacred.
God says in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God honors all life including animal life. Human life, however, is bestowed with unique dignity, value, and worth. Human life alone is made in the image of God. For this reason, human life is sacred. Human life comes from God, belongs to God, and will give an eternal account to God. The reason we feel so sickened and saddened when we read of such senseless slaughter is because deep within the conscience that God placed within us, we know that we know that we know at the core of our being that human life is sacred. Therefore, human life should be safe in the mother’s womb or the father’s church.
2. We must never forget that there is a personification of evil that does evil through and to persons.
Today, talk of the Devil and his demons is—in many circles—not popular. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”1 In the world of general spirituality, there is reticence to even think in terms of holy and unholy angels in favor of seeing all spirits and spiritualties as equally positive. Others reject talk of the demonic because they have seen irresponsible and hyper-spiritual people blame shift their poor life decisions to the Devil and his demons.
Some Christian theologians actually feel the academic pressure to surrender the supernatural, and they actually teach that biblical miracles are mere myths. For example, one noted theologian named Bultmann has said, ““It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits”2. In short, he is saying that in the world of the telescope and microscope, belief in primitive notions of the spirit world that cannot be examined by science are outdated since we’ve become too smart to believe in the Devil. Meanwhile, the Devil laughs at how proud and foolish we are to ignore him. Some years ago, there was an insightful line from an intriguing movie called The Usual Suspect which said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
Throughout the Scriptures, we see Satan and demonic powers at work frequently. God wants us to know that we’re in a spiritual battle that spills over into our physical world. In an age when there is great reticence to draw lines between right and wrong, we must never forget that there is good and evil. Behind good is God, behind evil is God’s Enemy and our Adversary. We know that he is at work when murder occurs. Jesus says to people plotting his murder in John 8:44, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.”
3. We must never forget that murder is a sin against both people and the God who made them.
In Proverbs 8:36 we read from God, “…all who hate me love death.” God is the Living God who creates life. An attack on life is also an attack on the Living God who gives and sustains life. This is why we read in 1 John 3:15 from Jesus’ nearest and dearest friend, “…no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” An attack on people, particularly in a church, with the intent of murdering them is also an act of war against God.
4. We must never forget that we murdered God.
As we are dumfounded, distraught, and devastated by the murder in a church, we must not forget that the Lord of that church was murdered by us and for us.
Christians believe in the gospel, which means good news. The good news also includes the bad news. The bad news is that we sinned against God. The good news is that God sent Jesus Christ his Son to die, thereby paying the price for our sins. The most succinct summary of this gospel says, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3b–4). In this succinct Scripture, Paul appoints the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as the most important event in all of history and the verification of the truthfulness of all Scripture. He then explains why this is good news with the simple word “for,” showing that Jesus died “for our sins.” Plainly stated, Jesus died “because of” our sins. So it was our sins, but his death.
From the beginning of sacred Scripture (Gen. 2:17) to the end (Rev. 21:8), the penalty for sin is death. Therefore, if we sin, we should die. But it is Jesus, the sinless one, who dies in our place “for our sins.” The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died to take to himself the penalty for our sin. In theological terms, this means that Jesus’ death was substitutionary, or vicarious, and in our place solely for our benefit and without benefit for himself. Therefore, we find the cross of Jesus to be the crux of good news because it was there that Jesus atoned for our sin according to the promises of Scripture. Christians worship a God that they murdered. On dark days like today, the amazing grace of God seems all the more amazing. We are the ones who pulled the proverbial trigger on Jesus, yet He died to love us, forgive us, and save us from the eternal death penalty we deserve.
5. We must never forget that death has been defeated.
Not only did our God Jesus die, he also rose. This is why Christians worship on Sunday – because it is the day of Jesus resurrection. Jesus was murdered, and he rose from death in physical, total, and eternal triumph over death. This is the central issue in all of Christianity. If Christ is dead, then our hope is dead and the Christian faith is a dead end. But, if Christ defeated death, then our hope is alive and the Christian faith is alive. After death, resurrection life will be experienced by the Christian as it was for Christ. On days like this, we need that hope. Without hope, there is only death, destruction, and damnation.
In the great chapter on resurrection from death in 1 Corinthians 15:54-58 Paul says, ““Death is swallowed up in victory” and “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Paul is here mocking death, since in the death of Jesus, death itself was put to death.
For the Christian, Paul says in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Gain means better, fuller, richer, freer life that never ends. Death does not get the final word. God does. For the Christian, this life is as close to hell as we will ever be. For the non-Christian, this life is as close to heaven as they will ever be. The worst thing is not dying. The worst thing is dying without belonging to Jesus. Let me be lovingly frank: without Jesus, death is hell. With Jesus, death is heaven. Do you belong to Jesus? Have you accepted his death for your sin? Or, are you planning on dying for your own sin?
6. We must never forget that God sees and knows all.
In our age of technology, we see and know more than at any point in human history. Imagine how truly awful it must be to sit in the all-knowing seat of God and watch the carnage unfold. The God who is love sees and knows all sickness and sin, and hears every scream.
The promise of the Bible is that our King named Jesus will come and establish a Kingdom of love, joy, and peace that will never end. This will happen after He puts down evildoers so that evil is finished forever. On that day, when we see Him face to face, we are told in Revelation 21:4 that He will, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” Today, we pray for our spiritual family members who are wiping the tears from their eyes and long for the day when, with nail scarred hands, Jesus wipes the final tears from all of our eyes just in time for the great reunion party that never ever ends as our weeping is turning to rejoicing…forever. In the meantime, Christians are to grieve because something has gone terribly wrong in the world while also rejoicing that Someone has proven that He has a plan to make it all right again.