We live at a rather unusual time in history when it comes to death. Not because there was ever an age when death was escapable, but because, until fairly recently, death was a much more present reality in people’s lives. Infant mortality was high; women died in childbirth at much higher rates; different kinds of accidents claimed the lives of men, women, and children, not to mention infections, parasites, diseases.
A major difference is that, in the past, people tended to die in their own beds. In-home Funerals were common. In fact, many homes were built with a coffin door to facilitate moving bodies in and out of the house.
Much of this changed with the advent of antibiotics, which extended lifespans. The professionalization and institutionalization of medicine and the funeral industry changed the landscape. When people became gravely ill, they now went to hospitals. When they died, they were taken to funeral homes. Death was hidden from immediate experience, allowing us to ignore it and its inevitability.
Though in many ways, the pre-modern world had a far more realistic understanding of life and death than we do today, that doesn’t mean they better grasped the hereafter. Although ancient cultures possessed various views about what happens after death, there are only a few basic options to choose from. Some cultures believed that, after death, humans became spirits, either as a ghost or an ancestral spirit to be worshipped. There is evidence that this belief may go back as far as the paleolithic period.
Other cultures believed in a more substantive afterlife, particularly those with more elaborate mythological systems. It was a dreary and desolate existence for some, even those not actively being punished for their sins. Others saw the afterlife in more favorable terms. This was especially true if one belonged to the elite or ruling class, though many visions of an afterlife included the prospect of judgment.
Asian cultures were among those who held to some form of reincarnation in which, generally, the quality of someone’s next life was determined by how well they lived this one. The meaning of life, within these systems, was to grow spiritually to a point where one could escape the cycle of reincarnation and lose individual existence.
The only other real option, one typically held by philosophers and intellectual elites, was that death meant the end of personal existence altogether. This essentially materialistic view was held by diverse groups like the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Sadducees of Second Temple Judaism.
These alternatives offered little hope for people facing the inevitability of death. Even those with a relatively positive vision of the afterlife sought to delay or prevent death. For example, Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, built a magnificent tomb for himself, full of goods set aside for his use in the afterlife. But, he also sought to find an elixir that would allow him to live forever. (Ironically, the elixir contained mercury, which may have hastened his death.)
Overall, when it comes to death and the afterlife, the author’s assessment in Hebrews sums up the ancients well: people were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:15).
Christianity changed all this. The Gospel is about God becoming man to take upon himself the punishment due to us, to die on our behalf, and to be raised from the dead as its Conqueror. By faith, we are united to Him. His death, resurrection, ascension into heaven, and glorification are made ours. Death is a defeated enemy, no longer feared by those who follow the one who already faced it and was victorious. We follow the one who can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death without fear.
For the early Christians, these were not platitudes. Thus, many faced martyrdom with joy rather than renounce their allegiance to the One who died for them and rose again. Therefore, many tended the sick during terrifying epidemics, in complete disregard for their own lives, seeing death from sickness as simply another form of martyrdom and a doorway to a better life. Thus, they lived with a hope that stunned their pagan neighbors.
This is why second-century church father Tertullian would observe that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” The pagan world had never seen anything like this. Even the philosophers, who viewed death with such indifference, struggled to grasp how Christians faced death when simply burning a bit of incense to the emperor could avoid it.
In the modern world, the Christian tradition of the ars moriendi, the art of dying well, has been replaced with the art of ignoring death. Our technologies make this possible in all kinds of ways but, as was made obvious in our global responses to COVID-19, do nothing to help us face the fear of death. The world needs what only Christianity offers: the promise of resurrection, a guide who can lead us past the gates of death, a world beyond this one in which all that is sad is made untrue, and a hope that cannot be shaken by any of the circumstances of this world.