Thanatopsis is the title of a well-known poem written by the nineteenth-century American poet William Cullen Bryant. The word simply means “a musing upon death,” or a meditation upon the meaning of death. Such meditation has been a favorite enterprise of poets throughout the ages. Bryant’s musing concludes:
By an unfaltering trust approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him and lies down to pleasant dreams.
In the true Romantic spirit Bryant trusted in the goodness of nature. His conclusions about death were based on this assumption. One summer evening I took a stroll through a graveyard next to the South Main Street Congregational Church in Manchester, New Hampshire. As I read the inscriptions on the stones I noticed that the older slate stones had musings for posterity to ponder. One read:
Though I am taken young
You elder ones must die;
Go from this place prepared
To meet your Judge on high.
Thinking about death is never pleasant; but to seek to escape death is futile, and to deny it is foolish. Death is inevitable for us all. Death demands an explanation. Most modern considerations of death treat it, as Bryant did, as a natural phenomenon to be simply accepted. Most people avoid the subject because they are terrified by the prospect of their own demise.
God’s word, the Bible, presents a very different explanation of death. Like the warning on the gravestones, the caution of Scripture is that death must be consciously prepared for, not just blindly accepted.
To begin with, the Bible teaches that human death was not present in the original creation. Adam was created to enjoy continual communion with his Creator. Death is not, as Bryant maintains, natural. But how is it that death came into the world? Paul tells us that “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men ...” (Romans 5:12). Adam’s sin brought death upon us all. Without Adam’s sin there would be no death. His rebellion against God made him an enemy of God. Separation from God is spiritual death. Physical death is separation from the body. So, death is not a friend, but a powerful enemy. Paul refers to it as “the last enemy” (1 Corinthains 15:26). No wonder we fear death! Even the stench of death tells us that something is horribly wrong.
Death reminds us that we are enemies of God, who is just in punishing sin. It also teaches us the ugliness of sin. Sin is destructive, leaving alienation from God and our neighbor in its wake. Death is like a flashing red light warning us of God’s coming judgment. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment ...” (Hebrews 9:27).
Thankfully, the warning signal of death is no cruel trick, because death is not unconquerable. After the verse just quoted, the Bible continues: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). The death of Christ, whose life, like no one else’s in history, was perfect, died to pay the penalty for the sins of all who trust him. His death for sin conquered death. His very name tells us why he came into this world: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
This is what the word “gospel” means—good news. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the best news ever announced to this world. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Eternal life is freely given to all who ask God to forgive their sins and place their trust in his Son, Jesus Christ. Paul wrote: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
A monument in a family cemetery on Horse Corner Road in Chichester, New Hampshire reads:
Hope looks beyond the bounds of time
When what we now deplore
Will rise in full immortal prime
And bloom to fade no more.
Recently I discovered the grave of a great-grandfather who fought in the American War of Independence, which beautifully captures the biblical hope:
Friends nor physicians cannot save
This mortal body from the grave.
When Christ the Physician doth appear
They cannot keep this body here.
As you reflect on death, be assured that here is only one solution: turn from your sin and trust in Jesus Christ, before it is too late. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Only through reconciliation with God will you be able to avoid the everlasting death that you will experience in body and soul in hell. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The same God who warns us of everlasting punishment has graciously given us the word of reconciliation to those who preach God’s Word: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
© 2014 Gregory Edward Reynolds
© 2021 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church