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The Reality of Death in COVID 19 Times

It is difficult to talk about death in the African context. The very mention of it causes fear as it is seen as ‘gutheetha[1]‘ – wishing for it to happen.  In our traditional understanding, death is sinking into the unknown, the abyss of all reality, the unfortunate end of life, and joining the ancestral spirits who roam restlessly, often causing harm in the lives of the living unless appeasement happens. Yet, death is inevitable and, in fact, universal. Every person will die. In the famous words attributed to Benjamin Franklin – two things are certain: death and taxes!  

In the last few months, a new strain of Corona Virus has swept the world and taken the lives of many. Currently, the virus does not have a cure or a vaccine, and it is highly infectious. In Kenya, we have deaths in triple digits so far. The number of positive cases has been increasing, but we hope that, through careful preventive measures and medical interventions, there will be fewer deaths in the coming weeks and months. There is fear, however, that contracting the virus is equivalent to dying, especially for middle-aged and older folk who might have underlying health conditions.

I submit that the disease has had quite a high level of publicity and radical measures, perhaps like nothing in recorded history; this might have caused the fear of contracting it or dying from it much higher than the case should be. It is fair to say that there are many other diseases with much higher mortality, but they don’t get half the attention given to COVID 19. [2]

Like I had stated earlier, we will all die. That might be as a result of COVID 19 or another cause, but in the end, death will happen. It is a question of when, not if, and so it makes sense to think about it and plan for it. Because human beings are relational, communal, and legal entities, it is vital to think about death and dying to help those we leave behind to mourn and transition with less pain.

So, how might Christians process the idea of death and dying Biblically? What does scripture teach us? I will attempt to answer that question in five subheadings. 

  1. Death is a consequence of sin

There was a time when death did not exist. I know the phrase sounds as odd as saying there was a time before time! We are so used to the limit of life that it escapes our imagination that there was a time when death did not exist. In Genesis 1, we see a perfect creation where man dwells in the garden of God, enjoying peace with nature and with God. Here is a rare glimpse of what eternal life looks like when everything is in perfect harmony. There was no disease, pain, poverty or any kind of misery you can imagine. Death was not there. In fact, there was a tree of life in the garden which Adam and Eve could have eaten from any time, which unlike the tree of knowledge of good and evil, were not prohibited from eating. Eternity was theirs, and they were to be fruitful and multiply in that context of peace with God, with one another and with nature. They could have gone on living forever and would be around today without having aged at all – we would be visiting them to see how they are doing, as well as other great, great, great, great, great ad infinitum grandmothers and fathers. 

But then sin happened in Genesis 3 and rained on the party. Everything changed the moment our first parents disobeyed. The pronouncement of judgment was clear –

By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust, you will return.” [3]

Further, the Lord denied them any access to the tree of life and banished them from His land (Gen. 3:22-24)

Death immediately became the new normal. In the chapters that follow, however, people seemed to live very long lives. Some as long as 960 years for Methuselah! But as sin increased in the world, the lifespan of human beings decreased. In Genesis 6:3 The Lord said “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” This seems to have continued and by the time Moses is writing Psalm 90, they are down to 70 or 80 years if we have strength:

Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.[4]

It must not be lost on us that death is a consequence of the sin of our original parents and of our own by heritage.

  1. Physical Death is an Unavoidable Reality

Physical death then is a consequence of sin. It is an inescapable reality that all will die. Everyone you know will be dead (or dying) in a 100 year’s time or thereabouts. And everyone else they will have known will also die. Memories will perish, and all you hold dear will never be known or valued a few generations from now. Such is the fate of all humanity. So, whereas COVID 19 has held the world at ransom, and stopped the show for now, there is a sense in which it is not unusual.

It is causing sudden, lonely deaths, and families have very little time to mourn their beloved. But people have been dying since Adam and Eve and will carry on in that pattern until the end of time. Sorry if this sounds morbid, but if Corona does not take you, something else will – hopefully, old age. But let it be clear, you will die. Part of the reason funerals are good things to attend is they remind us of our mortality. We look at the casket and imagine one day it will be me lying lifeless in one. That is a sobering thought that we need not run away from if it helps us to live more meaningful lives here on earth.

  1. There is Life Beyond Death

One of the most striking messages of the Bible is that there is life beyond death. Many cultures have some form of an idea of existence beyond death. In my own culture, the dead are not at ease. Ngomi, as the ancestral spirits of the dead are known, are generally evil and do not seek the good of the living. In Western (European) cultures, they are known as ghosts, and they can be violent, especially if the death was violent. They are known to haunt the living so much so that there are places like houses and cemeteries or woods to avoid as depicted in movies. In Asian culture, the predominant idea is reincarnation, the belief that those who die come back to life in another form depending on how they lived the previous one.

Whereas human cultures are clutching at straws on the matter of life beyond death the definitive teaching of the authoritative word of God is clearest and most helpful. The preacher says in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that the Lord indeed planted eternity in the hearts of men. Even though they don’t understand everything, they long for something more, this cannot be it. More clearly, however, we see the Lord Jesus teaching in John’s Gospel that whoever believes in Him (Christ) will not die, and even if he dies a physical death, the Lord will raise him up. [5]

There is no doubt from the pages of scripture that there is life beyond death for everybody. The question then, is what kind of life awaits you and I after we die? In John 5:28ff, Jesus Christ taught that those who have faith in him, evidenced by their good deeds will rise to eternal life

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” [6]

  1. Death is a Glorious Bridge for the Believer

This maybe one of the more surprising things the Bible teaches, but death is not to be feared by those in Christ. The greatest reason for that is the hope they have in Christ, who has himself gone through the valley of the shadow of death and has come out the other end in resurrected life. Writing to the church in Philipi Apostle Paul shares his tension between being dead and consequently present with Christ, which is better by far and the desire to serve the cause of the gospel among them. [7]John the Revelator writing in 14:13 says;

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Saints of old saw death as a transition from being present with the living in the body to being present with the Lord. To be with the Lord eternally is much more glorious and to be desired by believers. It is only a short while, and even the living will join in the eternal rest from earthly pain, toil, and labor.

It seems to me then, that death for the believer is not something to be feared as if sinking into the unknown but something to look forward to with hope.

  1. Death Will Die!

Although death is a glorious reality that will come upon every single one of us, it is still a painful and indeed very sorrowful process. Many families are ripped apart when a loved one dies. Young children are orphaned or left to grow without the love and support of a parent or parents and this tends to rock their lives. It is very clear that death is an enemy who robs meaning out of life.

The good news in the gospel then is that death has been conquered in Christ and that one day, death will die! Christ came to defeat death and to give life eternal to all who would believe in Him. Writing extensively on the subject of resurrection to new life, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

There is no doubt in Paul’s mind that the dead in Christ will rise to eternal life and that death will finally be dealt a fatal blow.

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.“O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?”[8]

Conclusion: Dying Well

Instead of panicking about death occasioned by COVID 19 or otherwise, let us rejoice in the life we have been given by taking good care of the body – observing the preventive measures but confident that even though we die, we will rise again with Christ.

In my traditional background death, though uncertain, was faced with confidence as part of the reality of life. When a person came to their final moments, they called their loved ones and disclosed all their secrets in a conversation known as ‘Kwiranira Miatu; [9] It is important to carefully think about how our own death would affect others and therefore plan for it by having conversations about it, having a written will, and preparing mentally for it.

Christians have even more confidence and can, therefore, face death with greater assurance and hope, for in the new creation there will no longer be death;

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev 21:1-4


[1] Gikuyu for tempting fate, ill-wish.

[2] http://www.healthdata.org/kenya

[3] Genesis 1:19

[4] Psalm 90:10

[5] John 11:25

[6] John 5:28-30

[7] Philippians 1:22-24

[8] I Corinthians 15:51 -55

[9] literally meaning disclosing the location of all your beehives or assets like children and lands.


 

Article by Rev. Harrison Mungai. Harrison works as the Executive Director of iServe Africa and as the lead pastor at GracePoint Church, Kikuyu.

One thought on “The Reality of Death in COVID 19 Times

  1. Reblogged this on Dan’s blogs and commented:
    “Kwiranira Miatu..” catch the meaning at the end.

    “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. “Sure the Promise still stands

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