On Dying And Passing Away

There was a time when not every College football game was televised. So it was exciting when a Nebraska Cornhusker football game was to be on TV and it was even better when was on ABC, since that meant that the announcer would likely be Keith Jackson. It seemed to most of us that the national media did not much care for Nebraska football, that, for whatever reason, they seemed biased against the Huskers but no so Keith Jackson. He clearly loved sports (he called a wide variety of contests) and he seemed to have genuine affection for the history and traditions associated with Nebraska football. He treated us fairly. If we could not listen to an actual Cornhusker call a Nebraska game (e.g., the redoubtable Lyle Bremser) then Keith “Whoa Nellie” Jackson was the next best thing.

Jackson died yesterday aged 89. You can read elsewhere about his remarkable career and gifts as a announcer. What struck me this morning as I read of his death was how widespread the expression “pass away” has become in conjunction with death. Virtually every headline or story said, “Keith Jackson passes away.” It has been argued to me that the expression “to pass away” in this context is traceable to Christian Science. I have not been able to verify that claim. It is true that the expression “pass away” does occur about 31 times in Scripture. At least some uses are similar to our expression, “he passed” or “she passed away.” E.g., “he passed away and lo, he was no more” (Ps 37:36); “for all our days pass away” (Ps 90:9); “until heaven and earth pass away” (Matt 5:18). So too, I find similar uses in English usage as early as the 14th century (Chaucer). Shakespeare used the verb thus. It is interesting that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that, used in this sense, the expression “to pass away” is chiefly associated with “Spiritualism” (Christian Science et al) and in North America. Apparently this usage is not yet widespread in the UK and Commonwealth nations.

Despite the precedent in Scripture and English usage, there is something troubling to the Christian about the almost eerie uniformity of the use of “pass away” for “to die” and the near absence of the latter. It has a Stepford quality about it. At the same time, at memorials, which I seem to be attending more frequently than I would like these days, one hears similar expressions with increasing regularity: “He is not gone. He is with us in spirit” or “he lives on in our hearts” and the like. I think it would be shocking were the minister to say to the assembled, “Sister Jones is dead.” I suspect we would hear audible gasps to be confronted so boldly with the obvious, which we seem bent on shading or even denying.

Though it is true that the figure “to pass away” is used in Scripture for death the expression “to die is used more than 10 times more frequently. In the ESV the verb “to die” is used 583 times. Americans have reversed the ratio. We are much more likely now to use the figure “to pass away” than to use the unequivocal, plain expression “she died.” It is no accident that our turn to the metaphor, in place of plain speech, has come in a period of history when we as disconnected from death as any culture in human history. People rarely die at home any more. The “authorities” seem to be against that sort of thing these days.  Municipalities seem to require paramedics to pound of the chests of 97-year olds rather to allow them to die. We are whisked away in screaming ambulances, connected to tubes and wires, and subjected to hourly inspections before being shipped off to a “nursing home” or mercifully to hospice care. In any event, death seems mostly to happen out of view and then our human remains, which the Lord has promised to raise from the dead, are shoved into a sort of mechanical Gehenna and then bottled and placed on the mantle.

It is as if we are now wholly committed to denying the reality of death so that we do not have to face the reality of the sin that brought death. Yet Christians should have no part in any such denial. We should hate death as the last enemy but we should embrace the reality of death. It is to be resisted until it has overtaken us. We should speak plainly about it. In Adam’s fall we all sinned. In sin, death entered the world and stalks us relentlessly. Death even took our Savior. It is vital that we affirm the reality of death. Our Muslim neighbors deny that Jesus of Nazareth died. They deny that he was on the cross even as they affirm “Issa” as a “prophet.” Well, he is our chief prophet but he also our great high priest and he is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world and to complete that work he had to die and to die he had to be crucified and he was. He was in the tomb.

The good news is that on the third day he was raised from the dead. There is salvation from death. It comes through death. When we are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, we die. Our baptism is a sign of our death with Christ. By his Spirit we are raised to newness of life. Our baptism is a sign that believers have been washed of their sin by the righteousness of Christ received by grace alone, through faith alone. Until Jesus comes again bodily to judge the living and the dead we shall all die but we shall all also be raised at the last day. Believers in Jesus shall be raised to joy and everlasting life. Unbelievers shall be raised to judgment and condemnation but know certainly that until Jesus returns we shall all die. Let us not speak equivocally about this reality. Let us Christians, of all people, speak plainly and truthfully and graciously about the realities of sin, death, resurrection, and the life to come.



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