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Evangelicals Talk a Good Line When it Comes to Death, but Often Change Their Tune When They Are Dying

mark twain death

Evangelicals love to talk about Heaven and the afterlife. They love to talk about the imminent return of Jesus and the rapture of all Christians from the earth. They love to brag about being packed up and ready to go; about being ready to check out; about wanting to see Jesus face to face. Listen to enough Evangelical sermons, hymns, and southern gospel songs, and you’ll conclude that believers, much like the Apostle Paul, want to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. But let sickness, disease, or accident usher them to the front door of the great unknown, getting ready to leave, pulling out tomorrow, saying goodbye to all earthly sorrows, and Christians aren’t so much in a hurry to check out after all. It seems when theory becomes reality, Evangelicals are just like the rest of us — they don’t want to die. For all their talk about Heaven and living eternally with Jesus, Evangelicals really aren’t certain about what lies beyond their last breath. Since no one — including Jesus — has ever come back from the dead to tell us what, if anything, lies beyond death, all Evangelicals have to go on is the Bible. And based on my almost seven-decade involvement with Evangelicalism, I can safely say that Christians fear death just like atheists, agnostics, and everyone else they have consigned to the eternal flames of Hell.

If Jesus, God, and Heaven are all that Evangelicals say they are, shouldn’t God’s chosen ones want to leave this rotten, vile, sinful world as soon as possible? If this life is to be endured as some sort of test from God, shouldn’t Evangelicals want to graduate as soon as possible so they can move into their mansions in the sky? Why do Evangelicals do all they can to hang on to life as long as possible? Is it perhaps possible that they know that, despite all their talk of the sweet by and by, deep down they crave life and want to hang onto it at all costs? I suspect this is the case.

I am convinced that there is nothing beyond death; that we only have one life and it will, all too soon, be in the past. It seems like yesterday that I was a youthful ministerial student at Midwestern Baptist College. In but a blink of an eye, forty-seven years have passed. I am now sixty-six years old and have been married for almost forty-five years. My oldest son is almost forty-four and my oldest granddaughter is twenty-two. My once-red beard is white and my joints are filled with arthritis and decay. I’m plagued with memory problems, and ever so quickly I have become my grandparents. I have owned dozens of cars and lived in dozens of houses. I’ve seen twelve presidents elected and lived long enough to see modern technology transform the world. While I hope to live many more years, I know that most of my life is now in the rear-view mirror; less than five years left if I live to age seventy, fourteen if I live to eighty. Where have all the years gone? people of my age ask.

I hope when it comes time to die, that I will face my convictions head on, that I will reject efforts to keep me alive. Several years ago, we had an extended family member who was on life support. He was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher for over fifty years. His body had shut down, yet his wife refused to pull the plug. The snarky side of me said, why wait? Pull the plug. That way he will see Jesus face to face and be ushered into his home in the sky. But the compassionate side of me gets it — his wife is not ready to let go; his children are not ready to let go. No one wants to face the prospect of sleeping alone or looking in the closet and seeing clothes that will never be worn again. None of us wants to face the emptiness and silence that comes when our significant others die. Who among us wants to lose their lover, friend, and confidant? I know I don’t.

Despite our protestations and acts of denial, when death comes knocking on the door, we can do nothing to keep ourselves alive. The curse of modern technology is that we can often put off the inevitable. But both the Christian and unbeliever must be brutally honest about life and death. Deny death’s reality all we want, it matters not. When it comes our time to die, we die.

Dylan Thomas was right when he said:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

While we can, let us rage against the dying light. But let us, at the same time, also be honest enough to embrace death. Death plays its part in what The Lion King called the circle of life. Being aware of our mortality is very much a part of what makes us human. Deny it all we want, death will still come knocking. Several years ago, a fifty-nine-year-old local man died from a snowmobile accident. While he was snowmobiling on ice, a tree limb hit him in the head and killed him. I went to this man’s Facebook page to see what his last updates were about. He spoke of family, of grandchildren. I wonder if when he wrote about his grandchildren, he knew that would be the last status update that he would ever post; that but a few hours later he would be dead. I doubt it. Life is like that.

Are you ready to face death? What are your opinions about being kept on life support?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Tammy Schoch

    The tricky thing about life support – sometimes when used for 24-48 hours it gets you through a crisis and then you can have several more good years. But initially we generally have no idea if that will happen or if you’ll be on it for weeks without improving. I used to say “make me a DNR”. But it’s so nuanced that I no longer have a clear opinion.

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    Tammy, that’s a good point about DNR.

    My mom had a DNR when she knew she was terminal for cancer – that was the best thing she could have done for us (her family).

    One of my great-grandmothers was a real piece of work – she lived with us, and she and I didn’t really like each other that much. She was mean and selfish, though she could tell a good story. I understand now that she had a hard life, but she didn’t have to be so mean to everyone around her and guilt-trip them all the time. She was an evangelical Christian and probably thought she was going to heaven, but she had no plan to rush the process. However, a week before she died I went to visit her at the nursing home. I was 15, she was 92. She was scheduled to have surgery that the doctors warned there was a good chance she wouldn’t survive, but her children put the onus on my grandma to make the decision, and my grandma said she HAD to do everything possible to save her mother. Anyway, when I visited my great-grandmother, it was the calmest and nicest I had ever encountered her. She had accepted that she was near death, and she was at peace with that and told me she loved me for the first and only time that I recall. It made an impression on me that I will never forget.

    I am not ready to die right now as there are still things I would like to do. If it happens, it happens. My big concern is quality of life, and I am sure quality of life is on a spectrum that will change as time and conditions change. I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I am trying to make the most of this life.

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    I don’t like the idea of eternal death. But since billions of humans have to go through it, there’s no point in being scared. I’d like to think I will live long and feel better, but who knows? At least if there was a real cure (or good management) of fibromyalgia soon my youngest son could stop suffering.

  4. Avatar
    Tammy Schoch

    I think DNR is great when you know you’re near the end. Otherwise I like to leave it with a trusted decision maker in my place, who knows my viewpoints and can make a best guess for the situation. With the ravages of long Covid and the economic uncertainty and the lack of disability support from our governments for all of these invisible illnesses – I’ve recently heard of a few people who want to choose not only DNR but euthanasia because they’re on the cusp of homelessness with an illness that has kept them housebound and often bedbound. That is so infuriating to me, because these decisions should be made based on clinical and philosophical thoughts, not because our governments refuse to give a basic income to chronically ill people.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Polly spent three weeks at Parkview. Very sick, left with part of her colon/bladder removed and a colostomy (which has since been reversed).

      First day there, a young kid comes in to talk to Polly about having a DNR. I’m half listening. Polly agrees to have a DNR. The kid says, “this means if your heart stops we will not resuscitate you.” I heard that and screamed ABSOLUTELY NOT! We want EVERY effort taken to save her life. Needless to say, no DNR and I sent the boy packing. And he really was a boy. He meant well, but he lacked training and made no effort to educate us about what he was really saying. (Is this how you are treated when you are old?)

      Lesson learned for us. We have DNRs, but they are quite restrictive. And we control when they are given to medical staff.

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Tammy, you make a great point about DNR. I think many people choose it for themselves based on a scenario involving an irreversible terminal condition. It doesn’t occur to them that, as you point out, the “irreversible “ condition might change.

    That said, I still plan to draft a DNR order for myself, But I will be more specific than I might otherwise have been about the conditions under which I don’t want to be resuscitated.

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    Could it be that many know that “faith” is simply the act of blocking any thought from your mind that things might be otherwise? Psychologists have shown that thoughts that are intentionally blocked often come back later with greater intensity. Could suppressed thoughts of what might happen after death come to the forefront at death?

    In the IFB, every Sunday, with every head bowed, we were asked if we knew if we died tonight we would go to heaven. I, like all the others, dutifully raised my hand. But inwardly I knew there were questions. Those questions needed to be suppressed. I needed to know that I trusted Jesus and that this trust could not possibly be wrong. If I so much as admitted doubt, that would mean I might not really be trusting. And so, I could never admit that in the back of my mind there were doubts. Those thoughts were pushed to the back. I had to raise my hand, meaning, “Yes, I knew if I died tonight I would go to heaven.”

    When faced with imminent death, I wonder if the suppressed doubts can become so strong that they can no longer be suppressed. The result can be an agonizing emotional experience on top of the physical pain.

    I expect to have physical pain when it ends, and I do not look forward to that. But I now am quite confident that, when the time comes, I will know I have thoroughly thought about the matter and know what is coming. Like Mark Twain in your quote above, I do not see emotional turmoil over what is next. See and .

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Bruce Gerencser