How We Die
Nowadays it is almost illegal to die of old age. The medically scientific world simply has to put a name on whatever it is that causes our death. Don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not opposed to medical and scientific research that enables us to identify physical malfunctions (my family being remarkably blessed through it), but our society’s compulsion to always label our ultimate killer tends to sterilize death, tame it, and bring us to the place of actually thinking that because we can name something, therefore, we can control it. Let us not be mistaken. Death cannot be controlled. It is now, and will always be, our earthy enemy.
Sixteen years ago, I read one of the most interesting non-Christian books that I’ve ever read. How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter, by Sherwin Nuland, was a runaway bestseller, my guess, because it deals so honestly with our universal enemy. As Clinical Professor of Surgery at Yale University School of Medicine, Nuland writes of the causes and modes of death. In the following quote he exposes man’s propensity to give a disease-name to death rather than simply acknowledging that our bodies are wearing out and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
The government statisticians and the scientific clinicians insist that proper names must be applied to sluggish circulation and an antique heart. I have no quarrel with that, so long as they do not also insist that assigning a name to a natural biological state means a priori that it is a disease. Like the nerve cell, the muscle cell of the heart is one of those that cannot reproduce–as it gets older, it simply wears out and dies. The biological processes that throughout life have been making replacement parts for dying structures within each cell can no longer do their job. The mechanism by which a newly generated piece of cell membrane or intracellular structure can take the place of a section dead of too much use finally becomes inoperative. After a lifetime of regenerating spare parts, the nerve and muscle cells’ capacity of rejuvenation gradually shuts down. The tactic of continuous renewal within each heart-muscle cell is then defeated by the overwhelming strategy through which aging is achieving its ultimate objective of destruction. One after another, like my grandmother’s teeth, the cardiac muscle cells cease to live–the heart loses strength. The same process takes place in the brain and the rest of the central nervous system. Even the immune system is not immune to aging.
No matter what we may call its specific process death is still the result of God’s curse upon man and the earth because of sin. God had truly warned Adam and Eve, “In the day you eat of [the forbidden fruit], you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). However, He who declared the human experience to be fallen also sent His Son into the world to save it (Jn 3:17) He who had the authority to say, “You shall surely die,” also had the authority to say to his four-day-dead friend, “Lazarus, come forth” (Jn 11:43). Who is this One? It is Jesus, the One who declared, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26). Then He asked, “Do you believe this?”