The common saying is that only death and taxes are certain; everything else is up for grabs. Actually, there is some doubt about taxes. Jonathan Riley-Smith says that it was the Crusades which helped to promote nursing and income tax – mixed blessings, perhaps. Governments have always managed to extract money out of their subjects, but it has not always been straightforward. Britain sought to revive the practice of collecting income tax in 1799 as a temporary measure in response to the Napoleonic Wars. Government-sponsored temporary measures which benefit governments tend to be rather long lasting. At the moment, possibly only Bahrain operates as a state without taxes.
That leaves only death as the last remaining certainty. Here there is no ebb and flow. All in Adam die (1 Cor.15:22), and all are in Adam. As Solomon contemplated the vanity of life – or its vaporous character – he stated what we all do not want to hear: ‘It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears (i.e. takes an oath) is as he who shuns an oath’ (Eccles.9:2).
In certain places, and at certain times in history, it may have been possible to escape paying taxes, but no one has defeated death. Two men – Enoch and Elijah – have gone straight to heaven, and there are a small number of people who have been raised from the dead, only to die again at some later time. Lazarus is one such example (John 11). Only Jesus has overcome death, and defeated it. Having died once, He has risen from the dead, and will never die again, meaning that death no longer has dominion over Him (Rom.6:9).
Where did death come from, that it should be universal, in every culture, amongst every people, across the whole world? It came through sin. God did not create us to die, but to live forever with Him. But Adam sinned this all away (Gen.2:16-17; Rom.5:12-21). That is why we struggle and decline; why we grieve; why we are anxious; why we are reluctant to talk about this issue. We all sin, not in the same way, but we all sin. That is true of every atheist, every New Ager, every Buddhist, every Muslim, and every Christian. Doctors may not be able to diagnose every disease, but every Christian knows that we are all infected with sin, and so with death.
Yet we are told most earnestly that we are good by nature, and that death is just a part of the evolutionary scheme of things. Deep down we sense that is not true. I find it easier to be selfish than to be altruistic. I look out for number one far more naturally than I look out for others. And there remains something awful about death. Christians are people who have faced facts – sin, death, judgment. Richard Dawkins once launched a rather silly attack on fairy tales, as contrary to science. One might have thought that anyone who believed that over millions of years fish turned into people might have a soft spot for fairy tales. In fairy tales there is invariably a living happily ever after.
In Christianity we find imagination and reason meeting together; the fairy tale is also hard history; the dissonance is done away with, and we see clearly. The reality of sin and death are faced, and the holy beauty of life everlasting is embraced. John Donne (1572-1631) was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and also a metaphysical poet. Like many of his day, he kept a human skull on his desk, to remind himself of his own mortality. Some of the same reasoning is behind rural churches being found in the centre of graveyards. No man is an island – the bell tolls for all of us.
Thankfully, the account of humanity does not end with Adam’s sin and punishment, and skulls on desks. Donne wrote a powerful sonnet about death:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so …
The apostle Paul also addressed death: ‘O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Cor.15:55) To return to Donne, he was certain of death, but also certain of resurrection life forever. So he concluded his sonnet:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Reader, can you save yourself from sin? Try it. Can you save yourself from death? There is no point in trying to answer. There is, however, good news: all who are in Christ shall live (1 Cor.15:22). Trust the assurance given by Christ: ‘For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’ (John 6:40).