Not so long ago, the nation of Zambia was in mourning. This was on account of the Chibombo bus accident in which a 74-seater bus operated by Zambia Postal Services collided with a truck on the Great North Road, between Chibombo and Kabwe, resulting in 51 deaths and 28 injuries. The crash was one of the worst in the history of Zambia, compared only to the 2005 bus accident in which 38 high school pupils died and 50 were seriously injured. Such is the nature of death, it can strike anytime, in any form, and sometimes when you least expect it. We would probably be not far from the truth if we said that for most of those who lost their lives in that fatal accident, death was the last thing they were thinking about. People of almost all ages died in that accident.

The word death in the Bible is used in various ways. Usually it is used to refer to spiritual, physical or eternal death. God had initially instructed Adam, “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

So, when Adam and Eve sinned, they became subject to death, they were immediately separated from God; they experienced “spiritual death”. In addition, they began to gradually experience the sentence of physical death, and so they began aging leading to physical death. God had told Adam, “By the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19). Since then all human beings have been subject not just to aging, but to inevitable physical death as well (with the exception of Enoch in Genesis 5:24, and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12).

What is physical death?

Physical death may be defined as “the end of a human life on earth – man is made from dust and to dust he returns (Gen. 3: 19)” (Douglas and Tenney, 1987:263). So, death brings to an end the existence of our physical lives here on earth, and separates the soul from the body. And please remember, the Bible says, after physical death, there is still a conscious existence because the soul does not die with the body, it is never annihilated. Physical death is simply a separation, a termination of physical life in that the soul is separated from the body.

Although death is a common experience to all of us, in that we hear of people —even close relatives—dying, we attend funerals, we even often participate in body viewing, yet each time death strikes, it brings sadness and is always shrouded in mystery. It brings sadness because it separates us from loved ones, and worst still, for those who are not Christians, with no hope of ever seeing them again. It is a mystery because we know very little about life beyond the grave. It is usually a very unwelcome subject, though we all know that one day we shall die.

What then should be the right attitude to death? This edition of Reformation Zambia answers this and other important questions related to physical death.

Death is inevitable

When was the last time you discussed the issue of your own death with your family? But why should we discuss this usually unwelcome topic? The simple answer is that it is because we all need to prepare for death. As long as the Lord tarries, some day we shall all die, young and old, from various causes. God did not originally create human beings to be subject to death, but “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

The Bible tells us that physical death is the result of man’s spiritual death. Death is something that has been introduced into the world of humanity by sin and is a punishment for sin (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). Death is therefore something none of us can avoid, as long as we are in this life, though it is something foreign and hostile to human life. The thought of death fills our hearts with dread and fear. Death, though inevitable, is unnatural to us.

Why are we usually afraid of death?

Death still remains a mystery to all of us. It is a terrible evil that only brings sadness. Somehow, we tend to think of our own death or that of our close relatives, in the distant future, when we have accomplished all our plans. That is why, especially in Africa, when death strikes, someone is to blame, someone is behind it, usually that old uncle or auntie whose children are not doing well in society. No, death can strike any time upon any one of us. It is an appointment we can never fail to fulfill, or even postpone. Modern technology, with all its wonderful innovations, has so far worked in futility in this matter. Death still strikes with finality!

The fear of death stems from a number of reason, e.g. the fear of hell, the unbearable thought of eternal separation from a loved one, the uncertainty of a future without a loved one, fear of the judgment, etc. Perhaps the foremost reason is a lack of preparedness for it. In fact, for some it is just not possible to prepare for it. As a pastor, you dare not ask a patient on their deathbed surrounded by anxious relatives, the question, “Are you ready to die?” If you escape the accusation of being a Satanist, you will be very fortunate – even though after the visiting hour and as they make their way home, those same relatives will be whispering to each other, “Awe kwena, palya tapali umweo” (There, there is no life). But still should death come upon that relative, they will effectively be saying it is because of what you said.

For some it is also on account of a wrong interpretation of Scripture. Verses like Proverbs 18: 21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, those who love it will eat its fruit,” are made to mean, what you say, so it will be. This is especially the case for a man of God. No. All that this verse is saying is that by your own words you will either be justified or condemned. Remember also what Matthew 12:37 says, “…for by your own words you will be justified, and by your own words you will be condemned.” Do not ignore the last part of the verse, “…those who love it (that is, ‘the tongue’) will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 13:3 will help us see this, it says, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life, he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”

Unfortunately, in circles where such verses are understood to say that what you say will really happen, a pastor is expected to do only one thing, “to bind the spirit of death and loosen the spirit of life”; “to paralyze the spirit of death and energize the spirit of life”, etc. The beloved one lying there must be well again, even when they have a terminal illness. This is not to say God cannot heal—far from it. He does heal even today. Yes, he does so in answer to the prayers of his people. He will do so, however, when he so pleases. And the opposite is also true. He may allow death to come even upon those we love most. That is why it is a missed opportunity for a pastor who does not ask this question, “Are you ready to die?” to the dying patient, notwithstanding the possibility of being misunderstood. You may help them die well even in that last moment, and will definitely also be speaking to the anxious relatives.

Since death can come through other means as well, where there may be no opportunity to ask that question, it is important to preach on the topic of death in our pulpits once in a while.

We need to realize that God in his common grace restrains both sin and death, but by his special grace in Jesus Christ, he has conquered these two hostile forces, “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10, italics added). Death therefore will only fully accomplish its work in those who refuse the deliverance that is offered in Christ Jesus.

Those who believe in Jesus Christ, as Lord and Saviour, are freed from the power of death and have eternal life. They have no need therefore to be afraid of death. Christ for them has removed the curse of death and they have complete pardon for all their sins. Christ has removed the penalty of sin. Those alone who have trusted in Christ and are walking with him are the ones who are prepared for death.

In closing, please take note that do not quickly dismiss the thought of your dying day next time that thought comes into your mind. This is because the thought of our own death can have a beneficial effect upon you. Such a thought can serve to humble the proud, help us check our lives before the law of God, and curtail worldly tendencies in our lives. It can help us begin to think spiritually and draw us to God through Christ. It is helpful to think about death and think about it positively, despite what the common attitude is. It is almost taboo to raise the issue in our African context. The thinking being that you may annoy the spirits of the ancestors so that they call you much earlier than you were meant to go. Nonsense!