Fathom Mag

The Pain That Death Brings

What do we do with death?

Published on:
November 7, 2016
Read time:
6 min.
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March 23, 1996 is a date no one in my family will forget. It started like any other cold, damp Saturday as I headed off to play rugby. I still remember the heaviness of the ground, the mud sticking to my boots. I can almost still feel the throbbing in my head from an early collision.

We were defending our line when I began to notice someone waving their arms at the side of the pitch and I’m sure I heard my name being called. By the time this properly registered, the person was now on the pitch.

It was my housemate. “It’s your dad,” he said. “He’s had a heart attack. It’s serious.”

“It’s your dad,” he said. “He’s had a heart attack. It’s serious.”

I left the pitch to go to the hospital, and as I walked off it was like I stepped into slow motion. We were actually moving very fast as he sped down the motorway, but it didn’t feel that way.

I arrived at the hospital, still in my rugby kit, still wearing the mouthguard I had locked my jaws onto as we traveled, and made myself known to a nurse who led me to a room in the depths of the hospital. “You know your father is very ill,” she said.

I nodded. What else do you do?

Holy Hauntings | No. 3
Painting by Mandy Busby

The nurse opened the door into a room where my family had gathered. My mum was in tears, my sister in a daze, my uncle standing stoically at the back of the room, and my aunt on a chair in front of him wiping away her own tears. We all embraced. In those initial moments no one really said much—the only noise was the occasional platitude offered to my mum by her next-door neighbor who had come to support.

Then like a machine gun my questions came: What happened? How? Where? When? Where is he now? The answers weren’t what I wanted: Brain haemorrhage, intensive care, not good.

The next twenty-four hours unfolded . . .

Dad was brain-dead, and then very shortly afterwards, with the flick of a switch, he was dead-dead. Fifty-two, fine one moment, gone the next.

I was devastated; we all were. I wrestled with different emotions: anger, confusion, sadness, but above all, I wanted answers.

Why him? Why our family?

Two weeks later I received a phone call at work. “There’s been an accident—can you come home?”

The accident involved a friend of mine who, aged twenty-five, had drowned in mysterious circumstances. He worked for a conservation charity, and he’d been found by colleagues face down in a pool of water.

One day he was there, vibrant, full of life, the next he was gone.

Early 1996 wasn’t a great time.

O Death

I start there for two reasons. First, to be clear that I don’t come to this topic as a detached spectator. As a pastor I’ve stood alongside people through real pain. I’ve buried infants and held the hands of their grieving parents. But I’ve also personally tasted the pain and loss that death brings.

Second, these events in those dark weeks in 1996, were the catalyst for my coming to believe in God, and put my faith in his Son. I am a Christian today because of a chain of events that began with that pain.

If life just is—that is, if there is no God—we can’t see suffering as a problem.
Reuben Hunter

We are often told that the existence of suffering “proves” that God doesn’t exist, and back then, through my confusion, I might have agreed. Probably angrily! But as I look back on my journey of faith in the good God of the Bible, the backdrop has always been those painful weeks in early 1996. So belief in God is possible, even where suffering exists, even when that suffering is yours.

My story revolves around three phrases: one that was spoken by my mother’s next-door neighbor in that awful relatives room, and two that come from a section of John’s gospel in the New Testament.

“C’est la bloody vie”

My mum’s neighbor said lots of that sort of thing that day, but
“C’est la bloody vie” is the one I remember and it stuck in my head for years.

She was saying, “That’s just how life rolls.”

But I hated that idea.

Death made me sick. I cried sometimes until my head was about to burst. As far as I was concerned death was wrong. Don’t we all know that? Deep in us all our instincts tell us that death is sad, painful, awful, shocking.

And yet as I thought more about it, and explored the questions of life that this experience drew out of me, I realized that if life is just an impersonal thing and we are the product of years of evolution and we’re just highly sophisticated “stuff,” she’s right. And my instincts are wrong, and my tears are pointless.

If life just is—that is, if there is no God—we can’t see suffering as a problem. It’s neither right nor wrong, it just “is.” If there’s no Creator, then we’re not created, the universe is meaningless, and suffering is just what happens in the brutal game of natural selection. So we can’t resent it, because it’s just the way it is.

The problem is that we do resent it.

And that’s why this woman’s phrase stayed with me for so long, because I knew there must be something more to say.

About a year later, through a series of seemingly unconnected events too tedious to mention here, I came across a second phrase, this time from chapter eleven of John’s gospel.

O Carrion

It comes in a story about a man called Lazarus who is a friend of Jesus. Lazarus’ sisters come to find Jesus to tell him that Lazarus is very seriously ill. Jesus delays going to see him and before he gets there Lazarus dies. 

The grieving and angry sisters rail at Jesus, they need to blame someone, but Jesus then steps in and revives his friend, bringing him back to life. The phrase that caught me, however, like a whiff of smelling salts was this.

“Jesus wept.”

Why did Jesus weep? I thought. 

Okay, because his friend had died, but he was about to raise his friend again. But Jesus wasn’t just shedding a few tears over the sad death of a friend—he wept because the intrusion of death and suffering into God’s good world was a cause for deep distress.

No “C’est la vie” here. Jesus is showing us that this was not the way the world should be. A world where people die in their prime is a broken world.

When the time came to phone my father’s friends to tell them the news, I remember one friend falling silent, then I heard the noise of the receiver being set down beside the phone (it was 1996!) and in the background I heard him rehearse the well known Dylan Thomas poem. He cried, “Oh rage, rage against the dying of the light. . . . ”

A world where people die in their prime is a broken world.
Reuben Hunter

That is the right response—suffering and death are alien intruders into God’s world, and it is the consequences of this writ large in the death of this guy Lazarus that causes Jesus to weep tears of anguish.

I read this and saw that here was someone who understood my anguish and made sense of my pain. Here was someone who understood. Indeed if you read the gospels you see in Jesus a man who knows what it is to suffer. God in the person of his Son knows the pain of suffering and death firsthand.

This means that when we want an answer to the problem of suffering, we need to look at the greatest act of evil and suffering the world has ever known, the cross of Jesus Christ. When we look there, while we might not get all our questions answered, we are told one crucial thing: God is not indifferent or detached from suffering; suffering can’t mean that God doesn’t care.

Something this also showed me was that Jesus’ suffering ultimately had a good purpose. In His death he was bearing the sin of the world, so that men and women could be in relationship with God.

So, as I teased out the logic, I came to see that if the worst case of evil and suffering had wise and good ends in the purposes of God, then in principle every other case could have as well.

I’m not suggesting that this makes the experience of our pain any easier, but I am saying that if you get rid of God you get rid of any reasons to be annoyed. And you get rid of all of the hope that the third phrase I discovered gives us. Because Jesus’ tears made sense to me I was intrigued and read on, and what I discovered was the one thing we all need in hard times—hope.

The Risen One

After his death, Jesus was raised. He walked out of the tomb resurrected, flesh and bones, alive!

He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

And the point of this phrase is that this will be true of all who believe in him. Jesus got through death—he can get us through death as well.

He is remaking the world, and one day death—that horrible, horrible enemy—will be no more. Pain, whatever suffering you may be experiencing, will only exist as a distant memory. In the words of Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee: “Everything sad will come untrue.”

If you’re mad at God because your life is hard, know that he has done something about this. His Son came into our world to sort out our biggest problem, and because of his suffering, we have the resources to face our own suffering now, and we have the promise of a beautiful future where suffering will be done away with forever.

Reuben Hunter
Originally from Northern Ireland, Reuben is a husband to one and father to four. He is the lead pastor at Trinity West Church, a small church in an eclectic urban community in West London, England. His interests are varied—reading, films, food, wine, sports—but, above most things, he enjoys the noble art of rugby.

Cover image by LoboStudio.

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