The current global viral epidemic is confronting us with the tenuous nature of human life, in a way that nothing has confronted us at a societal level for a very long time. For many decades, we in the developed world have lived in a false bubble of security, relatively unchallenged by the almost constant threats to life that humanity has battled since the dawn of history. Since the end of the second world war in 1945, the western world has enjoyed a period of comparative peace and prosperity. Alongside that have come improvements in modern medicine, including the advent of antibiotics and vaccines which have removed the previously ever-present spectre of potential imminent death from our doorways. Accordingly, we have grown up fully expecting to live long, productive lives, well into our eighties and beyond. These have been halcyon years of unprecedented health and longevity.
But this has not always been the case. In fact, these last 60 years have been a unique bubble in mankind’s history during which brief time the tenuous nature of our lives has faded from our collective consciousness. Prior to these recent decades, death was an ever-present threat and a frequent visitor to every family. I recently had a holiday in Tasmania, Australia, where I visited many historical sites. Reading the stories of Australia’s early colonisation was extremely sobering. I read of one married couple who had 12 children, with only four of them reaching adulthood. In past centuries, it was common for 30% to 50% of children to die before reaching the age of 18. Death due to disease was a regular event that touched people of all ages. Death due to infection, even from something as simple as a scratch, was also very common before the advent of antibiotics. Reading the gravestones in old graveyards while on my Tasmanian holiday revealed a predominance of people dying in their 40s or younger. Life expectancies in past centuries were much lower and the constant threat of death loomed large over every home.
Added to that is the fact that mankind has lived in an almost perpetual state of war since the dawn of time. Historians have calculated that during the nearly 4,000 years of recorded history, mankind has been war-free for only 268 years. The hundreds of millions of deaths due to war down through the ages has added to the already dreadful toll of disease and infection, making untimely death an ever-present reality in society.
Then there have been the seven major global pandemics which wiped many millions more from the face of the earth: in the years 541, 1347, 1629, 1665, 1720, 1855 and 1918. For example, the 1918 influenza pandemic infected over one third of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50 million people.
Yes, death has never been far from humanity’s door.
So what am I saying? Why all this talk of death? Have I decided to wallow in a pit of morbidity? Did I forget to drink my happy juice this morning? No. The point is that our six decade-long bubble of health and longevity has been a very welcome but unusual lull in mankind’s ongoing struggle against the ever-present threat of death. Of course, even in this “bubble”, people have still died. That goes without saying. But, by and large, the vast majority have died at a ripe age. Consequently, we have come to regard death as the inevitable fate of the elderly, and we are shocked whenever it occasionally visits someone younger. We have come to almost regard longevity as our right. And, because of that, we tend to put off all thoughts of our own mortality until we approach those greying years ourselves. We live in the now. We gulp the wine of life’s delights as if they will never end. We greedily pursue that which was only ever going to be temporary, with a single-mindedness that completely ignores our own fast-approaching exit date.
But people in the past did not live as short-sightedly as we do. Until these last six decades, people have always been extremely conscious of their own mortality. In the past, life was lived in the sobering knowledge of the tenuous nature of our existence. Longevity was never assumed. Throughout history, people have lived their lives conscious of the fact that they “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23). And that shadow, strangely, gave perspective to their lives. It taught them to not take life for granted. It taught them to value every moment. The ever-present spectre of death’s shadow also meant that people in the past tended to ponder eternity more than the average person does today. The relative shortness of life and the very real possibility of one’s imminent demise due to any number of possible calamities generated an almost ubiquitous hope in life beyond the grave.
The reason why people in the past were more inclined towards religious belief isn’t that they were more ignorant than today’s sophisticated citizens. In fact, quite the opposite. They were wiser. Their familiarity with death helped them to see this life for what it really is; the briefest of preludes which will soon be over, and which is nothing in comparison to the main symphony which will immediately follow.
The COVID-19 virus looks set to be the 8th pandemic that will beset mankind. It is a truly horrible thing to contemplate that this time next year, we may be reflecting on the deaths of millions of people. I would love it not to be so, but we must face reality. Some of you reading this article may be among the fatalities. For all I know, I could be one of them. How should we respond in the face of this dreadful uncertainty?
In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes we read:
“The wise person thinks about death, but the fool thinks only about having a good time.” (Eccl 7:4)
Let me ask you an important question. If you knew for sure that you only had one month to live, what would you do differently? I guarantee that for most of us, such dreadful knowledge would result in a radical change in our priorities and our values. We would stop chasing “things” and start focusing on loving the people in our lives. We would stop taking and be more willing to give. We would start to see what really matters. And, surely, the wise person would also start to ponder what lies beyond his or her last breath. The reality of one’s mortality ought to awaken in all of us a desire to seek out the God who made us and who calls us into a relationship with Himself. It ought to shake us out of our self-focused, materialistic complacency and open our hearts to things eternal.
As the shadow of Covid-19 looms large over our world, I take heart in the words of the most quoted verse in the Bible:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
I also delight in the promise of Jesus, that death is not the end:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s mansion there are many rooms and I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me.” (John 14:1-3)
I sincerely hope that this time next year, you and all your loved ones will still be safe and well. And if there is one good thing that might come out of this evolving epidemic, I hope that it will cause people to consider, perhaps for the very first time, the true purpose of their fleeting lives. I hope and pray that it will lead you to seek an eternal perspective for your own life; one that will lead you to open your heart to the God who created you and loves you.
“Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (John Donne)
(Author of “Finding God When He Seems To Be Hiding”, “No More Monkey Business: Evolution in Crisis”, “Making Sense of the Bible”, “Rethinking the Gospel” and “The Little Book of Church Leadership.”)
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