Fireflies (actually beetles) are amazing little creatures. They create, for us, some magic in the night. The glow of the firefly is one of nature’s own firework displays.

But the firefly only lives for about two months as a firefly (it can be in the larvae stage longer). It shines bright and then it is gone.

You and I are like the firefly. In the span of the universe, our lights shine far briefer even that of the firefly, and for most of us, we do not shine very bright at all. The Bible offers other images from nature that remind us of the very brevity of our existence here on earth. James 4:14 says we are a mist or the morning fog. 1 Peter 1:24 says we are like grass. I think I prefer fireflies but the point is the same. Our time here on this planet is brief.

I find the Bible unnervingly but refreshingly honest about this point. It’s bluntness cuts through the pretence of our self-importance.

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Ecclesiastes 1:4

Life went on a long time before you came along and it will go on long after you. Your appearance on stage is fleeting, a cameo at best. Ecclesiastes rams it home reminding us that most of us will be forgotten far quicker than most of us are comfortable with.

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 9:5-6

If there is no God, then your life is very brief and the best you can hope for is to enjoy some of it and not to screw it up too much. You are a mist. You are a vapour. If you’re lucky you might be a firefly.

Perhaps one of the healthier things to come out of this pandemic is to force sceptical, secular people to consider death. As I get older death is inevitably going to feature more prominently in my life as friends and family die. We hope it will be many years off after a long and happy life but death can, and will, catch us off guard. People we expected to be around much longer are suddenly, one day, gone. And that, as they say, is that. Carl Trueman says it as it is.

Death is thus both inevitable and terrible. It is a merciless foe. It deprives us of our loved ones and eventually will take us, too. Most of us respond to it with acts of denial—denial of the radical finality of death, of the inevitability of death, of the sovereignty of death.

The prospect of death is unavoidable but we still try to avoid it and when it happens we do not know what to do. As Ricky Gervais was honest enough to admit, the prospect of no longer existing can be, for many, a terrifying one. The consequence of our uncertainty and our fear is that many people are not dying well. Even those who are closest to the dying in their final days are less well equipped than ever to help people be ready for it. We have lost any notion of a good death. Even the very idea seems awful, there’s nothing good about death! Dr LS Dugdale, who has written a new book (released in August) called The Lost Art of Dying says,

Since I’ve been in medicine, I’ve been struck by how many people die poorly. Whether it’s through highly medicalized dying, through a lack of community, through a lack of spiritual or even in some cases financial preparation for death – many, many people die poorly.

In my experience, it’s not just patients who avoid talking about death. A former medical colleague once told me, “I never tell my patients if they’re dying.” And I said, “How can you do that? That’s a part of our job! We have to give patients that information!”

She said, “I do everything I can to avoid those conversations because I’m so afraid to die. I don’t know what I believe; I don’t feel like I’m equipped to talk to my patients about death.”

These questions are a part of our work. If doctors are afraid to talk about death, who’s going to do it? Pastors commonly talked about the preparation for death in their homilies until the early twentieth century. But that fell out of favour. And so apart from churches that have very intact liturgical traditions, it’s rare to get direction from the pulpit on the need to prepare for death. What I’m hopeful about is that this time of intense reckoning with death will get people to think about these ultimate questions and that they’ll want to do something about it.

In this regard churches in the West may have fallen victim to the spirit of the age and this pandemic, as Carl Trueman acknowledges is a powerful wake up call.

Can the Church be honest about death in an era addicted to the pleasure of the moment? That is the challenge we face, and it demands that we reorient our thinking from this world to the next, that we prepare ourselves not just to live as God’s people but to die as God’s people. Death should not be, but it is. Only the Church understands this, and only the Church can provide the answer through her preaching, her sacraments, her liturgy, and her pastoral care. But first, she must acknowledge the unfathomable and inevitable nature of the final enemy. COVID-19 poses the question in an acute and unavoidable form. It is doubtless severe, but in pressing the cruel reality of death upon us all, it is a severe mercy.

Ecclesiastes is perhaps the book in the Bible the vaguest or most uncertain about whether there is an ‘after’ at all but even there, there are hints that our life now should be entrusted to the one who gave us life. If you’re an atheist then you believe that you have no soul or spirit. Neither do your kids or your partner. They are purely material and all their responses to you and all that they do are based on some material, evolutionary drive that we may not even be aware of. God, I hope that’s not true. But the writer of Ecclesiastes, along with say, Aristotle and some very talented neuroscientists plus a whole lot of other people thinks we may have a spirit. That spirit came from God and to God, it will return.

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

Ecclesiastes 11:5

The gift of Ecclesiastes is that it forces us to confront the problem. It also serves as a reminder that we need to consider the entirety of Scripture and set what we read here alongside what we learn in other places. We find answers elsewhere. But the vague hope of Ecclesiastes is, I suspect, the best that many people manage. But the Christian should not face death in this way, we grieve but as those with hope. As Richard Bauckham says,

Optimism cannot deal with death, but God has dealt with it. The apostle Paul, because his whole approach to life was based on the belief that God had raised the dead Jesus to new life, was able to say: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor powers, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38). I should like to encourage anyone who has not thought seriously before about the Christian hope for life beyond death, and its foundation in the resurrection of Jesus, to do so now. I remember, many years ago, an acquaintance who was a believing Christian but could not believe that there was anything beyond death. I lent her John Baillie’s book And the Life Everlasting, which spoke to her difficulties, and she completely changed her mind. Not so long afterwards she died. She was able to go into the experience of dying with, not only an assurance of the love of God with her, but also the knowledge that God’s love does not let go of us when we die, but holds onto us and welcomes us into a new future in his presence.

I am like a vapour. I am like grass. I am, in my better moments, like a firefly. My time on this earth will be brief but each moment is a gift. I will one day be buried and rest in peace. I will return to dust. But I have a hope that not only will I rest in peace but that I will rise in glory. That the resurrection of Jesus is the only hope I have that death is not the end and that God will take my spirit and unite it with a new body, and that beyond this universe of space and time, I will dwell with him forever.

For further reading

In the valley of shadows or for books On Death by Tim Keller or the brilliant and moving When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi 1

  1. I get a small commission if you click the link and buy something. I’ll spend whatever I get on more books probably.[]

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