When What Is Mortal Is Swallowed Up By Life

Abraham Kuyper*

2 Corinthians 5:4

Given what lies before your eyes at the time of death, you can only say that Death, the fearful enemy of God and man, finally succeeds in swallowing up a life so precious to you.

This was not the first assault. At least it is exceptional when someone dies who has not been ill before with the fear of death hanging in the sickroom. But those earlier assaults had been turned away. After a night of weeping that made our hearts weak, joy came in the morning. Having reached its apex, the illness subsided again. What an inexpressible luxury, to get a loved one back from the brink of death.

But this time things turned out very differently. Nothing helped. Nothing was of any use. When that last bit of breath expired it was as if Death mocked you with all your unheard prayers and pointless anxieties. It whispered derisively: "I won; your morning of joy will never come."

And there you stood with broken heart by the deathbed. There lay your deceased, lifeless, inanimate, for all the world as if she had been swallowed up by death. Swallowed up—a hard word. Devoured, as if by a beast of prey. All at once, gone: the look of the eye, the sweet words, the warm handclasp, the facial expression. Everything clean gone: cold, withered, somber. Life swallowed up by death.

Those without a choice see it that way. Those who know only this world cannot see it any other way. And let's be honest: in that first hard moment when a shock passes through the heart, the child of God sees it that way too. It is a dreadfully gloomy thing to stare into the dark emptiness of the valley of the shadow of death as we watch a dearly loved one enter there. Death is there, hauling away its prey before our eyes; and we are there, compelled to watch it happen, overcome by pain and helplessness.

But that is reality—the bitter reality of death in the visible world. To deceive yourself by hiding that hard reality behind funeral wreaths and flowers, to imagine that you can comfort the bereaved with generalities about God's providential love is cowardice. You' re not serious, you lack courage, if you use a blindfold to hide the harshness of death from yourself and others.

You prayed, but God did not hear your prayer. Despite your prayer, death won. But is not God almighty? Where is that providential love when He lets death have its way—worse, sends it to you and abandons your suffering one to it?

No. Say rather that death came on account of sin and by sin. Let your conscience be touched, and acknowledge that God's fearful wrath was at work in that process of dying. That way at least you can tremble before God's holiness. But to babble about providential love when God lets bitter death rob you of the dearest thing you had on earth, when you see a precious life wither, disappear, swallowed up before your eyes—that's lying to yourself. That you cannot do with any sincerity. That is playing with words right up to the grave.

But now comes God's Word which, without in any way discounting the harshness of that reality, turns it around for you. Totally.

To your bodily eye death is what it is and nothing else. But you also have an eye in your soul—an eye that remains stone-blind and sees nothing, not a ray of light, until God turns you around and gives you spiritual eyesight. Then, to your soul's eye a totally opposite reality unfolds, a reality which shows you that death does not swallow up life but that in death what is mortal is swallowed up by life.

How can that be? No one can unravel that mystery for you. But it can be so and is so in Jesus. He, the Marvelous One, took hold of death, forced it to let Him pass into glory, and kept open the road behind Him so that death would also let all His children pass into glory, unhindered and undisturbed.

Life, true authentic life, is too powerful to remain enclosed within this earthly tent. In that enclosure it cannot unfurl its wings. Therefore life must finally slough off that which is earthly and mortal to push on to the higher reaches of its potential. It has to break free from that mortal body. And while it is awful to watch that process of detachment, in this way life gets to where it has to be. Then it unfolds into the fullness of its majesty. Then you realize that, to this end, life first had to swallow up that which is mortal.

Accordingly, to the eye that peers from your soul into eternity, the dead body does not lie in its coffin as a sign that death has finally triumphed but as a sign of life's victory. It is the broken shell—more precisely, it is the brokenness of the shell—which shows that life has now become free and breathes in a higher atmosphere.

The brokenness of the body, which is otherwise hard and cruel, is now the sign of liberation, tangible evidence that life has wrenched itself free from the bonds of mortality. That act of breaking away from what is mortal so as now to unfold in glory is something your deceased could not accomplish, nor is it something you can do when some day you yourself die. It is something your Jesus, the prince of life, accomplished—at least if there is life in you and you have been incorporated in Him and His life.

So your deceased does not die here with Jesus standing afar off; your deceased does not now go to Jesus. No, He was present in the dying; in fact, He accomplished it. And when death taunted you as though it had won, in that moment your Savior smiled at you and showed you a crown, the palm of victory.

The person alien to this is in a bad way. He who does not believe perishes when he dies. Death keeps him in custody. Those who see death thus can speak of consolation and hope only with floral wreaths and empty phrases of self-deception. The recklessness of those who stop their ears to the voice of Jesus, who even try to break down the principle of faith in others is thus appalling. Their awakening on the other side will be lethally dreadful.

Thus, on ordinary days God's children have no idea whatsoever how great a grace has come to them. They may believe. They may know that the loved ones they see die have been incorporated into Jesus. Granted, that knowledge does not remove the anxiety of being ill, the harshness of death, the coldness of the grave. All that remains. The sense of loss and abandonment will certainly follow, and the heart's wound will inevitably bleed.

But over and above life in the visible world, with its pain and deep sorrows, stands that other reality which is even more certain than the things that make you weep here. From that reality shine out to you a holy joy and heavenly peace. This perception can be so powerful that you may experience the very thing that prompted Paul to write: " . . . we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8).

Don't say there's something sickly about this language of faith, that a person so minded becomes unfit for his vocation here below. Yes, this charge is on the mark if you merely worship your God and your Jesus as holy beings who exist to help you, to save you, to lead you into eternal life—that is, if you want to be at the center of things and construe God's holy ordinances solely in your own interest. But the charge is not true if you, along with your dead and those remaining with you, know yourselves to exist only for God and for his holy name, both in life and in death, here and in the world to come. Surely, He is our Father and we are His children; He is our Master, and we are His servants.

For life is good only so long as we do His work here and labor at the task He assigned us. But then that is also our imperative calling. Then we are born to serve Him, and born again with no other object but to glorify Him in the Son of His love. He gave us faith not to beatify us but to make Himself great in our salvation. Then our life is the Lord's, whether we remain here or whether we enter eternity.

And then our death and the death of our loved ones never comes except at the moment, and never otherwise than under those circumstances, which He deemed best for the full realization of his counsel and for the praise of His name. Then freely say that the weeping of the evening and the joy of the morning [Ps. 30:5] dwell in the same heart.

The inner life of those who want to live solely for their God is very mixed indeed. There is weeping over the acute pain felt by their wounded heart. But from that same heart also rises the sound of rejoicing and praise of what God prepared for the loved one who went away and for what He left in this life by way of consolation, love, and holy calling.


*This is the centennial year of Dr. Abraham Kuyper's famous Stone Lectures (Lectures on Calvinism) at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey. His friend, Professor Geerhardus Vos, played no small part in bringing Kuyper to America for that occasion. Less than a year later, while vacationing in Switzerland, Kuyper's wife died (August 25, 1899). Johanna Hendricka Schaay (1841-1899) had married Abraham Kuyper July 1, 1863. Kuyper penned this meditation for De Heraut a week later. It is reprinted here by permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the volume edited by James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (pp. 408-15). I want to thank Grace Mullen of Glenside, Pennsylvania for bringing this poignant meditation to my attention.