Review of Remember Death by Matthew McCullough

Most books on death are targeted at people who are facing death or who are grieving the death of a loved one. Matthew McCullough’s book Remember Death is different, in that he specifically targets those who do not think about death very much. He has in mind young, healthy, middle-class Westerners for whom death is a distant, theoretical reality that tends to get forgotten in the rush of daily life. The main theme of his book is that if we lack “death-awareness” (as he calls it), then we risk missing the whole point of the gospel. McCullough puts the point this way in his introduction:

Before you long for a life that is imperishable, you must accept that you are perishing along with everyone you care about. You must recognize that anything you might accomplish or acquire in this world is already fading away. Only then will you crave the unfading glory of what Jesus has accomplished and acquired for you. And you need to recognize you are going to lose everything you love in this world before you will hope in an inheritance kept in heaven for you.

Even if your life plays out in precisely the way you imagine for yourself in your wildest dreams, death will steal away everything you have and destroy everything you accomplish. As long as we’re consumed by the quest for more out of this life, Jesus’s promises will always seem otherworldly to us. He doesn’t offer more of what death will only steal from us in the end. He offers us righteousness, adoption, God-honoring purpose, eternal life—things that taste sweet to us only when death is a regular companion.

The first chapter of the book makes the point that perhaps for the first time in human history, it is possible for a large fraction of the population to spend most of their lives insulated from death. Particularly in the West, advances in medicine, along with the relegation of death to hospitals and other institutions, have made death seem like an aberration rather than an ever-present reality. McCullough points out that it was not that long ago when death was something that all people, even children, were routinely confronted with. As a parent, you generally expected that you would have to bury some of your own children; Cotton Mather buried thirteen of his fourteen children. McCullough contrasts today’s culture, when any mention of death that is not absolutely necessary is typically frowned upon as “morbid,” with the culture of a century or two ago, by quoting the famous New England Primer for children. Its references to death would be unthinkable in a children’s book today.

The picture next to the letter T was a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand and a reaper’s scythe in the other. The verse: “Time cuts down all / Both great and small.” The letter X reinforced the message, picturing an elaborately dressed figure on some sort of funerary pyre, with this rhyme: “Xerxes the great did die, / And so must you and I.” The letter Y was still more jarring: The picture featured another skeleton, but this one was holding an arrow pointed down at the body of a small child. “Youth forward flips / Death soonest nips.” They were teaching their children to read by reminding them they would die.

McCullough criticizes Christians for capitulating to these cultural shifts toward ignoring or denying death, pointing out that the Bible focuses on death a great deal. In the core chapters of the book, he forces us to confront head-on the powerful challenges posed by death. McCullough presents some excellent thought experiments for those who are tempted to dismiss talk about death and the afterlife as being irrelevant to their main concerns in life.

Think of something you desperately want. Maybe it is something you’ve been working toward for years: completed dissertation, partnership at your law firm, successful launch of your own business. Maybe it’s something that will set up your career for years to come: a major grant award for your research, or some such. Maybe it’s a basic building block to your life: finding a spouse or having children or settling down in a wonderful city. Maybe it’s a purchase you’ve been wishing or even saving for: a new house or a fishing boat or whatever makes sense for you. Think of some unfulfilled ambition that’s with you every day, filling your thoughts, taking your time, moving your affections. What is that for you?

Now imagine one day you get what you’ve wanted. There’s immediate relief and excitement. You pass on the good news to all your friends. You make plans to celebrate. Later that same day you have a follow-up appointment with your doctor to receive some test results. You went in a week earlier complaining of back pain and persistent headaches. Nothing terribly unusual, just uncomfortable and annoying. Now your doctor says he has bad news. He begins to use words like “stage 4,” “inoperable,” and “terminal.” Imagine that on that single day, you learn that you have achieved what you’ve been longing for, and you have only six months to live. Be honest: Which piece of news is likely to define your day?

Here is another thought experiment from later on in the book:

Imagine two groups taking a transatlantic flight from the United States to the United Kingdom. One group gets stuck on a military-issue cargo jet—one of those flying warehouses without climate control or sound insulation, much less beverage service. This group is stuck sitting on unpadded, flip-up canvas seats without so much as a window to enjoy. The other group takes a luxury private jet. The seats are covered in the softest of premium leathers. The legroom allows for full extension. There’s an on-board chef for made-to-order fine dining and a menu of excellent beverages. So far it seems there’s a world of difference between these two flights. Who on the cargo jet wouldn’t envy the journey of the others?

Now imagine both jets suffer catastrophic engine failure and both jets crash into the Atlantic, killing everyone on board. As each plane nosedives toward certain death, do you believe if you were on the cargo jet you’d care about trading places then? If you knew you’d end up in a watery grave, do you think you’d care whether you died strapped to canvas or calfskin? Whether you died gripping a shoulder harness or fine crystal?

McCullough discusses at length how death poses a challenge to our identity. I am not a big fan of the word identity, but let me not get into that right now. What McCullough is pointing out is that it can be difficult to maintain a sense of significance and self-worth when we realize that, in the end, we all face the same fate as “the goldfish flushed down the toilet, or the cockroach crushed under foot.” Similarly, death has a way of making any activity we might engage in seem futile. Not surprisingly, McCullough cites Ecclesiastes as a brilliant essay on futility. But his citations are not limited to the Bible. He quotes from Leo Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse, as well as various philosophers such as Pascal, Camus, and Montaigne, who all felt deeply the challenge that death poses to any attempt to find meaning in life. Here, for example, is a passage from Pascal’s Pensées:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

But for all these dark images that McCullough presents, his book is not a despairing one. Rather, as he says, Remember Death is a book about Jesus, and about how we can appreciate the hope and joy brought by Jesus so much more deeply if we first understand properly the horror of death. I particularly like McCullough’s discussion of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.

This might seem like an odd place to begin mounting a case for faith in Jesus. It’s a single wedding in an obscure town, and what Jesus does is seen by only a few people. Jesus would go on to do plenty of things far more impressive than this. … Why start here? … Packed into what may seem like a little random or offhanded showboating is a concentrated version of everything Jesus came to do. … What did he do? He came to a feast that was ending too soon, and by his power he took the party to another level.

By this sign, so relatively unimpressive and seen by so few, Jesus is picturing the deliverance of Isaiah 25—the feast spread out for all peoples. Under the veil of death all of our joys run dry. They are real, even beautiful, but they don’t last. He has come to cast off that veil once and for all, to blow the lid off the joys of his people. He has come to bring an altogether new taste of his goodness, one untainted by the threat of loss. By this sign, Jesus announces the purpose of his coming: to provide an eternal life of joy.

Jesus provides an answer to the problem of identity and the problem of futility posed by death. The transformative power of this fact is wonderfully illustrated by something the missionary John G. Paton said in response to someone who was trying to dissuade him from his missionary efforts by telling him that he would be eaten by cannibals. Here is Paton’s reply:

Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.

I like what McCullough is trying to do in this book, and by and large I think he succeeds wonderfully. There is only one point that I feel he fails to address squarely, and given how obvious and important the point is, I am a little surprised at the omission (unless the omission was intentional?). The last part of the book deals with loss and grief. As usual, McCullough makes his point vividly: Young people tend to view life as a kind of savings account that they are building and investing in, but “the truth is that life works like a savings account in reverse. Zoomed out to the span of an entire life cycle, you see that no one is actually stockpiling anything. You’re spending down, not saving up. Everything you have—your healthy body, your marketable skills, your sharp mind, your treasured possessions, your loving relationships—will one day be everything you’ve lost.” After painting this bleak picture, McCullough then points to eternal life with Jesus as the antidote. So far so good. But now comes the obvious question: Will the loved ones we have lost in this life be there in the afterlife? Or will some of them be lost forever? If they are lost forever, then is eternal life really a complete answer to the problem of loss? McCullough never confronts this question. The book has an excellent index, and there is no entry for “hell.”

Despite this glaring omission, I think that McCullough’s book is excellent, and its message is much needed. Sermons nowadays tend to focus on how Jesus provides everything we need to meet the challenges of today. This is certainly true, but we should not focus on today to the exclusion of tomorrow. As McCullough says in his discussion of Paul’s famous discourse in I Corinthians 15, if Jesus is not raised, our faith is as vain as everything else. Everything stands or falls on the question of death, and we would do well to remember it.
Posted September 2019

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