Only a famous death will do

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Commodus, talking to Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

Commodus talks to Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000)

I love gladiator. It’s an epic film telling an epic story full of epic quotes set to epic music (spotify link). And like so many good stories, it follows the plot of the greatest story ever told. The true story of the famous death.

It starts with a general. Someone with power. Someone who tells people what to do, and is obeyed. Someone who has a formidable army at his disposal. And the general becomes a slave. He gives up his rights, his authority, his power. He is humbled, even humiliated, and becomes a gladiator. He fights many enemies, but before too long matters come to a head. He defies the emperor.

It’s a striking story, but now we need to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the emperor in the great arena? The final showdown must take place somewhere public, where it will be seen. The emperor seems to take a quick advantage, just as Commodus stabs Maximus. The gladiator dies of the wound.

But the story is not over. We need to know what happens to the emperor. He is defeated, shown to be weaker than the gladiator slave. And the gladiator, killed in the battle, is honoured and we will see him again – but not yet.

The effect is much wider though. His people are liberated, no longer living under the rule of the tyrannical emperor. And that is why we remember his famous death. That is why we have good Friday.

But now we’re going to win

Roald Dahl lived a life which was, in many ways, simply fascinating. He’s known as a children’s author of course, but he also wrote many short stories for adults, many of which drew on his experience as a world war two RAF pilot. I’ve recently been reading through The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl and found the following passage. The character whose thoughts we see is a pilot about to enter a dogfight.

I don’t want to die. Oh God, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die today anyway. And it isn’t the pain. Really it isn’t the pain. I don’t mind having my leg mashed or my arm burnt off; I swear to you that I don’t mind that. But I don’t want to die. Four years ago I didn’t mind. I remember distinctly not minding about it four years ago. I didn’t mind about it three years ago either. It was all fine and exciting; it always is when it looks as though you may be going to lose, as it did then. It is always fine to fight when you are going to lose everything anyway, and that was how it was four years ago. But now we’re going to win. It is so different when you are going to win. If I die now I lose fifty years of life, and I don’t want to lose that. I’ll lose anything except that because that would be all the things I want to do and all the things I want to see; all the things like going on sleeping with Joey. Like going home sometimes. Like walking through a wood. Like pouring out a drink from a bottle. Like looking forward to week ends and like being alive every hour every day every year for fifty years. If I die now I will miss all that, and I will miss everything else. I will miss the things that I don’t know about. I think those are really the things I am frightened of missing. I think the reason I do not want to die is because of the things I hope will happen. Yes, that’s right. I’m sure that’s right.

It struck me that this is an opposite attitude to death to that which Christians tend to have. The character doesn’t fear pain, but does fear death. He wants to live so that he can enjoy the benefits of winning the war he has fought in. He is afraid of missing the things he doesn’t know about.

What joy the Christian can have! There may be fear of pain, but none of death. Living may be a tough war, but after death there is guaranteed enjoyment of the benefits of Christ’s victory. We can have confidence we will not miss out on anything good. Best of all, this won’t change in three or four years when victory seems more or less certain, for the victory is already won. The fight is over, the victor declared, and the enemy publicly humiliated.

Now, as has been the case for all eternity, we’re going to win.

Starving to death on pleasure

A scientific study which I’d come across before was mentioned in my bionics lecture today. A scientist called James Olds managed to locate the ‘pleasure centre’ in rats’ brains. This is an area which, when electrically stimulated, produces a feeling of pleasure. Olds attached electrodes to the pleasure centre of some rats, and wired them to a button to which the rats had access. They quickly learnt that they could induce pleasure in themselves by pressing this button, as would be expected, but more interestingly when given the choice between immediate pleasure and food the rats starved themselves to death in favour of the short term pleasure.

It struck me that people are no better. The rats died because they didn’t consider the long-term consequences of their choices, but do people? Certainly not! Most people consider only the short-term, physical effects of their behaviour, missing out the eternal spiritual effects. They too starve themselves to death, feeding themselves on extremely temporary pleasure rather than the living bread which lasts forever. Small wonder that they’re spiritually dead!

The immortal Sir Michael Caine

In today’s Metro newspaper there is a brief interview with Sir Michael Caine, who is currently promoting his latest film, ‘Is Anybody There?’. I’ve not seen the film, but what really grabbed my attention was Michael’s answer to the interviewer’s pertinent question about death.

Do sombre films about dying make you think about your own mortality?
I never think about my own mortality. No, no, you must never do that. I always have so many plans for what I’m doing. I’ve behaved my entire life as if I’m immortal.

Clearly Michael Caine doesn’t like to think about death, but it is the only certain thing in his life. Whether or not he will win an oscar for his performance is unknown. Whether or not he will be in the next batman film is unknown. That he will die is known. It saddens me that he deliberately and consciously chooses not to ponder or prepare for this eventuality.

It’s not an uncommon way of living. In day to day life, I suspect most of us behave as if we’re immortal. Death is not something we like to think about, so we simply don’t think about it. Maybe this is because people want to avoid the unpleasant. Maybe many think there is nothing we can do about death, so there is no point wasting time thinking about it. Neither are good reasons to not think about one’s own death.

We should never avoid the unpleasant simply because it is unpleasant. Many things which are beneficial to us are unpleasant. The child who refuses to eat vegetables will end up with a vitamin deficiency. The person who refuses to exercise finds themselves unable to run for a bus. While there is obviously no point in looking for unpleasantness for its own sake, avoiding it for its own sake is equally foolish.

Poor as the first reason is, the second is much worse. There is something we can do about death. But first we must consider what death is. Death is the absence of life. No surprises there. But what is life? Jesus said life was more than having a heartbeat, more than filling and emptying our lungs with a multiplicity of gases. He taught that life is knowing God. If He was right, then death is not knowing God, and its nature changes radically. It doesn’t take a genius to see that we don’t inherently know what God is like, let alone know Him personally (just look at the many and varied gods people have worshipped over the years). Rather than knowing we will die, we find out we are already dead! But Jesus said more than that. He said He could give people eternal life – an eternity of knowing God. Indeed, this is the very reason Jesus was born and died, and the means by which we are enabled to know God’s love.

You can read the full interview online. ‘Is Anybody There?’ can be bought cheaply online.

Psalm 90

Today I had a spare 40 minutes between meetings, so I used it to look at Psalm 90. I noticed three points of particular interest:

  • God is eternal. If you read Psalm 90, then you’ll see that’s a pretty obvious conclusion, but the verse which I noticed it in particularly was v2.  It says “Before the mountains were brought forth… You are God”. Shouldn’t that be “You were God”? Isn’t the tense wrong? There is another passage in the Bible with this mix of tenses. John 8:58 records Jesus saying “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” As Jesus was talking to Jews at the time, it seems likely to me that this was deliberate reference to Exodus 3:14 in which Moses is told by God to say he is sent by “I AM”. (It is interesting to note that God can only be defined in terms of Himself (“I AM WHO I AM”), but that’s not my point here! Also of interest is that Psalm 90 was written by Moses.) God is eternal and unchanging, and the past and the present are no different for Him. God before Creation is the same as God now is the same as God in the future of eternity. God is so unchanged that it doesn’t even matter which tense we describe His past with, as in it He is the same as in His present and future!
  • God controls our end. Most people would struggle to deny the blindingly obvious statistic that everyone who is born dies. (Don’t mention Elijah or Enoch. Just don’t.) We often think of death as being natural, but the Bible speaks of it as an enemy. In v6 of Psalm 90 we see man being compared to grass, which grows and dies quickly. The verse says “it is cut down and withers”. It was an interesting reminder that we don’t ‘just die’. God cuts us down. God is in control of the timing and method of our deaths, and we are foolish if we forget this.
  • The route to wisdom. v12 tells us we gain wisdom if we learn to “number our days”. Remembering our frailty (and by implication, remembering God’s eternality) keeps us humble and gives us a perspective of seeing things in the way God views them. Surely this is wisdom. Of course, one could conclude that because we are so small and God is so great we are worthless in His sight, but this would be incorrect. I can’t fault the logic of it, but God’s grace is beyond my understanding and certainly defies everything I think of as logical, and it is by His grace that we are loved and (if we trust Jesus) accepted by Him. Praise the Lord!