During the Middle Ages, people were obsessed with the idea of having a “good death”. Sudden, unexpected death was terrifying—you wouldn’t have the opportunity to confess your sins to a priest on your deathbed, or receive the last rites. They feared this would jeopardise their entry into heaven.
Only a century after the end of the medieval period, Puritan pastor Richard Baxter wrote his book Dying Thoughts, an extended meditation on Philippians 1:23: “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better” (KJV). Baxter suffered poor health for many years, so eternity was often on his mind. In this book he grapples with his own fear of death, reminding himself and his readers of the glorious hope to come:
Yea, many serious Christians, through the weakness of their trust in God, live in this perplexed strait, weary of living and afraid of dying, continually pressed between grief and fear. But Paul’s strait was between two joys, which of them he should desire most. And if that be my case, what should much interrupt my peace or pleasure?
There’s a stark difference between these two attitudes about death. Baxter doesn’t place his hope in having a priest with him when he dies. The Protestant Reformation had restored the essential biblical truth that we are saved by Christ alone, through faith alone. He trusts in the blood of Jesus to atone for all his sin. Knowing that what lies ahead is far more glorious than what he would leave behind, Baxter urges his own soul (and his readers) towards joy.
Baxter doesn’t place his hope in having a priest with him when he dies. He trusts in the blood of Jesus to atone for all his sin.
Death in the modern age
Today we take a very different approach towards our mortality. We try to delay death, and even ageing, with diets, medication, surgery, and cosmetics. Or we ignore it, distracting ourselves and living as if we will never die, until sickness or grief rips back the curtain.
Young people are particularly numbed to the reality of death. Now that we have modern medicine, fatal illnesses in adolescence are rare. We can enjoy being young, healthy, and having our whole lives ahead of us—there doesn’t seem to be any need to sour it by unnecessarily dwelling on death.
But it’s a fragile illusion. Earlier this week I went the memorial service of a friend who passed away suddenly at the age of 24. It’s times like these that we’re cruelly and abruptly brought face-to-face with the inescapable reality of death.
Today we take a very different approach towards our mortality. We try to delay death, and even ageing, with diets, medication, surgery, and cosmetics. But it’s a fragile illusion.
And how will we cope? It’s disorienting to stare death in the face when we’ve pretended for so long that it can’t hurt us. So we need to stop pretending, and start thinking about and preparing for death. I’m not saying we need to return to medieval conceptions of preparation. In Dying Thoughts, Baxter exhorts us to instead anchor our hope in our glorious union with Christ, which we will only have in full after death:
What was it but this glory, to which he elected thee? Not to the riches and honours of this world, or the pleasures of the flesh, but chose thee in Christ to an inheritance in glory?
Don’t waste your youth, or your life, chasing trifles. We can live with abundant joy knowing that the best is ahead of us.
This life is preparation
Every choice we make now is preparing us for the next life—either eternal joy, or eternal condemnation. By his death, Jesus Christ redeemed the souls of everyone who trusts in him. But he redeemed us for himself, not to find our best in this life. So while you’re here, think deeply about your eternal home. Spend your life now seeking joy in the only place you will find it: in our heavenly inheritance.
Jesus redeemed us for himself, not to find our best in this life. So while you’re here, think deeply about your eternal home.
This view of death brings new meaning to life. We know our pain is purposeful—it is all working to set our hearts and hopes more fully on heaven. Nothing we suffer in this life can compare to the glory that awaits (Romans 8:18). And the daily mercies which God gives us are also meant to lift our eyes to something more permanent:
Both calms and storms are to bring me to this harbour; if I take them but for themselves and for this present life, I mistake them, unthankfully vilify them, and lose their end, life, and sweetness. Every word and work of God, every day’s mercies and changes, look at heaven and intend eternity.
So we need to fight to remember what lies beyond the veil. Baxter’s Dying Thoughts is the antidote we desperately need today. We need to think about death, and prepare for it now.
The fight to remember
I’m sure you know from experience that remembering the reality of death and eternity is hard. We are consumed by the joys and struggles of this life, and on a mundane Tuesday our thoughts are not likely to wander to the grave.
Everything conspires to make us forget—Satan schemes to keep our eyes off Jesus, and advertising companies convince us that all our hope should be in having and doing the best in this life. Even before the days of television commercials, Baxter was well aware of our tendency to forget. He writes:
All men know that the world is vanity, that man must die, that riches cannot then profit, that time is precious, and that we have but little time to prepare for eternity; but how little do men seem to have of the real knowledge of these plain truths!
Young person, seek after this real knowledge. Read Baxter’s Dying Thoughts. Study the Bible, which teaches us to “number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Trust Jesus, who tells us: “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20).
What will my legacy be?
Statistically, I’ve probably got 60 or 65 years left on this earth—and even that’s no guarantee. It’s a mere blink from the perspective of eternity. Baxter’s book reminds me that I have a choice before me. I can follow the world, distracting myself with money, success, and possessions so I don’t have to think about death. Or I could draw close to Jesus Christ, knowing I will dwell with him in heaven forever.
I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to think about having a good death—one where I can go joyfully into the arms of my Saviour. I do not have to make peace with my Maker before I die. He has already secured that peace for me by the blood of Jesus, and it never wavers despite my weakness or sins.
If God is merciful to give me a peaceful end, surrounded by friends and family, I hope my parting testimony to them will be these words from Baxter:
The emptiness, danger, and bitterness of the world, and the all-sufficiency, faithfulness, and goodness of God, have been the sum of all the experiences of my life.
 R Baxter, Dying Thoughts, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2009.
 Dying Thoughts, p. 13.
 Dying Thoughts, p. 60.
 Dying Thoughts, p. 62.
 Dying Thoughts, p. 92.
 Dying Thoughts, p. 115.