The other day Zach and I updated our will. It was strange to stop and think about our death. We are barely in our 40s, and life seems to be an endless rush of calendars, kid’s activities, work and busyness. But on this rainy afternoon, we had to stop and seriously consider what would happen if we died. Who would raise our kids? What would happen to our business? What about our money and home? I have to admit, it was a little gloomy thinking about those things, and I was happy to get back to scurrying around until I read the news the next day.
On December 11, 2023, A New York Post article reported that the 80-year old heir to the Hermès fortune, Nicolas Puech, was planning to distribute his wealth in an unexpected fashion. According to the Swiss publication Tribune de Genève, Puech is reportedly planning to designate his “former gardener and handyman”, an unnamed 51-year-old man, as his heir upon his death.
Evidently Zach and I were not the only ones who were making decisions about what would happen after we died. The difference is when Mr. Puech executed his will his story made the news, ours did not. Hermès is ranked the #1 richest family by Chartr in luxury goods.
Puech is a fifth-generation descendant of Thierry Hermès, who laid the foundation of the luxury fashion house in 1837. Puech never married or had children. He ranks among Switzerland’s wealthiest individuals and in order to make his gardener his heir, he plans to formalize the adoption of his employee.
Many people weighed in their responses on social media. Some people claimed he had lost his marbles. Others praised him for trusting his gardener. Still others slammed him, claiming the money would have been better suited going to charities. Most people fell somewhere in the middle, “His money, his choice.” But is death really his choice?
Do any of us really have a say of what happens to our stuff once we die? We all know we aren’t living forever. So why do I act like I am?
To deal with the fact that we all will die one day, most people live in some kind of delusion about impending death. At least, that is what writer and atheist Ernest Becker believed. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his famous book, The Denial of Death. Becker’s main point in The Denial of Death is that, deep down, humanity’s biggest problem in this world is that we are all terrified of death. So we deny its existence so we can escape into a feeling of immortality.
I have to admit, he’s got an interesting diagnosis for the problems we face on this earth. But that didn’t surprise me. The truth is, most secular writers, therapists, or counselors are able to arrive at a clear diagnosis for people. They almost always nail it right on the head.
We all are so desperate to be heard and understood that we mistake a perfect diagnosis for a perfect prescription. After all, the devil will be able to tell you better than anyone what’s wrong with you. Satan has no problem revealing the truth of what’s wrong with you. What he wants to conceal from you is any hope for a solution.
Becker’s prescriptions for this exacting diagnosis are pithy, over simplistic, and downright impossible. He claims that everyone’s life’s project is to deny or repress this fear of death. Instead, attempt to fulfill your need for some kind of heroism. He describes creation as a heartless, nasty thing. Eat or be eaten. The only way out of it is to make something, or yourself, into some kind of hero who will fight against the evil in the world, instead of other people.
Read how he ends his book:
The most any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force. [i]
Believe it or not, what atheist Becker writes here sounds unintentionally similar to what I believe is the life goal of a Christian. He gets so close, while being still so far off from the truth.
Let me break it down.
First he says,
The most any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—
That’s true! You are made to fashion something, to create, to work, to mold, to be given talents and treasures.
So that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.
He continues on…
drop it (your life work) into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak,
Right again! Our life is not for ourselves. We need to live for a purpose outside ourselves. Becker is absolutely right. We have a deep longing to contribute to something, even if it seems like, as he calls it, utter confusion. Living for the cause of Jesus allows you to live for something that will last beyond your death. While there is a lot of discussion about death and end times in our world today, the truth of the matter is, that you are living in the only days you’ll ever have. Make them count.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
And then he ends with,
to the life force.
Did this just become about Star Wars? Becker is, once more, exactly right. There is a life force. There does exist a God who created all things, sustains all things, and is in control of all things. He is our life force. This force became a man in Jesus, and died to become our heirloom, eternal life.
That power is the same as the mighty strength, he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
So after making my will, should I just post sticky notes around my house reminding me I am dying soon and it’s all a part of life? Should I embrace it and act like it is no big deal? Read what Tim Keller says in his book, On Death.
“To say “Oh, death is just natural,” is to harden and perhaps kill a part of your heart’s hope that makes you human. We know deep down that we are not like trees or grass. We were created to last. We don’t want to be ephemeral, to be inconsequential. We don’t want to just be a wave upon the sand. The deepest desires of our hearts are for love that lasts. (emphasis mine)
Death is not the way it ought to be. It is abnormal, it is not a friend, it isn’t right. This isn’t truly part of the circle of life. Death is the end of it. So grieve. Cry. The Bible tells us not only to weep, but to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15 NASB). We have a lot of crying to do.”
The Denial of Death was not well received. Becker became an outcast the last decade of his life. No one listened to him until he won the Pulitzer. Except Becker wasn’t even around to accept it. He had died of cancer at the age of 49, two months prior.
- Becker didn’t take his Pulitzer Prize with him. He never even knew he had won it.
- Puech won’t take his Hermès fortune with him. I read through hundreds of comments on social media. Not one person suggested that he take it with him. Why? We all know that we can’t.
So if we know that awards, results of hard work and billions of dollars can’t be taken with us, why do we live for them? We deny that we are finite and we need God and instead act as if we are living forever.
Becker wasn’t wrong on everything. He was missing one crucial detail…God.
This world can be confusing. I don’t understand why some children have to grow up without parents. I don’t understand why a man who seemed to have everything would have no one to love. I don’t understand why a man who worked so hard to try and understand and explain the complexities of this life would die young and never know his impact. Nothing in this world makes any sense without Jesus.
This Lent I invite you to contemplate, like Becker, death and heroism. But rather than thinking about your own death and being your own hero, consider this:
- Think about the death of Jesus for our sin.
- Think about Jesus as the hero our hearts long for.
His death was the shocking solution in the dark diagnosis of our sin.
Lent begins on February 14. Join us on February 11 as we begin a 40-Day Challenge to look at forty things Jesus said to do. But we don’t have to look at them with trembling. You and I can face them without fear, without condemnation and without pressure to fulfill them because Jesus faced death and won life.
If a gardener can become an heir to a fortune, imagine what God has in store for you!
[i] Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. Free Press Paperbacks. 1973.