Halloween, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Christian Eschatology

October 31, 2017

Halloween, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Christian Eschatology

Halloween spending in America rose to an estimated $9.1 billion dollars this year, up from $8.4 billion in 2016. This trend represents a logical extension of secular American materialism. Yet Halloween’s celebration of the morose ironically emphasizes themes running counter to a culture obsessed with ignoring death.

Increasingly, Western culture pushes death out of sight and out of mind. “I think the UK and the US are death-denying cultures, in that death is mostly avoided as a topic,” University of Lincoln researcher and lecturer Nathan Heflick recently told The Guardian. “The less something is openly discussed, the scarier it becomes. While avoiding talking about death can reduce a little discomfort in the short term, it probably makes most of us much more anxious to die in the long term.”

Perhaps Halloween provides an opportunity for Christians to discuss death with non-believers. If we speak about death openly, it will provide more than psychological relief. We can share our reason for genuine hope. Because of the Gospel, Christians have faith for life after death.

Moreover, Christian eschatology emphasizes that the end of the world can come at any time. Christ warned his followers that He would return like a thief. “Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 34:44, ESV)

Paul the Apostle echoed this warning: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, ESV)

Constant readiness for the end of earthly life signifies a fundamental lesson from Christian eschatology. By extension, Christians should be ready for death, a message we are tasked with bringing to the world.

However, for several centuries, Western culture has conditioned its denizens to ignore death. Short story The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1886, encapsulates the depths of despair experienced on the verge of death without eternal hope. (Dreamscape Media produced a brilliant new audiobook of The Death of Ivan Ilyich earlier this year, available here.)

Protagonist Ivan Illyich served as a successful judge in Imperial Russia. But his pursuit of professional attainment, social standing, and more possessions leave him despairing, afraid, and angry as he approached dying. In his final days, Ivan Illyich experienced an excruciating ailment accompanied by anguish: “He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.”

Like Ivan Illyich, everyone who approaches the end of life without God faces a hopeless situation. Wealth and fame will provide no comfort.

We as Christians, in contrast, have a message of hope to share with all humans. The Heidelberg Catechism wonderfully summarizes our Christian confidence:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

May this Halloween provide a context to share the “reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV). Let us be ready to finish the race well, and inspire others to run alongside us.

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