Dying Well, Anticipating Glory
By Zoe S. Erler
dying well

Elizabeth Turnage says she got strange looks when she told people she was writing a book about death and dying.

“Are you sick?” they would ask. 

“Not as far as I know,” she replied.

Some might have wondered if she had a fascination with morbidity. But that wasn’t it either. 

“It’s the book I’ve needed as I’ve ventured repeatedly into the valley of the shadow of death over the last five years or so,” she explains. 

Is It Really True?

A writer, teacher, and student at Covenant Theological Seminary living in Pensacola, Florida, Turnage founded Living Story ministries in 2005 to help people understand and live out their unique stories of God’s grace. 

But in 2017, her own story of grace required a greater reckoning than she could have anticipated. Her youngest child, Robert, received the startling diagnosis that he had a brain tumor. He was 22 years old. Over the next seven months, he underwent four life-threatening surgeries. At the same time, Turnage’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The then-55-year-old mother and daughter found herself in a lot of waiting rooms.

“In that season, my family needed to know that what we affirmed [in the Heidelberg Catechism] was true: ‘My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong—body and soul—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.’ In that harrowing season, I saw that we needed to be ready for death at any and every age.”

Out of that experience, Turnage authored “The Waiting Room: 60 Meditations for Finding Peace & Hope in a Health Crisis.”

Her son recovered. Her father did not, and Turnage began navigating a myriad of heavy decisions, such as whether her father should be buried or cremated. 

And then in 2021, her mother also died suddenly from Covid. Despite the fact that her mother had put together a comprehensive end-of-life plan and was a believer, the experience washed over Turnage as another wave of grief.

“In that valley, I’ve learned how much we need to be able to face our fear of death and dying with the hope of heaven.”

Confusion and Avoidance

Through these experiences, Turnage practically stumbled into becoming an expert on all things end of life. Prior to her mother’s death, Turnage was invited to speak at a conference on death and dying at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, she began pursuing a doctorate from CTS, and decided on an independent study on death and dying. She submitted her study to P&R Publishing, and the result was “Preparing for Glory: Biblical Answers to 40 Questions on Living and Dying in Hope of Heaven,” released on February 7.

“The church is aging,” she says, “We need more resources on the aging church.” 

Turnage refers to the “silver tsunami,” a popular metaphor that’s been used to describe the U.S.’s aging population, particularly baby boomers who are turning 65 at rates of more than 11,000 a day, according to accepted statistics.

“A lot of baby boomers didn’t really grow up in church, and they don’t really know what’s going to happen when they die.”

Because of this, Turnage notes, the cultural waters teem with misconceptions about death. “Preparing for Glory” aims to correct these false ideas.

“We’ve all heard ‘heaven has gained another angel’ … [in reality] we actually have a far more glorious future than angels do.”

And then there’s the notion that heaven is boring, where everyone is just floating around on clouds playing harps.

“It’s true that the Bible doesn’t go into deep detail about what heaven as an immediate state is going to be like, but we do see reunion with God and other people, we see worship—not some[thing] boring and stale … It’s going to be beautiful.”

In researching for the book, Turnage discovered that in the 15th century there was a proliferation of pamphlets referred to as Ars moriendi, “the art of dying.” These Latin texts were meant to prepare Christians to die well, particularly in the aftermath of the Black Death, which killed 25 million Europeans. 

We’re more removed from death today, Turnage points out.

“[Because of] the advances in modern medicine, we have made it possible to postpone death,” she explains. “It has made death seem farther away.”

As well, in the last century, the experience of death has moved from the home to hospitals and nursing homes. Because of this, we don’t witness death in front of us as would have people in previous generations. 

Death is something people either avoid discussing or something that is talked about in secular clubs dedicated to helping people determine the most ecologically-friendly way to dispose of their bodies one day, Turnage notes. 

“We need to recover the lost art of dying, as Christians,” she says.

The Lost Art

In the pages of “Preparing for Glory,” Turnage sets out to help the church do just that, by painting a glorious picture of the Christian’s heavenly hope, and providing both immensely practical and necessarily spiritual encouragement.

This book is divided into seven sections, with each short chapter linking to additional reading or listening resources from the likes of Charles Spurgeon, Anne R. Cousins, and Thabiti Anyabwile. The first sections address the spiritual: What the Bible teaches about Christ’s death and resurrection, eternal glory, the Day of the Lord, the final judgment, and the new heavens and the new earth. 

Turnage says that she has encountered a lot of Christians who are downright scared, not just of dying, but of facing the final judgment. They imagine that they will appear before God with all of their sins revealed and played before the whole world, an embarrassing and shameful experience. For Turnage, Scripture doesn’t justify this common image.

“I don’t think that’s the picture that [we should have] because Christ said from the cross, ‘It is finished.’ ”

She quotes theologian Richard Phillips, “No Christian, justified through faith in Christ, should ever face the thought of the final judgment with … anxiety.” 

Rather, believers in Christ should spend time developing a deep anticipation for glory. Turnage paints the following picture: 

What is life in eternity like? Think of the best adventure movie you’ve ever seen. The battle is won, the bad guys defeated. After the final image fades, a new screen appears: ‘Five years later …’ Now you see victorious soldiers sit down with their beloved captain, enjoy a feast with the entire village, hug their children and grandchildren, and tend a garden with their neighbors … If you can picture this, you are getting a glimpse of the scene in Revelation 21 and 22. The battle has ended, Jesus has won, and Satan and all his worshipers have been tossed into the lake of fire. Now our real life, our truest life, the life we have been waiting for all along, begins.

Leaving a Legacy Like Jesus

The middle sections of the book address the practical: How people should think about the processes of aging, sickness, and dying; what documents to collect for their successors in advance of their death; how to prepare an end-of-life service; stewarding one’s financial legacy and preparing an emotional legacy; and how to extend and ask forgiveness for lingering hurts. 

In crafting this section, Turnage said she often looked to the example of Christ as He prepared to face His own death. In the upper room where Jesus and His disciples observed the Passover before He went to the cross, Jesus left an emotional legacy, Turnage points out. He tells His disciples goodbye; He leaves them instructions; He tells them that He loves them. 

At 61, Turnage says she wants for herself and others in her stage of life to prepare to leave this kind of legacy for her children, and make the end of life decisions no-brainers for them. 

“Glory is so beyond anything we’ve ever imagined, so sweet, and restful, and beautiful …  I’m going to be fine, more than fine. But my kids are going to be grieving, so I want to give them that road map in their grief. It is no fun trying to decide if your parent wanted to be cremated or buried.” 

The Hardest Chapter

The final sections are written for the church: how to care for someone nearing death, as well as how to minister to the caregivers; how to lament in the face of death; and how to think about a loved one whose eternal destiny is a question mark. 

In fact, this last topic was the most difficult chapter for Turnage to write. 

“What about unbelievers? When we think our loved ones are unbelievers, or we’re not sure?”

Turnage said that she was unsure about her own father, actually “very concerned.” Still, in the last two years of his life, she said she saw his heart soften. He told her that he had been baptized as a boy, even though he had gone on to live a mostly secular, intellectual life as an English professor. Turnage prayed that the Holy Spirit would bring him to repentance even as his days on earth dwindled. During his last years as Turnage experienced intermingled fear and hope for him, she says looked to the wisdom that Nancy Guthrie shared in a Gospel Coalition podcast: 1) We can never perfectly evaluate another person’s heart; 2) God is trustworthy; and 3) God is rich in mercy.

Quoting Guthrie: “‘[God] loves to save. We often have hurdles we want people to jump through to believe that they have been joined to Christ. We are often stingy with mercy.’ God is far more merciful than we are.”

A Bridge

Like a flight attendant providing comfort for travelers getting from one place to another, Turnage provides a similar handholding experience in “Preparing for Glory.”

“I want people to connect that the book will be a bridge [from life to death], not intimidating. [Preparing for glory] should be an anticipation, and a joy, and an aspect of loving our neighbor as ourselves.”

Click here to find more resources from Elizabeth Turnage.

Photo by panyawat auitpol on Unsplash.

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