Death and Taxes
“It’s impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.”
Many attribute this phrase to Benjamin Franklin, but he borrowed it from The Cobbler of Preston, a 1716 farce by London playwright Christopher Bullock.
The cobbler Toby cheated on his wife and returned home drunk. Dorcas, the Cobbler’s wife, found out about his exploits and tried to make him feel guilty. She talked to him as if she didn’t know him, going on about how she used to have a loyal husband who loved her. Although they were poor, she thought they lived together in peace for many years.
The Cobbler played along with the rouse and asked to know her husband’s name. “Toby Guzzle,” she replied, “if it pleases you!”
Toby, scoffing at her boldness, suggested that she might be dreaming. “Woman, it’s all a dream, I tell you!” — Toby was accusing her of inventing the affair to try to get out of it.
With despairing words, she replied, “Indeed, my lord. It is true.”
She didn’t agree with Toby that she dreamt it all up. Dorcas meant that it was an empty dream to believe she could find happiness in this life.
Toby was stuck on his narcissistic line of reasoning. Wishing to be free of the frustrating conversation, Toby suggested that, in her dream, perhaps she had no husband at all. Maybe everything is a dream. Riffing on the Cartesian philosophy of the day, he made a suggestion. Maybe Dorcas has no life at all. Imaginably no one has life at all. The life we perceive is just a meaningless vision—a bit deep for a drunken Cobbler if you ask me.
Dorcas, realizing how damaged Toby’s pride was—not just by his adultery, but because of the pitiable man he had become—relented from her rouse. In a moment of compassion, she exclaimed, “I know what your honor means to you, but I’m sure [I’m not dreaming].”
Toby pushed back with his infamous words: “It’s impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes—therefore hold your Tongue…I was in a Dream for fifteen Years myself, and dreamt I married you.”
Toby and Dorcas were both desperate to be free from the pain of their circumstances in this world.
Through the character Toby Guzzle, the playwright developed an awareness of entropy—the reality that all things eventually lead to death. The creation groans with longing for the end to come, the Apostle Paul tells us. Human rebellion brought death into this world, and since the advent of humankind, everything has been moving in the direction of death and destruction.
Plants die, animals die, humans die, the earth is dying, and the ever-expanding universe will one day lose its ability to maintain any life. The universe itself is dying. Everything dies. Toby was right on this point; we can be sure of that.
In every broken institution in this world, we are reminded of the immanence of death. God never promises us one more breath. As humankind, we are plagued by the coming end. “Everyone is tempted by their passions. They entice us and lure us away. As your carnal desires conceive sin within you, you give birth to sin. And sin lived out, produces death” (James 1:14–15).
“It’s impossible to be sure of anything but Death” is outrageously depressing.
There is a lengthy story in the Bible called the Book of Job. The author set the story in ancient times, around the time of Abraham. Job was a righteous man who lived a life that honored God.
The story begins in God’s throne room, where an accuser in God’s court wants to test Job’s faithfulness. God permitted the accuser to do any horrible thing to Job that he wanted, as long as he did not take Job’s life. The accuser utterly devastated Job with plague, famine, and loss to the point that he begged for death. But death did not come.
The story quickly shifts from the supernatural perspective to the created world where Job is wrestling with the timeless question, Why would God allow this to happen to me?
The author of the book recorded numerous philosophical conversations about Job’s circumstances—not unlike people have today in times of suffering. Job’s three friends give lengthy explanations and responses in, which you eventually learn are incorrect. Some of the conversations are prayers and responses between Job and God, demonstrating Job’s faulty thinking, as well.
At one point, Job confessed to God, “I know that you lead me to die, to the dwelling place of all who are living” (Job 30:23). Job became fatalistic and uncertain of what he formerly believed about God.
At this point, Elihu, the youngest of Job’s friends, gets angry. Being the youngest by far, he had waited to speak out of respect for the others. But Elihu had to speak up. Job was justifying himself as a righteous man instead of considering justice from God’s perspective. And he was irritated with the other three friends who failed to speak wisdom into Job’s circumstances.
Elihu jumps in to remind Job, “The Spirit of God made me. And the Almighty’s breath gives life” (Job 33:4). Although entropy is the pattern of human existence and all things are experiencing the death caused by sin, Elihu encourages Job, “God holds your soul back from death. God keeps you from crossing the river of death” (Job 33:18). God preserves your life.
Elihu is angry because Job and the other three friends despair over this life’s pains and coming death. For Elihu, the reality of death is different. He might say:
Elihu sees death as hope for today.
We talk about COVID-19 and all the restrictions. We’re comparing it to the Spanish flu, bubonic plague, and all the others. Half our society is stressed, despairing, and losing hope. The other half is angry, rebellious, and ready to fight.
I’m not about to say the pandemic or any other circumstance you are suffering in life isn’t ‘that bad.’ I won’t tell you to suck it up because other people have it worse. I won’t try to make you feel guilty as if you have miraculous blessings in life and shouldn’t be suffering from anxiety, depression, or other emotional disorders.
I’m just going to encourage you that suffering and death should remind you that you’re alive. And if you live—Elihu reminds us—God is still breathing life into you. If the breath of the Almighty is in you, you have purpose and hope. You have a life of hope to live right now. Death does not rule your mind; the living breath of God does.
What if you deserve death?
What if I don’t deserve hope?
You know that ‘the price we pay for sin is death,’ and you have such a difficult time believing that the life you have lived can result in anything other than pain, suffering, and ultimately death.
Paul said, “The price we pay for our sin is death. But, God’s free gift is to live forever through Jesus Christ.” The biblical philosophy of death is that sin results in death because God is the giver of life.
It’s very consistent. Sin destroys, but God builds up. Sin causes death, but God gives life. Everyone deserves to die because of our sinfulness, but God offers us grace.
Our problem is that we believe pain, suffering, and death are punishment, so we wallow in despair. That’s what Job did. He threw his hands up and gave into death. All I can be sure about is that I will die, so I’ll just try to make it through life until I hit that point, and I guess that’s the best I can do.
But you can do better. Don’t hear me wrong on this. Job’s friends told him that his sin must be greater than he realized, and because of that, God was punishing him. The solution Job’s friends recommended was to try harder to do better, and maybe God would deliver him from the suffering and the despair of imminent death.
But that’s not what the Bible teaches, and that way of thinking angered Elihu. “Elihu…was angry at Job because he had justified himself rather than seeing God as just” (Job 32:2). God showed Job that he was an impure man, and Job defended his righteousness. Job should have humbly acknowledged his need for God to purify him. Job was childish, like a kid covered from head to toe in paint, still insisting he didn’t get into the paint.
‘Doing better’ doesn’t mean convincing God you are righteous. It means you should stop looking at death through the lens of disparity and start looking at death through the lens of ‘God can’ and ‘God will.’ I deserve death for sin, but God can purify me. I deserve to suffer, but God will give me hope.
And changing your thinking may not change your circumstances—it probably won’t. I don’t think a vaccine or some other end to the pandemic will fix humankind’s despair in our days. We need something more meaningful. That meaning comes through the love of Jesus.
Love Conquers Death
There is a juxtaposition between love and death. Anticipating his secret wedding to Juliet, Romeo stood before Friar Lawrence. He pled with the friar, “Close our hands with holy words, then love-devouring death may do what he dares. It is enough that I may call her mine” (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Romeo believed that death will devour love. But he also declared love’s endurance despite death by his actions.
Without love, we welcome death. But love is greater than death because love is worth dying for. Solomon wrote, “Love is strong like death. And the passion of love is relentless like the grave. Love’s passion is like the flames of a fire—even the fire of the LORD—which a vast flood cannot extinguish; love that many rivers cannot wash away” (Song of Solomon 8:6b–7a).
Solomon wrote of his love for his bride, but his testimony illustrates God’s love for his people. His passion is so strong that death cannot overtake God’s love. The love of God is relentless as the grave. As assured as we are that we will die, we can be sure that the unwavering love of God will rescue us.
The Fire of the LORD refers to God’s judgment for sin. But his love for humankind is equally powerful. God’s wrath for sin and His love for humanity burn with inextinguishable fire.
But, how can a God of wrath love those for whom he has reserved death? How is a vengeful God, also loving?
It is because love and death are juxtaposed. They stand on opposite sides of a spectrum. God’s righteousness demands justice. God’s love insists on mercy. “But Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This is how God proves his love for us.” (Romans 5:8).
We throw this statement around all the time in the church, “Jesus died for my sins.” But, I’m not sure we’re always clear on what it means that Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died, so you don’t have to die—that’s not physical death, but a spiritual death of separation from God and all his goodness for eternity. Jesus settled the debt of death that we owe. When Jesus died on the cross, God appeased his own wrath for those he loves. In other words, God is not just if he doesn’t love in order to justify us.
But, this message is not merely about Jesus’s death. It’s more about Jesus’s power over death. The Apostle Paul recounted the earliest Christian creed to the Corinthian church, “I delivered the most significant message I received to you. Christ died for our sins as recorded in the Scriptures. He was buried and raised on the third day as recorded in the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). Jesus’s power to overtake death and rise from the grave is the hinge pin of the entire Christian faith. Without this teaching, our whole way of thinking falls apart. In other words:
The Apostle Paul continued his message to the Corinthians, ‘If we say that Christ rose from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead [for us]”? If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ has not been raised either’ (1 Corinthians 15:12–13). According to Paul, it makes no sense for Jesus to die and rise, but for us to die and not rise. Further, it makes no sense for us to hope for eternal life if Jesus did not himself obtain eternal life. The two go together. Jesus’s power over death demands that we will rise with him.
So, Toby Guzzle was wrong in part. Death and taxes are not the only assurances we have. If life assures us of death as Toby observed, then death assures us of the love of God. We are assured of death and love—and I guess taxes as well.
Like Romeo, we should say, “Love-devouring death may do what he dares. It is enough that Jesus calls me his.” His love for you is as strong as death, relentless as the grave. The Lord burns with love for you that even overtakes the wrath of God for sin.
How do we take hold of God’s love? How does Jesus exercise his power over death in our lives?
“We proclaim this message regarding our beliefs: If your words convey that Jesus is your lord, and you are convicted that God raised him from the dead, God will save you [from death]” (Romans 10:8b–9).
There are two parts to this passage:
1. You have to believe that Jesus has power over death—that he rose from the dead. That’s a big ask. Not everyone has it in them to believe in resurrection. But, if you know in your heart that eternal life exists—that God has placed eternity in you—then you ought to believe that Jesus has resurrection power.
2. You follow Jesus as Lord. To follow a Lord is to be a servant who follows and obeys. You evidence your belief through outward activity.
You could synthesize our thinking about Jesus by saying that:
They’re inseparable realities. You cannot believe that God died to rescue you from wrath for sins without living a life to be free from sins. You also cannot live a life free of sins without believing that Jesus is Lord. It doesn’t compute. If you believe in Jesus, you follow him in the way he lived. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you do whatever you think is right in your own eyes.
I want this to unsettle the way you think about Christianity. Too many people become Christians because they want Jesus to help them live their life better. But:
Jesus said, “If you want to be my follower, deny yourself, daily take up your cross, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). How do you live Jesus’s life?
1. Deny yourself. It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus and his love for his people. It’s not about me.
2. Take up your cross. Crucify yourself. Love raises life out of death, so let the old self die. Stop holding onto values, morals, or ideologies that do not belong to Jesus. Take uop your cross and let the old self die.
3. Follow Jesus. Live out the patterns and purposes of Jesus. Read the Gospels, observe how Jesus lived. Observe his purposes. Invest in those who are weak, weary, and hurting in our world. Invest in the orphan and the widow. Invest in the poor and the persecuted. Invest in the wicked who are perishing.
Jesus had a least-of-these ministry to love the physically and spiritually impoverished.
Live your life for love because love is the power of Jesus over death that gives life to those who are perishing.