A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts... becoming mature, seasoned— finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity... it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. This painful paradox is not lost on the person himself— least of all himself." (268-269, The Denial of Death, 1973)The quote is reminiscent of something that you might read in Ecclesiastes. Indeed, Solomon writes:
Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:15-17)It's hard work to master a skill, and once you do, death is all the nearer. If you live life for the advancement of self— if you live life merely to develop your talents so that you can stand with dignity, then what's the point? What are your accomplishments worth when you're dead? For the unbeliever, little answer can be given. It is indeed a "painful paradox". And that's the way it should be. What else could be the outcome of a life lived for something or someone other than the eternal Creator?
Becker's "painful paradox" only exists in the lives of those who try to pretend that God doesn't exist. With such a worldview, there is no hope. Death is final. For a person with such a mindset, a long life of suffering that leads to some sort of dignity is pointless. What hope is there that can be found? All that can be hoped in is the defeat of death.
We should be eager to listen to what Solomon has to say, for though he sees this paradox, he does not leave us in hopelessness. Solomon writes, "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
As Christians we put our hope in the eternal kingdom of God that is to come, in which death will be eliminated. The hope in the defeat of death is a good hope, but our secular culture today twists this hope; they put their hope in the defeat of death in this world. That is not the Christian hope. The Christian does not hope in a continuation of life in this sin-filled world. Instead, the Christian recognizes that this world is not home. There is a new Heaven and new Earth yet to come, and whatever "dignity" the Christian may accumulate in this life will be nothing compared to the joy of standing in the presence of Christ forever.
The Christian hope in the defeat of death is not founded upon medical advances or human ingenuity. Instead, it is a hope that we place in our Creator. We trust in the God who made all things, who "knows our frame" and "remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14). We trust our mourning will one day turn to comfort (Matthew 5:4). We trust that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death". The day is coming when death will be "swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54). It is for this reason that you, if you are a Christian, will be able to look back at the end of your life and agree with Paul's conclusion that "in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).