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Death and Steve Jobs

A Christian Response to the Stanford Commencement Speech

On Wednesday night, the news broke that Steve Jobs, the founder and former CEO of Apple, had passed away from pancreatic cancer. Due largely to the overwhelming popularity of Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad products over the last ten years, Steve Jobs had become a household name, and so the news of his death was greeted in ways that would not be expected upon the death of any other business leader. Tributes are still pouring in from all areas of society, and makeshift memorials are popping up at Apple retail stores.

While people seem shocked, those in the tech community were not surprised. He had been fighting cancer for years. In a soon-to-be released biography, Jobs apparently tells the author in an interview done only a few months ago that he did not have much time left. His declining health had already moved him to prepare his company for his departure, and the preparations even included the creation of an in-house training initiative called “Apple University” that aimed to instill Jobs’ philosophy and values in future generations of Apple managers and executives. In August, Jobs stepped down from the CEO role and became chairman of Apple’s board, citing his inability to continue his duties. He asked the board to implement a succession plan that had been in the works for some time.

So Jobs had known this was coming. This knowledge of his own mortality had moved him to reflect publicly on the subject of death, as far back as 2005. In a now-famous commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs said the following:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: 'If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.' It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?'

"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

For Steve Jobs, death was a motivator. The fact of mortality spurred him on in his work. The spectre of his coming death was a reminder not to waste the limited time he had left.

But he went on in this same speech to say:

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there.”

That’s true. Death is scary. Even though Jobs then went on to try to paint death as natural and normal (“death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent”), the very force of the approach to life he was advocating to the students at Stanford depended on the fact that death is unpleasant. “Your time is limited,” Jobs said. Well, death is the limiting factor. And so, for all his efforts to make it normal and natural, it is still something not to look forward to. Jobs conceded that.

And in that concession we see the true motivation that Steve Jobs was setting before the students at Stanford: not just mortality, but the fear of death. The fear that your clock will stop, that your hourglass will run out. The fear that this unpleasant moment will come, and that the time for enjoyment is now.

Now the Bible says some similar things. Paul, in particular, tells the Corinthians:

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

Paul, too, reminded his readers that their time was short. But read closely, and he is actually advocating the opposite of what Steve Jobs was saying. Jobs told his audience to make the most of the here and now. Paul, on the other hand, tells his audience to hold the here and now with a loose hand – even marriage and mourning and rejoicing and commerce, as important as they seem, pale in comparison to the fact that the world as it is now is passing away. Paul, in context, is talking about the troubles and anxieties that come with married life, and how those troubles can distract from devotion and service to God. But this world with those troubles will soon pass away, Paul says. Devotion and service to God, therefore, matters more than the concerns of this life. Time is short – not because this is all the time we Christians have, but because there is so much Kingdom work to do here and now. Time is short for us to share the Good News, and for the lost to trust in Christ to save them from their sins and the judgment that soon will come upon them.

Both Steve Jobs and Paul set a coming end before their hearers for perspective. For Jobs, that end is death. But for Paul, that end is the coming judgment and destruction of this world, to be replaced by a new heavens and new earth. A place where, in the words of Revelation, “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Steve Jobs’ end was final, something to be feared. Paul’s, and the Christian’s, end is but a new beginning.

I don’t know how well Jobs lived his words. I hope he, like so many others, was inconsistent. Because if he did live his words, then he lived his life motivated by fear – the fear that the clock was about to run out, the fear that his time would be wasted. But for the Christian reading Paul, and John in Revelation, the motivation is not fear. What is there to fear, for the believer? “Where, O death, is your sting?” we cry. Steve Jobs said in this speech, “Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.” He was wrong. Jesus Christ escaped death, and conquered death, and as a result everyone joined to him will escape it as well.

Christians are not motivated by fear. We are, instead, motivated by hope – the hope of resurrection, the hope of the new heavens and the new earth, and most of all, the hope of God dwelling with man and our living in his presence forever. This is a hope, however, that only belongs to the Christian believer, to the one who has abandoned all hope in their own ability to please God and has trusted in Christ’s work instead to count on their behalf in God’s eyes. For those who insist on doing things their own way, who insist on living their life as if it belongs to them and not to God, there remains existence after death – but an existence under God’s punishment.

Steve Jobs was a giant of industry and a creative genius, and history will probably place him alongside industrialists and corporate titans like Henry Ford and Walt Disney. He lived the kind of life he advocated for others: one that made an impact here and now. But for all his God-given talent and intelligence, the vision of life and death he set before those students at Stanford was fearful and hopeless.

My prayer is that it didn’t remain that way for Jobs, and that he did in the end find hope and salvation in Christ. And I hope that those students he talked to eventually come to find hope in Jesus Christ rather than the fear of death.

And perhaps, by God’s grace, as our world mourns the loss of Steve Jobs and thanks him for all he made of aluminum and glass, their thoughts and hearts will turn to the One who made aluminum and glass – and Steve Jobs – in the first place

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