You Only Live Once
(Ecclesiastes 9)

By David Feddes

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

Do you believe in reincarnation? Is your present life just one of many lives that you live? Actress Shirley MacLaine talked about her past lives so much that a Hollywood personality remarked, “Shirley MacLaine is a good friend of mine. I’ve known her a long time. Why, I’ve known her ever since she was a cocker spaniel!” For millions of people, though, reincarnation isn’t a joke. It’s a basic part of how they think and live and see their place in the world. Many intelligent people believe in reincarnation; perhaps you’re one of them.

You may think that before you were born into this life, you had past lives as various kinds of people or other creatures. There’s something appealing about that. For one thing, it’s fun to think that you may once have been a princess or a pirate or a puppy, a tycoon or a tiger or a toucan—or all of these and more. Sounds more exciting than just being plain old you, doesn’t it?

And there’s another advantage to the idea of past lives: it offers a way to explain your troubles without blaming yourself for anything you’ve done in your present life. When something bad happens, you can look at it simply as bad karma from another life catching up with you. You may not remember your past life or what you did wrong, but you can still blame the person you were then, not the person you are now.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about reincarnation, though, isn’t the idea of past lives but of future lives. Belief in future lives gives you something to look forward to and aim for. If you make the most of this life, if you hang in there through tough times and live the way you should, then the next time around you’ll be reincarnated as something better.

And if you’re bad throughout this life, the idea of future lives is especially appealing. It means you always get another chance. Even if you reject God and do evil your entire life, you won’t suffer in hell forever. Even if you make a mess of this life, you get another life to get it right. There’s always next time. Okay, so maybe next time you’ll be reincarnated into a life that’s lower and more painful, and that may not be fun—but at least you get another chance. You can work off bad karma through suffering and build up good karma through wise choices.

Gary Zukav is the favorite spiritual adviser of TV superstar Oprah Winfrey. Zukav is a big believer in reincarnation, and Oprah helps him spread his ideas. Gary Zukav says, “You do not suffer for eternity because you do the wrong thing once, or twice, or even time after time. It is not possible to do a wrong thing. You do what you do, and you experience the consequences of it. It’s that simple. If you don’t experience those consequences before you die, your soul creates another life so that you can. That is reincarnation.” If reincarnation is real, you don’t have to worry that if you waste this life, you’ll be ruined forever. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Take as many lives as you need.

Those are just some of the reasons why reincarnation sounds appealing. But no matter how appealing it sounds, there’s one big problem: it’s not true. Reincarnation doesn’t happen.

You Only Live Once

According to the Bible, you only live once. You don’t have any past lives before you’re born, and you won’t have any future lives in this world after you die. This is it. You get one life on this earth, and then comes eternity. You only live once.

Belief in reincarnation often comes as part of a bigger package, an entire worldview. In this worldview, everybody and everything is part of God—and “God” isn’t personal but an impersonal power that energizes all things. In this worldview, death isn’t really death; it’s just moving into another life form. In this worldview, there’s ultimately no real difference between good and evil; it’s all part of God, all part of the impersonal force that energizes all things and moves them from life to life and ultimately makes them one. In this worldview, death is not the wages of sin or the final break from life in this world or the moment when our final destiny is decided. Death just means another chance in another life.

That way of looking at things is very different from what the Bible says. In Ecclesiastes 9 the Bible speaks not of all creatures being part of an impersonal divine force but of a personal God who is distinct from his creatures and who holds people in his hands. The author says that death is unavoidable. He says that wickedness and craziness are all too real and rotten, and that all too often people waste the one and only life they have. He says that where there’s life, there’s hope, but that death is final: you only live once. Let’s take a closer look at each of these findings.

The first foundational fact in Ecclesiastes 9 is that a personal God holds in his hand those who are in tune with him—but that’s no guarantee that life will always be easy or fun. Verse 1 says, “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.” If your heart is filled with God’s goodness and your mind is filled with his wisdom, you may be sure that you are in his hands and under his care. But there’s no automatic karma that makes you popular and trouble-free if you are godly. People may love you, but they may also hate you. Anything can happen, and you can’t really know in advance. The Lord is faithful, but that doesn’t mean life is predictable or easy.

A second foundational fact is that death is unavoidable, no matter who you are. In the words of verses 2 and 3,

All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all.

We don’t all share the same destiny in eternity, but we do share the same destiny on earth. Good people don’t move on to a better life form on earth; when they die, they’re dead. Bad people don’t drop to a lower life form on earth and try to do better next time; when they die, they’re dead. Their earthly life is over. “The same destiny overtakes all.”

A third basic finding is that in general people tend to waste the one life they’ve been given. Ecclesiastes says, “The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead” (9:3). What a waste! Rather than facing the fact that life is sure to end and making the most of our time on earth, we squander our brief time here on sin. Some worldviews pretend that sin isn’t all that serious, that it’s ultimately just a part of the great universal force that unifies everything. But the Bible says bluntly that sin is evil and insane, and that if we live in sin and die in sin, we’ve wasted the one life we’ve been given, and we won’t get another chance.

And that brings us to a fourth fact: Where there’s life, there’s hope; but once you’re dead, all earthly hope is gone. Ecclesiastes 9:4 says, “Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” At the time that was written, the lion was admired as the king of beasts, while dogs were despised as filthy, flea-bitten strays. But, says Ecclesiastes, even a live dog is better off than a dead lion. Once the lion is dead, it’s dead. Its time on earth is over. It won’t be reincarnated as something else, not even as a lowly dog.

So it is with people. No matter how great you are in life, it all ends when you die. A live bum is better off than a dead billionaire. As long as you’re alive, you have a will to live and an inner drive and a sense of expectation. In this world, the living have hopes and desires and at least some effect on things, but the dead have nothing. “For,” says Ecclesiastes, “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun (9:4-6).

Let me repeat that last part: “never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” When people die, they don’t come back in a different form for another round of life under the sun. Life isn’t a recurring cycle; it’s a one-way journey that eventually takes us through a doorway called death. Wherever the journey goes beyond death, one thing is certain: there’s no going back. We pass through this life only once, and then we leave it behind. We’ll never pass this way again. We can’t come back into the world in another human body or animal body and make the earthly part of the journey all over again.

* * *

Now, when you hear all this, when you hear Ecclesiastes say that you only live once and that death is the end, you might take it as a signal to get dreary and depressed. How can you enjoy life in this world if you focus on the fact that death is going to end it? And why should you put energy into achieving something if you’re eventually going to die and be forgotten anyway? Well, that’s one way to react to these things, but Ecclesiastes 9 encourages the very opposite. Rather than moping and moaning over the fact that life is short and that we only live once, we should make the most of life. We should relish the good things of life with joy and gladness, and we should throw ourselves into everything we do with wholehearted enthusiasm. Listen to what the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 9:7-10.

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Let me summarize that in eight simple words: Enjoy what you have. Do what you can. If you want to make the most of life, then remember those eight words: Enjoy what you have. Do what you can.

Enjoy What You Have

Instead of wishing you were somebody else or wishing for what you don’t have, enjoy what you do have. Relish your food. If you’ve got a sizzling hamburger or a piping hot pizza or a juicy peach, enjoy it! Don’t be thinking about the caviar you can’t afford. Take each new day as a time to celebrate. When it comes to clothing, don’t sit around wishing you had the latest fashion or the most expensive tailor-made stuff. Just wear your favorite and look your best and enjoy it! And if you’ve got a loving spouse, then by all means enjoy your life together. One loving wife is better than a thousand sex objects. Instead of wondering whether you could be happier with someone else, delight in your spouse and in your family life.

You see, the best things in life are often the simplest. You don’t have to be a king or a billionaire to enjoy what you have. The writer of Ecclesiastes was fabulously rich and sampled every kind of pleasure and had a thousand women, but when it came time to summarize how to live life, he didn’t say to chase a lavish lifestyle. Instead, he said to enjoy the simple things. God has put the greatest delights of this world right within the reach of most ordinary people: savoring good food, dressing up and celebrating, marriage and family.

These blessings are fleeting, since life is short and often wearisome. They may seem empty and meaningless, since they can’t satisfy our spiritual yearning for the eternal. But God has given them to you to enjoy, so enjoy them! “It is now that God favors what you do,” says Ecclesiastes. Trust God to accept and approve you in Jesus Christ. Trust him to satisfy your hunger for meaning and for eternity. Then enjoy! Relish every gift he sends you in this life. You only live once, so enjoy what you have.

This is very different from the advice you get from the worldview which teaches reincarnation and the goal of merging with one great impersonal divine force. In that worldview, the body and the physical world are really just an illusion, and the ultimate goal is to renounce all the experiences of this world and empty our minds and escape our bodies and lose our identity and enter a world beyond thought and experience. Life in this world is not to be enjoyed but escaped. But that’s not the biblical worldview. The Bible says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). The Bible says that our bodies are real, that the world around us is real, that the experiences of this life are real, and that we should enjoy them as gifts from God. “For everything God created is good,” says the New Testament, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). So, then, enjoy what you have. And along with that, do what you can.

Do What You Can

When you’ve got a chance to do something, says Ecclesiastes, “do it with all your might.” Give it everything you’ve got. Our biggest problem usually isn’t that we’re not given enough opportunities, but that we’re not giving enough of ourselves to the opportunities we have. Don’t waste energy fretting about the career you couldn’t pursue or the opportunities that went to someone else or the goals you couldn’t reach. Instead, do what you can, and put all of your enthusiasm and effort into it.

That’s great advice for just about anyone, and it’s especially fitting for those who know Jesus Christ. What should you do if Jesus is your Lord but you’re stuck slaving away at work nobody else wants to do? The Bible speaks to people in that situation, and it says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 4:23-24).

You may wish you had a life with greater opportunities or different work, but this life is the only life you have. You won’t get another one. If you want to do something worthwhile, if you want to serve God and his people, don’t wait for some major project that will change the whole world instantly. Seize any opportunity you have, no matter how small. Do what you can; do it well; and do it now. “Whatever your hand finds to do,” says Ecclesiastes, “do it with all your might, for in the grave where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”

Again, this is far different and far more urgent than the advice you would get from a worldview of reincarnation and eventual escape from this world of illusion. That worldview tells you to do less and meditate more, to stop trying to affect the world around you and to try to detach yourself from it. It also tells you that if you blow it in this life, you’ve got plenty of lives left to get it right. But according to the Bible, you only live once, and if you want to do something in this world, you had better do it now. Once you’re in the grave, you’ll never have another chance to work and plan and affect this world.

You can’t come back reincarnated in another body, and you can’t even come back as a spirit or ghost. Sometimes you hear at funerals: “Although her body is dead, her spirit is still with us.” That sounds nice, and we’ll say almost anything at funerals to feel better and to avoid the terrible finality of death. But it’s just not true that a dead person’s spirit will remain with us. Memories remain with us, but the dead person’s spirit doesn’t remain. The spirit instantly goes to its eternal destination, never again to be in this present world or to do anything in it. As Ecclesiastes puts it so plainly, “never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”

In popular films like Ghost and The Sixth Sense, a person’s spirit hangs around even after the person dies, and that spirit may be doing all sorts of things. But that’s just the movies. In the realm of reality, death ends our ability to love and hate and affect people in this world. Dead people can’t communicate with the living, and the Bible strictly prohibits the living from trying to communicate with the dead. Death forms a barrier between the inhabitants of this life and the inhabitants of the afterlife.

So if you want to do good on this earth, you must do it now. If you’re wasting your life, don’t think you’ll be reincarnated for another try. Don’t think that if you die with too many things unsaid and undone, you can come back as a ghost to take care of unfinished business. If you love someone, now is the time to show it. Once you die, you won’t get another chance to express your love like they do in the movies. If you are at odds with someone, now is the time to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Once death comes, it will be too late to set things right with them. If you want the world to be a better place, now is the time to take action. Right now, while you have life in your body, is the time to strengthen your relationships and make a difference in this world. Do what you can, and do it now.

Final Reckoning

But that still leaves the question: if there’s no reincarnation, and if we can’t come back as ghosts, what does happen after we die? If death is the absolute end of our life under the sun, does that mean we just vanish forever? No, says the Bible, once we die and leave this earthly life, we must stand before the Lord of heaven. The last sentence of the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:14). Elsewhere the Bible says bluntly, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). You won’t live and die over and over again. You die once; and then you answer to God for the one life he has given you.

That final reckoning gives fresh meaning and urgency to the fact that you only live once. It’s bad enough to waste your life. It’s bad enough not enjoy what you have and not to do what you can. But it’s far worse if, in wasting your life, you also throw away your only chance at eternal life. Once this life is over and you stand before God, your destiny will be determined. You won’t get another chance to repent of your sins and call on Jesus to save you and change your ways. If you’re not ready to meet the Judge by the time you die, you will be lost forever in hell. That’s horrible to think about, but it’s the truth.

There’s another, far brighter truth, however, so listen carefully. If in this life you enter into a right relationship with God, then you will live forever in the love and joy of his new creation. You won’t be reincarnated back into this broken world, but you will be resurrected in a glorified, immortal body, never to die again, and you will reign with the risen Jesus and enjoy his happiness forever.

How can you enter a right relationship with God? First, admit your own wickedness and repent of your sins. Second, believe the good news that Jesus died to pay the price of your sin and that he rose again that you might rise to new life. Third, enjoy what you have with gratitude for his gifts, and do what you can in the Lord’s service, obeying the Bible and relying on God’s Holy Spirit at work within you.

And let me remind you one last time: Don’t put it off. You may think there’s no hurry, that you can wait awhile and maybe give more attention later to Jesus and to your eternal destiny. But don’t waste any more of the precious time God has given you in this world. And don’t assume you’ll even be around tomorrow or next week. No matter how healthy or strong or smart you think you are, you don’t control everything that happens in your life, and you don’t know how soon or how suddenly you might die. As Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 puts it,

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his time will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

You only live once. An opportunity that’s here today may be gone tomorrow. “No man knows when his time will come.” So don’t think you’re safe just because you seem to have a lot going for you at the moment. You’re never safe unless you’re safe in Jesus. Trust him and live for him. Only then can you make the most of this life. Only then will you be ready to meet the Judge when your time comes. In the words of a Christian poet, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.