- Intro: The Matter of Life and Death
- Death as Punishment
- Death and God
- Chinks in Death’s Armor
- The Death of Death
- For Now We Wait
- Closing Thoughts: Ash Wednesday
Introduction: The Matter of Life and Death
A friend once told me that Christianity is a “culture of death.” This was of course a reversal of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 condemnation of the modern culture of death, which sees the weak as useless at best—a burden to be eliminated. He pointed to the crucifixion, the Old Testament sacrificial system, and the way we seem to look forward to death so that we can go to heaven.
In a strange sense my friend was right: Christianity has a lot to say about death, and sacrifice is central to our theology. Of course, in context Christianity is anything but a culture of death, but if we’re not careful we can definitely sound the way my friend described us. We sometimes get confused about the role death plays in God’s plan.
So today we examine what the Bible says about death and reconsider what role it plays in our lives.
Death as Punishment
It’s interesting: there’s a way in which you could read the Bible as a book about death. That’s obviously not all it talks about, but the “story arc” of death spans the entire book.
Let’s take a stroll, shall we?
The first mention of death is in the second chapter of the Bible: “in the day you eat of [the forbidden fruit] you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). This promise was the center of the debate between the woman and the serpent in Genesis 3, and they ate of the fruit. But they didn’t die. God was gracious not to put them to death physically, but there is a kind of spiritual death that took place then. Since the Fall, mankind has been unresponsive to God.
But make no mistake, physical death was coming. We know from Romans that death entered through Adam’s sin—it wasn’t part of the original created order. And as proof, we see in Adam’s genealogy the reign of death: each one dies. We read “and he died” over and over here. Romans 3:23 tells us “the wages of sin is death.” All sinned, so all die. Death had become a part of life.
But Genesis is just getting warmed up! Because next comes the Flood where—you guessed it—everybody dies. Then the Patriarchs die. Then the book ends with the death of Joseph. Who ends a book that way?!? This is not a happy ending.
But then there’s Exodus, where the Egyptians die, Leviticus where animals die, Numbers where unbelieving Israel dies, Joshua where the Canaanites die. Death is everywhere! It’s all over the Pentateuch.
Why would this be? Because death is the punishment for sin. All crimes against God are capital offenses. That doesn’t mean He immediately smites everyone the moment they sin—but technically speaking, He could. That would be just. And if it doesn’t feel just then maybe we don’t understand sin as well as we thought we did.
Death and God
In Ezekiel, God tells us He gets no pleasure from the death of the wicked. Does this surprise you? He would much rather see the wicked turn from their ways—to repent and live. But those who will not get what they deserve.
Sometimes if we’re not careful this is a way that we distort God’s character, as though God somehow hungers for death and blood. God isn’t pleased by animal sacrifice, but He requires some recompense for sin. God didn’t send the Flood on a whim but because evil on the earth had become unbearable. If we take death out of the context of grace and patience and kindness, we get a very wrong view of God.
But because death is part of life in a fallen world, we sometimes get confused about our relationship with death on the one hand and God’s sovereignty on the other. The author of Ecclesiastes notes that people are just as dead as animals in the end. The wise man for all of his wisdom still ends up just as dead as the fool. The nice thing about being dead is you don’t have to live in fear of death anymore! It’s a bleak way to look at things, but not wrong. What’s the point of life if the only thing we can be sure of is death?
Chinks in Death’s Armor
If this is getting depressing, good! Sin is serious business and so is death. Christianity has a lot to say about death because it takes sin seriously.
But there’s a whole lot left to be said.
It turns out contrary to popular belief, death can be undone. Yes, you heard me: the end might not really be the end after all. Elijah and Elisha are both able to raise the dead. Jesus raises the dead. Jesus’ disciples raise the dead. Of course, these were all temporary. But it’s a start!
God promises us that it gets better than this. In Isaiah 25, He promises to swallow up death forever. How is this possible?!? The wages of sin is death. A holy God can’t just get rid of death.
He’d have to get rid of sin somehow.
The Death of Death
This is where everything gets turned on its head. This is that part in the movie where you fly through the black hole and end up in a different dimension, or where Alice jumps down the rabbit hole. God swallows up death by letting death swallow Him up. Jesus, being fully God, lives a perfectly sinless life—a life not meriting death—and dies on our behalf, paying for all the sin of the world.
Let that sink in for a moment: God dies. But the death of God becomes the death of sin, and the death of sin becomes the death of death. And death’s final defeat is announced through the resurrection of God back from the dead. The God of life is alive! And He offers eternal life to all.
As Tim Keller likes to put it, Jesus died the death we deserved so that we could live the life He deserved. Because Jesus submitted to death on our behalf, our relationship with death gets really complicated. It’s still the enemy. It’s still the wages of sin. It’s still not good. But every good thing—salvation, resurrection, eternal life, peace with God—these all came from one great death: the Crucifixion.
So now all death is bad, but that one death brought us everything good. We praise the God of life, but we celebrate His death. God took a horrible, terrible, rotten, no-good thing and redeemed it.
I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us either.
We may sometimes look like we’re rejoicing in death itself, but really we rejoice in that one death that God used to bring eternal life. Our problem isn’t that we sing about death too much—we probably don’t sing about it enough! But we have to keep it in the context of the bigger story. We can’t make any sense of the Crucifixion apart from the Fall, the Resurrection, and Return of Christ.
This is the theme we see in the Book of Acts: God raised Jesus from the dead. It’s all about resurrection now! We baptize in the likeness of His death—and resurrection. We take the bread and cup to remember His death—all the while waiting for His return.
In Romans, death takes on a whole new meaning: since our sins were buried with Christ, we are now alive to God and dead to sin. Spiritual death is over now. Death has become just a metaphor for our relationship with sin.
But make no mistake, death didn’t just die spiritually. We might think that because we still see death all around us. Christians still die. But at the very end of the Bible we see that when Christ returns, death will finally be thrown into the lake of fire and be no more. All the dead will come to life—but this time never to die again.
I can’t help but think of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow
And soonest our best men with thee do go
Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppies or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swellst thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!
For Now We Wait
Today we sit knowing that we are no longer spiritually dead, and instead we are dead to sin. Christ has risen from the dead, but He has not yet returned. Physical death is still a reality. It’s still cruel. But it’s not the end.
I have another friend, a learned scholar who is emphatic about how much he hates death. He doesn’t want to die. Yet Paul almost seems to disagree. In Philippians he writes, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Is death gain? Is there something good about death—our deaths? Is my death-hating friend overreacting?
Insofar as my friend is only talking about death, he’s right. You can’t really hate death enough. And our hope is in the resurrection, when we get our new bodies and live with Christ forever. Paul’s not saying that death isn’t really so bad after all. He’s saying Christ means so much to him that he would even suffer death to be with Him. It’s not that death is lesser; it’s that Jesus is greater.
This is how we make sense of Paul’s taunt in 1 Corinthians 15, which talks at length about the resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Ultimately he’s talking about the end of death when we are raised, but there’s a sense in which death’s sting is tempered by the sweetness of life with Jesus.
When we lose a loved one, it’s hard. If he or she is a believer, we’re comforted by the fact that even though they died they enjoy the sweetness of Christ’s presence. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Just don’t forget: that’s not the end of the story. It gets better!
They won’t stay dead.
Who is this God who can even bring good out of death?
Closing Thoughts: Ash Wednesday
Today is Ash Wednesday. Many Christians will receive ash on their foreheads and be reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Not a message we particularly like to hear. We often think of ourselves as souls who just happen to be in bodies, that our parts are interchangeable—maybe even expendable. But these words are the words God Himself spoke to Adam after the Fall. You are dust. A sobering thought. Our bodies are a part of us, and our reflection is a daily reminder that we’re not as strong as we think we are.
That’s not the whole truth about us, but it’s a part we can’t afford to forget. Considering our frailty and our mortality shouldn’t lead to despair; it should bring us to our knees before our Savior. We confess how much we need Him, and how grateful we are that we have Him. Recognizing our insufficiency is just one way we deepen our appreciation for all we have in Christ. We humble ourselves not to make Him greater but because He is greater! He has brought us forgiveness and eternal life, sent us His Spirit. If we were left to our own devices, we would have no hope. But because of His love, rich in mercy, we have this gift from God.