Death is a cruel figure, the unfortunate acquaintance of all who know Life. We push the knowledge of our eventual death to the backs of our minds like an embarrassing break-up letter. Sure, it is a fact about our lives, but not one we like to meditate on or recognize in decent company. Still, we all know it’s coming. Coming for you. Coming for me. Coming for us all. Still, we ignore it. Emily Dickinson captures this sentiment in a poem (and one of my favorites) wherein she begins with a morose line: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…” I always been haunted by the thought that despite our inability to embrace death, death will still embrace us.
Of course, we know the pain of death.
When Teddy Roosevelt’s young wife died early in his marriage, he penned the following:
The light has gone out of my life.
When my own mother died I felt much the same, and people looked at me like a leper. No one knows what to say, really, in response to death. In my own life I have had friends who have lost parents, friends, brothers, and sisters. Often it seems like the best response is silence. Somehow people do manage to say one thing, though. Yes, it is the same thing. People manage to say this (or something like it):
“Well, everyone dies at some point. It’s a sad fact, but it’s a natural part of life.“
Somehow, I think we’ve been tricked into believing the statement above. Of course everyone dies! That’s a no brainer! The Holy Spirit says in Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Knowing that, we can say with certainty that every man will die. We can say with certainty that every man inevitably dies. We only hurt ourselves, however, if we begin to think that it is natural for man to die. By natural, I mean to say this: Though it is certain man will die, humanity was not created for the purpose of death. Humanity was created for life, not death!
In Genesis 2, we read the following:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)
Man was given a mandate by God: work and keep the Garden. Man was created to cultivate, to thrive; to live and bring forth life. But we know how the story goes. Man fell. Man failed to protect his wife from the serpent, pridefully deviated from the command of God, and submitted unto the yoke of slavery. Romans 5:12 gives us a close up look at what happened: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Through Adam, we all have been infected with death, a ticking time bomb in us waiting to go off.
We can read this and think then that since all die, it is natural. This is, I think, counterproductive and actually takes glory away from the gospel. The truth is that man was created to thrive. Though the image has been fractured, mortal men are still the bearers of the image of God who does not and can not die. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that “…he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” In us, we yearn for eternity, yes eternal life itself, though most die not recognizing it as such. This is why death hurts so badly. Deep down, we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be.
It is popular to drag up the problem of evil when a hurricane wipes out entire city populations, when a shooter attacks an elementary school, or when a terrorist bombs a city. This truth is that the problem of evil is a much greater problem than this. The problem of evil consists not only in evil deeds but in the ultimate evil: death. Death: the bringer of joy to Satan that separates sinners from God. Every time an impoverished child takes his or her final shuddering breath, every time someone’s grandmother closes their eyes for the last time, every time a car accident robs the life of a college student prematurely, the problem of evil shows itself to be a greater problem than we had before thought it to be. The problem shows itself to be one that we can neither resist nor solve, a train of explosives hurtling towards us all as we lay terrified tied to the tracks, humming our favorite tune loudly in a vain attempt not to hear the cruel train’s whistle.
But Death doesn’t get the last word. Romans 5 doesn’t end at verse 12. The Serpent will not slither away in victory.
Because God did not purpose man for death or his creation for destruction, he has sent Life in his son Jesus Christ. Jesus says as much in John 14:6 when he calls himself “the life”. Not only that, Jesus says in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” The King of the Universe says from the throne where he is arrayed in all of his glory, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)
No, death does not get the last word. Romans 5 continues, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)” The Word tells us that his righteousness, given to us (2 Cor. 5:21) will further clothe us (2 Cor. 5:4) so that “though [we] may die, yet shall we live.” Christ is the true man, not you or me. Adam, the first man and our delegate before God, sinned and ruined it for all of us. But Christ came without sin and “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). No, let us never think that our sinful life is natural. It is true to our nature, yes; it is not, however, true to the nature God created for mankind who, though now called evil by him (Matt. 7:11) were once called good in his sight (Gen. 1:31).
The greatest fool in the universe rebelled against God and now spends his days blinding the hearts of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4). His greatest tool was death, whereby the sinful man could be separated forever from God. But God, being rich in mercy has loved us with a great love and given his son to die for us on the cross. Through his cross, we are seen (credited even) as ones who are as righteous as Christ is before God! We who were sinners have become saints by belief in the Son! Now what was once shrouded in mystery is now fully clear in Christ, that “precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. (Psalm 116:15) God has turned death on his head, shaken him, and stolen his keys (Rev. 1:18).
Christ has won the battle. Still, only through death can we put on our imperishable righteousness, our spiritual body (1 Cor 15:44). In 1 Corinthians 15, the Holy Spirit tells us this:
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Death, once an enemy, has become a friend. God has become friend of sinners through the death of his Son. We feel the sting now, and death celebrates its victory. But we can know with certainty through Christ that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26) Still, we can not seem to find ourselves mocking death now while we feel it’s sting so keenly. We can know, however, that when we die and put on the imperishable, we shall laugh like a carefree child at the lack of power death holds over those who believe. The death that once separated man from God now unites us with him forever. The cross has transformed death so that we may say with Paul, “To live is Christ, but to die is gain.”
When death gropes among us and steals our loved ones or when it shows itself to us directly, “we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor. 5:2). But only through death is it the case that “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”(1 John 3:2) We are raised and given a restored, spiritual body. This body is like Christ’s body at this resurrection. It is a physical body able to eat and walk, but a glorified spiritual body altogether, so perfect that at times it is unrecognizable from the likeness of sinful flesh. As 2 Cor. 5 says, it is not that we are stripped of our bodies, but rather we are further clothed in a resurrection body, clothed in the righteousness of Christ. “As he is” is what we were created to be. Our sin has broken us, but through the cross we will be united again with him, not only in presence but in righteousness if we believe.
We have this assurance now, that for him who believes in Christ, though he may die, yet shall he live. May this truth produce in us a hunger to see Christ.
Death hurts us exceedingly, because death is not natural. We were not made for death.
Death is inevitable, but it is not natural.
Now we may also know this, that for the one who believes in Christ, it is not permanent.
Weep, but know this: