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1. Death

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What is death? How should a believer view death—his own, that of believers, and unbelievers? Since death is a somber subject, most avoid thinking about it. However, Scripture has a lot to say about it, because soberly contemplating death can help us live wisely. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely.” Also, Ecclesiastes 7:4 says, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of merrymaking.” Therefore, important aspects about death are considered below.

1. Death is separation, not ceasing to exist.

When a person dies, he or she does not cease to exist. Death really means separation. In Scripture, there are three types of death. There is physical death. James 2:26 says, “… the body without the spirit is dead…” This type of death is temporary because eventually all people will be physically resurrected—either to eternal life in heaven or eternal death in hell. In John 5:28-29, Christ said this:

Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out—the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation.

The second type of death is spiritual death. Every person is born spiritually dead—which refers to separation from God. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they immediately died spiritually. This is seen in their hiding from God when he walked through the garden. Before spiritual death, they walked in communion with God, but after their sin, they were spiritually separated from him. Likewise, each person is born this way now. In Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul said this:

And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience…

Instead of walking in obedience to God, the spiritually dead walk in rebellion towards him. In fact, Romans 8:7 says, “because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.” Also, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It is only after a person repents of his sins and accepts Christ as his savior that he is born again and therefore becomes alive to God. Ephesians 2:5 says, “[But God] even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!”

The third type of death is eternal death, which is eternal separation from God’s blessing. Consider the following verses: 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says, “They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength,” and Revelation 21:8 says,

But to the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.

Not all will experience this final type of death. Those who accept Christ by faith will avoid it.

2. Death is a result of sin.

In the Garden of Eden, God promised Adam and Eve that if they ate of the forbidden tree, they would die, and they did. They died first spiritually and then eventually physically. Since Adam was the king of the world under God, we all experience physical death because of him. Romans 5:12 says, “So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.” If this seems unfair, the reality is that we also commit sin and therefore deserve death.1 Romans 3:23 and 6:23 say, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “For the payoff of sin is death.” In addition, in the same way that Adam’s disobedience led to the death of all of his children, Christ’s obedience leads to eternal life for all who follow him. Romans 5:19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous.” Also, 1 Corinthians 15:22 says, “For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Because Christ lived the perfect life we could not live and died on the cross for our sins, we can have eternal life through him (Jn 3:16).

3. Death is an enemy that Christ defeated.

Though some may think of death as a natural part of life, it is not. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, it is called the “last enemy.” God did not create people to die. In fact, Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” Humans have a natural longing to continue to live, which is why we feel it is so sad, or even an injustice, when people die. Even Christ mourned the death of his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:33-35). In addition, since it was never God’s will for people to die, it was also never God’s will for people to experience the pains of aging, such as loss of memory and strength. Though the aging process is normal when looking around at creation, nevertheless, humans struggle with it because eternity was put in their hearts. In accordance with what God has done in our hearts, one day death, our “enemy,” will be completely eliminated (1 Cor 15:26). It was defeated when Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead (Heb 2:14-15), and it will ultimately be defeated when God resurrects us from the dead. In 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, Paul said:

Now when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will happen, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Also, Revelation 21:4 says this when describing the eternal state: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.”

4. Death leads to our accountability before God.

Often death is considered a transition to a peaceful existence, but that is not necessarily true. Death is a transition for all into the intermediate state, either to hell or heaven, and eventually that will lead to the final judgment which will happen after Christ’s return (2 Cor 5:10, Rev 20:11-15). In Hebrews 9:27, the author said, “And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment.” Because of people’s proximity to death, it should cause unbelievers to repent and live for God, and it should cause believers to confirm their salvation through obedience to God (cf. 2 Cor 13:5, Matt 3:8). In the parable of the rich man, God said this about the rich man who lived for comfort instead of God:

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God.

Luke 12:20-21

Likewise, to the Jews who believed they were saved, John the Baptist said:

So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Luke 3:7-9

Death leads to our accountability before God; therefore, our proximity to it should make us live for God and not for ourselves and the world.

5. Death for believers is not a punishment for sin but a transition to complete sanctification.

As mentioned, on the cross, Christ bore the punishment for all our sins, including physical, spiritual, and eternal death (cf. Rom 6:23). Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Consequently, though God may at times take a believer home early because of persistence in sin, death for a believer is not a punishment (in the sense of retribution) as it is for an unbeliever. This is clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32, where God took some believers home for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper. It says:

For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself. That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead. But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world.

Believers are disciplined in this life so they will not ultimately be condemned with the world. This discipline may at times include the believers’ death. At death, all believers are sanctified by God in the sense that they are freed from the presence of their sin nature. This is why Hebrews 12:23 calls believers in heaven “the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect.” Therefore, death is another way that God works all things for the good of those who love the Lord (Rom 8:28), as it leads to their ultimate sanctification. It is also a way that we experience a deeper fellowship with our Lord, who also died. In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul said this: “My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

If death is not a penalty for sins, why do believers die? Though God uses death to complete the believers’ sanctification, it happens because we live in a fallen world and constantly deal with the effects of the fall. Wayne Grudem put it this way:

But until that time death remains a reality even in the lives of Christians. Although death does not come to us as a penalty for our individual sins (for that has been paid by Christ), it does come to us as a result of living in a fallen world, where the effects of sin have not all been removed. Related to the experience of death are other results of the fall that harm our physical bodies and signal the presence of death in the world—Christians as well as non-Christians experience aging, illnesses, injuries, and natural disasters (such as floods, violent storms, and earthquakes). Although God often answers prayers to deliver Christians (and also non-Christians) from some of these effects of the fall for a time (and thereby indicates the nature of his coming kingdom), nevertheless, Christians eventually experience all of these things to some measure, and, until Christ returns, all of us will grow old and die. The “last enemy” has not yet been destroyed. And God has chosen to allow us to experience death before we gain all the benefits of salvation that have been earned for us.2

6. Death for believers should bring both a joyful expectation at the prospect of their death and, at the same time, mourning when others die.

When considering his own death, in Philippians 1:21-23, Paul said:

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far

Also, in 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul said, “Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Because death leads the believer into God’s presence, it should be looked at with joyful expectation. In many ways, death for the believer is better by far than living. However, like Paul, we should desire to stay for the sake of others and to glorify God in this life. In Philippians 1:24-26, after considering the benefits of dying and being with the Lord, he said:

…but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body. And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith, so that what you can be proud of may increase because of me in Christ Jesus, when I come back to you.

How should believers respond to the death of others? Again, since death is an enemy and an unfortunate reality of living in a fallen world, believers should mourn the death of others. With that said, believers should not mourn as those without hope. In referring to the death of believers, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul said, “Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope.” With the death of believers, our mourning must come with hope because we know they are with Christ and we will see them again. With unbelievers who die, we mourn with hope because we trust in God’s sovereignty, goodness, and wisdom—we trust that he knows what is best. We also must be careful about having absolute certainty about their eternal location, since we do not really know what happened in their hearts before they died. It is always possible that in the last minutes of life, an unbeliever may have repented in his heart, even as the thief on the cross did (Lk 23:39-43).

Conclusion

Death is a result of sin. There are three types of death—physical, spiritual, and eternal. For those who repent of their sins and follow Christ, God will deliver them from spiritual and eternal death. Some will even be delivered from physical death by being raptured when Christ returns (1 Thess 4:13-18). For believers who die, it is no longer a punishment for their sin, since Christ paid the full penalty of their sins on the cross. Death leads to the complete sanctification of believers and eternal existence in God’s presence. For these reasons, believers should face their own death with a joyful expectation (Phil 1:21-23), but they should mourn in hope when considering the death of other believers (1 Thess 4:13). They should also grieve the death of unbelievers (cf. Ez 33:11), while trusting that God’s ways are always wise, just, and good.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What are the three types of death?
  3. What happens when a person dies?
  4. Is death a punishment for the sins of believers? Why or why not?
  5. How should believers respond to the prospect of death—their own death and that of others?
  6. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 I believe Scripture teaches that infants go to heaven when they die. For more information on this, check out the chapter, “What Happens to Infants When They Die?” in BTG Hamartiology.

2 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 811). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)

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