There is an old saying that two things in life are inevitable: death and taxes. This is said tongue-in-cheek, since of course not everyone in the world pays taxes—Kuwait, for example, is a tax-free country—but nearly everyone in the world pays taxes. Taxes seem like an inevitability, though circumstances are conceivable in which they are not (for example, if one is destitute). Death, however, does appear to be inevitable. Even with all of our scientific and technological advances, no one in modern history has lived past the age of 122, and most people in the world’s most developed countries are dead before they reach the age of 80. Further, there is, from the human point of view, the possibility that anyone who is now alive could die at any time. The Bible teaches that death was not part of God’s original plan for the human race. Death entered the world as a direct consequence of sin (Gen 2:17). The human race was placed under a sentence of death as punishment for the sin of Adam, who was the forefather of the human race. Romans 5:12 states, Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin. It may be surprising, then, to know that the Bible does not teach that everyone will die. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ, as the second Adam, has conquered death, and has overcome the power of death by rising from the dead (Rom 5:17; 1 Cor 15:21-22). The Bible teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 that not everyone will die, although all men will have their mortal bodies changed. Specifically, when Jesus will take those who have believed on Him during the Church Age to heaven, living Christians will simply have their bodies changed, rather than raised from the dead (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18). It seems, as well, that believers who are alive at the end of the thousand-year reign of Christ (the millennium) will also have their bodies changed before the final judgment, rather than dying and being raised from the dead (see Revelation 20). One could also note the famous Old Testament story of Elijah being taken to heaven alive in a whirlwind, rather than dying (2 Kgs 2:1-12). However, Elijah evidently will return to the earth during the tribulation period, and will be killed at the midpoint of this period (cf. Mal 4:5; Matt 17:11; Rev 11:1-13). But there is another great man of God in the Old Testament who was also taken to heaven without dying, specifically so that he would not see death (according to Hebrews 11:5). This was Enoch, the father of Methuselah (Gen 5:21-24). Enoch was taken to heaven a mere 57 years after the first man, Adam, succumbed to the sentence of death. Although Adam’s lifespan of 930 years seems extraordinary by today’s standards, in fact the death of Adam must have dealt a terrible blow to the human psyche. Because Adam lived so long, perhaps some were holding out hope that he would never die, that the curse would not come to pass, and that men could, possibly, just keep on living indefinitely. After Adam’s death, hope seemed to end; the futility of life had sunk in like a hard reality—when suddenly the principle of death was violated in Enoch’s case. The translation of Enoch so short a time after the death of Adam showed that death was not the final sentence for the human race. Death will not prevail in the end, by God’s grace. Easter Sunday is now only two weeks away. What does the “translation” of someone who lived so long ago as Enoch mean to us today? Here is the question from a different angle: what would it mean to you if you found out that one of your own ancient ancestors had never died, but was still alive? In fact, everyone in the world today is descended from Noah, and Enoch was Noah’s great-grandfather. The story of Enoch ought to be a great encouragement to every one of us, because Enoch was an ancestor of every one of us. That means that every one of us has in Enoch an ancestor who did not die! Christian, take heart! Let no one tell you despairingly that everyone who has ever lived has died. Yet if we can draw hope from the fact that one of our ancestors did not die and will never die, how much more hope can we take from the fact that Enoch’s endless life was made possible by the fact of Christ’s (then-anticipated, now-fulfilled) conquest of death through His resurrection from the dead? Whether we live or die, those of us who have believed in Jesus will someday live with Him forever in glorified, immortal bodies.
Yesterday was the funeral for my maternal grandmother, who was my last surviving grandparent. This has prompted a few thoughts on death and dying.
First, an outline theology of death and dying from the Bible.
- The Bible presents death as an enemy, both of man and of God (1 Cor 15:26). Death was never part of God’s original plan for the human race; it came into the world as a punishment for Adam’s sin (Rom 5:12-21). Death is emotionally and psychologically difficult for us to deal with because it is something that God did not originally intend for us to have to deal with.
- Jesus Christ has conquered death (Acts 2:24; Rev 1:18).
- Satan uses the fear of death to enslave (Heb 2:14-15).
- Believers in God have passed out of death into life (John 5:24).
- The one who keeps Christ’s Word does not see death (John 8:51, referring to eternal or ultimate death).
- The one who is “in Christ” has shared in His death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Jesus tasted death for every man (Heb 2:9).
- God has written the last chapter to show how it all turns out. This brings us hope. One preacher said, “I read the back of the book, and we win.” No matter how much grief and suffering we may endure in this life, for those who have accepted God’s offer of salvation there will come a day when all grief, pain, and sorrow will be ended forever (Rev 21:4).
Another reflection: it is evident from the way most people treat death today that they do not believe in an afterlife. It used to be in America, that rich and prominent people sought to be remembered after they died by building great monuments at their planned gravesite—mausoleums, chapels, pillars, and so forth. They did this because they believed there is life after death, and they wanted to leave a continuing legacy and a remembrance of themselves. In fact, it was normal for people to visit cemeteries to remember the dead and pay their respects, with the understanding that the dead person’s soul was still in conscious existence, and that the dead body in the ground still belonged to that person and would someday be raised. (Side note: Bellefontaine Cemetery was the most-visited tourist attraction in St. Louis circa 1900.) Throughout the whole history of the world, it has been common for prominent men to build great grave markers for themselves, and for others to come and visit their gravesites. Today, however, the dominant attitude seems to be, “Death is eternal annihilation, so I’ll just live for the here and now, and I don’t care what they do with my corpse or how they will remember me after I’m dead.” There are few great tomb monuments these days, and many cemeteries and funeral parlors are struggling for business.
The great increase in cremation is another sign that most people no longer believe in an afterlife, resulting in a failure to view the body as sacred or spiritual. A dead body is viewed as nothing more than a clump of matter, to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective manner. But historically, and in the Bible, a proper burial was viewed as an honorable thing, while the burning or desecration of one’s corpse was a great dishonor (cf. 2 Kgs 9:35-37; Eccl 6:3; Jer 22:19; 36:30; Amos 2:1). While God is able to raise a cremated body back to life, Christians traditionally buried their dead, placing their bodies in the ground in hope of resurrection. The body was treated as a sacred thing, not as garbage, since it was recognized that it was made in the image of God, and that it will be used again in a new form.
Our society tries to sterilize death, and to avoid truly coming to grips with one’s eternal destiny. The death of a family member is a time when the subject cannot, and should not, be avoided.