This has been a year of grieving for many in my congregation. So it has been a good time for us to look again at what the Bible teaches about death, and the hope the gospel offers to believers. Perhaps it will be a good time for you, too, to think about these things.
Let me begin with three sobering truths about death.
1. Death is the separation of body and soul.
Physical death, according to the Scriptures, is not the end of personal existence. Rather, death is the dissolution of the personal union of the soul with the body. The body decomposes into its constituent elements, and the soul continues in the separate existence assigned to it by God the Judgeeither heaven or hell.
We must not miss the significance of this truth. In our society, arguments in favor of physician-assisted suicide, for example, are based upon the premise that death always brings an end to suffering. Yet hell is a place of suffering, and the warnings from our Lord about its horrors are many. Therefore, motivated by faithfulness to God's word and compassion for the lost, Christians must resolutely oppose this argument and the false premise upon which it is based.
2. Death is punishment for sin.
Death is not natural. Although all men and women die, death was not part of God's original design for humanity. Death was introduced into the human race by sin, and is God's just punishment for it (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:17, 19). Through Adam, as covenant head of the human race, death has come to all men and women (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21). The present constitution of the physical body, with its susceptibility to disease and decay, is both a sign and a reminder of God's judgment. From the moment of birth, the processes that lead to the body's inevitable dissolution are active.
Believers, no less than unbelievers, experience physical suffering and death as part of the curse on our sinful human race (Gen. 3:19). Christians, therefore, as fellow sufferers, are in a good position to proclaim to lost men and women with compassionate boldness that death, both physically and spiritually, is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23).
3. Death is final.
"It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Heb. 9:27 NASB). The Christian message is that people experience physical death but once. Any notion of reincarnation, therefore, is unbiblical. Human existence is not a continual cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Every individual moves progressively closer to the moment of death, which severs all ties with this present age and ushers him into the immediate presence of God.
We turn now from these sobering truths about death to the blessed hope that the gospel brings to believing men and women. The gospel transforms every relationship of believers, including their relationship to death.
We begin by thanking God that, for believers, death is not punishment for sin. We are justified. Christ has removed from us all the penal consequences of sin (which remain on the unbeliever) by satisfying the demands of divine justice through his righteous life and substitutionary death on the cross.
But if death is not the punishment of the believer's sin, what purpose does it serve? It is not necessary for sanctification, for Enoch and Elijah were made perfect without experiencing death. Nor is it absolutely essential for bringing us deliverance from life in this present evil age, for God may do this without the instrumentality of death, as he most certainly will do for those who remain alive at Christ's second coming (1 Thess. 4:13-17). Louis Berkhof (Systematic Theology, pp. 670-71) explains:
The very thought of death, bereavements through death, the feeling that sicknesses and sufferings are harbingers of death, and the consciousness of the approach of death,all have a very beneficial effect on the people of God. They serve to humble the proud, to mortify carnality, to check worldliness and to foster spiritual-mindedness. In the mystical union with their Lord believers are made to share the experiences of Christ. Just as He entered upon His glory by the pathway of sufferings and death, they too can enter upon their eternal reward only through sanctification. Death is often the supreme test of the strength of the faith that is in them, and frequently calls forth striking manifestations of the consciousness of victory in the very hour of seeming defeat, I Pet. 4:12, 13. It completes the sanctification of the souls of believers, so that they become at once "the spirits of just men made perfect," Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:27. Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life.
The fact of our future death should cultivate in us a seriousness about life. We must not trifle with it. Personal holiness is ever a preeminent concern. At the same time, dying and death call for total dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ, who never leaves or forsakes his people. We are his, now and forever.
Believers face death, like all afflictions, differently than unbelievers do. Death, and the sickness which so often precedes it, is understood by believers to be part of the paternal discipline of our heavenly Father (Heb. 12:5-13). The appropriate Christian response in facing the reality of death is not, on the one hand, a stoical indifference to the real suffering that death brings or, on the other hand, an angry bitterness toward God. Rather, the height of true devotion is a submission to the discriminating love of the Father that assigns to us, his children, precisely what is necessary for his glory and our personal holiness. His grace is sufficient for us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Each of us, as believers, may affirm with confidence "that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1). In both life and death, our bodies and souls are united with Christ. Even though the body experiences decay in the grave, that body is still united with Christ and awaits its glorious resurrection on the Last Day.
The gospel also speaks comfort to us when we stand at the graveside of beloved believers. Yes, we honestly acknowledge the intense pain of separation. We shed tears of sorrow. We do not seek to mask from God and fellow Christians the disappointments of unfulfilled plans and dreams. But it is precisely at the time of our suffering that we see the transforming power of the gospel. We encourage one another in the truth that the souls of believers at death do pass immediately into glory. Our loved ones who died in Christ are with him. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
Yet the grave is not the place of final victory. The laying of the body of believers into the grave is a powerful reminder that we, like the Lord Jesus, must submit to the humiliation of death. True, we may rejoice in the fact that believers who have died are with the Lord. Yet their triumph is not yet complete, for the promise of redemption includes glorified bodies in which we will worship and serve our God together. "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body" (Phil. 3:20-21 nkjv).
For now, while we wait for that transformation, we join with Christians across the centuries by praying, "Come, Lord Jesus!"
Dr. Wingard is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (OPC), in Ipswich, Mass. Adapted from The Salt Shaker, July/August 1997. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1997.