A. Craig Troxel
When Dad died, my brother Scott said, “The world just got a little smaller.” Indeed it did. Death had just devoured my greatest mentor. My father fought back bravely against the cancer that gnawed away at his health for years. But finally the dreaded moment came, and something bigger than any of us closed in on him. Dad was gone, and he was not coming back.
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the frustrating helplessness one feels in death’s unrelenting grip and the overwhelming waves of its sorrow that leave us gasping for relief. At such times, death cruelly reminds us that we too will face him one day. We too will meet the same end. We too will be devoured.
This reality is conveyed graphically in the literature we read. For example, in a famous scene in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the grandiose Kurtz is dying. He was a megalomaniac who had killed countless people in the Congo and then grossly sported their heads on stakes outside his hut. He eventually fell sick, and just before his own death he opened his mouth wide, with a “weirdly voracious aspect … as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.” This demonic man, who once held the power of death, yielded in fear to “the horror” of death and its “ravenous, unreasoning and eternally insatiable nature.”
Many teenagers have read an echo of this in William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies, when the character Simon holds an imaginary conversation with the head of a dead pig fixed atop a stake. The talking head claims to be the beast that the boys have been hunting. It boasts that it cannot be killed; rather, it will eventually consume them. Simon feels faint as he sees himself falling into the enveloping dark mouth of the pig, a foreshadowing of his own death.
Flannery O’Connor probably alludes to Conrad’s book as well in her well-known story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The homicidal figure “The Misfit” has lined up a family near a lone country road. Some distance behind them stands a group of trees where they will soon meet their end. It spreads behind the family like a “wide-open mouth.” Death devours.
The Bible utilizes this same image, describing death, or “Sheol” (that unseen realm of the departed), as the great devourer. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down, her revelers and he who exults in her”(Isa. 5:14). Or, as the wicked say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason; like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit” (Prov. 1:11–12).
Although death has devoured millions upon millions, the Bible warns of its insatiable appetite. It is never full. It is always devouring: “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied”(Prov. 27:20). It keeps company with similarly insatiable vices: “Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples” (Hab. 2:5). Greedily, death craves and death consumes.
Scripture assumes that death is the devourer when it speaks of the doom of people. When the Lord drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, Moses stated that “the earth swallowed them”(Ex. 15:12). The prophet Isaiah cautioned Israel about the approaching enemies who would overtake them: “The Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west devour Israel with open mouth”(Isa. 9:12).
When Korah rebelled against Moses, the prophet informed the people, “But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord”(Num. 16:30). Accordingly, this is what happened. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up” (Num. 16:32; cf. Deut. 11:6; Ps. 106:17). Even the instruments of death, like the sword, are said to “devour” people (see, e.g., Deut. 32:42; 2 Sam. 2:26; Isa. 31:8; Jer. 46:10).
It is no wonder, then, that death is the accomplice of the one who has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). The devil himself has the appetite of a stalking beast: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”(1 Peter 5:8). It is not enough for Satan to destroy. He wants to torment and dominate. Death is his tool to enslave our race in fear (Heb. 2:15).
It is his way of constantly reminding us that we remain connected to our first parents, who fell to his enticement. When Adam and Eve received God’s warning, it sounded ominous for good reason. Eating forbidden fruit may not seem like a great crime, but the words “you will surely die”should have clarified the gravity of such a sin. As a result, our race’s first transgression secured its wages in death.
Ever since that fateful hour, death has consumed humankind ravenously, with the last one hundred years of human carnage making the point emphatically. Death is our great and last enemy. It ravages us, overshadows us, intimidates us, and as we feel its relentless sting, we groan and groan. Every child of God knows this groaning, because we possess the down payment of the Spirit and long for the fullness of our redemption—a liberated body that is beyond the reach of death’s gaping jaws (Rom 8:23).
The earth groans with us, since it must now do what it was never meant to do. It was created to nurture and sustain our bodies. Now it is corrupted to shroud and entomb our bodies. It was made to engender every new life that enters the human race. Now it makes room to engulf every finished life that leaves the human race. Every burial reminds us of this. Dust to dust. The ground receives our loved one and places its earthen death-shroud over his or her face (Isa. 25:7). Death devours again and our world gets smaller.
But what is it that makes a Christian’s grief over death different from how the worldly man mourns? It is this. Though we are afflicted, we are not crushed. Though perplexed, we do not despair. Though sorrowful, we are not destroyed (2 Cor. 4:8–9). We mourn, but not like the world. We shed our tears, but they are not all tears of sorrow. For, by faith, we have become partakers of a peace and joy that reaches deeper than any sorrow and moderates its pain. By faith, we possess a sure knowledge that, despite appearances, death does not have the final word. This is our faith in Jesus Christ, who has devoured death in his resurrection from the dead.
Paul says, “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). Victory implies a battle. Battle implies an enemy. That’s what death is, our enemy. A tremendous battle has been fought between Christ on the one side and sin and death on the other. Christ took our sin to the cross, along with its curse and condemnation. And there he received the penalty of sin. Death was crying out for satisfaction, demanding that God be held to his verdict. God had declared that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). So this is what Christ paid as our ransom. His blood covered the offense of our sin, and his righteous death quenched God’s fiery wrath against us. Christ also destroyed death’s power by his death, and he has crushed death’s grip on us through his resurrection. Christ has gained a great triumph over death, just as he did over our sin. It is a victory he has won for us.
God has graciously and inseparably united us to our Savior, so that just as we have been crucified with Christ, so also we have been raised with him. Christ has conquered, and we are more than conquerors in him. Christ has overcome, and we have overcome through him. Christ has triumphed, so God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Death the devourer has been devoured by our risen King. This holds true whether we think of a Christian who has died or consider the final resurrection of all believers when Christ comes.
In 2 Corinthians 5:1–10, Paul says that while we walk day by day in these earthly bodies, “we are away from the Lord,” and so we must “walk by faith” and “not by sight.” We soberly recognize that we are not yet what we will be. We long for something better. We look forward to that transformed,
glorified, and heavenly body—a “heavenly dwelling” or a “building from God.” Already we have the Holy Spirit as a down payment of that future glorified body. So we long for more than the flimsy “tent” of our earthly body. This tension between our earthly existence and our desire to be “further clothed” in glory is what causes us to groan and be burdened. We “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” We know that one day “what is mortal” will be “swallowed up by life.”
This is what sets a Christian’s funeral apart. A funeral gives the appearance that our loved one has been swallowed up by death. But God says that it is just the reverse. Since death is swallowed up by the resurrection of Christ, death is merely the threshold to a Christian’s passing into the immediate presence of God. We mourn, but not like those who have no hope.
This explains why the “resurrection chapter,” 1 Corinthians 15, ends on such a high note. Its tone is triumphant. Notice that verse fifty-five—“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”—is a quotation from Hosea 13:14. This poetic passage enables Paul to make his point even more vivid. It is helpful here to think not so much of the human author, but rather of the divine author. Here God is speaking to death’s face. He is openly taunting death. Ridiculing it. The questions drip with sarcasm and defiance against death’s powerlessness over a Christian. God mocks its inability to harm a Christian.
Death may not lord it over God’s children, but must bow before its master—the God of power, who raises the dead. Death is now subdued by “the living one,” who holds “the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18). Death has been defeated. Our almighty Savior, Jesus Christ, rules over all things, including death. He is raised, and so shall we also be raised.
We look back in faith to what Christ has accomplished for us in his death and resurrection, and we look forward in hope to what Christ has attained for us by the same. With John, we yearn for that great day when Christ will appear and “we will be like him” (1 John 3:2). The day of our unveiling and the final removal of the death shroud. The day when he will transform our lowly bodies “to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). The day when the perishable will put on the imperishable. The day when the mortal will put on the immortal. The day when these mere earthly tents will be further clothed with our heavenly dwelling. The day when God gives us the final victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, because death has been swallowed up in the victory of his resurrection. The day when “a remarkable reversal will take place. The Lord will become the devourer and death, the famed and fearful swallower, will itself be swallowed up.”
Until then, we must walk by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is Christ’s gracious gift to us—the earnest and first installment of our inheritance to come. The Spirit bears witness to who we are now and what we will be. And as we face our great enemy, death, the Spirit also fortifies us with what we need every day, namely faith.
These things call for faith, even a courageous faith (2 Cor. 5:6, 8), because this gospel hope is not readily apparent. These spiritual realities are not visible to the eye. They are not obvious in this earthly existence. So “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This hope, this confidence, this truth of our resurrection is acquired only by faith. Yes, Paul says, of course we would rather be at home with the Lord and away from this earthly existence. Yes, we would rather have our glorified body. Yes, we would rather be in his presence. But until that happens, we are of good courage. We walk in confidence, as we hold firmly to the truth of this precious hope.
In faith, we mock death. It does not mock us. It has no power over us. Death does not reign at a Christian’s funeral. It does not reign in the kingdom of God. It does not reign in our hearts. Christ reigns. And we will reign with him in glory for eternity, with transformed, glorious bodies. We will sing songs of triumph and will praise our conquering King, rejoicing that our faith has become sight. Christ has won the victory, and he shares the spoils of that victory with his people.
Brothers and sisters, let us not fear nor doubt. Let us not fall into unbelief or undue sorrow. Yes, our enemy and our accusers come and line up before us, trying to intimidate us, so that we will shrink back in fear. But let us face death as Christians, and rise up and confront it. Let us defy it in faith.
We have the victory. Christ is raised. No power—not even death—has any hold on Christ, nor on us. We will not be defeated, and we will not be afraid. For we are more than conquerors in Christ, and we have the victory in him. Christ has swallowed up death by his resurrection. The devourer has been devoured.
 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 104.
 William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Perigee Books, 2006), 104, 208.
 Yes, it sounds gruesome, but it is nothing compared to vampires, zombies, dementors, and what happens at the Cornucopia (ask your kids, they know).
 Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1971), 127.
 Meredith G. Kline, “Death, Leviathan, and Martyrs: Isaiah 24:1–27:1,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, ed. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and Ronald R. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 230.
The author is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Ill. He quotes the ESV.