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Death is the most excruciating ailment and the unbreakable enemy of every person. That is the way that we perceive it. We witness death in the world. A family member is with us one moment and it seems like in the next breath he or she is only a memory visible in a photograph or remembered on a social network profile. There are many things that might bring death to our door, including wars, natural disasters, hate crimes, terrorisms, sicknesses, accidents, and old age. Unlike a few other creatures that inhabit this earth, we are not blessed with biological immortality. This is one of the questions that organized religion has absolutely failed to answer in our time. When we ask why people have to die, the most unsatisfactory thing one could say is, “…because the wages of sin is death.” My family member is gone and all you can think to say is, “Well, he or she deserved it”? I think, Biblically, that is just a bad answer. We have failed to understand the breadth of the Gospel. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is also eternal life. I know, it’s usually not stated explicitly in that way. People feel like it is, especially when a preacher stands up at the funeral dancing around on hot coals trying to both comfort a grieving family and explain the truth of the Gospel.
The Gospel usually isn’t explained well. I want to take the time to lovingly see what Scripture has to say about death. There has to be more than some god cruelly getting back at me for my sin, sin that is inevitable because of my nature. That seems petty.
In Genesis 2:17, God instructs people not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He took the time to explain the consequence if they were to break His only rule. If they ate from this specific tree, they would surely die. The story unfolds in Genesis 3, where people eat from the tree, God covers their shame, and eventually, people do die.
There is a trend among atheists to try and explain that an ancient culture wrote this story in order to try and explain why people die, but in context much more is going on. This isn’t the typical creation story where we see the people finally rebel against the gods (or the gods against the Titans). The story wasn’t meant to try and explain why people die. Look at the context with me:
- In Genesis 1:27, we read that God created people in His own image, in His likeness.
- God is fully self-contained. He is self-righteous. He depends only on Himself.
- We were created in His image.
- Though we are not self-contained, self-righteous, or independent, we are the image of the one who is for His glory.
- Our natural desires, then, are to be self-contained, self-righteous, and independent as God is.
- Literally, because we were created in God’s image, we desire to be, in some sense, gods of our own.
- Then God gives the command with the consequence of death.
- If our natural desire was to be self-righteous and independent, of course people were going to break any law that was given to them.
- God didn’t carry out an immediate death penalty after people disobeyed.
- Instead, He slaughtered an animal and covered their shame (3:21) as a foreshadowing of what Jesus Christ would do on the cross.
- In Genesis 1:27, we read that God created people in His own image, in His likeness.
The goal of the story is to explain who God really is to a people coming out of slavery in Egypt. Paul, in his broad commentary on the Old Testament (that would be the book of Romans), puts the pieces together in this way. People were unrighteous even without a Law (Romans 5:13), God imprisoned all people in disobedience so that He might have mercy on all (Romans 11:32), and that by grace those who did not seek God would find Him (Romans 10:20) for His glory alone (Romans 11:36).
God is doing something grander than simply trying to get people not to sin. We do a great disservice to the Gospel and to people when we communicate a message less than the Gospel in trying to persuade people to stop sinning. Sin and death serve a very specific purpose- a humbling of insufficiently self-righteous people so that the people of God, created in His image, might clothe themselves in the righteousness of God for God’s glory alone.
So, we ask the question, “Why do people have to die?” It is not because God is getting back at people for rebelling against Him. It is because that is what it takes to humble us and bring us into His glory. Without sin and death, we would always strive to be self-contained, self-righteous, and independent for our own glory rather than abide in the righteousness of God for His glory. There is much comfort in this truth.
For the person facing death
If you are facing death, either because of the aging process, an accident, or an affliction, I hope you find comfort in this truth. God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). The story of Scripture even describes how and why God is working together death as part of His plan in order to accomplish His purpose. Death is not the great enemy of humankind. Death is not God’s retaliation against humankind. Death is the final act of humbling for people on this earth as a part of God’s sanctification of His people. We need death in order to clothe ourselves in the righteousness of God. It is our wrongful self-righteousness that causes us to fear death or mourn the prospect of death. The process of dying (which is initiated the moment we are born) is meant for the good of God’s people- that they might be established forever in the glory of God.
For those who do not know Jesus (notice I didn’t say anything about practicing religion), the prospect of death is terrifying because, in this case, death isn’t sanctifying the person for life clothed in God’s righteousness alone. In the scope of eternity, death will produce greater bitterness and the person who didn’t come to Christ, though the chances were many on this earth, will reap condemnation for him or herself. I might plead with you to come to Christ as you read this. I think many death-bed confessions are genuine because God, through the process of death, is sanctifying His people.
I hope that, when my time comes, I die well- clothed in Christ’s righteousness and abiding in the glory of God alone.
For the person who has recently lost a family member
This is, perhaps, the more difficult prospect- especially so if we are unsure of whether or not our family member knew Christ. A missionary went to another country to share the gospel for the first time using explicit language with a formerly “unreached” people group. Upon accepting Christ, the chief of the people asked, “Why didn’t you come sooner? For generations, my people haven’t had a chance to have eternal life.” Often we think about God’s work in these terms.
In Romans 10, Paul explains how God declares His own message and how everyone is reached (even if the language isn’t as explicit as we would like it to be). He then states that no one seeks after God and that God, by grace, causes Himself to be found by the very people who do not seek Him. Romans 8 explains that all things are worked together- all of history, conversation, cosmic events, natural disasters, suffering, joy, life, and death. If God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, then we know that He is bringing all of His people to Himself whether He works together in our missionary activity or some other means to that end. We can trust God to accomplish the work of His Gospel for the benefit of His people.
I am amazed at how differently people who know Christ deal with the death of loved ones. There is still suffering ad grieving, sure. There is also peace. This is a peace that no one other than Christ can provide. No words from people can make anyone feel better when they lose someone close to them. Time does not heal all wounds. The only one who can comfort us is Jesus Christ- through the abiding presence of His Holy Spirit. When we witness death, it serves the same purpose- our humility so that we might come out of our wrongful self-righteousness and be clothed in the righteousness of God.
I want to ask those of you reading. Please do not use this as a funeral sermon. That is probably not the best context to make these explanations. People need Jesus. Give them Jesus. He is the only one who can comfort those who are this deeply ailed.