“What Is Death?”
March 21, 2007
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Donna came to me a number of weeks ago–it's probably been months now–and expressed to me how often she was getting questions relating to this awesome and practical subject of death, and how many of our Bible teachers in the church were getting questions from women and from men in various small groups and large groups who were studying the Scripture together…how many of them were getting questions pertaining to death; not just theoretical questions, although certainly there were those sorts of questions. I think some of the reading material that's sort of out there in the general public right now has prompted Christians to be curious about what are the Bible's answers to a variety of questions relating to death and to the afterlife. But many of these questions have been profoundly personal, specific, and born out of an experience in one's own life and family with death, whether that death was the death of someone they had loved for many, many years, and expected because of the age and the physical condition, or whether that death was completely surprising and tragic by all human standards. These kinds of questions have been coming up over and over, and that's natural, isn't it? The politicians wrote that in this world the only thing that is certain is death and taxes, and it's true. Death is a certainty in our reality. Every single one of us will deal with, if we have not already dealt with, death personally in the context of our family and in the context of the circle of our closest friends. And of course all of us, unless the Lord tarries and comes soon, will face personally death. And that's why you’re here today. It's not because of the speaker, it's because of this particular topic. It bears on our heart.
Let me tell you what I want to do today. Today I simply want to address the issue of wrong thinking about death. Secondly, I want to think with you about what the Bible teaches that death is. Thirdly, I want to address the issue of the Christian attitude towards death; and, finally, I want to ask the question: What changed death for the Christian? Why is the Christian attitude to death, in light of what we will have just learned that death is…why is the Christian attitude towards death able to be simultaneously utterly realistic and utterly hope-filled? What is it that has created this change in the way that we view death as believers? Those are the four things that I want to do with you today.
Now over the course of time together, we will not only address the issue of “What Is Death?” but we’ll ask questions and try and give biblical answers to these kinds of issues: What happens after death? What happens to a person — believer or unbeliever — immediately upon death? What happens in the first thirteen seconds after death? What happens until the time that Christ returns again? Then we’ll ask questions like: What will happen when Christ returns? We’ll ask questions and try and give biblical answers to matters relating to the Day of Judgment, and we’ll ask the question, What is heaven, and how do we prepare for it? Those are the kinds of things that we're going to do together over the course of these five weeks, God willing.
But if I could ask you to turn in your Bibles first — and if you don't have Bibles, I’ll read all the passages, and perhaps you will be able to look over the shoulder of someone — turn in your Bibles to Genesis 2:7, the very first mention of death in the Bible, and one that is vitally important for us to understand what death is.
Now let's pray before we begin.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way, and yet we acknowledge, O Lord, that especially in this area of death we often allow the light of the world rather than the light of the word to control and influence the way that we think about death. Lord, for those of us who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we don't want to think that way. We want to think in accordance with Your word about death. There is perhaps nothing more important for us as believers in this life now — we've come to faith in Jesus Christ — than to prepare Christian-ly for death…for our death, for the deaths of those dearest to us. And so, O God, we pray that You would inform our minds, instruct us, teach us by Your Scriptures, and that the Holy Spirit would help us to understand what the Scriptures say about death; that the Holy Spirit would enable us as believers to embrace wholeheartedly and to gain much comfort from what You teach us in Your word about the last enemy, death. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
I. Wrong thinking about death.
Thinking about death is confused in our world today. Partly this is because in our culture we are filled with many different worldviews, many different religious beliefs, many different outlooks on life; and those outlooks on life, those worldviews, those religious beliefs, have different views about death. If you believe that there is no God and that this world evolved from a primitive protein in the explosion of some primary particle into all that is now, and that life is just one inexorable sequence of a chain of events of cause and effect, then death is literally meaningless, and after death comes nothing. And if you allow that kind of thinking, that kind of naturalistic, materialistic, evolutionary thinking to control the way you approach death, you will approach death very differently from someone who has a different worldview, and especially a biblically informed worldview, or a Christian worldview. So it's not surprising that we have many views about death in our culture.
Furthermore, we experience different views of death practically when we are among friends and family in the hour of death. Many people, especially here in the South, love to deal with death by denial. We try to pretend that it is not there. Many years ago I had the privilege of being close to a family in a time when a family member had died tragically, unexpectedly, suddenly. It had taken their breath away. And during the course of the family conversation in the first few minutes and hours after the death of this individual, there was serious discussion among them as to whether they would tell the children in the family that this person had died. And one of the things that I had to do was urge them to be honest, even as they were sensitive and caring in the way they told the children about this particular matter.
Now what was controlling that? Well, a tendency to approach death by denial. We’re going to pretend like it's not here, and therefore what we're going to do is we're going to protect the children from death, too. Now of course in the end that would have been tragic for them. This family member that they had just lost is no longer around…what happened? Was he snatched up into the air, and just disappeared? That kind of uncertainty actually strikes far more terror in the heart of a child than the reality of death, and yet there was a tendency to deal with it by denial… and that kind of escapism has been around for a long time.
Louis XV of France demanded that his advisors not use the word death around him. But guess what? He died. We can attempt to deal with death by denial or by escapism, but the graveyards are still going to fill up. And the Bible does not encourage us to deal with death by denial or escapism, nor does the Bible encourage us to cultivate a stoic attitude towards death.
Very often you will have friends attempt to comfort you in the hour of death by making diminishing remarks about your loss…finding something positive to say in the hour of death. This, too, is a way that human beings often choose in an attempt to cope with death. They are so overwhelmed by the emotions associated with death that they come up with little platitudes to put a happier face on the loss. This, too, is not the Bible's way of facing death.
II. What the Bible teaches about death.
The Bible simultaneously faces death with realism, utter realism, and complete hope in God. So what we want to do is we want to cultivate a biblical way of thinking about death and the last things, and the way we need to start is by starting with death itself. If we do not understand death, we will never have a right attitude towards death as Christians, so let's start in the Bible, in the second chapter of the Book. Before death existed in the human world, God was already talking about death to Adam, and in Genesis 2:17, He says:
“From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”
From the very outset, death is presented in the Bible as judgment for sin. Death is God's judgment on sin. Sin brings with it, the Apostle Paul will say, death as its wages. Or, to say it in the way the verse is actually stated, “The wages of sin is death.” And before death existed in the human world, God had already explained that to Adam: ‘Adam, rebel against Me, sin against Me, ignore Me, be indifferent to Me, go your own way instead of the way I've told you to go, and the consequence will be — the judgment will be, the penalty will be, the sentence will be — death.’ And so, at the very outset the Bible asks us to look at death in judicial terms. It is not simply the natural end to life. You know Forrest Gump, that great theologian and philosopher of the age, has popularized a saying that was popular before Winston Groom penned it, that “Dyin’ is just a part of livin’.” Well, I think we know what he may be trying to get to in making that statement, but that is not a good representation of the biblical view of death, because dying had no part in God's project for Adam's living in the garden. Dying was threatened only in the instance of Adam's sin. It was sin that brought the reality of death into the world. Death is the separation of the body and the soul, and it is the fruit of sin and of God's judgment.
Turn with me to Genesis 3:19. Here we see the result of Adam's sin:
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
Till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken;
For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
There is the curse that God pronounces after Adam rebels in the garden, in fulfillment of what He had warned Adam about in Genesis 2:17. And so, in verse 24, Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden.
Now understand what's going on here. Two separations are occurring in Genesis 3. First of all, there is the separation of Adam and Eve from God. (Genesis 3:23.) They’re driven out of the garden. What is that a picture of? It is a picture of the loss of life. Turn back to Genesis 2, and look at verse 8:
“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…”
Now I want to just wait a second. How many of you know what the sound of God walking in the garden sounds like? Yeah! I don't, either! The only people in the history of this world who know what it sounds like for God to walk in the garden with them decided to listen to a serpent rather than to love that God. And that picture of God walking in the garden in Genesis 3 is a picture of the life and communion and fellowship and enjoyment of the living God that God had given to them as a gift. And that picture of Genesis 3:24 with them being driven out of the garden is the picture of the consequence of their sin. A separation has occurred, and in being separated from God, they’re being separated from life…life as it was intended. God intended us to enjoy life.
Now do you understand why when Jesus comes He says to His disciples, “I came to give life, and that abundantly”? And it is so vital to understand that the biblical concept of life is not just having an abundance of things in this world, it is abundantly communing and fellowshipping with the living God. And Adam and Eve by their rebellion lost that privilege for the whole world. And Jesus Christ came into this world in order to regain that privilege for a multitude of men and women and boys and girls no man can number, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation who trust in Him. And so what Adam lost — life! Jesus came to die and live to give again, and so death must be seen in terms of the just judgment of God on sin. So there is a separation from God.
But there is also in Genesis 3 a separation in ourselves, the separation of body and soul. That is a sign and an emblem of the physical separation from God that first brought about physical death, and it is a sign that will be deepened after death [for those] who leave this world without Christ. And that is why the Bible from beginning to end views death as “the last enemy”; not because this life is the thing that we treasure above everything else, and when this life is over, the party's over; but because the thing we treasure more than anything else is God, and death is the judgment that comes against those who have rebelled against God and lost the right to life and communion with Him. That is why a Christian view of death is radically different from an unbeliever's view of death. One old saint put it this way:
“As a believer's life is very different from an unbeliever's life, so also a believer's death is very different from an unbeliever's death. The unbeliever prefers heaven over hell; the believer prefers heaven over this earth. The unbeliever prefers heaven only over hell because he cannot imagine anything more blessed than this life. The believer prefers heaven over earth, because the believer cannot imagine anything more blessed than life with God.”
And so the way the believer and the unbeliever looks at death is dramatically different, because death isn't the end of the party. Death is a judgment against sin, and the thing that the believer longs for more than anything else is communion with the living God, and death is the visible picture of the just judgment against all those who have fallen into sin: that they do not deserve communion with the living God. And so death and the dissolution of the body and the spirit is a picture of spiritual separation from God. That's what death is.
But something's very strange. When you look at the Bible, the Bible both pictures death as an enemy and speaks of death in comforting terms to believers. Think of it. All the way back in Genesis 49, Israel could describe his death as being “gathered to his people.” Or God could say to Hezekiah in II Kings 22:20 that he was going to be “gathered to his fathers.” In Psalm 116:15, we're told that death is precious–“the death of His people is precious in the sight of God.” In Luke 16:22, Jesus can refer to death as being “carried away by angels in the bosom of Abraham.” In Luke 23:43, He can speak to a thief on the cross of his death in terms of that thief being with Him “today in paradise.” In John 14:2, He can describe to His disciples their death in terms of going to the many mansions which He has prepared for them. In Philippians 1:23, spoken of as a “blessed departure”; in II Corinthians 5:8, we're told that it's like being “home with the Lord.” In Philippians 1:21, it's called a “gain”. In Philippians 1:23 again, it's called “better by far.” And, in I Thessalonians 4:13, the believer's death is described as “falling asleep in the Lord.” Aren't those beautiful pictures of death?
III. The Christian attitude toward death.
We’re thought just a little bit about current thinking about death. We've given a brief biblical definition of death. Now we're exploring what the Christian attitude is towards death, and we learn that there are two parts of that attitude.
On the one hand, death is the last enemy. Believers, too, are sinners, and so unless the Lord tarries, we will die. And so the Christian views death as an enemy. It's not a natural part of life. It is actually the way things were never intended to be. It is a judgment of God against sin. It's the most unnatural thing in this world. But on the other hand, death has for the believer become an entrance into glory.
IV. What changed death for the Christian?
Now the question we have to ask is, “How did that happen? What changed, so that the believer not only views death as the last enemy, but also understands that death is now but our entrance into glory?” And for the answer to that question, let me ask you to turn to the very last book of the Bible, and turn with me to Revelation 20:6. This is one of seven benedictions that John the apostle pronounces in the Book of Revelation, and this is in fact the fifth of those seven benedictions. Revelation 20:6 — and listen to this blessing that he pronounces on all believers:
“Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.”
What in the world is John talking about when he speaks about the second death?
Well, that is biblical shorthand for the judgment of God and the punishment that flows out of that judgment of God that will be borne by all those who do not trust in Christ–by all the wicked. The second death is the Bible's way of speaking in shorthand about the judgment and punishment for the wicked awaiting them in the great Day of the Lord. And the reason that death has been transformed from the last enemy for the believer is that when God sent His Son into this world and placed Him on a cross, He experienced the second death first, so that for the believer, after the first death is experienced, the second death will not be; so that death itself, instead of being a portent, a precursor to the final judgment and separation of God, for the believer is now transformed into the portal into the presence of God. Just as those angels were stationed in Genesis 3:24 to guard and to keep Adam and Eve from coming back into the garden in the presence of God, so now every believer must pass through the portal of the last enemy, death; but Jesus has opened the door by experiencing the second death first. Didn't you love the way that Doug Kelly put it when he was here just a couple of weeks ago? “When death took on Jesus, it bit off more than it could chew.” And Jesus experienced the second death first, so that our whole view of death is transformed.
Now there are a thousand implications of that for us, but let me remind you of just one right now. Very often we find ourselves, especially when death catches us by surprise — and that can happen in a thousand different ways. It can be when a very young person dies, even an infant, or an infant in the womb. It can be when a young wife dies, or a young husband dies. It can be when an older person who's in perfect health suddenly is taken away. And it can happen a thousand other ways.
Very often when we have personally experienced that, we are tempted to think that God does not understand what we are feeling and experiencing. And it is so vital for you to understand that when God sent His Son into this world, He knew that by sending Him into this world as a man that He would have to die. And not only would He have to die, but He would have to experience the second death that none of you will ever experience, who have trusted in Jesus Christ. And so when you are looking at that loved one who has been taken from you, and there's nothing but the body left, and you are tempted to think, “Lord, You do not understand what I am feeling,” it is vital for you to understand that your heavenly Father knows things about death that you will never know. And His Son has experienced a death that neither you nor anyone who trusts in Him will ever experience. And this is what the Apostle Paul means when he says that “He who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up freely for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?” He gave His Son to walk into not only the first death, but the second death, in our place, so that we would never, ever, feel the full force of what death was intended to be: the final separation from a good and loving God on account of our rebellion. And that controlling reality completely changes the way that the believer looks at death.
First of all, it lets us know that we can never, ever, approach death — however surprising, shocking, crushing, and tragic it may be in our experience — we can never approach death with a hint of a suspicion that our heavenly Father does not understand what we are going through. He understands it personally and intimately. There are those of us in this room today — there are those of you in this room today — who have lost children. Your heavenly Father knows what it is like to lose a child, and He knows what it is like not simply to lose a child, but to give a child to be lost for you. And it is supremely unwise to look up into His loving eyes and say, “My Father, You don't know what I'm going through,” because He can look right back at you and say, ‘Child, You don't know what I have gone through for you.’ And that radically changes the way a Christian looks at death, because there are a thousand mysteries in death, and it is precisely that fear of the unknown — even in believers — that unsettles us from time to time. But there is nothing unknown in death to God. He created death as judgment. His Son experienced death as judgment for you. There is nothing about death that He does not understand, and you can trust Him in it. That's why the psalmist can say that “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me.” The psalmist didn't know what was waiting for him in the valley of the shadow of death, but his God did, and that is all that matters.
And so for a Christian, we understand that death is the last enemy, but we understand that Christ has conquered that last enemy by experiencing the second death for us, so that when we experience the first death–the separation of soul and body, that disembodied experience between now at the time of our death and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ–we do so now not at the end of God's righteous judgment, but as the beginning of God giving to us that which He created us for in the first place: life!
And that is why over and over in the Bible you hear Christians describing the Christian life in terms of dying. Paul will say “I die daily.” Jesus will speak of “laying down His life that you might have life.” And this is why it is so vitally important for every Christian to make a study of death, and every minister worth his salt wants not only to prepare you for purpose in this life, but wants to prepare you to die. Because for the Christian that point of death is his passageway into glory, and he wants to be ready for that passageway whenever it comes. That means that we want our children to understand what death is and to approach it biblically: not in denial or escape; not in stoic, emotionless detachment; but in realism and in hope, recognizing what death is, recognizing what Jesus’ death has done to death for all who trust in Christ.
Now, in many ways this is the hardest of the lessons that we have to learn, but it sets the foundation for all the encouragement that we are going to receive when we think about what happens to the believer after death, what happens when Christ returns, what happens for the believer in the Day of Judgment, and what is heaven and how do we prepare for it. It all begins with understanding death, because the wages of sin is death; but in Christ, through free grace, we have been given a gift from God. And that gift, the Apostle Paul says in the very same verse in which he announces that the wages of sin is death, that gift is eternal life. And so God's plan is for the first death to be the passageway to eternal life for all who trust in Jesus.
Heavenly Father, we ask that You would help us to think about death Christian-ly; to be informed by the Bible in our understanding of it, and so to be transformed in the way we cope with death in our own lives in the losses that we experience amongst friends and family. Help us to be an encouragement to one another, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and reminding one another of the glory of what Jesus has done for us that we might never taste the second death. These things we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.