What led you to write the book Facing the Last Enemy?
Alongside my duties at Reformed Theological Seminary, I have had the privilege of filling the pulpit of a local church for the last few years. In late 2020, I received an email from one of the church’s ruling elders, Will Thompson. In that email, Will let me know that he was in the final stages of cancer and asked me, “How do I prepare to die?” I wrote this book in answer to Will’s question. At his invitation and with his encouragement, I prepared and taught to the congregation a twelve-week Sunday school class on a Christian view of death and dying and then revised my lessons for publication. I wanted to put into the hands of Christians a compact overview of the biblical and practical questions that each of us faces when we encounter death, whether our own or of those we love.
Why does Paul say that death is the “last enemy”?
Paul says that death is the “last enemy” in the middle of his great “resurrection” chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. There Paul is speaking to some who were denying that believers will be raised bodily at the last day. Paul wants us to understand that the resurrection of the body is a gospel essential. He also wants us to grasp the meaning of the resurrection for our lives—past, present, and future.
The resurrection is the triumph of Jesus Christ over sin and death. Death is the “enemy” of the sinner because it is the divinely appointed penalty for sin (see Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12). In His death and resurrection, Christ has conquered death for His people. Because Christ bore the penalty of sin in His own humanity on the cross, and because God lifted the sentence of death from Jesus in raising Him from the dead, God in Christ has won a complete victory over His people’s enemy, death. Death is the “last” enemy because, as believers, we have yet to fully experience the victory of Christ. That fullness will come when we are raised bodily from the grave at Christ’s return. The reason that Paul writes this chapter is to reassure us that, in Christ, this hope of ours is certain.
Why do so many people fear death? Should Christians fear death?
People fear death for a good reason—it is fearful. Death is unnatural. It is not part of God’s original plan for human beings. Death is, rather, the penalty that God justly inflicts for sin. While God may (and does) use death for good, death is not a positive good. It is an evil. Death is the ultimate separator. It separates soul from body. It separates us from our loved ones, our possessions, and our dreams and ambitions in this world. Ultimately, death separates the impenitent sinner from the favorable presence of God Himself.
One glorious truth of the gospel is not only that Christ has conquered death but also that Christ has delivered every person who trusts in Him from slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). Believers have no cause to fear death because of what Christ has done on our behalf.
But that does not mean that even the strongest believer is beyond the reach of the fears that death can bring. Thankfully, Scripture speaks to these fears. We ought to be studying and meditating on the teaching of Scripture and seeking wise biblical counsel now to prepare ourselves if those fears surface in our lives.
Why do we tend not to think or write as much about death today as people did in past cultures?
People today are as mortal as people who lived in past cultures. But we don’t think about death the way that they did. There are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, our culture has perfected the art of distraction. Thanks to our electronic devices and what they make available to us, we have countless and constant diversions at our fingertips. We therefore have to work that much harder to think about serious things. For another thing, our culture distances us from death and dying in ways that were not part of the experiences of past cultures. Hospitals and nursing facilities perform wonderful services to the sick and dying, but much more so than in the past, they are places where people die away from the presence of family and loved ones. Infant mortality, a tragic constant of human experience, has been blessedly lessened. For that reason, many homes thankfully do not know the tragic experience of losing a child. Because we are more removed from death than our ancestors were, we can lull ourselves into thinking that death may not break into our lives at any moment.
What are some of the most common misconceptions that Christians have about death?
Many Christians don’t understand what happens to us when we die. Death is not the end of our conscious existence. When the believer dies, his soul goes immediately to be with Christ. Jesus said to the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul tells us that for the believer, death is “gain” because we will “be with Christ,” which is “far better” than our present life (Phil. 1:21, 23). We will be perfectly holy and unimaginably happy in the presence of our God.
Death also does not mean that we forever shed our bodies. When we die, our bodies remain in the grave, awaiting the resurrection. When Christ returns, our resurrected bodies will be forever reunited to our souls. We will live in eternity in our full, glorified humanity. While the Christian’s hope is to be with Jesus immediately after we die, that is not our highest hope. Our highest hope is to dwell with the triune God in our resurrected humanity.
How should thinking about death inform how we live?
We sometimes call people “morbid” who have an unhealthy obsession with death. Christians should think often about death, but never in a way that is morbid. What does such a Christian sensibility look like? We should, first, hold this world loosely. We know that one day we will leave this world and that God has something even better in store for us. We should, second, think often of heaven. Scripture often calls us to meditate on the future that God has prepared for us (e.g., see Phil. 3:20; Heb. 12:28; 13:14)—the new heaven and earth will be a world of perfect holiness and happiness, without the threat of sin or the curse of death. One practical way to nurture this hope is to spend time in God’s Word and to spend time with God’s people. It is as we draw near to God in His Word that the realities of what God has promised to us break into our thoughts and experience. It is as we enjoy the worship and fellowship of the church that we are reminded that we are pilgrims in this world and are eagerly waiting for the blessed rest that God has prepared for us (Heb. 4:9).
If Christ paid the penalty of sin for His people, why do Christians still die?
Part of the “good news” of the Christian gospel is that Christ has made full payment for all the sins of each of His people. God tells every justified person that he will never fall into condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Why, then, do Christians die? We must begin by saying that a Christian’s death is never the penalty for his sin. That penalty has already been paid by Jesus. Our heavenly Father purposes only what is for the good of His people. So what good does God intend for His people by death? Death, for the Christian, marks the end of our conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Death brings us out of a world that lies under the curse. Death ushers us into closer, fuller, and richer communion with God in Christ and brings us into the heavenly fellowship of the elect angels and the saints who have gone before us. None of this changes the fact that death is and remains an evil. But our sovereign, wise, and good God uses all things—even death—for our good and for His glory.
How should we grieve the death of loved ones?
We should grieve the death of our loved ones. We have countless examples across Scripture of believers’ grieving. And, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. What Scripture forbids is “griev[ing] as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). When an unbeliever faces death, he faces death in despair and hopelessness. But every believer has been given a sure hope in the gospel. The gospel does not spare us the experience of grief, but the gospel transforms our grief. Our gospel hope is not wishful thinking but a certain expectation grounded in the finished work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, death has been conquered and eternal life has been won. Christ and all His benefits are freely ours through faith in Him. In Christ, death never has the last word. If our loved ones are believers, then we know that they are now happier than they ever were on earth. We know that we will be reunited with them at Christ’s return (see 1 Thess. 4:13–18). It is this hope that sustains us and carries us, even in the depths of our grief.
In the book, you write, “Preparing for death is not individualistic.” How can Christians prepare for death alongside God’s people?
God has called us to live alongside our fellow Christians, particularly in the local church. The fellowship of believers should help us prepare for death. When we spend time with believers who meet death in Christian faith or with believers who grieve in hope the loss of loved ones dear to them, we are learning from our brothers and sisters in Christ how to face death. When we learn that a fellow believer is grieving or is himself facing death, that is an opportunity to draw near and to serve him. Sometimes sharing a word of sympathy, reading a brief passage of Scripture, or offering to pray can minister comfort beyond our expectation. Sometimes just being there with him is all that we need to do. And as we minister to our brothers and sisters, we discover that they are ministering to us at the same time. We see faith, hope, and love flowering in the soil of sadness and loss. In this way, Christ prepares each of His people to face death in the confidence of His triumphant death and glorious resurrection.