I was recently standing at the graveside of a dear Christian friend when the question crossed my mind: Why do Christians have to die? Why can’t they just live and then go to heaven without passing through the experience of death? Although the wages of sin is death, and believers have certainly sinned, has Christ not paid the full penalty for our sins? So, why do Christians have to die?
The simple answer is, they don’t. Believers do not have to die because Christ has died in their place. There is not an atom of penalty left to pay. Therefore, God could translate Christians to heaven without their experiencing death, just as he did with Enoch and Elijah (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11; Heb. 11:5) and as He will do with Christians who are living when Christ returns (1 Thess. 4:17).
So, believers do not have to die, as Christ has purchased deliverance from physical death and the redemption of our bodies. But, in most cases, the Lord has chosen to delay or postpone the application of these benefits until the final resurrection. The question remains, though: Why? If Christians do not have to die, why do they die?
The Heidelberg Catechism asks the same question: “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?” (Q. 42). Its answer: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into life.”
I want to expand upon that answer by demonstrating that although Christians do not have to die, God wisely allows the vast majority of believers to pass through death because of the immense spiritual benefits of the experience.
Dying brings us into communion with Christ’s sufferings. Christ’s death is different from the believer’s “penalty-free” death because Christ’s death was a penalty for sin—not His sin but our sin. However, dying reminds us of what Christ did for us. Like nothing else, it helps us understand the death Christ experienced for us, and so death brings us into closer communion with Him, increasing our love for Him (Phil. 3:10).
Dying gives us a unique experience of Christ’s all-sufficient grace. Bodily death is still a painful evil to believers. They will fear it and feel it. As the last moments approach, there is often great physical pain and, sometimes, spiritual fear. There is also the emotional distress of seeing loved ones’ weeping. At such times, dying believers can experience tremendous help from Christ. His grace is found to be more than sufficient at this time of greatest need (Heb. 4:16).
Dying transforms us into Christ’s image. One of the blessings of dying is the rapid ripening of the believer’s character and the acceleration of his sanctification. The outer person is growing weaker, but the inner is growing stronger and stronger (2 Cor. 4:16). Though death can take an ugly toll on the body of a Christian, his soul is swiftly beautified. I’m sure many pastors have seen how the approach of death can result in a believer’s “shining” in a way he never has before.
Dying is our last and perhaps greatest opportunity to witness for Christ’s glory. Death, in many ways, is the supreme test of faith. What an opportunity to speak of how faith in Christ helps us to die and gives victory over the greatest enemy (1 Cor. 15:55). How many unbelievers have been converted by the dying words of godly fathers or mothers? When the victory of faith is seen by the world and other Christians, it brings great glory to Christ, especially if the believer can speak of and commend Christ in these last moments (Phil. 1:20). The dying witness of believers is even celebrated in heaven (Rev. 12:11).
Dying brings us into Christ’s presence. Death hastens us into the presence of Christ and our coronation as His precious people. Death temporarily separates us from our bodies, but it unites our souls to Christ in a new and wonderful way. We will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). No longer will we see Him through a dark lens, but we will see Him face-to-face (1 Cor. 13:12).
In summary, Christians do not have to die, but they do die in order to have communion with Christ’s sufferings, to experience Christ’s grace, to be made into Christ’s image, to witness for Christ’s glory, and to bring them into Christ’s presence. The Christian’s death may on the surface look like the death of the non-Christian, but it is essentially and wonderfully different.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on February 16, 2018.