We all have questions about death. What is death? Why do we die? Why do we all die? Why is death so scary? Why did Christ die? Why do Christians have to die? How can I face the death of someone I love? How can I prepare for death? How can I help others prepare for death? What happens after death?

To answer these questions, we need to go to the Scripture and see what God has to say to us there. The Bible is God’s Word and is completely reliable and true. If the Bible tells us something about death, then we can stake our lives on it.

We also have a lot of help. Our spiritual ancestors thought deeply and practically about death. Throughout the history of the church, pastors and teachers have sought to help God’s people face death in light of the riches of biblical truth. In the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, the church recovered the gospel in its full biblical integrity. Martin Luther, John Calvin, the British Puritans, and their spiritual heirs have left us rich reflections on suffering, death, and heaven in light of the gospel.

But we don’t live in the halls of church history. We live in the twenty-first century. Every generation faces its own particular challenges in thinking seriously and biblically about death and dying. The challenges of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are not always our own. To begin, we need to think about where we are. Why does modern Western culture—and sadly, sometimes, even the church—make it so hard for us to think about death?

Challenges from Our Culture

What are some obstacles that our culture raises to thinking properly about death and dying? There are at least two. The first is that we live in a culture of distraction. Think about it. We have year-round access to sports—live and televised events; domestic and international; football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer. We have cable networks, talk shows, call-in shows—all devoted to sports. We have television and movie streaming—Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and Apple TV+, for starters. In 2019, there were 532 original scripted television series broadcast in the United States; up from 495 in 2018 and 210 in 2009.1 And then there are the twenty-four-hour news channels. You couldn’t begin to watch all that’s offered. There is music streaming—Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. For a few dollars a month, you can stream or download hundreds or thousands of songs. And although social media is a relative newcomer, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok entice users to spend hours on their devices.

The point is not that sports, television, music, or social media are bad. They are not. I enjoy each of them. The problem is that our culture overwhelms us with entertainments and diversion. This multibillion-dollar industry keeps us from thinking about serious things—life, death, and eternity. Of course, diversion from serious things is not unique to our culture. It is part of our fallen bent as sinners to distract ourselves from the truth. Why do we do this? Blaise Pascal put it well nearly four hundred years ago: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things”2 and “It is easier to bear death when one is not thinking about it than the idea of death when there is no danger.”3

Therefore, our culture has not done something brand new in its pursuit of distraction. What is new is that we have taken distraction to new heights. The thought of death is so overwhelming that we would prefer not to think about it at all. Our modern industry of distraction helps us to do just that. We invest billions of dollars annually not to think about the unthinkable.

The Bible is God’s Word and is completely reliable and true. If the Bible tells us something about death, then we can stake our lives on it.

A second and related obstacle that our culture has raised to thinking seriously about death and dying is that we live in a culture of distancing and denial. We have all sorts of ways to try to keep death at arm’s length. Few young people, for instance, have had direct experience with death. They see dramatizations of death in TV and movies, often in shocking and gory detail.4 But many have never been to a funeral or memorial service, and even fewer have ever seen a dead body. It used to be that most people died at home. Now, most people die in institutions—hospitals and nursing homes, for instance.5 This is not a bad thing, of course, since these institutions are routinely staffed by skilled people who ensure that our friends and family members receive care and comfort in their last days. But this also means that families are often not with their loved ones in their last hours. Further, a routine experience of death in families has been mercifully stemmed: infant mortality. Parents, of course, continue to experience the tragic heartache of the loss of a child, but this is far less common than it used to be.6 The eighteenth-century Scottish pastor Thomas Boston, buried six children before they reached the age of two. The English Puritan John Owen had eleven children, but only one survived to adulthood. No one would want to return to the days when infant mortality was an expected, if not inevitable, part of family life. But that also means that fewer families today know what it is to experience death firsthand in the home.

We have also witnessed a revolution in the way that people mourn in our culture. Increasingly, funerals are called “celebrations of life.” This way of speaking serves to distance both the service and the mourners from the reality of death. One survey from 2019 found that the three most popular songs performed at funerals in the United Kingdom were Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Andrea Boccelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye,” and Eva Cassidy’s recording of “Over the Rainbow.”7 It is revealing that these songs equip us to respond to death with sloppy sentimentality (“Time to Say Goodbye,” “Over the Rainbow”) or with bald defiance (“My Way”). The survey’s authors commented that “surprisingly no classical hymns made it on to the most popular top ten list.” Is this a surprise, though? Good hymns capture deep, substantive, biblical truths to bring gospel comfort to mourners. By and large, that is simply not what we want in the West today as we encounter death.

Challenges from the Church

The culture is not the only place that we find obstacles to thinking seriously and substantively about death and dying. Sadly, the evangelical church has added its own set of obstacles. We may briefly reflect on three in particular. First, the church has embraced consumerism. The church too often treats attenders like customers, and these attenders too often act like customers. The church can present itself as selling a product in a competitive marketplace. Church attenders can demand to be kept satisfied or they will take their business elsewhere. If that model informs, even imperceptibly, our understanding of the church, then mortality and death will struggle to find a place in the teaching and songs of the church. If people are not made to feel positive and uplifted, the reasoning goes, they will leave and go elsewhere. There are incredible pressures to keep people coming and to attract more people to our services and programs. Why, then, would you put an unwelcome reality like death before them?

Second, the church has embraced an entertainment mentality. Often the buildings in which evangelical churches meet resemble stages with auditorium-style seating. A band is up front playing loud music (some churches even offer earplugs to attendees as they enter the building). Preaching reflects the influence of entertainment culture. Preaching is dedicated less to opening and applying a text of Scripture than to addressing the felt needs and concerns of contemporary hearers. It avoids being either serious or confrontational, and it is not particularly authoritative. Death and eternity, if they are handled at all, are handled sparingly and gingerly.

Third, the church divides itself by age and stage. This is not sinful in itself. It is good that believers, especially in large churches, can find and enjoy fellowship with other believers who are their same age and in the same stage of life. The danger is that this arrangement can distort the ministry of the church. For one thing, teaching and ministry are often geared toward the perceived needs and concerns of the group—college students, newly married, new moms, parents of teenagers, and so on. For many such groups, death and dying will be low on the list of teaching priorities. Further, when people gather into groups by affinity, they can easily lose contact with believers in the same church who are different from them. In particular, they lose the benefit of ready access to older believers—believers who have buried a child or a spouse; believers who are facing a terminal diagnosis; believers who have spent a lifetime ministering to grieving and mourning people. As a result, a whole generation of Christians is deprived of witnessing the truth of Scripture exemplified and lived out in the lives of older Christians.

In chronicling these obstacles, in both the culture and the church, we are not saying that these challenges are the result of some widespread, hidden conspiracy on the part of a handful of leaders in each. Nor are we saying that true Christians are immune to any one of these influences. What we are saying is that we face powerful headwinds as we prepare to think about the inevitable—mortality and eternity. The first step in facing these headwinds is to recognize that they are there. They not only blow within the culture, but they have even made their way into the church. Our response is not to wax nostalgic for an earlier, supposedly better age (see Eccl. 7:10). Rather, mindful of the challenges that are before us, we should commit ourselves to an earnest and careful study of the Bible.

What Is Death?

In light of what we have seen, we should be careful to take nothing for granted when it comes to death and dying. That is to say, we will need to test every belief and conviction against the testimony of Scripture. Only what is true will equip us to understand and to face death in the way that God wants. So where can we begin as we think about the Bible’s testimony to death and dying? We will begin . . . at the beginning. The first three chapters of the Bible, in fact, give us a wealth of information about life and death. We may look at five points in particular that Genesis 1–3 raise.

Only what is true will equip us to understand and to face death in the way that God wants.

Death is not part of the original creation. First, the Bible makes clear that God did not build human death into the original creation. Genesis opens with the words, “In the beginning, God . . .” (Gen. 1:1). Before the world was, there was only God. And God is the living and the true God, in whom there is no death or dying. He is life itself.

God, and God alone, made the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) (Gen. 1:1b, Heb. 11:3). When God created the world, He both forms and fills—He creates habitations and sets “living creatures” in them (Gen. 1:20, 21, 24). These living creatures are, in turn, commanded to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22). Living creatures model themselves after their Creator by bringing life into the world.

And then, God creates man, the crown of creation, the only creature who is said to be made “in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). The image of the living God presides over the life of the creation (“Let them have dominion . . .”). Men and women likewise must be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).

When God finishes making the world in the space of six days, He reviews the whole of His handiwork with complete satisfaction: “And behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The living God makes a world that is teeming with life and suited to promote the life of His creatures. His creatures are endowed with the potential to produce more life. This includes human beings. All this is good. There is no hint whatsoever from the original creation that humans will die.

God created man a living being, body and soul. Second, Scripture tells us that God specially created man. We read a detailed description of Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7, which states, “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God shows us something important about our humanity. God made Adam in two stages, reflecting the two constitutive parts of man. First, there is Adam’s body. Adam’s body was formed immediately by God from the dust of the earth. Second, there is Adam’s soul. Adam’s soul was formed when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Only when soul and body are joined together (and not before) does Adam become a “living creature.” We may fairly infer that, were a person’s soul and body ever to be separated, that person would cease to be a living creature. But there is no hint of death or of the principle of death in man as God creates him in Genesis 1–2. God created us, body and soul, to be living creatures in fellowship with Him and to serve Him on this earth.

Death is the penalty of sin. Third, before sin enters the world, God gives Adam a warning in the garden of Eden, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17). It is important to remember that God speaks these words to Adam before he sins or is even tempted to sin. Even before Adam’s fall into sin, then, Adam had some idea or notion of what “death” was. To die is to be deprived of life, to lose the life that Adam had. Death, furthermore, was the penalty for disobeying God’s command. Death, in the words of the Apostle, is “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23). Consequently, after Adam sinned, God tells him that the threatened penalty will surely come upon him: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). God’s words make clear that “death” for Adam will be the separation of his body and soul, and the return of his body whence it came—the dust of the ground.

Death is not, as so many understand it, a natural part of the cycle of life and existence. It is not built into our humanity. “Death is not a debt to nature, but is God’s judgment upon sin.”8 Had sin not entered the world, death would have remained an abstract idea to human beings.

Death is not, as so many understand it, a natural part of the cycle of life and existence. It is not built into our humanity.

Death is universal in its scope. Fourth, death is universal in its scope. Experience tells us that all people will die. So does Scripture: “It is appointed for man to die once” (Heb. 9:27). This is graphically demonstrated in the genealogy of Genesis 5, just a couple of chapters after Adam’s fall into sin. Early in the chapter we read, “Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died” (Gen. 5:5). The phrase “and he died” becomes a lamentable refrain throughout the chapter. All of Adam’s listed descendants die. The one exception in Genesis 5 proves the rule: “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). Enoch did not experience death, but God removed him all the same from the face of the earth.9

Scripture is plain: no one escapes death.10 Neither rich nor poor. Neither powerful nor downtrodden. Neither beautiful nor ugly. Neither strong nor weak. Neither pious nor wicked. Death strikes at all ages and stages of life—the aged, people in their prime, youths, infants, even children in the womb. There are, of course, all the precursors to death that afflict people in this life—disease, injury, illness, bodily weakness, mental decay. These are not merely “part of living” or “growing old” but hints of death and precursors to death.

Why is it that all die? We will explore this further in the article ahead. For now, it is enough to say that if all die, it is because all have sinned (see Rom. 5:12b). God is a just God. Death is the penalty of sin. God would not inflict death for no reason at all. He does not treat the innocent as though they were guilty. The universal reign of death testifies to the universal reach of sin in humanity.

Death is cosmic in its reach. Fifth, death is cosmic in its reach. We often think of death in terms of individual human beings. And that, of course, is right. But the Bible tells us that accompanying the infliction of death as the penalty for sin is the curse of God upon the creation. Listen to what God tells Adam after Adam has sinned against God, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field” (Gen. 3:17–18). The world will continue on, and Adam will continue to work the ground, just as God had commanded him at his creation. From now on, however, the world lies under God’s curse. It will be marked and marred by frustration, pain, suffering, and death. The Apostle Paul gives eloquent testimony to this sad reality: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:20–22).

The creation did not ask God, as it were, to be the way that it now is. It has been brought into “bondage to corruption” and has been “subjected to futility.” Animals suffer and die violent deaths. Earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes ravage the landscape. With one voice, then, the creation “groans together.” But that groan accompanies the “pains of childbirth.” This points to a greater, blessed reality that lies ahead—new heavens and new earth. For the present, the creation is enslaved to decay and futility, as the result of the entrance of sin, and with it death, into the world through Adam.


It is never pleasant to think about death. Yet death is real. It is not something we can afford to ignore, to wish away, to sentimentalize, or to trivialize. Scripture owns up to the reality of death and does so from its opening pages. Issues of “life and death” importance mark the first three chapters of the Bible. If God wants us to think about death, then what does He want us to know? In the first place, death is loss. It is something to grieve and lament. It is not the way things are supposed to be. Therefore, it is the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). It is right to weep in the face of death.

Death is even worse than we may have imagined it to be. It is the penalty for sin. In the next article, we will see what happens when people die—they immediately enter into the presence of their Creator and Judge. For sinners, this is bad news. The loss that death brings to everyone, however great, pales in comparison with what awaits those who die as God enemies—eternal punishment and misery (what the Bible calls the “second death”; Rev. 20:14).

There is, however, good news. God does not reveal these things to taunt or torment us. He reveals these things to help us grasp our need for the Savior whom the gospel offers to all sinners. Christ came into this world to live, die, and rise again for sinners. He has “taste[d] death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9), so He knows what it is to face death and experience death. But He does more than sympathize with us in the hour of death. He has conquered death. He has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). Through death He destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). He died on the cross and was raised from the grave for sinners and their salvation. This victory belongs to all of those (and only to those) who put their trust in Him.

If we trust Christ, the “Author of life” (Acts 3:15), then we have the sure hope of eternal life. Death may lie ahead of us, but in God’s hands death brings us into eternal life. There, death will be only the stuff of memory, “and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 51:11). In glory, “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 7:17). So we may weep in the days of our pilgrimage, but the day will come for us when tears of sorrow will give way to tears of joy. As Samuel Rutherford reminds us, “It were a well-spent journey though seven deaths lay between . . . glory, glory dwells in Emmanuel’s land.”11

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on death. Next post.

  1. “Number of Original Scripted TV Series in the United States from 2009 to 2019,” Statistica, January 2021, accessed January 19, 2021, ↩︎
  2. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), 66 (=Pensée 169). ↩︎
  3. Pascal, Pensées, 72 (=Pensée 166). ↩︎
  4. Timothy A. Sisemore, Finding God While Facing Death (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2017), 19. ↩︎
  5. Sisemore, Finding God While Facing Death, 19. ↩︎
  6. Sisemore, Finding God While Facing Death, 19. ↩︎
  7. Georgina Hamilton, “The Most Played Songs at Funerals Revealed—and Some Choices Are Bizarre,” Smooth Radio 97-108, May 2, 2019, accessed January 19, 2021, ↩︎
  8. Joel R. Beeke and Christopher W. Bogosh, Dying and Death: Getting Rightly Prepared for the Inevitable (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2018), 19. ↩︎
  9. The same would be true, of course, of Elijah, who was taken to heaven by a whirlwind, accompanied by “chariots of fire and horses of fire” (2 Kings 2:11). ↩︎
  10. We will take up the special case of Jesus Christ in later chapters. As a human being, Jesus died, but not for the same reasons that you and I will die. For one thing, we have no choice but to die. Jesus sovereignly chose to die. ↩︎
  11. From “The Sands of Time Are Sinking,” on which see, accessed January 19, 2021. In the nineteenth century, Anne R. Cousin drafted this hymn by drawing together statements from across the Letters of the seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterian pastor Samuel Rutherford. ↩︎

How Is Christ Exalted in His Session...

Why Do We Fear Death?