Second, death is not only fixed and final, but it is also loss. Death deprives us of what is familiar and dear to us. Death takes from us our family and friends, our jobs and hobbies, our pursuits and ambitions. In the words of Job, “Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21; compare Ps. 49:17). The English Puritan William Bates puts it graphically: “There is a natural love of society in man, and death removes from all. The grave is a frightful solitude . . . Every one among the dead is confined to his sealed, obscure cell, and is alone an entertainment for the worms.”
Death is loss in an even more profound sense. Death ruptures the bond between a person’s soul and body. Paul describes this condition as being “naked” or “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5:3–4). God created us body and soul. The severing of that bond touches us at the core of what we are as human beings.
Third, death is penal. This is the deepest reason that death inspires fear. Death comes as the penalty for sin. It is inflicted by a God who is just, righteous, and holy. Whether death is prolonged or instant, full of pain or free of pain, death ushers us into the presence of God. In that sense, death is like a warrant issued for a person’s arrest. That person will be brought before the bar of justice to give an account for himself. In the same way, death is God’s summons to bring a human being into His presence that he may give to God an account of himself. That is why Hebrews reminds us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
The matters we have raised in this article are difficult matters, but matters that we have to face. We have to face them because they are true, because they are revealed in the Word of God to human beings, and because they affect the life and destiny of every human being. One thing that we have seen is that no one can truly understand death without first understanding God. The inescapability of death reflects the fact that we are, by nature, “dead in trespasses and sins”—in rebellion against the living God (Eph. 2:1). The time and circumstances of one’s death have been fixed by the eternal, unchangeable decree of God. Death is not a biological inevitability or the turning of the wheels of a mechanical and impersonal universe. It is the penalty inflicted by a just, personal God. Death is fearful for just that reason—it is the punishment for sin. Death is not good and can never be enjoyable or desirable in itself.
As believers, we should view death as an opportunity to encourage people to think about God, eternity, and themselves in a biblical way (see Eccl. 7:2). If death is a raw wound, then only the medicine of the gospel will bring true and lasting healing. Death exposes the vanity and futility of people who try to live without God and to live for the pursuit of self and pleasure. Death intrudes and gives the lie to such a mindset and lifestyle. Are we ready to speak a good word to someone whose life has been turned upside down by the death of a loved one or by the news of their own impending death? Are we prepared to help them understand it and to point them to the Savior who conquered death?
What difference does being a Christian make to the reality and experience of death? For now, we can say that while death is not good in itself, for those who are in Christ death will be for our good. For His people, Christ brings an end not to the experience of death but to the fear of death. That is to say, death and its terrors no longer hold us in bondage. Why is that? Because Christ died, experiencing death in all its terrors, pains, horrors, and agonies of soul and body. Because Christ, in His death and resurrection, defeated death. He did this for us. As we approach death, we need to see it through the spectacles of the finished work of Christ. The gospel tells us that Christ has conquered and subdued death. That is the only way that we can face death with hope or confidence.
Only in Christ can we say with Paul that “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Notice that only those who can say “For me to live is Christ” can say “to die is gain.” When we are brought from Adam to Christ, we exchange death for life, condemnation for justification (Rom. 8:1). If you are in Christ, then His obedience and death belong to you. You are counted righteous in Christ, through faith alone apart from anything that you have done, are doing, or ever will do (Rom. 3:21–26). This gift of imputed righteousness gives you a lasting title to life and glory (Rom. 5:17, 21).
The gospel completely changes our anticipation and experience of death. While the time and circumstances of our deaths are uncertain to us, we know that they have been eternally fixed by our heavenly Father. Our Father, who wants nothing for us but what is for our everlasting good, has appointed those details in His love and wisdom. Death is loss, in some important senses, but it is greater gain. Death ushers us into the riches of heaven and glory, our “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4)—an inheritance, Peter goes on to say, that God has kept in heaven for us and for which God is keeping us through faith. When death brings us into the presence of God, we approach One who is our friend, One who welcomes us with open arms, One who delights in our presence with Him. The God whom we know and love here on earth is the God whose presence we will enjoy more fully in heaven above. In fellowship with God, there is no death, only life.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on death. Previous post.