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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > Reflections on Physical Death


Death is an intrusion. It is not natural because God created man apart from death, but with the capacity for death; in other words, God created man without the necessity for death, but with the potential for death. With his original nature Adam could have lived forever, for nothing within his nature precluded that from becoming reality. He could have eaten of the tree of life and would have never died.

But Adam’s nature was created by God such that it could be made subject to death, and death became a reality for Adam when Adam sinned. The wages of sin is death, and with Adam’s sin death automatically was ascribed to man’s existence—death is thus an invasion of man’s nature—it is a judgment.

Death is an intrusion that was visited upon the race through the act of one man: “For as by a man came death” (I Cor. 15:21; “in Adam all die,” v. 22). All men have been made subject to the penalty of death because of the disobedience of Adam; death does not come because of each individual’s sinful acts but because of the act of the one man Adam. Subjection of every individual to death apart from individual action is seen in the death of infants and even death in the womb. The innocent do not die, for no one is innocent; rather, they die because of sin (see: The Principle of Identification and By One Man).

Death is the destiny of every person. It is the end of existence. In fact, the time of death is appointed, therefore, it is certain. Though the time is unknown, it is fixed. All men die, for  life is a march to the grave; and every moment of life anticipates the moment of death. There is a date with death that cannot be delayed.

The inevitability of death is a fact that becomes more and more prominent in the thinking of the individual as he grows older. The young do not think of death; they think of life—time is spent living and preparing to live, with hardly any thought of dying. The old contemplate death even as they reflect on life.

The surety of death raises two profound questions: Am I ready to die; and, What lies after death?

Death terminates potential for earthly accomplishments. What an individual is doing will be done no more. Doing good comes to an end, and perpetrating evil is terminated. Desires will be unfilled and tasks may be interrupted and unfinished. Death may appear unexpectedly, with no warning so that there is no time to set the house or life in order. Tomorrow is not promised and cannot be expected. Only today, this moment, is assured, assured because I am living, but there can never be presumption of the next moment for it may never come (see: Brevity of Life).

Death determines the priorities of our existence. Death reveals the significance of individual acts, so life should be lived in light of death. In this sense death has a positive dimension. It requires man to live in anticipation of the end and the judgment that will be faced after death. Death is the criterion by which acts are evaluated.

“Death exposes the superficiality and triviality of many of the ambitions and aspirations on which men spend their energies” (MacQuarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 69). In light of death many earthly pursuits are revealed to be selfish and ultimately futile, for there is no profound nor eternal purpose to them. They are but for the moment, revealing the simplicity and egocentricity of most human actions. Life is more than a Facebook account.

But for the majority of individuals, at least those living in the capitalistic culture of the West, life is lived for the thrill of the moment with no thought beyond the moment. Instant gratification is the essence of living. Life is simply one long party of selfish indulgence. After one party the next party is anticipated and planned; the social calendar of the culture reveals this abysmal emptiness. The presents of Christmas give way to the cards of Valentine’s Day, followed by the eggs of Easter and the flag and cookouts of the Fourth of July. Intermingled with all this is the seasonal sport’s calendar of both the local amateur teams, the collegiate teams, and the professional athletes. Incorporated are vacations that include the snow of the peaks and the sun of the beaches. It does not matter where—life is lived for the pleasure of the moment with keen anticipation of the next moment of fleeting bliss.

Missing in this self-centered pursuit is any real reflection on the meaning of life. If there is any reflection on the worth of life, absent is the understanding of the broader dimensions of human existence—a knowledge that does not compartmentalize life and its deeds, but seeks to grasp the comprehensive nature, and even the eternal implications, of our earthly sojourn. There is the judgment.

One must consider the Lord and His work. In light of death and the resurrection, the believer is to be diligent and conscientious: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord you labor is not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58).

Death is a sting: “The sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:55-56; see: Hosea 13:14). Paul used kentron which is translated “sting,” a word appearing four times in the Greek New Testament: Acts 26:14; I Cor. 15:55-56; Rev. 9:10. The word speaks of a sharp point, a prick, the sting of an animal, or a goad, which is a sharpened stick used to control cattle. On the road to Damascus the Lord said to Saul: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), and of the locusts from the bottomless pit the Scripture affirms that “they have tails and stings like scorpions” (Rev. 9:10). In light of this usage, the sting of death in First Corinthians is sharp and pointed; it sticks and hurts. There is a sharpness and a tragedy associated with death.

Death contains the horror and dread that it does because it is associated with sin; death is the consequence of sin. And sin is despicable and cruel in its experience, both for the one dying and for those close to the one whose life is coming to an end. Death’s association with sin causes death to be damnable and drives the believer to find hope beyond death in the death and resurrection of Christ. Even for the believer, sin causes the death of the believer to be a sting that one naturally withdraws from and does not relish.

Part of the sting is the loss of life, coupled with the dread that there may not be life after death. For the unbeliever death is a sting that terminates life with no abiding hope to assist in facing the sting with grace. There is weeping that is devoid of comfort.

Death is a sleep. David spoke of “the sleep of death” (Ps. 13:3; see: Soul Sleep).

Death is the prelude to eternity. Death is not the end; it is not the final chapter for man. It merely brings an end to earthly existence. There is life after death—the life of eternity.

Part of the sting is this loss of life, but even though life may cease for a period it will continue at the resurrection. Whether the period between death and the resurrection is one minute or one million years, the sense is the same. There is no concept of time for the dead; in fact, the dead know nothing. So the length of death is inconsequential because the sensation of life following the period of death is instantaneous—so instantaneous that Paul stated that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8; see: Problem Passages). 

But death is the necessary experience for every person because of the state of sin that characterizes every person, and because it marks the entrance of the person into eternity, where death is not a factor.

Death amplifies the significance of the resurrection. The resurrection terminates death’s grip on the race. Death will be destroyed: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Cor. 15:26). Death will be terminated when the mortal puts on immortality and the perishable puts on the imperishable (I Cor. 15:53-54)—evidently immortality is not the experience of any person preceding the resurrection. An immortal existence and a body that is imperishable will not be the experience of the race before the resurrection; in this sense the soul is not immortal prior to the resurrection.

There is coming a time, in eternity, when “death shall be no more” (Rev. 21:4; see: Affirming the Resurrection).

To be with God, in harmony with God, is life,
to be against Him is death.
Emil Brunner

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