The text-only issue.
Christian Dies: Church in Disaster Recovery Mode, Noah's Flood a Cake Walk in Comparison.
Can you imagine a headline like that? Why is it not a scandal when a Christian dies? Off the top of my head, I can think of Romans, II Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews, all of which explicitly mention the idea of Christians having died with Christ. I am sure there are many more references than that. Why then if we have died with Christ, do we persist in dying?1 Should we not change the popular expression to say “as sure as... taxes”? After all, it doesn't appear that Enoch or Elijah died. Is it just of God that these two are allowed to buck the trend?
After a person is born, there seem to be four states of being through which they will inevitably pass: spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1-3), physical death (Hebrews 9:27), spiritual resurrection (Colossians 3:1), and physical resurrection (John 5:25-29).2
Spiritual death is, since the fall, the natural state of every human being. A natural man is spiritually dead, and the consequences of a Christian's spiritual death, judgement and hell, were meted out upon Jesus on the cross. Physical death appears to be the destiny of every person according to Hebrews, although, as noted above, there are some documented exceptions, not to mention those unnamed millions who will be alive when Christ returns. In terms of when it happens, the Bible's teaching, as mentioned above, is that Christians died with Christ on the cross. Physical and spiritual death are very closely related since Adam's spiritual rebellion resulted in us all, along with the entire created order in which we exist, being cut off from the tree of life. Spiritual resurrection happens for Christians at Christ's resurrection, so that we are now seated “with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6)”. Finally, physical resurrection occurs at the last day, when the Son of Man calls and the dead rise for judgement. The reason for the wait on the physical resurrection seems to be so that “repentance and forgiveness of sins” can be proclaimed in the world (Luke 24:46-47), thereby fulfilling Scripture.
My experience is that Christians embrace the idea that they were spiritually dead before becoming Christians, that they were spiritually raised and created anew when Jesus rose up from the grave, and that they will be physically raised from the dead when Jesus returns. However, on the issue of their physical death, confusion reigns. Most acknowledge (with a little prompting) that they died physically with Christ on the cross and so are released from the power of sin, but no one I have ever met is scandalised by the fact that Christians keep on dying. We proclaim our freedom from the consequences of our spiritual death on the grounds that it has already happened in Christ. We proclaim our spiritual resurrection and the consequent ethic of living by the spirit on the grounds that it has already happened in Christ. We proclaim the return of our Lord and eagerly await the day when we will see the glory of our resurrected bodies on the grounds that Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection. But, even though the teaching of the Bible seems at least as explicit that we have died with Christ on the cross, never have I heard anyone proclaim how great it is to be Christian, and not facing physical death because, in Christ, we have already died.
What is the Bible's teaching? In the short space left, we'll look at Romans 5–8, and make four points relating to physical death as a Christian.
First, death enters the world through sin, and death has spread to all people because all sinned (5:12). Hence, we can see that the expectation, at least for the “natural man”, ought to be to die a physical death. Again, Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin is death, so people spend their lives slaving away, as it were, earning death as compensation for every day's hard labour.
Second, as alluded to above, Christians have died with Christ. Romans 6:6 says our old self has been “crucified with him” (cf. Galatians 2:19), “we have died with Christ” (6:8), and we have been “baptised into his death” (6:3). It's not just that Jesus died for us, but also that we died with him. That is, Jesus was our representative on the cross. Just as Levi paid the tithe to Melchizedek through the loins of Abraham, we suffered the punishment for our sins in Jesus' body. Whatever happened to him, happened to us.
Third, Christ died the physical death we deserve. The example Paul gives in Chapter 7 is from marriage, that the law is only binding as long as one lives. It no longer holds sway over those who have died, and we have “died to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4). In Christ's bodily death, is our bodily death, and the consequent release from the law (7:6). The writer to the Hebrews makes a point of the necessity of Jesus' physical, human death in saying that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Physical death is part of God's curse on humanity (Hebrews 9:27), and the redeeming of our physical bodies must be dealt with, if Jesus is going to become a “curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). That is, Jesus has to suffer the penalties of our curse, including our physical death.
Fourth, Christians are righteous in God's eyes. Christians have been “justified by [Christ's] blood” (Romans 5:9), we “have peace with God” (5:1), and we have become “the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). That is, as Christians, we do not deserve death. We have been declared not guilty. As far as God's concerned, we didn't commit the crime.
Putting it together we see that Jesus is our representative on the cross, so that even though the natural man should always expect to die, Christians know that they have already died with Christ, and, therefore, should expect not to die. Moreover, because of what Jesus has done, we are declared not guilty by God, and so no longer even deserve to die.
If Jesus died our death, then that would explain why Enoch and Elijah and those alive at the second coming don't have to die.
But the fact is that Christians are dying everyday, so where does that leave you?
The verdict is not guilty, but the sentence is death.
How can that be?
Frankly, I don't have an answer. I could suggest the “now but not yet” idea that even though we are new creatures, we are still stuck in this dying world, and therefore caught up in its processes, including death. There is certainly some truth in that, however vague the answer might be.
We could make it more specific by relating our decay to the lack of access to the tree of life. The problem with that is trying to work out whether as part of the new creation, but still living in this world, we already do have access to the tree.
The answer may lie down the track of Jesus paying for the consequences of death and dying with him is a euphemism for appropriating that lack of consequences for ourselves.
These discussions suggest another question the answer to which could prove useful. Would Jesus have died a natural death had he not been crucified? Of course, it's an unanswerable question.
Why do we not make one of the most obvious applications of the Bible's teaching on Christians dying with Christ, that Christians should no longer die a physical death? The truth is out there, but I pray the answer is not that the empirical data demonstrate otherwise.
Well, while we still may have questions about why Christians continue to die, I want to leave you with some encouragement in case Jesus doesn't return before you face your own death. Paul says to the Roman Christians, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
1 If Jesus died on the cross as the representative of humanity, then it would seem that some of the arguments outlined here could equally apply to all people, not Christians only, but to avoid tangential issues, and ones about which the Bible does not speak in great detail, we'll stick with talking about Christians.
2 I'm not sure that separating the spiritual and physical is helpful in most situations, but it shows the full range of images we need to account for, even if they are more properly understood to be two inseparable pairs.
Lewis Jones studies at Moore Theological College and heads up the staff/postgraduate ministry at the University of New South Wales.