When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55)
Death has been portrayed and personified in several ways. In contrast to the typical “Grim Reaper” (skeletal figure carrying a scythe), media portrayals often personify death as a rather good-natured fellow. But who is this smiling intruder in your home called death? Is his grin the fiendish mask of a mortal enemy? Or is it the smile of a benevolent friend who has come to rescue you from pain and suffering? Is death your enemy or your friend?
Have no question that the Bible describes death as an enemy. It is not the only enemy of the Christian, but it is described as our “last enemy.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul affirms that Christ will reign until He has put all enemies under His feet, and the last of those enemies will be death (15:25–26). It should be a great comfort to us to know that the One in whom we place our trust, is victorious over all of His enemies. This text in 1 Corinthians along with Hebrews 2:5-9 echo back to Psalm 8, where we find the “son of man” “made a little lower than the angels,” yet given dominion and clothed with glory and honor. Christ, who is the last Adam, fulfills the destiny of mankind described in Psalm 8, by receiving dominion over creation from His Father. This, placing of all things in subjection to Christ, has both a present and a future facet. In His resurrection and ascension, Christ became Christus Victor – the victor over sin, death and Satan. At present, He is already at the right hand of the Father and reigns over all creation. However, Christ still has rebellious subjects, as the whole of creation is not yet living in willing obedience to Him. Even his arch enemy Satan, is still in rebellion, even though in His death on the cross Christ wrenched away the power over death delegated to Satan (Heb 2:14-15). The irony is that Christ’s victory over the devil’s power of death was accomplished by means of death. In His death, Jesus is victorious over death, ultimately because death could not hold Him. Yet there is still a future dimension to this victory; the last enemy that will be destroyed is death. So even though Christ dealt a mortal blow to Satan and death in His own death, there still remains a final victory to be realized.
But something decisive did take place on the cross with respect to death; the sting of death was removed. God gave us a victory that was won for us by another. So the question remains. Is death now our friend? Or is it yet our enemy? For believers, death can be a considered our friend only insofar as it ushers us into presence of Christ in sure anticipation of final resurrected body. However, insofar as death is still coupled with suffering, it remains our last enemy yet to be totally vanquished. Our problem with death is not so much with death itself, but with dying. While we know that on the other side of death lies glory, and that death is the portal to that glory, at the same time, we all have to do battle with the process of death and its associated suffering, degeneration, and grief. As such, dying remains an enemy still to be destroyed.
Death and dying is something that we all must come to grips with. To an unbeliever, the reality of death makes life vanity; this is why we have a hard time to express any hope at the funeral of an unbeliever. Human death is a display of sin. Every grave, every coffin, every tombstone cries out , “Here lies a sinner paying his due wage.” Death stands as proof of the righteousness of the law which states: “The soul that sins shall die.” But to the believer, mortality is good news because of the resurrection. Paul expressed the glory of death, in his casual attitude regarding his departure from this life. He wrote: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil 1:21-24). As Paul compares life and death, he does not see them as opposite, but as one being good, and the latter being outstanding. When he compares the suffering of this present life to the future glory, he concludes that in light of the latter, the former is not worth consideration. Take heart Christian, our best days are most assuredly ahead of us!
What is your attitude toward death and dying? How are we to balance a healthy grief over the loss of a loved one, with a proper anticipation for the glory yet to be revealed?