Life Is Always Fatal

“Life is always fatal. No one gets out alive.” So says Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College.[1] Maybe you giggled after you read that. But only because you know it’s true. Our culture tells us that death is natural, that it’s just part of life. Not true. As John Stott rightly notes, “The Bible everywhere views human death not as a natural, but as a penal event.”[2]  This is to say that, even though we die, we do not die principally because we are human; we die because we have broken God’s laws and are by nature, by choice, and by divine declaration, sinners.  Death was not originally a part of God’s creation (Gen. 1-2) but rather was a foreign intruder brought about due to the sin of our first parents (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12; Baptist Catechism Q/A 15-16).

Keith Mathison calls death “an unnatural abomination in God’s creation, an ally of Satan that will ultimately be eradicated.”[3]  In poetic fashion, no one has expressed this truth better than Peter Kreeft:

Death is loss, loss of life.  Life is good.  Loss of a good is an evil.  Therefore death is an evil.  Loss of a great good is a great evil.  Therefore death is a great evil.  Not to see this is a great blindness.  Blindness is a great evil.  Therefore not to see death as a great evil is a great evil.  Death is loss of being, denial of being, the enemy of being.  It is the reduction of being to nonbeing, the undoing of creation.  Death is the most uncreative thing there is.  It literally uncreates creation, whether it is the creation of man or God, whether it is a painting destroyed by fire, or a nation destroyed by war, a soul destroyed by vice, or a body destroyed by cancer.  Death is an enemy of God.  It undoes the divine work, creation.  If man is the friend of God, he must be the enemy of death.  God’s enemy must be his enemy.[4]           

Just last Saturday I had to officiate the funeral of a friend of mine in the church I pastor. It was not easy. But whenever I preach at a funeral, I’m reminded of a saying I often hear from pastors: “I’d rather preach your funeral than your wedding.” That may sound odd to some, but the idea is that there’s a greater chance for impact at a funeral than there is at a wedding.

I certainly hope so. But why does the impact seem to be so short-lived? I’m convinced we don’t think of our own deaths as often as we should. This is why Ecclesiastes 7:2 and 4 tell us “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. . . The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

In my own life I’ve observed that at funerals many people vow to give more thought to their relationship with God. Unfortunately, within a few weeks they’ve long forgot that vow. This behavior always makes me think of a section of Calvin’s Institutes:

If some corpse is being buried, or we walk among graves, because the likeness of death then meets our eyes, we, I confess, philosophize brilliantly concerning the vanity of this life. Yet even this we do not do consistently, for often all these things affect us not one bit. But when it happens, our philosophy is for the moment; it vanishes as soon as we turn our backs, and leaves not a trace of remembrance behind it. In the end, like applause in the theater for some pleasing spectacle, it evaporates. Forgetful not only of death but also of mortality itself, as if no inkling of it had ever reached us, we return to our thoughtless assurance of earthly mortality (3. 9. 2)

The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon asked a good question in one of his sermons: “Should it not be the business of this life to prepare for the next life, and, in that respect, to prepare to die? But how can a man be prepared for that which he never thinks of?”

In today’s world, we do all we can to avoid talking about death; it’s the “great unmentionable” says theologian J. I. Packer.[5] We find it difficult to help even our closest friends when death touches them in some way. We’re simply not sure what to do. Renowned poet Robert Frost wrote about this movingly in his poem “Home Burial”:

The nearest friends can go

With anyone to death, comes so far short

They might as well not try to go at all.

No, from the time when one is sick to death,

One is alone, and he dies more alone.

Friends make pretense of following to the grave,

But before one is in it, their minds are turned

And making the best of their way back to life

And living people, and things they understand.

The good news for us as believers is that Jesus defeated death on our behalf! When we are tempted to fear death we can meditate on this great truth: Jesus defeated death for us, and therefore death died.  While God himself is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16), he became a man to die in our place and to destroy death.  For this reason the writer to the Hebrews says:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14).

Jesus died for us and in our place to take away our fear of death.  As Stott says, “It is sin which causes death, and which after death will bring the judgment.  Hence our fear of it.  But Christ has died for our sins and taken them away. . . .  Now that we are forgiven, death can harm us no longer.”[6]  Now believers can cry out defiantly with the Apostle Paul, “O death where is your victory?  O death where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.   But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57).  Elsewhere Paul says that Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).

The teaching of Scripture regarding death should cause believers to rejoice greatly.  Though death may be inevitable, it is by no means natural.  And for the one who places his or her trust in Christ it has no ultimate power.  Of course, the same cannot be said for the person who refuses to trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  Rather, the Apostle Paul says, “[W]hen the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).  Unbelievers, in contrast to believers, should fear death.  They have no eternal hope after death.  As Peter Kreeft states, “When God is dead, death is God.”[7]

Believers, on the other hand, can look with expectancy to the moment of death.  Because we have been united to Christ through faith we conquered death and the grave along with Christ.  Though we may grieve when our friends and family pass from this life, “We grieve as those who cannot wait to see death destroyed once and for all.”[8]  Let us look to the future with confidence and eagerly expect to hear, “Well done good and faithful servant . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).

 

[1] Peter Kreeft, Love Is Stronger than Death (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), xv.

[2]John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 67, emphasis mine.

[3]Keith Mathison, “The Frozen Chosen,” Tabletalk 34:8 (2010): 82-83.

[4] Kreeft, Love Is Stronger than Death, 4.

[5] J.I. Packer, “Only When You Know How to Die Can You Know How to Live,” in O Love that Will Not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence in God, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 15.

[6] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 239.

[7] Kreeft, Love Is Stronger than Death, 27.

[8] Mathison, “The Frozen Chosen,” 83.

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