Here we are at the third part of my reflections on our battle against death. The first part focused on how death is something we can’t avoid. This is a view that we can come to with no reliance on a source like the Bible. However, it is also something that the Bible reiterates and reinforces. In the second part of this reflection, the focus was on how the Bible views death not just as a biological thing, but as something that goes deeper than that. Death is also in reference to how we focus our lives. This focus is centered around believing and following God, which includes being able to show love to the people we interact with as well. If you want to read them fully, then here is the first part and second part.
If you read the second part it would seem that I ended it with the idea that in order to have this second kind of “spiritual” life we would have to believe and follow God perfectly. Not only obeying what He has instructed, but also showing grace, forgiveness, and love to those around us. There is no way that we can achieve this life on our own. We have trouble enough living up to our own expectations of ourselves. Then if we throw how we treat other people and how we view God into the pot, well the end result is simply not within reach.
This setup leads us to the last observation, at least that I noticed, about death from the Bible. That observation is that God is the only one to have complete victory over death. Now I know that this seems like one of those cop out answers. The answer is God and let’s just move on. We can use God as the answer to everything, but when we do that it can seem like it’s an answer without a lot of thought behind it. I think this usage results in a problem that is tackled in a post on the blog Mere Orthodoxy that talked about how we often try to use Jesus and God, as the answer for so many different problems, but that at its core Jesus came to solve the problem of death. It was an interesting read for me and fit into this theme of death that I’ve been wrestling with for the past few weeks.
If Jesus and God are the answer to death, that should then be a consistent theme of Scripture for both types of death that I have presented, right? I do happen to believe that this is the case, but I also believe that it can still be a difficult sell to some people on both types of death. I’ll explain what I mean by that for each type of death.
So let us start with the idea of physical death. I think it is pretty easy to see that we can’t beat physical death. As I’ve said we have medical technology and we can do pretty amazing things with it. Even with all that though, we have yet to prolong life a little beyond the age of 100. Maybe with more time we’ll extend it beyond that, but even then it is only an extension of time until finally dying.
So if God is to be the solution for physical death than there should be some evidence of this in the Bible right? Well I think we have a number of examples where this is the case. If we are to look at the Psalms, it is interesting to note that there are a number of Psalms that call for God to deliver them from death. It is not something that the author is seeking to achieve, or even presented as being able to achieve. They are calling on God to be able to do it. This isn’t the most solid of evidence, but it isn’t alone.
Another example can be found in Isaiah 25. It is talking about what God will accomplish, and in verse 8 it talks about how “He will swallow up death forever.” This sentiment is also found in Revelation 21:4 where it says that, “There will be no more death…” Similar sentiments are found in 2 Timothy 1:9-11 and Revelation 20:14. However, again we see that these are mostly conceptual in nature. Are there other more active examples of God fighting against death.
How about the seven times that individual people are recorded as being raised from the dead. There are three examples of this in the Old Testament. Most of these are centered around the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah raises a widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:19-24, Elisha raises a Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4:23-25, and strangely enough Elisha’s bones resurrect a man who is accidentally buried in his tomb in 2 Kings 13:21.
Then there are four accounts of people raising from the dead in the New Testament. Two of these are by Jesus, the ruler’s daughter in Matthew 9:23-26 and Lazarus in John 11:43-44. The other two are by Peter in Acts 9:36-43 and Paul in Acts 20:9-10. Of course this isn’t including the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is in a different league, since it isn’t someone raising Jesus, but Jesus in essence raising Himself. Which is another powerful example of God’s power over death.
These examples are also only dealing with actual death, but there are a number of examples of Jesus healing the sick, blind, and crippled which would also be well within the range of battling physical death. So all in all it seems like there is a fair amount to base the idea that God is in a battle against physical death. However, I mentioned that this wouldn’t be an easy sell for everyone. What did I mean? Well simply put I think there are at least two hurdles to get over with this answer.
The first seems obvious to me. This is the fact that death is still a present reality. I think it is very easy for us to say that if God is really battling against death, if He really has victory over death through Jesus, then why are we still experiencing death? I understand that theologically there are explanations for this, but in the times where we have lost a loved one, are in the process of losing a loved one, or simply have to see a loved one ill or wounded, these theological reasons often can feel empty. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is. I think this is the reason why people don’t talk about God’s victory over death in these terms too often, but rather focus on the ideas of eternal life after death which are the results of God’s victory over death, but doesn’t entirely account for the lingering presence of death.
The second hard sell is the fact that God is often looked at as a cause of death in some places in the Bible. The place scrutinized most for this tends to be the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. These are wars fought by Israel at God’s command. Even worse it calls for the elimination of certain groups of people, including women and children. I’m not wanting to give easy answers on this topic, because I don’t think they really exist. However, I think a lot of our rub comes from the cultural ideas of Freedom of Religion that to be honest are not really present in the Bible. If my observations are true within these posts and physical death and “spiritual” death are both ultimately parts of a larger meaning of death then that could be part the reasoning behind these events. I could go on about this, but I don’t feel that here is the best place to go further.
Since I brought up the idea of “spiritual” death in the last paragraph, I think it is time we turn to examples of how the Bible deals with battling against this type of death. Honestly, this is pretty easy. The instruction found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are essentially the foundations on how to battle “spiritual” death. I know we get bogged down in all the ceremonial requirements and rituals, but they are Israel’s way to make God be the center of their lives. However, there is also a lot of instruction on how to treat other people in very practical ways as well in these books. These books really set the stage for the entire Old Testament, but is also foundational to Jesus’ own teaching. This is seen in the fact that the two greatest commandments that Jesus gives are quotes from the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Jesus mainly highlighted a fact that had been there probably the whole time, but people either missed it in their own self-righteousness or in the jettisoning of God’s instruction in the first place. That we aren’t able to have “spiritual” life by our own effort. This is the reason there was the invovled sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice in the New. We can’t live up to the necessarily requirements for “spiritual” life in the first place. This is why you get statements like that in Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our sin, our failure to achieve “spiritual” life and vitality on our own, is death. We can only have life in Jesus.
So why could this be a hard sell? Again I have two thoughts. The first is that the instruction of the Bible doesn’t always line up with our own ideas of “spiritual” life. Whether it be the Biblical ideas of forgiveness, loving ones enemies, or simply views on sexuality we can take the instruction of God as being harmful. We fail to see how following God’s way is really the way towards “spiritual” life and therefore reject the idea of needing God’s forgiveness.When we don’t agree with what is healthy and harmful to our lives then it makes it difficult to really accept the need for Christ as the solution to this kind of death.
The other thought is simply this, have you ever met a perfect person? Have you met someone who puts God and others so highly that it shines in everything they do? If you have I’d love to meet them. I know there are good people who follow God that I respect and admire, but the truth is not one of them are perfect. I think I’ve met a few who give off the aura of thinking they’re perfect, but they’re often much less perfect than the ones who admit they aren’t.
What’s the problem with this you might ask? Well again we have a rub. We’re saying that Jesus has victory over sin and can give spiritual life, but we still all struggle with sin. I do, you do, your pastor does, everyone. So like with physical death, we have this tension. Death both physical and spiritual is supposed to be defeated by Jesus, yet we still have to deal with heart attacks and heart break, disease and deception. It is a lot tougher than just saying Jesus is the answer and moving along our merry way.
Am I saying that Jesus isn’t the answer to the problem of death, the problem that is both biological and spiritual? No, but what I’m saying is that as Christians who know that He is the answer we can also understand that sometimes we don’t always get a lot of solace when people give us empty words, no matter how true they are.
I believe that Jesus, that God, is the answer to death. What is interesting though, is when Jesus came down to earth, he didn’t say that all too often. He did at times, mostly to his disciples, but he often times showed that he was the answer to death. He healed people, he accepted people who were marginalized, he forgave and he called people to repentance be they religious or non-religious.
It is because of who Jesus is and what he did that I want to be able to do these things too. I don’t just want to hand out pat answers like they were candy. I want them to have substance. I may not have performed any physical healings, but I want my actions to be healing to people. I may not be perfect in word or deed, but I do believe that as I follow God I can become part of the battle against death. Not just in the ability to prolong biological life, but also in the ability to point people to the source of life that is not as easy to see on the surface of things. On the surface it seems that we will always lose, we will all die we will never be perfect. No matter how dreary this is, how hopeless it all seems, I believe that there is a true winner who will defeat death. That true winner is God.