Scriptural Tension Regarding Death:
Tension often exists within our souls when a loved one dies. Particularly, when the deceased is a Christian. We know that better things await. We have hope. We have reason not to “grieve as the rest who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Paul writes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Philippians 1:21-23). Clearly, death produces something valuable and something better for the Christian. Through this hope, we can find some comfort in our misery. We know death isn’t the end, so we shouldn’t act like it is. But it doesn’t remove the misery and that’s where the tension lies. For us, and in Scripture, hope and misery walk hand in hand.
It’s hard to be positive about death. Because we know that death is an attack on God-given life. Death is a terrible and dreadful enemy that seems to always win. The majority of Scripture does not paint death in any sort of positive light. God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies” (Ezekiel 18:32). Death only entered the world by sin, and when sin is eradicated through the death of Jesus, the necessary result is eternal life. Jesus’ death was a victory over sin. He took sin to the grave, so it’s no wonder He came back on the other side. Sin causes death, so when sin is destroyed, life wins! Every death is a reminder of this sinful, painful, fallen world. But we hope for something better. The death of sin and the victory of life walk hand in hand.
Paul writes of death as an enemy doomed for destruction; “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). At the final resurrection, when our bodies are raised to eternal glory, then we can fully appreciate the saying, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). When a weakened army is defeated and captured, that moment is usually filled with taunts and ridicule. Paul pictures Christians taunting death when we are victorious over it: “Where is your victory now, death?
Even those passages that seem to picture death as a “precious” are often misread or misunderstood. Psalm 116:15 says, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones.” This passage has been quoted time and again to comfort those who have lost loved ones. And it can. But really, the way it is often used makes it hard to square with God taking no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies. It makes it hard to square with the whole rest of the psalm which is about God saving someone from death. In Psalm 116, death is the enemy to be escaped and God is praised when that happens. What this passage seems to be saying is not that death is “precious” like it’s some cherished and loved event, but that death is “precious” like a “precious stone.” Meaning an extraordinarily costly or expensive stone. It could be translated “costly in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones.” Death matters to God. It is costly and expensive. That’s why he saved the psalmist from it. That’s why He is destroying death through the resurrection!
Death was not part of God’s original plan and it’s not part of His eternal plan. The grand blessing of Scripture is not that we get to die. But that death is destroyed forever! Death loses and life wins. Death itself will be cast into the lake of fire with all of God’s enemies (Revelation 20:14). Death dies and goes to hell. But, strangely enough, there can still be glory in death.
Glory in Death:
The glory of God. That’s what the raising of Lazarus is all about. Lazarus’ sickness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it” (John 11:4). So when Jesus tells them to open the tomb and Mary protests (because her brother’s rotting dead body stinks with the aroma of death), He responds, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). Verse 4 and verse 40 bookend the raising of Lazarus with “glory” and the sickness, death, and resurrection are all illustrating the glory of God.
Interestingly, in John, the word “glory” is often associated with death. When speaking about His own death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). When telling Peter about his future death by crucifixion, the text says, “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (John 21:19). That is such a strange connection. Death is not how I usually think of “glory.” It’s a terrible invasion on God’s good creation.
But there are a few ways that death does produce glory. When a martyr dies faithfully for the cause of Christ, that death produces glory. It is something to be held in glory and revered because a person has followed Christ, who through suffering and death was “crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:9). Suffering with Christ is regularly pictured as a glorious moment producing joy and blessing (Matthew 5:11-12; Acts 5:41; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; 1 Peter 4:12-16). Death is the endgame of carrying the cross. It’s the finish line. And there is glory there.
But the glory that is seen in the death of Lazarus is not just that he got sick, died, and his body began to rot and stink. But what happened next. Death didn’t win. Lazarus was raised back to life, and death was seen as a failure. Death was plundered by the power of Jesus. And that was glorious. Even more glory, however, is seen in the resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus died, then came back to life. Jesus died, and rather than coming back to His old life, He pushed all the way through death to the eternal glory of life on the other side. He experienced all that death could accomplish, and walked away more powerful than ever. Never to die again. Always carrying around that victory.
Death is not the end. Death does not win. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt. It doesn’t mean we should just accept death as natural or somehow “God’s will.” Death is an affront to the will of God. It is the destination where sin has led us. It is a theft of God-given life and it steals our friends, family, and ultimately each one of us. It lingers over every relationship because we know it will not last. This is why “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And others saw the depth of His love in that moment. But through this despair and sorrow, Jesus produced glory (John 11:40). Death ends in glory and while for now “you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy.” Have faith. Have hope. Never give up. The victory is coming.