A Biblical Theology of Death
Despite all the modern medical advances that have extended the life expectancy of so many of us, death remains an incurable disease. It affects everyone’s lives in some form or fashion, which is why the church can’t shy away from the subject. We must deal with death personally, shepherding our hearts to avoid the dangers of fear and despair. We must deal with death congregationally, comforting one another with truth and challenging one another to faith. We must deal with death publicly, demonstrating the hope of Christ and sharing the Gospel to the world.
All this begs the question, are you prepared to deal with the death? Are you prepared to comfort the bereaved as they grieve the loss of a loved one? Are you prepared to be a testimony to the world through your response to death?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul told the church in Thessalonica that he did not want them to be uninformed about their fellow church members who had died. Paul knew that if this young congregation was going to properly deal with death, it needed to understand the reality of death. The same is true for us today. As a church, the way we deal with death must be informed by a biblical understanding of the subject. The way we die, minister to the dying, comfort the bereaved, and do funerals must be driven by our theology. This is an area of ministry that we cannot avoid, which is why we must be informed enough to deal with it. As Paul put it, we can’t face death “uninformed.”
Thankfully, when we turn to the Scriptures, the Bible answers all of our deepest questions about death. For instance, the Bible answers the question, “What is death?” by describing three categories of death:
- Physical death is how the Bible describes separation of body and soul (James 2:26).
- Spiritual death is how the Bible describes personal separation from God (Eph 2:1).
- Eternal death is how the Bible describes eternal separation from God (2 Thess 1:9).
Additionally, the Bible answers the question, “Why does death occur?” by teaching that death is the result of sin (Rom 5:12). Spiritual death (temporal separation from God) is the immediate consequence of sin (Gen 2:17; Eph 2:1). Physical death (separation of body and soul) is the material consequence of sin (Ezek 18:4; James 1:15). Eternal death (eternal separation from God) is the eternal/ultimate consequence of sin (Rom 6:23).
Dealing with the personal reality of death, the Bible answers the question, “When will I die physically?” by teaching that God is sovereign over the circumstances of our death. Every breath that we have from God is a gift and He will decide when we take our last breath (Job 12:10). No one decides the moment of their death, for the timing of death is always in the hands of God (1 Sam 2:6; Mt 10:28). Because God is in control, not you, you cannot add a moment to your life or escape death (Matt 6:27; Heb 9:27). Our lives are in the hands of God, which is the safest place we could ever be.
Finally, the Bible answers the question, “What happens when I die?” by revealing the destiny of every individual. No, not every individual is mentioned by name, but the eternal destination of every soul is knowable based on your response to Christ. The soul of the unbeliever consciously experiences the wrath of God (Luke 16:19-26). The soul of the redeemed passes immediately into the presence of Christ (Luke 23:43; Phil 1:23; 2 Cor 5:8).
Death is a sobering and scary reality, but, as Paul also points out in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the church faces this reality with hope. Specifically, as we prepare for our own death and grieve the deaths of those we love, the church can be confident in God’s specific promises:
- We have the hope that Christ has taken away the sting death for us (1 Cor 15:54-55).
- We have the hope that Christ will provide us with the grace to deal with death (Phil 1:20).
- We have the hope that Christ will equip us to encourage others to trust God in death (Phil 4:19).
- We have the hope that God will gently care for us in the face of death (Mt 10:19; Psalm 116:15).
- We have the hope that God will one day do away with death completely (Rev 21:4).
- We have the hope that—even in the death of an unbeliever—God is good, just, and trustworthy.
The church has been called to deal with death with confidence in the Lord and comfort for one another. We can only do that when we are informed by the biblical truth about death and armed with a biblical hope in the promises of God.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.