Death is obviously a weighty topic for everyone. But as Christians, we ought to approach death differently. The Scriptures give us some important things to consider about death. The way we view death will greatly shape our worldview. Let’s explore the theology of death. What does the Bible have to say on the topic, and why is it truly important?
What is the Theology of Death? The theology of death is the study of what the Bible says about human death and what takes place in the afterlife. Generally, the topic includes why people die, how Christians should view death, and what we should expect in the afterlife.
Now, let us explore Biblical answers, shedding light on the truth of the theology of death.
Why People Die
Simply put, people die because of sin. Most Christians believe that it was never God’s original design for humans to die. But because the first man, Adam, sinned we now all are into sin and we suffered the consequence of sin, which is death.
When we look at the first three chapters of Genesis, we see an incredible picture of Adam in the garden. Yet, this man destroyed the perfect picture by disobeying God, which then creates a chasm between mankind and God. Adam sinned and each one of us have followed in his footsteps. We brought this poison upon ourselves, a poison that causes humankind to die, a poison of sin.
The Apostle Paul explains and outlines how Adam’s sin impacted us all (cf. Romans 5) and he then clearly states that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Just like I earn a paycheck each week at my job, in the same way I earn death.
Death is the paycheck that I deserve, because of my sinful actions. And the same is true for you too. Every single one of us has earned death. Death is the pay we all deserve. As Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). This is the bad news. We have all sinned and deserve death.
Of course, because of Christ, the Bible also gives us good news. We’ll get to that later in this article.
How Should Christians View Death
There are two ways that Christians should view death. There is both a negative way and a positive way. Both of these are important and both shape our worldview.
Negative View of Death
We should look at death as a sorrowful thing because it is a result of our own actions. Every time we are faced with death it should cause us to be sober-minded about the result of our actions. Whether a family member dies or just has a near-death experience of some sort, or if a celebrity we have never met passes away, or even when a family pet dies, in each instance we ought to pause to reflect on how we humans brought death upon ourselves.
Death serves as a reminder that all of our actions have very real consequences, that our choices have real ramifications. It helps us to remember that we cannot live our lives without impacting others around us. The moments when we consider death help us to see how painful our choices can be when we neglect or ignore God’s commands or Godly wisdom.
Positive View of Death
The positive way to view death: In each instance when, we are faced with death, we reflect on the fact that those of us in Christ will not ever suffer the long-term eternal consequences of sin. Jesus has already paid that price for us.
Death can be painful, yes, but for the Christian it is also glorious. Death is the moment where we step into eternity to be present with Jesus Christ, the one who suffered on our behalf so that we do not have to suffer for eternity. The Apostle Paul says, “to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He says in his letter to the Philippians, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Paul saw dying as a win! Death is the moment when our victory over death, purchased by Jesus, would be fully realized.
Therefore, Christians should look at death as a gainful thing because it is the opportunity to step outside of the suffering of this world and to step into an eternity of experiencing the glory and goodness of Jesus.
What We Should Expect in the Afterlife
This is solely dependent upon an individual’s faith in Jesus Christ.
In heaven, there are books recording all of the choices of humans. I call these the “heavenly ledgers”. In the heavenly ledgers, there is a recording of all that you have done, and if you are outside of Christ in the afterlife, then you should expect to be held accountable for every one of those choices.
If you are not a genuine believer, then you should expect to suffer the consequences of your own actions. You’ve earned it. God is just, and he promises that every person will be held responsible for their choices. In Hebrews 9:27, it is stated, “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, after that comes judgment”. So if you are not a believer, you should expect to be judged based on your track record here on planet earth, without the covering of Christ’s work on the cross.
This possibility is a scary thing. In Hebrews 10:31, the author proclaims “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We ought to be frightened to be held accountable for our choices. We ought to be terrorized by the prospect that God just might get his hands on you.
However, for the believer, for those who are in Christ, we know that we shall not be held accountable for our sins. Jesus has already been held accountable for our sins. The mighty work of Christ at the cross has dealt with our sins. Our sin and guilt were transferred (imputed) to Jesus, and his innocence was transferred (imputed) to us. We have been washed clean of our sins.
Our sin was imputed to Jesus and the innocence of Jesus was imputed to us. — Martin Luther (1483-1546)
The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther referred to this as the “Great Exchange.” Our unrighteousness goes to Jesus and His righteousness comes to us. Because we are believers, we are declared righteous, clean, and pure, as if we had never sinned at all. Therefore, I view the afterlife as a glorious moment to be treated by the Father in Heaven, as if I had never sinned at all. I should joyfully expect to enjoy the glory of God for eternity. I look forward to it, not because of anything I have done, but because of Christ’s work on my behalf. Death is when I get to experience the fullness of what Jesus purchased for me. And if you are a believer, the same is true for you.
Viewpoints on Death
These two views are derived from Scripture from Genesis, and while all Christians agree that we die, not all Christians agree upon whether or not we were created for death.
Mankind was created to Immortal
Most Evangelical Christians will say that humans were never intended to die and that we were created to be immortal beings. The idea here is that man would live forever on earth, when the earth was perfect, before sin. Man would live forever in the presence of God on earth, in the garden of Eden. Of course, this plan was ruined because Adam and Eve chose to disobey God.
Mankind was created to be mortal
The other view is far less popular. The belief here is that humans were created with the ability to die, even before Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but that humans were kept alive only by regularly eating from the tree of life in the garden. Immortality was based only from the tree in the garden. Once Adam and Eve sinned, they were in a wicked state. Therefore, if they had stayed in the garden, he would be immortal in a sinful state.
Because God is so gracious, He does not want humans to live forever in a sinful state. Therefore, God exiles them from the garden, as an act of mercy. God refuses to allow them to eat from the tree that will let them live forever because He recognizes that death will be better for his people than the potential of living forever in a sinful state. God prefers that his people die so that we can then go into the next age and experience the sinless glory that Jesus purchased for us.
Why the Theology of Death Matters
Understanding what God and the Bible teach us about death impacts the life of a believer in 3 specific ways:
It Shows Us the Justice of God
God means what he says. Death shows us that God hates sin and that he refuses to let things go unaccounted for. All of us hate it when a criminal goes unpunished and doesn’t suffer the consequences. All of us feel wronged and betrayed when justice is not served. But death shows us that justice is always served. Every time we are faced with death, we are reminded that God is just and He does not allow sin to go unpaid for. This is a good thing. Think of it this way… Judges on earth that let people get away with a crime are judges that we do not respect. God is a great judge. He does not allow crime to go unpunished. This is good.
It Gives Us Hope for the Future
Death reminds us that there is an end to the suffering found on the earth. The world in which we live is filled with pain, calamity, suffering, frustration, natural disasters, and all sorts of wickedness. We caused this. Our sin poisoned the world. But it all comes to an end, it will not last forever. Every time someone dies, we are reminded that there will be another age in which we will not face the pain of this world. For the believer, suffering comes to an end. Death is the reminder that we will not remain in this tragic state forever.
It Gives Us Comfort
It gives us great comfort to know that eventually, we will be with Jesus and no longer experience death. Revelation 21:4, says this about Jesus, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” There comes a moment promised by Jesus, where all pain is gone. The knowledge that death is coming, reminds us that there will be a time of no suffering as well. Death hurts. When someone we know dies, it stings. But when a Christian dies, we don’t mourn the same. The Apostle Paul says this:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
Paul makes it clear that we do still grieve, death is a sad thing. And yet, we do not grieve the same way that unbelievers grieve. They do not have a hope. But we do! In fact, because of our hope we can stare down death, and speak confidently in the face of death. This is what Paul does:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.1 Corinthians 15:54-55
Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?
Paul is staring down death, “Where’s your victory?” Paul is trash-talking at death, not all that different than how a man trash-talks on the basketball court when he hits the winning shot. Paul is boasting. We get the sense of some bravado here. He is not bragging about anything he has done, but what Christ has done on our behalf.
A proper theology of death, and proper understanding of Christ, can give us comfort in the midst of the painful moments we face in this life. We as Christians know what is to come, therefore we have can have great joy, even when we face death. Death reminds me that this age is temporary. There is another age to come, the age when we experience Christ face to face. Praise be to God!