Article by: Dane Ortlund
Is death a Christian’s friend or enemy?
Surely it’s both. But how do we put the two together without being either too glib or too morose at the next funeral we attend?
Death as Enemy
On the one hand death is a Christian’s enemy—indeed, our greatest enemy. Death was the result of the fall at the beginning (Gen. 2:17), and death is the last enemy to be defeated at the end (1 Cor. 15:26; Rev. 21:4). From about age 30, our bodies begin powering down, and of course many don’t even make it to 30.
Because this is the only kind of existence we’ve ever known, we have largely become innoculated to the strangeness of this life. But the elderly still pine after their youthfulness, people still have mid-life crises when they realize how short life is, and it feels intensely wrong to see the lifeless face of a family member in an open-casket memorial service.
Death is difficult enough when it comes quietly to a Christian saint in the winter of a life well lived. What if we’re unsure about the state of the soul of the deceased? What about the death that comes far too early? What about the freak accident that was so easily avoidable? What about those who were making a ruin of their lives and now have lost forever the chance to change?
We know, way down deep, that death is a foreign invader. It’s a perversion of normalcy. It’s our enemy.
Death as Friend
But death is also a believer’s friend. We say it cautiously, and to a friend who has just lost someone, we don’t say it at all. The Bible tells us to weep with those who weep, not provide theological reminders (Rom. 12:15). But if the lost loved one died in Jesus, death’s tyranny has been toppled (1 Cor. 15:54–55). We who remain will grieve; those who have gone on will not.
For those not in Christ, death is only enemy. This life is the best it will ever get. For those in Christ, death is also, and more deeply, friend. This life is the worst it will ever get. By speaking of death as our “friend” I don’t mean death itself so much as death as a doorway to something else. Death ushers us into relief. Rest. Calm. Restoration. Invincibility.
For those not in Christ, death is only enemy. This life is the best it will ever get. For those in Christ, death is also, and more deeply, friend. This life is the worst it will ever get.
After all, what if we in Christ never died physically? What if heaven remained unreachable? What if—I speak hypothetically—we were regenerate but unable to die? We would long for death with a longing that outstrips any longing we presently experience.
For a Christian, death has been transformed from bitter-tasting poison to bitter-tasting medicine. From a piercing sword through the heart to a piercing but life-giving syringe. In both cases there is pain. But one is pain unto destruction, the other pain unto restoration. One is a doorway into darkness, the other a wardrobe into Narnia.
When sinners are pulled into Christ by the Holy Spirit, death is, for them, instantaneously transformed (John 11:25). Dying will still be painful, probably. But the moment of death itself has been transformed from an end to a beginning. From finality to release.
Greater Enemy, Greater Friend
So what should our attitude be at the next Christian funeral we attend?
The truth is we tend to be neither sad enough nor celebratory enough. Those who speak of death mainly as enemy surely understate their case, and those who think of death mainly as friend do the same. Death is more awful, more invasive, more bizarre, than any of us could adequately feel. Jesus himself was deeply indignant when a friend died (John 11:33, 38).
But what death does for those in Christ is more unspeakably wonderful than any of us could adequately feel. Not only because of the absence of badness, but because of the presence of goodness—and not abstract goodness, but goodness as a person. Death is a blessed release for the Christian because we won’t only be in Christ but also finally with Christ (Phil. 1:23). And to be with Christ is to have all that you loved on earth summed up in one person. As Jonathan Edwards put it:
When a saint dies, he has no cause at all to grieve because he leaves his friends and relations that he dearly loves, for he doth not properly leave them. For he enjoys them still in Christ; because everything that he loves in them and loves them for, is in Christ in an infinite degree; whether it be nearness of relation, or any perfection and good received, or love to us, or a likeness in dispositions, or whatever is a rational ground of love.
Rewound and Undone
For a Christian, death is an enemy—but an enemy we need not fear, for all it can do is usher us into final rest and peace.
And one day, for those united to a resurrected Christ, we will be given back our bodies, as earthy as ever but this time invincible, and all the ravages of death will be rewound and undone (Rev. 21:4). Since Jesus rose from the dead and we’re in him, our own death will work backwards.
The scars of this life will themselves become part of our final beauty and dignity.
Dane Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is executive vice president for Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five kids. He is the author of several books, most recently Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. Dane blogs at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology. You can follow him on Twitter.