How should a Christian think about death?
The Sweet Names of Death
When a person comes face to face with their own mortality, there are generally two different reactions, “I don't want to die!” or “I'm ready for death!” These are two totally different reactions to death. Which one is Christian?
You might be surprised with the answer: both. Both are true. Christians fight against death and treasure life, while at the same time they look forward to death as a gift from God. This might seem strange. Can you imagine a stranger to Christianity looking through the stained-glass windows, trying to figure us out. “Do they hate death? Do they like death? Who can understand these Christians!” It might be confusing at first, but the more we consider the Scriptures, the more it makes sense.
First, we know that death is our great enemy. In the very beginning, God told Adam that if he disobeyed and ate the forbidden fruit, he would die (Genesis 2:17). Death is the punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). If there were no sin then there would be no death, only life forever and ever.
Death is not part of God's original plan; it's not the way things are supposed to be. Death, then, is bad, it is our enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). We are not supposed to “like it” or “accept it”. After all, when Jesus Himself hears that His friend Lazarus has died, He weeps. When a parent comes to Jesus begging for Him to raise their child, Jesus doesn't say, “Oh, don't worry about that; death isn't that bad. Just accept it.” No, Jesus raises them from the dead. Hours before His own death, our Lord prays in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup of death and God's wrath would pass from Him. Jesus doesn't like death, and He came to overthrow death and destroy it once for all.
And that is exactly what the Lord Jesus has done. On the third day Jesus rose from the dead; He overcame death; He destroys the grave. On the cross Jesus offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for all of our sins; He dies in our place. The death He dies is our death, so that the life that He lives can be our life, eternal life. And this changes things.
St Paul says that the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56). This means that death brings sinners to eternal condemnation. But when Jesus was condemned in our place, our sins were forgiven. Death lost its sting, its strength, its terror (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
And now, because death has been destroyed (Hebrews 2:14) through the death of Jesus, we can rejoice in death as a gift from God. Paul says this very thing in his letter to the Philippians, “For me, to live is Christ; to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21). Death is our defeated enemy, our hated friend. We fight against death, but when our last hour comes, we welcome it like an old friend, for we know that to be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). We can lay down and sleep in peace because the grave, for us, is the door to eternal life.
This is why the Scriptures give such sweet names to death (what the old theologians called “The Sweet Names of Death”). Consider some of the following and the comfort they bring to us in the valley of the shadow of death.
“Depart and be with Christ” “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:23)
“Departure in peace” “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.” (St Luke 2:29)
“Taken from evil” “The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity [evil].” (Isaiah 57:1)
“Passing from death to life” “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24)
“Gain” “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
Because Jesus died for us, we live and die to Him. While we live, we rejoice in His gifts of life and salvation, and when we die we rejoice in His presence forever. This is how a Christian is to rightly think about death. May God grant it to us. Amen.