My father found it necessary to address end of life issues from time to time but could not bring himself to discuss his own death openly. Discussions always began with the phrase, “If something happens to me….” Dad’s difficulty was as much cultural as personal. Many Americans, including believers, go to extreme lengths to avoid dealing head on with illness and death. We believe that medical science should cure or prevent all illness. We hide death behind closed doors, glimpsing it only momentarily as we view a corpse made to look as lifelike as possible. By contrast, people who live in much of the rest of the world face death up close and very personally. It is helpful to consider what our Creator has revealed about our mortality.
Scripture reveals that illness and death are results of Adam’s original act of sin. God created the human race without sin (Gen. 1:31). Sin entered the race when Adam and Eve rebelled against the one restriction God placed on their autonomy by prohibiting them from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17; Rom. 5:12). The effect of Adam’s sin included: (1) a curse on creation (Gen. 3:14, 16-19; Rom. 8:22); (2) spiritual death (Gen. 2:17); (3) physical death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23); and (4) eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). If sin were not present in the human race, people would not become ill or die.
Scripture also reveals that illness and death are not always due to the specific sin of the person affected. I stood beside a hospital bed years ago and heard the dying patient say, “Pastor, I know why this is happening to me!” She did not state the cause but clearly believed her illness was the effect of personal sin. Personal sin may lead to illness or death (1 Cor. 11:30), but many cases of disease and death are the general effect of Adam’s sin rather than immediate divine judgment. Christ’s disciples, seeing a man who was blind from birth, asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2). The Lord instructed them that personal sin was not the cause of the man’s condition (v. 3). Job provides an outstanding example of one who experienced intense physical affliction which was not caused by personal moral failure. Scripture describes him as “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1). We should be careful not to ascribe the experience of illness or the event of death to God’s direct and personal judgment.
Scripture affirms that Christ’s atoning death provides the basis for removal of God’s curse on the creation. Isaiah 53 focuses on the expiatory aspect of the future sacrifice of Messiah as it would deal with “transgressions” and “iniquities.” Through the prophet, God indicated that the suffering Servant would “justify (provide justification for) the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (v. 11). The prophecy includes removal of sickness and pain that resulted from the curse (v. 4). Ergo, the voice from the heavenly throne could promise, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death…mourning…crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
Scripture teaches that some effects of the curse will be removed when Christ establishes His kingdom on earth. The animal kingdom will not harm people (Isa. 11:6-8); the earth will become fertile (Isa. 32:15; 35:1-2); illness will disappear (Isa. 33:24); and longevity will be the norm (Isa. 65:20). However, the curse will not be removed fully until God destroys this universe and creates a new heaven and earth (2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 21:1; 22:3).
Scripture asserts that Jesus Christ died to redeem sinners from the curse. The apostle Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). His atonement provided the ransom which liberates a believing sinner from the curse imposed by the law of God for sin. The curse is removed from an individual sinner when he believes the promise (Gal. 3:22-27). Some effects of the curse (i.e. illness, physical death) remain temporarily but will be removed completely and permanently when the believing sinner’s body is redeemed (Rom. 8:22-23).
Scripture teaches that God provides adequate comfort and grace to believers in Jesus when they face illness and death. Abundant comfort is available from God! Some of that comfort comes through God’s work in the heart of a believer who is ill or who suffers a great loss (2 Cor. 1:3-5). Some of that comfort results from the assurance a believer possesses that he will enter Christ’s presence immediately upon the event of death (2 Cor. 5:1-8). God’s grace is readily available to help members of His family when they experience need (Heb. 4:14-16).
I do not know what my personal experience will be when I look death in the face. Through the years, when my wife has begun a conversation by saying, “If something happens to you…”, I have responded, “Nothing is going to happen to me. I am going to die someday!” I hope to have the perspective of Edward the Confessor on his death bed. He is quoted as saying, “Weep not, for I shall not die, but I shall live. And as I leave the land of the dying, I believe to see the goodness of God in the land of the living.”
This essay is by Don Odens, Professor of Practical Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
And Must This Body Die?
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
And must this body die?
This mortal frame decay?
And must these active limbs of mine
Lie mouldering in the clay?
God, my Redeemer lives,
And ever from the skies,
Looks down and watches all my dust,
Till He shall bid it rise.
Arrayed in glorious grace
Shall these vile bodies shine,
And every shape, and every face,
Look heavenly and divine.
These lively hopes we owe
To Jesus’ dying love:
We would adore His grace below,
And sing His power above.
Dear Lord, accept the praise
Of these our humble songs,
Till tunes of nobler sound we raise
With our immortal tongues.