The Last Enemy Destroyed
"To me, to die is gain," said Paul. He thus seemed to welcome death as a friend But besides that he also spoke of death as an enemy — an enemy that would be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). In what way, then, is death an enemy? And what will it mean for death to be destroyed?
An enemy is something hateful to us, hostile to our interests. And death can easily be seen in that way, both from a natural and a specifically Christian point of view.
What grief and disruption death bring. It puts past memories in a new light, tinging many of them with sadness. It leaves loved ones desolate, pained, guilty and bewildered. It makes them feel acute loneliness; it brings uncertainty and fears about what the future will hold. Its traumatic affects linger for months and even years. When we think on these features of the common experience of death, we realise that indeed it is an enemy — an enemy because of the destructive influences that it brings to bear upon the lives of the bereaved.
It is an enemy because it is the final disorder that the Christian suffers. God made everything perfect. But sin entered the world, as a result of which God brought the physical world under curse and pronounced that the environment itself would become hostile to man. This disorder invaded the human body, which is part of the physical world, and brought weakness, deterioration and decay to it. This disorder in nature is part of the hostility that man faces in this world, and it is this that comes to its climax in death, for then the forces of curse and decay lay claim to the human body. Death is an obscene abnormality, given the original state in which man was created.
Death and Sin
Death is an enemy because it is intimately linked with the presence of sin. Sin entered the world and death by sin (Romans 5:12). Death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Its presence is a sharp reminder of the existence, nature and terrible consequences of disobedience. Its presence, like the presence of sin, sits ill with God's final purpose of redemption. If death came by sin, then death must be removed for redemption to be complete and the name of Christ to be fully vindicated. Death is an affront to the Saviour. It is therefore an enemy in God's sight — and the passage in 1 Corinthians 15:26 is talking of death as an enemy of Christ and not just as an enemy of man.
Death is especially an enemy of God's people. It is no surprise nor is it in any way out of place that unconverted people should die. They have lived a life of separation from God: it is entirely in keeping with that life-style that death should tear body from soul. They have been living in spiritual deadness; it is not unnatural that death should claim them through and through. Death fits the unconverted like a glove.
The Present Tension
But how out of place death is in the experience of believers. They have been renewed; brought to life; delivered from the effects of sin; brought into contact with the living God. Spiritual life has flourished. Yet they experience death. Though still united to the resurrected Christ, their bodies remain under the power of death. How strange, how unexpected and how unfitting.
During their life Christians have been aware of this strange anomaly which is part of their experience: the outward man is perishing; the inward man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). Decay in their physical life goes hand in hand with development in their spiritual life. There is a tension there. And death doesn't mark the end of that tension but the intensification of it. Development triumphs in their spiritual life: their spirits are made perfect in holiness and immediately pass into glory. But decay triumphs in their physical life: their bodies lie powerless in the dust of death.
On the one hand, there is an immediate awareness of Christ; but on the other hand the mouth that praised him, the ears that heard him, the feet that went about his business, the hands that cared in Christ's name are rendered inoperative through the destructive influences of death. No wonder the Scriptures can call death an enemy — it is an experience so out of keeping with God's purpose of redemption. That is why it has to be destroyed.
There must, of course, be balance in our approach to this subject. We cannot say: "death is an enemy" — and leave it at that. Nor can we simply say: "to die is gain" — and think that we have thus said all there is to be said on the subject. We not only can but must grieve over death, because of the sadness and disruption that death brings. But we must not do so as those who have no hope, because to die, in some sense, involves us being with Christ. We must see the obscene nature of death and its horrible incongruity in the experience of the believer — because death is the wages of sin; but we must have that tempered with the thought of victory over it —which is what Paul speaks about too: "the last enemy to be destroyed is death".
The Death of Death
Death will be rendered inoperative. The sentence of separation, which is the essence of death, will be revoked: each individual will be reconstituted an indivisible whole of body and spirit. The body will be raised from the dust; the faculties will become operative again; vigour will flow through the limbs and bodily life will flourish.
Then all tears will be wiped from the eyes of believers; then we will be like him for we will see him as he is. Then our voice will again be raised in praise of our Saviour and all our bodily faculties will be rendered to him in perfect obedience. Then death will be swallowed up in victory and mortality will be engulfed in life that knows no end nor diminution of its perfection.
Here is reason to hope. Here is a goal on which to fix our eyes. Here is the culmination of the work of redemption.
The promise is not only glorious in its very nature for the Christian but far reaching in regard both to its extent and its time: the death of death affects all people in a lasting way.
Paul is speaking in 1 Corinthians with particular reference to the resurrection of the body as it affects believers. But the way in which he makes this statement allows for no exceptions in the world of men: it is meaningless unless the whole of mankind is included in this process. He does not say that death will destroyed for God's own people. He simple says death will be destroyed. No such thing as death will ever be known. It will be abolished. Those that have died will be loosed from the bonds of death and will never more experience its power.
The Resurrection of the Unbeliever
We might say "how wonderful!" And at one level, of course, so we should, as we've already indicated. But we should also pause and reflect on what the abolition of death means for the unbeliever.
There is, sadly, a school of thought which has gained increasing influence, even in the evangelical world, and which has dispensed with the idea that the punishment of the wicked is an eternal and conscious punishment. Rather, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, they describe the fate of the wicked in terms of annihilation. That is, the punishment of the ungodly involves them being wiped out and ceasing to exist.
Now, there are several lines of argument that one could take to refute that mistaken view, but the theme that we are reflecting on provides us with one of them.
Annihilation is death carried to an extreme. It is death as applied not simply to the body, but as applied also to the spirit. But death, according to Paul is abolished, rendered entirely inoperative. No one can be held in its grip. It would seem reasonable to say that if death is abolished, then annihilation just cannot occur. It is an option that can be ruled out as contradicted by Christ's destruction of death. It is impossible to see the fate of the wicked in terms of their ceasing to exist.
The abolition of death then is not simply an idea that supports our view of glory; it also undergirds our view that hell is a real place of conscious and eternal suffering in the whole man, body and spirit.
To develop that idea a little further — there is a difficulty which some might have in regard to the traditional doctrine of hell. It takes into consideration the way that hell is described and might be expressed like this: if hell is, for example, a lake of fire, does this not make continued existence impossible? It is so destructive, it might be argued, that it would be impossible for man to survive.
But Paul's statement that death is destroyed provides an answer. How can we in fact envisage the body enduring the physical torment depicted in terms of flames of fire? Only because death is rendered inoperative. How can we think of a person continuing to exist in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? Only because death is an impossibility. Paul's teaching that death is to be abolished is the basis, then, not only of the believer's hope of eternal life, but of the unbelievers certainty of eternal suffering.
We could therefore point out a parallel between the believer's experience of tension in this life and the unbeliever's experience of tension in the life to come. At the moment, there is this incongruity in the believer's experience: decay reigns in the body, while life reigns in the spirit. In as much as decay reigns in the body, it is so because the believer still shares in the experience more characteristic of the unbeliever. Redemption is not something that has yet thoroughly affected the physical side of his being.
But in the life to come the unbeliever will experience a similar tension. On the one hand, the body will be indestructible; on the other hand, all the forces of destruction will be experienced by him. Inasmuch as the body is indestructible, it is because he is sharing in an experience more characteristic of the believer.
Both the tension which the believer experiences now and the tension the unbeliever will experience hereafter comes about because man shares in the experience of the physical creation, his body being part of it. This means that, in this life, the seeds of decay which have been implanted in the physical world also affect the body of the converted person. The decay of the physical body is not halted by the new spiritual life implanted. In the life hereafter, the whole of the physical world is freed from its bondage to decay and the bodies of the unbeliever partake of that too. Their bodies never decay though surrounded by destructive forces. This is a necessary requirement for eternal conscious suffering in hell in body and spirit.
The destruction of death ought frequently to be in our thoughts not only because it describes the glorious triumph of Christ and his people that is yet to be but also because it indicates the conditions of immortality under which all will live in the future.