Faith in Focus

Guest Editorial : Death has no sting ???

Rev. D.J. van Garderen (Avondale)

"Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory?Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin…' ( I Cor 15:54,55,56a)Oma (grandmother) was seventy and had been a widow from more than twenty five years. What about Opa (grandpa)? Do you still miss him after all those years? Her eyes clouded over with pain as she told us, "There has not been a day that I don't miss him. The pain softens, but never goes away." Death has no sting?

Look into the face of a widow or a mother who has lost her son as a result of a tragic accident. Will they, on this side of the grave, ever feel free from the pain of the sword that pierces their souls? An almost unquestioned truism is that a man who loses his spouse will just 'go to
pieces' and tumble into an almost bottomless pit of depression. Death has no sting? It seems to be asking the obvious, but what exactly is the sting of death?

I suspect that most New Zealanders today would claim that the sting of death is our misunderstanding or ignorance of what death is. For example, current New Age thinking would claim that we need to re-educate ourselves and others to get to the real truth about 'death'. They tell us that the 'good news' is that death is natural. Death is as much a part of the cycle of life as birth is. Death is normal. The rhythm of physical existence necessarily includes death. You misunderstand life itself if you accept the fallacy that death is abnormal. That sounds too bald even for New Age dreamers. Therefore, to soften things, they encourage a new understanding of the 'post-death experience.' Some will have your 'spirit' free-floating in the great cosmic 'out there'.
Others, more in tune with the old myths of eastern religions, will have theories of reincarnation, with a typically progressive western mind-set of bigger, brighter and better things next time round!

See it? The sting of death is the fact that we have been duped into misunderstanding it! Remove the veil of ignorance. Get the new knowledge (gnosis) and you'll be free forever!! Why believe this? Well, you've got to believe in something, or you'll go nuts!

There is a very popular 'Christian' version of this too. Here you even introduce the word 'sin' but limit its meaning and scope. Sin is defined simply as ignorance, a veil that needs to be lifted in order to uncover the truth. Being set free from sin is therefore just a matter of being freed
from ignorance; a wrong and/or distorted understanding of the truth. The 'truth' according to this pop version of Christianity is that there really isn't any Hell (unless it is reserved for the Adolf Hitlers of this world) and that all people will eventually end up in Heaven. It is a sort of universalism based on the idea that everyone is essentially good and very much loved by an unconditionally loving God. Sin is being ignorant of these 'facts'. If people would start knowing and believing this, death's sting would become benign, a mere pin-prick.

I've attended quite a few funerals over the years. One in particular was noteworthy not because it was different, but because it was so typical. A thirty-something year old man had connected a piece of hose to the exhaust pipe of his car, wound up the windows and turned on the motor. His wife found him the next morning. At the funeral the minister had carefully raked together and sorted out all of the positive traits of the deceased. True, there was not a single gram of faith evident anywhere, but, he sure is in 'a better place' said the man of the cloth. Really?

The crowd went to the wake, convinced that poor old so-and-so was really a good man, the victim of circumstances ('depression'!) but was OK now. That's what they kept on mouthing to the grieving widow and dazed parents. Knowing 'he's OK now' that was supposed to be real comfort for family and friends. Get real! By what authority this 'gospel'? It's all a big 'have', a gigantic sop built on the single premise of the 'unconditional love' of God and dished up with huge helpings of good intentions. A cauldron full of human concoctions and inventions mixed together to create spiritual gall and poison.

What to believe? The Bible does indeed teach that sin is the reason for death's horrific sting. It could even be argued that had sin not entered the world and polluted everything there would not be any death (Romans 5:1). However, death is above and before all else the result (wages) of sin (Romans 6:23). In that sense death is the punishment inflicted upon us by virtue of our sinfulness as a human race and as individual members of it. God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden and forbade our first parents to eat of it. If they did, they would surely die. (Genesis 2:17) They did. Therefore, God the righteous One declared: 'for dust you are and to dust you will return' (Genesis 3:19b) Death - physical and spiritual - reigned. It was the wages of sin. Death is divine punishment for breaking the Law.

The removal of death's sting takes place only if and when death is no longer a punishment.
Is that possible? Can death ever not be a punishment? Can its scorpion-like sting be removed and defused? The Bible indicates that those who are in Christ have already died with Christ. (II Corinthians 5:14f). For such people their death as punishment for sin took place 2,000 years ago on Calvary's cross. Christ died and we who believe died to sin with him then and there, once for all.

A believer's subsequent physical death is, therefore, no more than equivalent of a seed being put into the ground. Plant the seed (the old, physical, mortal body) and a glorious new plant, a thousand times more magnificent than the seed, will sprout. Our old mortal body with all its faults, frailties and failings will, once sown into the ground, be raised immortal and imperishable. (I Corinthians 15:35ff) Death is now no more than passing from mortality to immortality; a transition from natural to a spiritual body. Little wonder it used to be said of the death of a saint
that he/she had been 'promoted to glory'.

Yes, but… we still grieve, mourn and weep! The pain and loss of death is still just that. 'I feel as though I've been ripped in half. I just can't stop myself from crying.' Indeed. Jesus also wept as he stood at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus. Mary too felt the unbearable pain of
a sword piercing her soul as she saw her son, God's Son, die. The grief, loneliness and burden of losing life's partner is painful and real. Never deny or underestimate that in another or even in yourself. The tears must flow. The grief must 'out'. The 'stiff upper lip' so much regarded as the acme of manhood a generation ago, was a lie. Learn to weep and also learn to weep with those who weep; to mourn with those who mourn.

But for God's children the poison, the despair and idea that death is punishment is gone. Death is not punishment. It is the beginning of immortality and imperishability. Death is a translation into a glorious fullness that makes the here and now look like an anaemic, scratchy black and white movie. What is to come is beyond even our most vivid imagination.

A final thought. Your death, like mine, is inevitable. Most of us have 'prepared' ourselves for it by taking up a life insurance or superannuation policy and (I hope!) writing a last will and testament. Great. A few (very few!) even prepare for their deaths by directing the Scriptures and
songs to be sung (and explaining why) at their funerals. Better still! But if there is one thing that has struck me over the years it is just how rarely we prepare for our death by discussing it with our spouses or children. Having been at the death-bed of a number of people over the years, I have often been asked, 'And what were his/her last words? Did he/she give a positive indication of where he/she was going?' Assurance is sought in the dying words of a loved one. Could that happen because there have not been enough things spoken about this beforehand?

I have seen, heard and experienced some wonderful testimonies from those who were terminally ill. You know something? It has been especially on such occasions that a subsequent funeral has been turned into a genuine, heartfelt celebration. Death's sting had been removed. Death's only 'power' was the sorrow of departure, the temporary breaking of a life-long
relationship. There was hope. There was a glorious, eternal tomorrow. There was victory.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised August 97 / Copyright 1997