Physical death is guaranteed. We know this logically but it’s not until someone near to us dies or we are faced with death ourselves that the concept of death suddenly becomes real. It is then that the words of Scripture hit home, “Man is appointed once to die…”
There is nothing attractive in death. It’s an ugly process that step-by-step takes everything away from us, from our strength to our last exhale, leaving us a discardable shell of flesh from which the spirit has flown. It’s not a comfortable subject to talk about or even think about, but we must. When it comes to death there is no place to hide.
Most of us are hoping for the Rapture to take us out of here before the death knell rings. But it might not, and so faced with the inevitability of death should the Rapture not happen in my lifetime, I find myself thinking of death. If something is unavoidable you do yourself no favors closing your eyes, plugging your ears and chanting, “Nah, nah, I can’t hear you,” like a child afraid of the monster in the closet. The wise way is to face up to it.
Death comes early in the Scripture account. We aren’t really sure how many years or decades may have passed before Cain picked up a rock and smashed Abel in the head thereby causing the first actual physical death in recorded history. It seems early. The Scriptures tell us Abel’s blood then cried out from the ground, and God heard it.
I find this truth both sad and comforting. Sad because of the tragic incident of jealousy and rage that occurred, but comforting because it’s the first tangible proof of life transcending physical death in any form in Scripture. Though Abel’s body lay dead his blood cried out to God.
Prior to Abel’s death Man had the guarantee by God that he would one day die physically, and Man had witnessed death with the sacrifice of the ram that clothed him after the fall. Man had also experienced spiritual separation from God as a consequence of the fall, but never before had a man seen another man physically die. It must have been a tremendous heartrending shock.
You can be sure Cain knew exactly what he had done. Having witnessed the sacrificing of lambs he knew that death was bloody and permanent; that those who went that way did not return but instead rotted away back to elemental properties. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, for dust you are; and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19, Ecclesiastes 3:20).
Everyone living then knew that Abel would not be returning. They would see him no more. This must have caused overwhelming grief and guilt for Adam and Eve who not only suffered the loss of their son to death, but did so with the knowledge that it was though their own transgression that death had entered the world.
They must have had other offspring at that point that Scripture doesn’t deem to mention (Cain’s wife for example); but the course of Man, the duality of lost versus redeemed Man, had been set in the loss of their first two offspring, one to death with the hope of resurrection, and one to exile in the wilderness of the world. For the survivors, Adam, Eve, Cain, the legacy of sin and guilt continued. Only the righteous dead are freed from its burden, corruption, and stain.
The book of Ecclesiastes, written from the natural man’s point of view (…under the sun, verse 3:1) describes mankind’s inevitable decent into aging and death: Vision starts to fail—the sun, moon, stars grow dark. Cataracts cloud vision—clouds return after the rain; looking through windows grows dim. You grow physically weaker—keepers of the house tremble, and strong men stoop. You lose your teeth—grinders are few. It becomes hard to sleep well—rising at the sound of birds. Hearing fades—songs grow faint.
It’s said that one out of three people over 60 will fall each year; people are afraid of heights. Fear seems to take up residence in your thoughts—fear of dangers in the streets. When do these things happen? “…when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along.” In Israel Tu Bishvat (also known as the birthday of the trees) is in late January, analogous to the winter of our lives. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets.
The writer of Ecclesiastes begins the section above (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7) concerning Man’s inevitable physical death with an admonition, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them…’” And finishes with, “Remember him before the silver cord is severed and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
In Ecclesiastes is a list of all things precious, meant to symbolize how aging and eventual death take away all good things from the natural Man. It seems very grim, but ends with a promise: “…and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Boy, am I glad of that! After all this living, loving, striving, suffering, in the end I will go to God. At last a happy ending.
This brings us to thoughts of Christ, the One who made our salvation and the salvation of the saints of history possible. Christ, Emmanuel, God in human form, died in the prime of His life. It’s my opinion that if he had lived beyond His numerical prime He never would have aged. Aging is part of the curse. Aging is death on the installment plan.
Not everyone who dies ages. Unfortunately many are cut off before having the opportunity to live a full life, but aging uninterrupted by untimely death is the natural progression of mankind. My understanding gained by reading biblical scholars is that Genesis 2:17 (you shall surely die) is a progressive action, “…dying you shall die.” And we know that at the point of Adam and Eve’s fall physical man began the process of aging that led eventually to death.
Christ, the Second Adam, was exempted from the consequences of sin in the flesh that the corruption of aging brings. Instead, He died for all of Adam’s descendants by dying for Adam’s sin—the terminal genetic disease Adam passed on to all that came after. Receiving Christ’s sacrificial redemption on our behalf is the antidote for the disease of sin and its ultimate consequences. Just as in the Garden of Eden Man first died spiritually and then physical death followed, so in redemption via faith in Christ Man, is first reborn spiritually with physical life to follow. Christ’s redemption is the mirror image that reverses Man’s original tragic loss.
Barring the Rapture, aging and dying is inevitable; and as someone who can check off about half the list in Ecclesiastes, every day it becomes more of a guarantee than a theoretical concept; but I have hope in Christ.
The Scriptures offer us the only way; eternal redemption freely offered through faith in the God who became flesh and paid the price required for sin, decay, and death. In Him we have a promised future beyond the loss of everything we hold precious here below.
Sin promises “ashes to ashes,” but in Christ we are promised “beauty for ashes.” (A future and a hope.) It is our only hope, and we should ever keep it in mind embracing it tightly, for everything here below is vanity, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). But in Christ we have a living hope.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Corinthians 15:19-23).
With you, I am looking for the Rapture, the translation that I’m hoping will occur before debilitating physical decline and death take me and those I love; but I’m comforted in knowing that however and whenever my translation comes—it will be in the loving arms of Christ.
Even so come, Lord Jesus. Amen.