The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (thank you, J.I.Packer)

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Have you seen the movie, The Mummy? "Which one?" you might ask. The plot line of archaeologists waking up a long-dead decomposed Egyptian prince by reading some ancient hieroglyphic incantation has been replayed many times. Boris Karloff played the mummy in 1932. Abbot and Costello met the mummy in 1955. And Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz ran for their lives from a CGI mummy in 1999. Not to mention The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Curse and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), and Dawn of the Mummy (1981)! We have long had a fascination with the dead coming back to life. Along with the recent resurgence of Zombie films, TV, and video games it appears that deep down inside we are all looking for a way to face the universally felt fear of death and to believe that death is not the end. There is a real and ancient reason for this.

Death is not our friend. At the beginning of the human story as recounted in the Bible, God warned Adam “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:17) But imagining themselves to have wisdom surpassing God’s, they ate of that very tree. Afterward, God told them, “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."(Genesis 3:19) According to this ancient scripture, death is the resulting curse of human selfishness and sin against God. Indeed “the sting of death is sin.” (1Corinthians 15:56) Sometimes, “We call death sweet names [but] only as the lesser of evils…”[1] Even when we look at death as a door to a better existence we are not stating the whole story. “We are kidding ourselves when we romanticize death as the climax of a life well lived. It is an enemy. It cuts us off from all the wonderful pleasures of this world.”[2] Death cuts us off from more time with the ones we love. We need not be afraid to truly feel the enmity of death. We need to gaze into the grave and know this same end awaits each of us without exception. Then let the experience change you. Like George Baily in It’s a Wonderful Life who looked at his brother’s tomb stone and learned to appreciate how wonderful his life was. Like Ebenezer Scrooge who was made to peer into his own future grave and learned the Joy of loving, giving, and living again. Have you ever considered Halloween a grace of God afforded to you to consider these things on a night where darkness and death are brought to center stage?

Lazarus was the first Mummy. There is actually an account in the Bible that resembles the concept recycled in the Mummy genre movies. You can read about it in John chapter 11. A good friend of Jesus named Lazarus had died. But Jesus who had become known throughout the region of ancient Palestine for doing miracles was not with his friend Lazarus in the town of Bethany when he had become deathly ill. When Jesus finally arrived on the scene in Bethany the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, were beside themselves with grief. So much so, that their mourning moved Jesus to weeping himself. Jesus knowing what he would do declared to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25) He then went to the tomb where Lazarus’ body had been laying for four days and commanded that the stone be rolled away. Martha still not sure what their friend, Jesus was doing, protested that there would surely be an unbearable odor. Jesus responded, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” When they rolled away the stone, Jesus prayed and said in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out.” And “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:43-44)

Death is not our friend but death is not the end. Jesus was illustrating two important truths taught by the Scriptures: (1) everyone will exist forever after death and (2) Jesus himself has power over death. We will all experience existence after death. Not like the mummy forever bound to a half-dead half-alive state. Not even like Lazarus who eventually died (again!). We were created to love life and to live forever because we were created in God’s image and God loves life and lives forever. But what sort of existence will you have after death? Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son [Jesus] has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”(John 3:36) The short answer then, is eternal life awaits those who believe in Jesus and eternal wrath and death await those who do not. Jesus prayed to the Father, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Eternal life is not merely the extension of this life with its mixture of pain and pleasure. No, eternal life in God’s presence is the best possible outcome of this present life. Eternal life is supreme and ever-increasing happiness where all sin and sadness and all fear of death will be swallowed up by life, love, and joy. For the person who has eternal life all the residue of his or her sinful and fallen nature will be entirely removed. All that is good and righteous is all that will gloriously remain. Eternal life awaits all who place their hope and trust in Jesus Christ. All that will bring true and lasting happiness will be preserved and purified and intensified for everyone found in Christ, and it will have no end. The Apostle Paul wrote: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1Corinthians 2:9). When you put your trust in Jesus as the Savior who forgives your sins, you become destined to see the all-satisfying glory of God one day. Death is the enemy, but Jesus overcame the enemy when he rose from the grave and in his rising he conquered death. In Christ there is nothing to fear "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin…But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Corinthians 15:55-57)

Jesus hated death. One old dead guy named B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) wrote about how Jesus’ determination to destroy death was revealed on the day he raised Lazarus from the dead:

It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in the words of [John] Calvin…“as a champion who prepares for conflict.”. . . What [Calvin] does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption.[3]

On this Halloween night where all of America haunts itself with images of fear, gore, and death consider what impulses underlie this annual tradition. Sure, it’s lots of fun for the kids and it gives us an excuse to break our diets with all sundry of candy and goodies. But ask yourself if this night doesn’t also reflect our need to look our fear of death square in the face and poke fun at it. We would like to suggest that poking fun at our fear of death may be therapeutic for the moment but it will not answer questions that remain about what happens to us beyond the grave. For that we would invite you look to Jesus who championed life and destroyed death, not only in raising Lazarus, but by rising from the dead himself, overcoming the torture and gruesome death he experienced on the cross on our behalf.

[1] John Piper, For Your Joy, Desiring God Ministries (http://cdn.desiringgod.org/pdf/books_bfyj/bfyj.pdf), 20.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] B.B. Warfield, as quoted in Timothy Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 137.