There are some questions that, when you first come across them, seem to put up devastating roadblocks against the Christian faith. I was asked one such question recently. I could tell that for this person, something that they had never before given a second thought was now front and center in their concerns. They asked me, “if Jesus conquered death, why do people still die?”
We had been discussing the specifics of the atonement; how Christ’s one-time sacrifice paid the ransom for all our sins.
If Jesus died to pay the price for our sins, and it worked, those sins are paid for, then why do we still have to pay the penalty of death?
The answer is… that we don’t. We don’t pay the penalty of death.
Confused? So was he.
People still die, obviously. And we know that death is indeed a negative consequence of the fall and original sin. It’s a continued consequence for all mankind, who share in and continue Adam’s sin.
But you, Christian reader, and I will die (unless Christ blesses us with his return before then! Maranatha!). Our future death is inevitable, despite the fact that we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and united to Christ our Lord, and thus all our sins were laid upon Jesus on the cross. He took the punishment of hell that we deserve. All of it.
Christ took 100% of the eternal punishment that we owe.
Therefore, if we still die, we MUST say that we do not die as a punishment for our sins.
Yes, death is a consequence of sin. That’s the reason death exists. But for us, our death is not a punishment for the sins we commit. Instead, we die because we are human beings. Christ, for his purposes, chose to distinguish between his victory on the cross and a coming final victory at his return. In this meantime, sins are still committed, even by Christians. Disease is still spread, even among Christians. Death still happens, even among Christians. We die because we are human beings in mortal bodies, and human beings die.
But in fact, God uses the continuation of death for the good of his elect! Louis Berkhof writes:
The very thought of death, bereavements through death, the feeling that sicknesses and sufferings are harbingers of death, and the consciousness of the approach of death, — all have a very beneficial effect on the people of God. They serve to humble the proud, to mortify carnality, to check worldliness and to foster spiritual-mindedness. In the mystical union with their Lord believers are made to share the experiences of Christ. Just as He entered upon His glory by the pathway of sufferings and death, they too can enter upon their eternal reward only through sanctification. Death is often the supreme test of the strength of the faith that is in them, and frequently calls forth striking manifestations of the consciousness of victory in the very hour of seeming defeat, I Pet. 4:12,13. 1
So for the Christian, there is no penalty in death, and thus, there is no fear in death. Death is significant. Thus it can work effectively as a tool God uses to sanctify us for future glory, but death itself becomes merely a transition point. It is a laying down of our earthly body for a time. Our souls rise up to heaven. Berkhof’s previous paragraph is not finished:
Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life. They enter death with the assurance that its sting has been removed, I Cor. 15:55, and that it is for them the gateway of heaven.
For the Christian, physical death remains. However there is no, nor will there ever be, spiritual death. No lake of fire. No eternal punishment. No second death.
Our consciousness will forever continue, and each future stage will only get better!
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 2