If Jesus died on the cross to save us from death, why do we still have to die? This is a question that sometimes plagues Christians as they face the prospect of their own imminent death. It can seem at times like Jesus’ redemption does not have power over death, for even those who believe and are baptized into him still suffer death.
How do we answer such an objection? As I write this, we are still in the Easter season when we Christians especially focus on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the victory over sin and death that is now ours through baptism. Jesus’ victory is our victory, but we receive it for now only by faith and not by sight. Questions like this still linger because Jesus has not yet returned in glory to throw death into the lake of fire.
We are not the first Christians to ask these questions. Throughout the centuries, Christians have struggled to find comfort in the face of death. Pastors and teachers throughout the centuries have tried to answer these questions from the Scriptures to bring peace and faith to troubled hearts. One such pastor in our own Lutheran tradition was Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), a professor and theologian who taught and wrote in Germany. He is perhaps the most brilliant Lutheran thinker after Martin Luther.
While much of what he wrote was for pastors and other theologians, he also wrote material that was intended to be read by ordinary Christians. One such little book is called Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the struggle with Death. Gerhard wrote this book to help those who have questions as they face death, but he also wrote it for himself. Just before he wrote the book, his infant son had died and his wife is seriously ill. Less than a month after he completed the book, his wife also died.
Gerhard writes as a man who
is intimately familiar with death, and as a Christian who knows the comfort of
the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He poses 46 questions about death and provides
answers and comfort from the Scriptures. One question is the very one proposed
at the beginning of our article. Here is Gerhard’s answer to that question:
TEMPTED. If Christ redeemed us from death, why must I still die? How has death been conquered by Christ when it daily displays its trophies of prey as a sign of victory?
COMFORTER. To say that Christ saved His people from their sins means that He does not condemn forever those who are reborn and believe, not that sin no longer dwells in their flesh. As long as they are in this life, they remain sold as a slave to sin (Rom 7:14). Accordingly, He has redeemed us from death that we might be free from the bonds of eternal death, not that we are no longer subject to a temporal death. Our body is dead, or subject to death, because of sin (Rom 8:10). True death is the death of the soul. From this Christ redeemed us by sustaining those infernal torments in His own soul. Our sweet Jesus also made our temporal death sweet so that it is death in name only. It is truly only a sleep; no, to be more precise, the end of death is the beginning of true life. Those who are truly godly die every day because of those unremitting calamities by which they are oppressed in this life (1 Cor 15:31). Therefore, that death of theirs is the end of death. Through the gate of death they pass to a quiet and eternal life. In this way, their death is the beginning of true life.
The death of Christ is the poison that destroys our death. Although this poison has not yet thoroughly killed our death, as it yet slithers and fastens its fangs in our heel, nevertheless, this poison has attacked the heart of death and it will shortly die from that blow. Death is the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26), which Christ will thoroughly destroy at the last day, as it is written, a stronger one will come upon this strong man and powerfully take away all his spoils (Luke 11:22). Death is to be considered with spiritual eyes and in this way its wrath will be seen as empty and without power since it has been conquered and taken captive by Christ. It lies in wait for the lives of the godly and, behold, it leads them to true life. It attempts to kill the soul and body with its string and, behold, it wounds only the body, which itself will be rescued from the jaws of death, as the soul is immune to all wounds of death. It tries to hand over the godly to eternal death and, behold, it delivers them to eternal life.
As this Easter season comes to a close, let us give thanks to God for the victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ. While death clings to us for now because sin still clings to our mortal bodies, we know that death has been struck a mortal blow. Far from harming us, through Christ death has become the door to eternal life.
Quotation taken from Gerhard, Johann. Handbook of Consolations : For the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death. Translated by Carl L Beckwith. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009, 73-74.