Editor’s Note: This article is written to correspond with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sanctity of Life Sunday (January 21)
Some 20 years ago, Dudley Clendinen wrote an opinion for The New York Times entitled “When Death is a Blessing and Life is Not.” It is a heartbreaking essay about the tragic suffering—illness, loneliness, dementia—experienced by his elderly cousin and aunts before their deaths. Sadly, we could multiply such stories again and again.
Too many of our loved ones bear similar griefs. And many under these clouds of suffering end up feeling that death is a blessing for the relief it brings. At times, these feelings are whispered at funerals; sometimes they are stated plainly. Life, then, ends up being perceived as the curse or, in the word of Clendinen’s poor cousin, “hell.”
I ache for those who are tormented, young or old, emotionally broken or physically shattered. I anguish for those who, in their own darkness, yearn for death. But, death itself brings no peace. Death is no friend of humanity. It is no benefactor, no ally, no comrade. As God says through the apostle Paul, death is the enemy of Christ, a rebel, an insurgent, and a subversive rival to His sovereignty. Thankfully, one day Christ will abolish this tyrant (1 Corinthians 15:25-27a).
But death is not merely the enemy of Christ and His people. It is judgment for sin, a curse, the sentence Adam and Eve must bear for disobeying His command (Genesis 2:16-17; Romans 6:23). God created humanity by His artful crafting of soil and by the breath of His mouth (Genesis 2:7). The prepositions in Genesis 2:7 are important for our understanding of life and death. Adam was configured OF dust FROM the earth. To put it another way: God gave Adam shape by taking soil OUT OF the ground and forming it. However, when God decrees the penalties for disobedience, He portrays death as the utter reversal of His creation of Adam (Genesis 3:19). Death, the dreadful consequence of sin, means decay and burial. Whereas life is God forming humanity OUT OF the dust, death places us back INTO the earth, so that we decay back into dust. Genesis 3:19 erases Genesis 2:7. There is no blessing in death, for it is a curse and a reversal of that which is always the true blessing: life (Deuteronomy 30:19a).
In resurrection, however, the tables are turned, and death itself is reversed. First, God the Father raised Christ bodily so that His body did not succumb to decay (Acts 13:37; cf. Acts 2:31; Psalm 16:10). Then, at His coming, He will deliver the bodies of believers from their graves and decay in the dust. Joyfully, their corpses will rise from dust to inherit eternal life (Daniel 12:2; Isaiah 26:19; John 5:28). Because the Spirit of God the Father who raised His own Son dwells in us, we will be raised to be “like Him” (1 John 3:2), experiencing the redemption (Romans 8:23) and glorification of our bodies at Christ’s second advent. All things, death included, will then be subject to Him (1 Corinthians 15:20-23; Philippians 3:20-21). Subdued, death will die.
God so highly prizes the lives of His children that He staves off their deaths. Delivered from death by God’s gracious hand, the psalmist sings that God so greatly valued his life that He held his death back. For God, death comes at such a high cost, He esteems the death of the godly to be so precious, that He does not permit the end of life, the spilling of blood, as if it were a cheap thing (Ps 116:1-11; 15). He does not throw life away. He grants the deaths of the godly to their enemies only as He wills. Until that point, He resolutely preserves the poor and needy: “He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, and their blood will be precious in his sight” (Psalm 72:14).
Although death is our enemy, Christ is our friend. In death, our immaterial aspect, our spirits (or souls), are torn from our bodies, and it is in this appalling, dismembered condition that we await our resurrection and the end of death’s sting (1 Corinthians 15:53-55). Yet, even in the clench of death, Christ supplies to us an immediate treasure. He provides to our spirits a conscious, blessed, yet disembodied, fellowship with Himself. Therefore, in death, we will be “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Prior to the great day of resurrection, though we die, He partly overcomes the sting of death, imparting to us a “better” companionship with Christ. In this sense, Paul writes, “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), although he eagerly longs to receive his glorious body at Christ’s second appearing and to have his disembodied, unclothed spirit, clothed anew (Philippians 3:20-21; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Death is not a blessing; it is a calamity. It collaborates with the other tyrants—sin and the devil—to bring us misery. Death is not good. Life is good. God, its Giver, is good. God in Christ, even though we are condemned to die, gives us consolation by gifting us again with life (John 10:10; Romans 6:23). Death provides no solace, no relief from our distress. In itself, it yields only a different type of torment. Only in life—our fellowship with Christ and our sharing in the benefits of His resurrection and return—do we find rest: “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (1 John 5:11).
February 5, 1996.
See, e.g., The Washington Post essay by Colby Itkowitz, “An Essay Calling A Mentally Ill Person’s Death A ‘Blessing’ Inspired A Powerful Response” (May 25, 2016); the related post “My Former Friend’s Death was a Blessing” (May 19, 2016); and Uzma Khan, M.D., “Death Is A Blessing in Its Right Time and Place (March 24, 2017),” https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2017/03/death-blessing-right-time-place.html.
Cf. John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud,” in Selected Poetry, ed. John Carey (Oxford: Oxford University, 1996), 202.