The Theology of Death (Part 2): Informing Our Response by Gary Chaffins

In our first post, The Theology of Death (Part 1): Informing our Perspective we outlined a biblical view of death. That is how we as Christians should think about death. In summary form, we made the following points:

  1. Death is an enemy.
  2. Death was conquered by Christ.
  3. We have nothing to fear.
  4. God is sovereign over death.
  5. Death will ultimately be destroyed.

In light of these realities, how should we then, as Christians, respond to this all-so sensitive life event? While it’s true that there is an eternal difference between the death of a believer and the death of an unbeliever, I want to comment on our response to both.

First of all, let’s consider, what about the death of an unbeliever? Those in our lives (family members, friends, co-workers, etc.) who die without a testimony of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that Scripture encourages at least 3 responses:

1) Genuine Sorrow

One dictionary says that the word sorrow includes “grief, pain of mind or spirit, affliction.” Each of these descriptions appropriately explain the result of losing someone you love. We see an example of this in Romans 9:1-3 as the Apostle Paul contemplates the possibility of his fellow Israelites dying without Christ. Even at the thought of it, he says “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”

2) Express Genuine Appreciation

Believer in Christ or not, all of humanity was created in the image of God. Therefore, we should appropriately identify and appreciate the characteristics of our loved ones that touched and impacted our lives and the lives of others.

One example of this can be found in 2 Samuel 1. It is here that we find David’s celebrating and lamenting the death of Saul in poetic fashion. From all indications, it is unlikely that Saul was a true believer. Although David could have focused on the negative aspects of his relationship with Saul, he instead spends his time sharing the things that he appreciated about him. David’s example is acceptable to follow.

3) Avoid Extremes

Losing someone you love is painful; being uncertain or doubtful about their relationship with Christ only adds to the pain. On that note, let me give this counsel: avoid extremes.

Apart from a clear profession in Christ (followed by a fruitful life), don’t go to the extreme of assuming they’re in heaven. On the other hand, it’s okay to cling to hope that they may, in God’s grace, have responded in faith to the gospel, even when death was imminent. We must always be reminded that we serve a merciful and gracious God who is a forgiver and rescuer by nature. It is okay to live in light of this hope while holding on to the truth that God is good and always does what is right.

How do we respond to the death of a believer?

Our attitude toward death of Christians is supposed to be different in some ways and yet the same in others. Let’s take a brief look at some appropriate responses:

1) Genuine Grief

As I mentioned earlier, sorrow and grief are normal responses to losing someone that you love. This is no less true when our loved one is a believer. Earlier I mentioned David’s lament over the loss of Saul (who was likely not a believer), but in that same passage, he is equally as sorrowful over the loss of his friend Jonathan (who was a believer).

We also see this demonstrated by our Lord when He wept at the graveside of His friend Lazarus (John 11:35). Some are bothered by the fact that our omnipotent and omniscient Savior would respond in such a way, but for me, it serves as wonderful reminder that He has truly entered into our experience. He truly grieved over what has happened to the one that He loved.

I would also encourage you to consider Stephen, the first martyr of the early church. As you may recall, he was stoned to death for the sake of the gospel, but notice what how the church responded to this “Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. (Acts 8:2)”. Keep in mind that he was a Christian and the church would have been aware of his eternal destiny, yet they still responded with “great lamentation over him.”

In Philippians 2:27, Paul speaks of his friend Epaphroditus who became very sick and almost died “But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.” He makes it clear that if his friend died that he would have been overtaken by sorrow.

There are many more examples that we could look at, but my goal is to help us see that grief and sorrow are perfectly normal and appropriate responses to death. Which leads us to our next point.

2) Grieve with Hope

Although we are to grieve, we are to grieve differently. Listen to the following words from the Apostle Paul:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”(1 Thess. 4:13)

Paul is informing the church of Thessalonica to what has happened to their brothers and sisters in Christ who have already died. In doing so, he doesn’t forbid grieving, but he does forbid them to grieve like the rest of humanity. Namely, that we are not to grieve as those “who have not hope.”

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:14-18)

It is not uncommon for believers to conclude that it is unspiritual to grieve. As if it is a breach of faith or a denial of the spiritual realities of those who have went on to be with the Lord. However, as I have sought to demonstrate, this flies in the face of the biblical witness. Paul explicitly tells us to grieve like Christians. Grieve as those who have hope. Be comforted by this hope; encourage others with this hope.

3) Grieve with Joy

We are not only to grieve genuinely and with hope but we are also to grieve with joy. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are to rejoice always and in all circumstances. The command to do so nearly seems impossible to reconcile with the concept of death. However, look at how John MacArthur defines biblical joy. He says, “we’re talking about a deep down confidence that all is well, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the difficulty, no matter what the problem.” This type of joy coincides with the thought of grieving as those who have hope.

Scripture gives us many truths that can stimulate this joy in the face of death. Allow me to give you just a couple (of many) passages that have been instrumental to me in the midst of my own grief:

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15)

I Corinthians 15 has also been a go to passage for me. In verses 35-49 we read all of the wonderful promises pertaining to the resurrected body. It is also in this passage where we are reminded of our victory over death. One cannot help but be joyful when reading this in his conclusion “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 57)

4) Respond in Worship

This spirit wrought joy deep down in our soul will allow us to, even in the face of death, respond to God with an attitude of worship. Consider the following examples.

David when hearing about the death of his son:

“Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped.” (2 Samuel 12:20)

Job had the same response when he heard about his son’s death:

“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20-21)

May the God of all comfort grant us perspective in the face of death by reminding us of all the promises that are for those who love Him. May these promises inform our response and drive us to worship. Death is painful, grief is draining and sorrow is real but it is not final, it does not have the last word!

“Death is not death if you know the Lord. It is merely a change of place, a change of state, a transfer from one realm to another. Death is not death, if it kills no part of us, except that which has hindered us from the perfect life. Death is not death, if it raises us in a moment from darkness to light, from weakness to strength, from sinfulness to holiness. Death is not death, if it perfects our faith by making it sight and lets us behold Him in whom we have believed. Death is not death, if it rids us of doubt and fear, sickness and disease, of sorrow and sadness. Death is not death, if it gives us to those we loved and lost, for whom we lived, whom we long to live with again. Death is not death, for Christ has conquered death for Himself, and for those who trust in Him.”

Closing Note: Do not read this as an exhaustive treatment on the topic. Instead, view it as a brief introduction to how one may systematically view this issue. Here are some additional resources for further reading

Gary Chaffins, is co-pastor at The Grace Community Church at Bigelow in Portsmouth, Ohio. He has a beautiful wife, two kids, a little-white dog, and carries a large NASB.

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