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Dead, Dying, and Dying: The Strange Hope of the Christian Life

by Pierce Hibbs • August 18, 2014 •

When did you die?

Michael Allen Rogers wrote recently that he died in 1957, when he was just eight years old.[1] Personally, I’ve had several near-death experiences, but I didn’t really die until 2006, partway through my undergraduate studies. The experience was simply unparalleled. All I can say of it now is that the breaths I have taken since then have been of clean air, filtered by the very speech of God—and I am done with death.

With Rogers, I refer here to Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”

This is not merely a metaphor, and when we consider it as such we sap the vigor of God’s Word.[2] We must ceaselessly fight the tendency to live as if God’s promises in Scripture were second-rate abetments to our first-rate worldly problems. If our crucifixion with Christ were metaphorical, that would mean that we are primarily physical and only secondarily spiritual. Scripture would have it the other way around. True, we are body-spirit image bearers, and Scripture prevents us from dichotomizing the two. However, there does seem to be a hierarchical relationship in place. Scripture puts a great amount of weight on the heart, the inner workings of the conscience, and our allegiance of faith—all internal, spiritual facets of our being (e.g., Deut 6:4 tells us to love the Lord with our heart and soul; and Jesus adds the word mind in Matt 22:37). The body tests and confirms the demeanor of the soul, divesting it of pretension; our physical responses betray our spiritual condition and lay bare our heart’s treasure (Luke 6:45). Though it is our physical bodies that will be resurrected, they will be so only because of the faith-wrought union we have with Christ—a spiritual union (indicated by the sense of “abide” in John 15:4, as well as by Gal 2:20; 3:28; Col 1:27; Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 13:5; and Eph 3:17).

In light of the soul’s primacy, our crucifixion with Christ is not an abstraction that pales in comparison with our concrete, physical lives. Our spiritual death is not some kind of pick-me-up we tell ourselves when we need encouragement. It is death of the first order—more lasting, and in that sense more “real,” than physical death. So, if you are a Christian, then you already have a tombstone lying somewhere in the past, marking a place far more sacred than a patch of grass. With unmistakable clarity, your epitaph reads, “One once lost . . .” Because of this death, you have been everlastingly found. Strange as it may sound, you are gloriously dead to the world because you are eternally alive in Christ. That death is the one that counts: the death on which you build your unending life with God.

Of course, I am also still dying in two senses. First, my crucified self, which Paul refers to as “the old man” (Rom 6:6), is refusing to stay six feet under. He is dead, but Satan has used “the old man” for years to waylay my progress toward Christ, and he is reluctant to surrender so convenient and effective a weapon. So, “the old man” in this sense still claws at the dirt walls of the grave and tries to grip the heels of the “new man.” He wants to drag us both into darkness, though the effort is futile. In this sense, I am dead but continually dying, working with the Spirit to keep the old man in the cold, dank earth of the past. His death will be consummated when my soul arrives in God’s presence after my physical death.

Second, and what most people traditionally understand as the referent for the word “death,” I’m dying physically. My body is decaying: my joints wear; my muscles atrophy; my mind grows less nimble each day (if it was ever so nimble to begin with!). This is the death we are tempted to treat as principal—and for good reason. Physical death plays to the senses; it accents the word body in “body-spirit image bearers.” In our fallen condition, our perception of reality has been constructed on a foundation that is, by and large, physical. Having that foundation crumble and give way is no small threat to us. Try as we may to bolster our belief with the promises of Scripture, it is likely that our physical death will be the most trying test of our faith simply because it will demand that we, at least for a time, sacrifice the foundation we have always stood upon, trading the sandstone of the senses for the granite of God’s promise in Christ. This is no small task.   

I had a taste of this difficulty as a teenager when I watched my father die in our living room. He had battled a brain tumor for twelve years. After his third and final surgery and radiation treatment, the tumor grew unexpectedly. The decade long battle with seizures and occasionally slurred speech was superseded by the utter failure of his mechanical abilities. His body went limp. He speech vanished. He lay in bed and waited for two weeks until a warm night in early June of 2004, when we watched him take his final three breaths—after moaning for two hours due to the failure of his respiratory system. That is what makes us place physical death over our spiritual death. That is what seems to mitigate the relevance of our spiritual death. But that is also all the more reason to begin living with the knowledge that our physical death is only a door. Turning the handle of death’s door may send shivers down our spine, but the hall continues on the other side of it. Not even a failing respiratory system can keep us from walking into God’s courtyard.

All of this sounds quite morbid, doesn’t it? Dead, dying, and dying? Where is there room for hope? “Right here,” I would say. The hope of the Christian life is indeed a strange one, but it is also unassailable. We have inexhaustible hope in the presence of physical death because of one simple principle: you cannot kill someone who is already dead. When we keep our spiritual crucifixion with Christ cardinal, then we can begin to marvel at what God has done for us: the sting of death has been broken by the cross. Death’s door will open to greater halls for us, but as long as we are on earth, we have the privilege of being dead men walking, facing physicality with no reservations. Only when we begin to realize this will our true inheritance, eternal life with Christ, bring us comfort in the face of bodily death.

Three deaths seems bleak to many Christians, but that is because they have their deaths out of order. Their lives are not easier because they keep physical death in the fore and consider spiritual death (both the initial death of the “old man” and his soon-to-come consummate death at the end of our physical lives) a second-rate comfort. In fact, by doing so they are leaving the promise of God untapped. The blessing of Christ is that our union with the Trinity is restored. It will never be broken again. Boldness and confidence belong to those who meditate on this daily—those who keep their deaths in order.

If all of this talk on being dead and dying makes me morbid, I can live with that. What I cannot live with is blindness. It is morbid to think that darkness is light (Matt 6:22–23).True morbidity lies with the spiritually blind. So, I’ll take death over blindness every time, so long as I have my deaths in order.  

[1]. Michael Allen Rogers, What Happens after I Die? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 43.

[2]. I remember a lecture I attended by Carl Trueman several years after my father had died. I was sick of hearing about God’s fatherly care when the one I had considered the physical manifestation of that care had died. I was halted when Trueman mentioned that this sentiment—disdain for the metaphorical association of God as our father—was entirely misinformed. That God is my Father is not a metaphor. Rather, as much as I loved my earthly father, he was a dim reflection of my original Father (which suggests just how much I love my maker, though this love is often, shamefully, unexpressed). The fact that this was so difficult to comprehend at the time (and still is) betrays just how much Post-Enlightenment empiricism has infiltrated our understanding of God’s Word, even on a popular level. Think of it this way: just because we cannot perceive God with our senses does not mean He is any less than our eternal heavenly Father, and just because we can perceive our earthly fathers with our senses does not mean that they trump God’s fatherly care. Within western culture, empiricism has turned biblical truth on its head, and it is our responsibility to turn it right-side up again. 


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