Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Is Physical Death a Punishment or a Gift?

"And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." [Genesis 2:16-17]

Obviously, God is warning Adam about more than just the idea of physical death here. The consequence of disobedience was both physical and spiritual death. Romans talks about this spiritual death.

"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." [Romans 6:23]

But let me ask an honest question: Is the physical death that comes along with our sinful state another punishment or is it a merciful gift from our Loving God?

My answer: It is not a punishment for a Christian who is covered under grace; it is a gift.

Imagine for a second the struggles and tortures of this sinful life without the merciful release of physical death. Imagine an eternity of Church Militant with no way to retire from your labors to the Church Triumphant. The thought is horrific for me. Death is a heavenly invitation for those who believe. As I struggle daily with awefulness of my sin and witness people victimized by the sins of others, I find myself increasingly looking forward to death like an overworked employee looks to Friday afternoon. If I am honest, I really do not want to be here. I now understand the apostle Paul when he admits the same thing:

"Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." [Phillipians 1:19-24]

Dying is gain?!? As a fake Christian, I thought that Paul was either crazy or superhumanly brave. Now that I am actually living the cross-bearing life of a true disciple, I understand his point every day. The life of repentence is not a fun one. You would have to be crazy to want to continue. The Christian life on earth is the worst life that you can ever live. We should be so humble and so selfless that people should look at how we live this life with pity. Do you disagree?

"If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." [1 Corinthians 15:19-20]

...and now that my eyes are opened and I see how bad this life is, I completely agree with St. Paul when he quotes the prophet Hosea:

"When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]

So is physical death a punishement for me? No, I almost wish for it. I welcome it with faith in the promise of the life to come. That fanatical dedication to my faith alarms most people. It is not healthy to think of death as a gift. But death--all death--is only to be feared as punishment by those who are still under the law. As a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, I am under grace; the victory of my death--all death--has been overcome by the work of Christ. What was once a punishment that haunted me is now the only thing that I have to look forward to. I am eager for the gift of physical death which will usher me into eternal life and the peaceful rest of being in the presence of Almighty God.

So how can I remain here if I want to die so badly? How do I go on and face this horrible existence when the alternative is so much better? What am I still doing here?

St. Paul gives us the reason. I am not here for me. My suffering and struggle is of no consequence and my personal gains here on earth will all pass away. I do not remain here for myself but because remaining here with you "is more necessary on your account." The life that I live is now for Christ and for others. Putting off the glory of heaven for the needs of others is the ultimate act of Christian service. I do not need to go to the trouble of inventing a selfish reason to continue to live. As long as there are people on this earth, I must stay until God releases me from my duty to them. I cannot leave this vast mission field yet when there is so much work left to do.

That is the true purpose of a Christian. That is what drives a man of faith and gives him courage and resolve to continue when all others fall away. That is why God's People remain here and do not lose hope regardless of the situation in which they find themselves.

Faith is stronger than courage.

No comments: