DEATH: "THE CHRISTIAN’S FINEST HOUR"
THE PARADOX OF MODERN ESCHATOLOGIES
Don K. Preston
Just recently, I attended the funeral of a fine Christian lady. The minister did a wonderful job of speaking of the woman’s faith, her Christ-like spirit of helping others, and of the surety of her reward in heaven. In fact, the minister related that he had heard one of his childhood minister "heroes" speak of the death of a Christian as "the Christian’s finest hour." He confidently stated that the death of this good sister was in fact her finest hour. I must confess that I was struck with the irony, the paradox, the true conundrum of that preacher’s lesson.
I have said for years that modern ministers, have two theologies when it comes to death. On the one hand, when preaching the funeral of a faithful Christian, they confidently affirm that the Christian has received their reward, they are in heaven with the Savior, they are truly at rest. In fact, the death of the Christian is their finest hour! However, in many cases, you might hear that same preacher (I have personally heard this!), in the following weeks, say that physical death is the enemy, and that until the coming of the Lord at the end of human history, even the Christian does not have their reward!1 Perhaps even more disturbing is that in many amillennial churches, in contrast to their funeral sermons that affirm the deceased is in heaven, these same ministers will affirm that the faithful Christian has gone to Abraham’s bosom– not heaven!
Does anyone see a problem here? There is a very real theological problem here. The problem is real, it is serious, it is disturbing, but, goes seemingly un-noticed by so many believers. This article will seek to explain the problem and demonstrate how what the above mentioned minister said is true, and yet, how devastating to modern eschatologies it really is.
I need not document the fact that all futurist eschatologies believe that physical death is the death introduced by Adam, and that physical death is the death to be overcome through the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15:22: "As in Adam all men die, even so in Christ shall all men be made alive." The story of redemption is the story of the deliverance from the death of Adam.
It goes without saying that if you start at the wrong place, you will wind up in the wrong place, theologically. If your protology (beginning) is wrong, your eschatology is wrong. So, if physical death is not the death that Adam introduced, then physical death is not the death conquered by the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15! This is an indisputable fact.
In numerous formal debates, I have challenged my opponents to prove that physical death is the death introduced by Adam. It is interesting and revealing to see their responses:
1.) All have acknowledged that Adam and Eve died spiritually the day they ate the fruit, but, that they did not die physically for hundreds of years.
2.) All of my opponents have thus argued for two deaths, hundreds of years apart.
3.) All of my opponents claim that spiritual death is now overcome in Christ, but, we are awaiting the physical resurrection.
4.) All of my opponents maintain that physical death is still the result of man’s sin.2
5.) All of my opponents have invariably said that physical death remains the enemy, even of the child of God.
The question that I would pose to the readers of this article is: Is physical death the enemy of the child of God who is redeemed, forgiven and cleansed through the blood of Christ?
If your answer is Yes, one has to question the efficacy of Christ’s work.
If your answer is No, one has to admit that resurrection life is a reality today.
I want to ask the reader to consider the following:
If physical death remains as the enemy of the child of God,
It must be true that physical death cannot be the Christian’s finest hour.
It cannot be the moment of the Christian’s victory.
It cannot be viewed, in any way whatsoever, as a positive thing!
How in the name of reason can anyone say that physical death is our enemy, and then claim at the same time that when that enemy has vanquished and claimed us, that we have entered our finest hour, and achieved our reward and victory?
Mind you, it will not do to simply say that the Christian will come out of physical death, in the resurrection, for, it is claimed that even the worst reprobate will likewise be raised out of physical death. If physical death is the enemy, and if coming out of physical death is the victory, the sinner and saint alike achieve the victory. But the point is, that if physical death is itself the enemy, then experiencing physical death is itself succumbing to the enemy!
I want to illustrate the futility and self contradictions of the traditional eschatologies by taking note of some answers given to me by my opponent in a recent Internet debate. My opponent was Brian Schwertley, a postmillennialist, and an adamant (and we might add, caustic and acerbic), opponent of Covenant Eschatology.3 Prior to the actual debate, I asked Mr. Schwertley a series of written questions. I will give my questions and his answers:
Question: Was Jesus’ death on the Cross substitutionary? That is, did Jesus die on the Cross in the place of man, so that those in Christ and the power of his death, would not, will not, have to die?
Brian Schwertley’s Answer: "Yes. Jesus died for the elect only and conquered sin and death for them."
Question: Concerning Jesus’ atoning sacrifice: When Jesus died on the Cross, did he fully make the atonement, and pay the full penalty for sin, so that those in Him, and in the power of his death, do not have to pay the penalty for sin?
Brian Schwertley’s Answer: "Yes. The sting of death has been removed. Death has been conquered. We will rise out of our graves."
Coupled with these questions, during the debate, I argued that the death of the Garden, the death of Adam, could not be physical death. Thus, the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15, which would be for the overcoming of the death of Adam, could not be the raising of man out of physical death.4
For brevity, let me offer some arguments based on Mr. Schwertley’s answers. Keep in mind that his answers are representative of the majority of evangelical Christianity in regard to the death of Jesus on the Cross. Keep in mind that to Mr. Schwertley, and most of evangelical Christianity, the physical death of Christ is the key, fundamental aspect of his substitutionary and atoning work. There is a lamentable failure to see that the passion of Jesus was the visible sign– a fact that I emphasized in the debate with Mr. Schwertley– of the greater spiritual realities. Mr. Schwertley, although he believes that Jesus’ passion was a sign, nonetheless condemned me for arguing this case! With the realization that virtually the entire evangelical world focuses on the physical aspect of Jesus’ death in regard to the atonement and substitutionary death, please take note of what this must mean. This is the fundamental presupposition that almost everyone brings to the debate about the resurrection of the dead as well. Keep thi
s firmly in mind.
Jesus’ death (his physical death) was fully substitutionary, (He died in the place of man. Brian Schwertley, and most if not all of evangelical Christianity).
Jesus died physically, a substitutionary death, so that those in him, and in the power of his substitutionary death, do not have to die.
But, it is true that all men do die physically.
It must be true that Jesus’ substitutionary (physical) death was not efficacious, or,
It must be true that no man to the present moment, has ever entered into Christ and the power of his substitutionary death.
In regard to the atoning work and death of Jesus, notice the following, keeping in mind that, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23– i.e. physical death, per Mr. Schwertley and most evangelicals).
Jesus’ physical death, was to make the atonement, so that those in him, and in the power of his atonement, do not have to pay the penalty of sin, i.e. physical death.
But, it is true that all men do still die physically.
It must be true that Jesus’ atoning (physical) death was not efficacious (did not truly pay the full penalty of sin for those in him), or,
It must be true that no man to the present moment, has ever entered into Christ and the power of his atoning death.
The reader will notice, hopefully, the desperate dichotomy in Mr. Schwertley’s written answers. Note above where he says, "The sting of death has been removed. Death has been conquered. We will rise out of our graves."Notice that Mr. Schwertley has two past tenses and one future,5 but that his use of the tenses reveals his false theology in light of the substitutionary, atoning death of Christ.
Please ask yourself this question, that might seem facetious at first, and yet, it strikes at the heart of the issue: Is there a difference between not dying, and, being raised out of death? The answer is so undeniable as to need no further explanation. This question is intended to alert the reader to the fundamental paradox of the traditional eschatologies in regard to the work of Jesus and the nature of the resurrection.
If Jesus’ physical death is the focus of his atoning, substitutionary work, then patently, one simply cannot argue that although believers are in Christ, and ostensibly recipients of the power of his death, that they still have to experience the very thing that Jesus’ death supposedly delivers them from! If Jesus died in my place, so that I do not have to die, then why do I still have to die, if I accept his sacrifice by faith?
Consider the substitutionary death of Jesus by way of illustration. Imagine if you will a prisoner, guilty of heinous crimes, sentenced to death. However, the father of the guilty party steps forward and offers to die in the place of his criminal son. The governor accepts the offer and allows the father to die in the place of his son. However, the governor then tells the executioner to kill the son as well! Did the father truly die a substitutionary death?6 After all, what does substitutionary mean, anyway? What does dying in the place of someone mean? If those for whom a substitutionary death was offered have to, after all, die, even though they have sought to appropriate the benefit of that death, then irrefutably, the substitutionary death failed.
Likewise, the same applies to the atonement. Remember that the wages of sin is death. Sin brought death in the Garden, death reigned from Adam to Moses (Romans 5:14). Furthermore, "Death passed on all men because all men sin" (Romans 5:12).7 And yet, Christ died to pay the penalty of sin for mankind. "He was made to be sin, for us, he who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). When YHVH saw that man was without strength, unable to save, rescue and redeem himself, God sent His own son and "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6).
And yet, although evangelicals will affirm, with one voice, that Jesus has paid the price for us, they then, likewise with one voice, almost blithely say that all men must die, i.e. pay the penalty for their sin! There is something horribly wrong with this picture! Did Jesus fully pay the penalty for sin, for those in him, or not? Or, did he pay only part of the penalty?
Let me reiterate what would seem to be so clear that it would not be open to debate or controversy. Yet, it seems to be a huge blind spot in evangelical thought. If physical death is the focus of Christ’s substitutionary, atoning death, then the continuing, inescapable reality of physical death, of even the most faithful Christians, demonstrates the utter failure of Jesus’ substitutionary atoning death. Or, it proves beyond doubt that no one has entered into the benefits of his death.
Nor will it do, as noted above, to try to explain this problem away, as Schwertley and most evangelicals do, by saying, "We will rise out of our graves." Having to experience death, and then rising out of the grave, no matter how you want to phrase it, is not the same as not having to die because of Christ’s substitutionary death! It is not the same– not even close– as not having to pay the penalty for sin! According to the traditional paradigm the very existence and experience of physical death is the demonstration of the reality of sin, the undeniable penalty for sin. So, of necessity, in the "orthodox" view of sin and death, the continuance of physical death is proof positive that Christ’s atonement is either unfinished,8 or a failed work.
So, which horn of this dilemma will a person take? Will they say that Christ’s substitutionary death has failed? Will they say that no one has ever truly entered into the power of that death? Will it be said that Christ did not actually pay the full penalty for the sin of man? Will it be claimed that no one has ever entered into the blessings of that atoning death? Why do the most faithful of believers continue to be overcome by the enemy, if Christ has truly died so that they will not have to? Why do faithful children of God9 continue to succumb, without exception, to the enemy, physical death, thus paying the penalty for their own sin?
One of the most fundamental "givens" of evangelical Christianity is that the forgiveness of sin is through faith, and located "in Christ" (Romans 5:1-2). Consider however, the conundrum presented by this "given" in light of the issue of death, the penalty of sin. Let me place my thoughts in simple form:
Physical death is the penalty for sin (Orthodox view of sin and death; Romans 5:12).
But, forgiveness removes and destroys sin.
Therefore, forgiveness of sin removes and destroys physical death.
Now, if sin brings (physical) death, and if forgiveness destroys sin, then patently and irrefutably, the child of God, forgiven of sin through faith and the blood of Christ, should never die biologically!
The normal way that many attempt to address this issue is to say that yes, because of the forgiveness of sin, the believer is now delivered from, and does not have to experience, spiritual death. And ultimately, as the citation of Schwertley above
shows, they believe that man will be delivered out of death, although of course, he will have to experience biological death first. The problem is that this does not address the issue. Jesus said that those who keep his word, "will never see death." (John 8:51; Note also John 11:25f- "Everyone who lives, and believes in me, shall never die."). Here is the promise of "not dying", which is the very thing that the traditional views cannot explain.10
The issue is whether forgiveness is real, objective and belongs to the child of God now. You see, it is the height of inconsistency to say that forgiveness does in fact deliver from spiritual death now, (i.e the child of God does not have to experience spiritual death), but, that although forgiven, the child of God does have to experience physical death, i.e. the penalty for sin! Why does forgiveness eliminate spiritual death for the believer, but, it does not eliminate physical death for the child of God?
There is a related issue here, which we cannot explore in depth, but which needs to be considered. The traditional paradigms insist, of necessity, that man’s biological, physiological make up was altered, transformed and modified the moment he ate the forbidden fruit. Well, if that is actually true, do we not have the right to ask: If man’s physiological substance was altered the very moment he sinned, why is it that man’s physiological substance is not transformed the very moment he comes into Christ and has the forgiveness of sin? Does forgiveness take longer to take effect than sin? Why is it that we are told that forgiveness on a spiritual level is instantaneous, but, forgiveness on a physical level (i.e. deliverance from death) will not take place until who knows when! Very clearly, the relationship between sin-death-forgiveness-life in the traditional view is insufficient.
This relationship between sin-death-life is set forth clearly– although mostly ignored– in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56. The resurrection would be when "the sin" would be finally dealt with. Forgiveness would come to full fruition. Thus, sin, the cause of death, being conquered, life, resurrection life, is the result.
This is no small problem, no insignificant theological issue, no abstract doctrine of little consequence. This issue of physical death strikes at the very heart of the work of Christ and the reality of the forgiveness of sin. If Christ has accomplished what virtually all evangelicals affirm he has, then there is simply no way that Christians should experience physical death. So, the undeniable, empirical, continuing reality of physical death, for even the most faithful of Christians, denies the reality of forgiveness, or, it demonstrates that no one is truly in Christ.
This brings us back to the statement by the minister at the funeral I attended recently, and the prevailing sentiment expressed at most Christian funerals. That is, upon death, the child of God has experienced victory. Yet, as we have seen, given the "orthodox" view of sin, death, and Christ’s substitutionary, atoning death, the physical death of the Christian cannot, in any way whatsoever be consider the Christian’s finest hour.
It is the time when the Christian pays the penalty for their own sin. It is when the enemy snatches them away. It is the time when the reality that they are not forgiven is patently, irrefutably exhibited, for, remember, if there is no sin, (through forgiveness), there should be no death. Yet, this faithful child of God has died, tragically, thus demonstrating that despite their life of service and faith, they were not forgiven after all! They still had to die for their own sin. Christ’s substitutionary death did them no good. His atonement did not pay the penalty for their sin, they died the death of the sinner. They still succumbed to the enemy. But, this is not the Bible story.
BLESSED ARE THE DEAD WHO DIE IN THE LORD
If in fact physical death is the enemy, of even the child of God, then should that concept not be clear in the scriptures? Interestingly, we find no such idea in the Bible. Instead, even in the Old Testament, the faithful realized that in the light of the coming work of the Redeemer, death was not the enemy for those who trusted in YHVH. While many texts could be offered, I would ask that you consider just two or three.
Psalms 116:15 – "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Just ask yourself how this could possibly be true if in fact physical death is the enemy of the child of God. Thus, even under the Old Covenant, there was the realization that death was not the enemy! If the traditional view of death is correct, how could this text make any sense? It would have the saints conquered by the enemy. Nor will it do to say that the author was contemplating the raising of the body out of the ground, for that is nowhere in the text or context.
– "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Just ask yourself how this could possibly be true if in fact physical death is the enemy of the child of God. Thus, even under the Old Covenant, there was the realization that death was not the enemy! If the traditional view of death is correct, how could this text make any sense? It would have the saints conquered by the enemy. Nor will it do to say that the author was contemplating the raising of the body out of the ground, for that is nowhere in the text or context.
Philippians 1:20f – "Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I live on in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which to choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better." (English Standard Version)
– "Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I live on in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which to choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better." (English Standard Version)
Writing in full view of the imminent consummation of the eschatological work of Christ (Philippians 1:6f, see also 2 Timothy 4:6f), Paul could write with full assurance of the transformation that his physical death would bring. It would be the entrance into something "far better" than even the cherished relations that he had with the Philippians! He counted his death as "gain." But, again, how can this be so if physical death is the penalty of sin, the submission to the enemy?
Revelation 14:13 – "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, yea says the Spirit, from henceforth, they shall rest from their labors."
– "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, yea says the Spirit, from henceforth, they shall rest from their labors."
John sees the time of the harvest, at the parousia of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. As a result of that judgment on Babylon, and the parousia, a remarkable thing takes place: physical death continues, but, there is a very pointed, very direct blessing attached to dying "in the Lord."
Do you catch the power of this? We are told by virtually all futurists that physical death is annihilated– it no longer exists after Christ’s coming– because it is the enemy. Yet, here is the promise of Christ’s judgment coming on the clouds at the time of the harvest. And after that event, people keep dying physically! And, there is no curse attached to that death: "Blessed are the dead w
ho die in the Lord!"
If physical death continues after the parousia, it is obvious that human history does not end at Christ’s coming. If physical death continues after the coming of the Lord, it is clear that physical death is not the enemy that is destroyed at the parousia.
It should be clear that for the Bible writers physical death was not considered the enemy. To be sure, the physical pain of that event is never a desired thing. For those under the Old Covenant, without the revelation of "life and immortality" revealed through the gospel, there was a certain amount of uncertainty linked to that event, "If a man die, will he live again?" (Job 14:14).11 Yet, as seen in Psalms 116, and other texts, there was an underlying confidence and trust in the Redeemer to come, who would bless them, even postmortem.12
It seems clear that if the traditional views of death were true, then there should be in scripture a total abhorrence of physical death, a sense of total defeat, of total loss. We should find constant references to the curse of death, hearkening back to the Garden. Yet, we find no such thing. It is true that there is a sense of uncertainty, as discussed above. There was the dread of physical pain, no doubt. There was a sense of finality, of loss of opportunity. There was sadness over loss of familial relationships, no doubt. The "pit" as it is often referred to in the O.T. was viewed negatively because of all of these reasons.
However, shining through all of these perfectly normal human emotions, the one thing we do not see expressed is how death is the enemy of the child of God. On the contrary, we see the confident assertion of the Psalmist: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."
The conclusion in all of this should be very apparent. The traditional views of eschatology, while giving (sincere) lip service to Christ’s substitutionary atoning death, they simply do not address the direct, unavoidable implications of these universally held doctrines. The focus on physical death as the curse of Adam, and the work of Christ has distorted and diverted the true focus and purpose of Christ’s sacrifice, i.e. to restore spiritual fellowship between man and God.
While virtually all commentators acknowledge the spiritual nature of Christ’s work in reconciliation, it becomes almost a, "Yes, but" theology. By that we mean that they say, "Yes, he has redeemed man spiritually, but, the ultimate redemption, the raising of corpses, has not yet been done." When this is done, the spiritual work of Christ becomes diminished, and instead of focusing on, and appreciating that spiritual work, attention is focused on "flesh and blood"– which, Paul affirms, cannot enter the kingdom anyway (1 Corinthians 15:50-51)!
So, what is the truth? Does the physical death of even the most faithful child of God demonstrate their total lack of faith, or the failure of Christ’s atoning, substitutionary death? Does the Christian’s physical death prove that they were not truly forgiven, and have to pay the penalty for their own sins after all?
Or, on the other hand, can we truly say with Paul that death is gain, and "far better"? Can we, will we, say, even as the Old Covenant Psalmist did, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints"? And, do we believe that the Christian’s physical death proves that they are under the Curse of Adam, or, can we triumphantly say, "Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord!"?
The Two Doctrine reality of the modern church is, in many ways, a manifestation of the confused and confusing state of eschatological understanding. On the one hand the reality of Christ’s fulfilled parousia is denied. On the other hand post parousia blessings are pronounced on the faithful dead!
I suggest that those who espouse Covenant Eschatology and understand that the Lord has truly completed his work can say, not only with sincere desire and intent, but, with doctrinal truth, "The death of the Christian is their finest hour!"