Well, here’s a bit of a dicey if not morbid topic. I bring it up because I find there is a tendency when Christians learn that another Christian has died, to have a celebratory response to death. Why? Because that saint has gone home to be with the Lord, which is a widely expressed statement regarding death of a Christian.
However, in consideration of the overall context of death, I’ve actually begun to question the appropriateness of it’s celebration. In fact, I think it may not be appropriate at all. I hate to rain on this popularly held parade but I believe it’s important to see the whole picture. We must have a holistic perspective of death.
One one hand, there does appear to be scriptural support for celebration. One of the main text that supports this joy is found in 2 Corinthians 5:8, where Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” There’s also Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:21-23;
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. And if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet, what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two. I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
Well, before get too excited about these passages, there’s some other factors to consider as it doesn’t really provide a complete picture. Regarding this statement specifically, note what he is comparing – living in the pains of this world vs being with Christ. He is not so much rejoicing in death, but indicating that to be with Christ is better.
Also, we must account for the fact that death does something grievous to our body. As I wrote about here, we are whole people and death impacts us in ways that should not be celebrated. For the sake of brevity of this post, I won’t go into details of why I believe the scriptural support for dichotomy view of humanity, meaning that we are made up of material (body) and immaterial (heart, mind, conscious). Death literally rips us in two. It sends our bodies to the ground and our soul to be with Lord.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Aside from the fact, that it has dismantled God’s creation, it is incomplete. That person who died may be with the Lord, but in a state that is not yet finished. Consider what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5
For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in , is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens. For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed, after we put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked. For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
It might appear that he is referring to a comparison between our earthly existence now and what happens after death. And certainly, the context of the passage relates to the comfort to be received regarding an eternity with Christ. Again, it is a contrast to present earthly circumstances. But I think we have to turn to Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 to understand that the clothing and heavenly dwelling he refers to in this passage is our resurrected bodies. In the meantime, the temporary state of the body is naked and longs to be clothed.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul lays out the case for the resurrection. It is a common practice to look to this chapter as support for Jesus’ resurrection and indeed it does. But notice, it doesn’t stop there. Paul indicates that Jesus is the first fruits among the brethren (vs 20). The point is not just Jesus’ resurrection, but the bodily resurrection of believers at Christ’s return. In vv 35-53, Paul makes a case for the bodily resurrection and it’s significance. The rejoining of a new body with the soul completes us.
The comparison between what happened as a result of the first Adam and the last Adam (Christ) is fairly important in the valuation of death (vv 21-23). Notice in vv 24-28 that he says when Christ comes and hands the kingdom over to the Father, the final enemy that will be destroyed is death. It is pretty significant that Paul refers to death as an enemy. But death gets swallowed up after we get new imperishable bodies (vv 50-54). Until then, death has a sting! And he goes on to say, “the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law” (vs 56). Cross referencing this with Romans 5:12-21, death is representative of sin that entered the world through one man.
Death is bad. Sin is bad. It reminds us that something terrible went wrong in Genesis 3. Jesus will conquer death and we’ll be made whole. But until then, it makes a detrimental mark. And it seems to me that if you rejoice over death, you are also rejoicing over the fall and what death represents. That is definitely not a good thing. Here’s a good article on the subject as well.
So putting this altogether, what should the Christian response to death be? On one hand, the saint who dies does go to be with the Lord, though in an incomplete state. On the other hand, I think the evidence supports that rejoicing over death itself is not be appropriate. We should not call death a blessing or a gift or applaud it. We should however, take comfort in the fact that when one of God’s people dies, there is a presence before the Lord.
So what does that mean in practical terms? Commemorate the person’s life. Give glorious tributes. Rejoice that they lived. But do not celebrate their death. Death is an enemy that reminds us of the persistent reality of the fall. Death should be mourned. But it should also provide us with opportunity to reflect on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, that one day we will be transformed, made whole and spend eternity with the Savior.