Mick asked a question recently that sparked some deep thinking in me. His question?
“I have wrestled with a number of paradoxical questions over the years. The one I was trying (albeit badly) to pose you with was the apparent inconsistency of Christians (and others), who claim to believe in paradise and eternity, using death as a punishment. Surely, sending someone to paradise is a blessing, and so, no punishment at all? “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible world”.
My initial response was,
“In orthodox Christian theology Heaven is not the only possible destination after death. The Bible teaches an eternal Heaven and an eternal Hell. The end of all death is not Heaven. Further the destination is not determined by good works or evil works as though God is keeping a tally but according to faith in the power of God to forgive and expunge our evil works as we admit them and turn our hearts from them towards him. The point of Jesus’ death in Christian theology is that He took our punishment on the cross. He was the fulfillment of Isaiah 53.”
But it strikes me that Mick’s question goes even deeper, to the nature of death itself. Is death a punishment or is it a gift?
Well to answer that we have to look at both the beginning and the end of The Book of Answers, The Bible.
Let’s start at the very beginning. You may remember the history of Eden. Adam and Eve were placed in the garden to tend it. They were told they could eat from every tree in the garden (including the tree of life mind you) except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of that tree God said, ” when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Ge. 2:17
This verse, coupled with the fact that Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from the tree of life, indicates that death was not God’s plan for mankind in the beginning. The only way death would have become possible was if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course we know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve did the one thing God said would bring death.
In Genesis 3 God pronounces his judgment, “By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Ge. 3:19
Here death is clearly a punishment brought upon mankind for Adam’s sin. But death was only the result. Paul explains the real power behind death when he writes these words to the Roman church,
“…sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—” Ro. 5:12
And again he writes, “ For the wages of sin is death” Ro. 6:23
Honestly though, the news is far worse than this. Death in biblical terms was not just the dying of the body and then an eternity in the presence of the angels frolicking in Elysian fields. Death was separation from God and goodness in an eternity of Hell.
The writer to the Hebrews says it this way, 26Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. 27There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies. 28For anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. Heb. 10:26-29
Yes death is a punishment BUT IT HAS ALSO BECOME SOMETHING MORE.
If the Bible was all bad news no one would read it. But truthfully while the Bible does deliver bad news, there is far more good news in its pages.
Death is punishment. Death is trouble, but God in His mercy has actually taken the judgment and made it into a potential blessing for those who walk in faith towards Him.
Paul explains this in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes,
So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back…..
35 But someone may ask, “How will the dead be raised? What kind of bodies will they have?” 36 What a foolish question! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” I Cor. 15:21-58
So what we see is this; the very punishment mankind chose in the beginning has been turned into a pathway to eternity with God through the work of Jesus Christ. The good news is that Jesus has chosen to help us. Our work as Christians is to accept that help. As Paul says,
“If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. ” Romans 10:9,10
This has been a very long answer but I hope it helps. I invite questions.