Death Does Not Have the Last Word
by R.C. Sproul
The guns of secular naturalism, when aimed at the Christian faith, resemble not so much shotguns as carefully aimed rifles. The chief target of the naturalist is the biblical doctrine of creation. If the doctrine of creation falls, all of Judeo-Christianity falls with it. Every skeptic understands that. Thus the constant shooting at Genesis 1.
But along with the assault against divine creation comes an assault against the biblical teaching of a historical Adam who is involved in a historical fall, the result of which is the entrance of death into the world. If Adam can be confined to the genre of mythology and the fall set aside with him, then we see death as a purely natural phenomenon with no relationship to sin.
Much is at stake with the biblical teaching of the fall because this doctrine is linked to the doctrine of redemption. The historical function of the first Adam is matched and conquered by the historical life of the last Adam, Jesus Christ.
In the eighteenth century, when Jonathan Edwards wrote his lengthy treatise on original sin, he argued not simply from biblical teaching. He also maintained that if the Bible itself were completely silent about a historical fall, natural reason would have to suggest that idea based on the reality of the universal presence of sin. If sin is simply a result of bad decisions that some people make, we would assume that at least 50 percent of the people born in this world would choose the right path rather than the sinful one that is so damaging to our humanity. The fact that 100 percent of the human race falls into sin indicates that there must be an inherent moral defect in the race. Of course, Edwards points to the fall, a historical event, to account for this universal fatal flaw.
In the Genesis account, we are told that the soul that sins will die. In His warning to our original parents with respect to disobedience, God declared that “the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). But the record goes on to say that the day Adam and Eve disobeyed their Maker, they did not experience the fullness of what the Greek translation of the Old Testament calls thanatos—physical death. Because of this, some have argued that the death that God promised was not physical death but rather spiritual death.
To be sure, spiritual death set in the very day that Adam and Eve sinned. But the fact that they did not experience physical death that day was not a result of God being lax regarding His warnings and judgments. Rather, it was a result of God’s tempering His justice with mercy and allowing for the redemption of His fallen creatures, even though Adam and Eve were still ultimately destined to succumb to physical death.
Since the fall, every human being born into this world as a natural son of Adam arrives “DOA.” He is “dead on arrival” in a spiritual sense when he is born. But this spiritual death is not the same as biological death, though biological death is also the inevitable destiny of every sinning person. So, though we arrive “DOA” in a spiritual sense, we nevertheless arrive biologically alive. We live out our days on this planet on death row, living under the burden of the death sentence that is imposed on us for sin.
In Romans 5, Paul links the entrance of death into the world to sin. In verses 12–14 he writes,
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
Later, in verse 17, Paul continues, “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Here Paul is arguing that even though the Mosaic law had not yet appeared on tablets of stone at Mount Sinai, nevertheless God had written His law so indelibly on each human heart that this law was present even before the Ten Commandments. The reason that Paul argues for that reality is because death reigned from Adam until Moses. Since death is the penalty for sin, and sin is defined in terms of transgression of law, the conclusion the apostle stresses is that death came into the world because of the violation of the law of God.
When the contrast between the first Adam and the last Adam, Jesus Christ, is worked out in the New Testament, we see in the work of Christ the conquest over the last enemy — death. The Puritan Divine John Owen wrote a classic book titled The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Owen was saying that, in Christ’s death, He took upon Himself the curse that is inseparably linked to the punitive measure of death itself. Yet for those who put their trust in Christ, that curse is removed, so that now, for all who are in Christ, death is no longer a curse. Its sting has been removed. The mockery of the grave has been silenced and now death is merely a transition from this life to the next. The contrast that is given in the New Testament is not that this life is bad and the next life is good. On the contrary, the apostle Paul says that this life is good, but to die and to be with Christ is better. So death represents for the believer a gain, indeed, an extraordinary gain.
When we close our eyes in death, we do not cease to be alive; rather, we experience a continuation of personal consciousness. No person is more conscious, more aware, and more alert than when he passes through the veil from this world into the next. Far from falling asleep, we are awakened to glory in all of its significance. For the believer, death does not have the last word. Death has surrendered to the conquering power of the One who was resurrected as the firstborn of many brethren.