We all know the old saying: “There is nothing more certain in life than death and taxes.” Reflecting on this adage, the popular view is that taxes are always with us, but death is in the future, something we anticipate unfavorably at some point up the way. As to what physical death brings, there is a basic divergence of belief. The naturalistic view is that human beings are merely biological creatures and physical death marks the end of one’s existence. In death, you are no more. The old beer commercial expressed a sentiment flowing from this view: “You only go around once in life so grab for all the gusto you can.” Another in the same vein is the familiar advice: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
Christianity is not sympathetic with this view. It regards human existence as forever. Life has a beginning at conception but has no end. Physical death is just a passage to another realm of existence beyond the grave. That existence may be quite wonderful or a real nightmare depending on how you relate to your maker, the author of life and death. While understanding your tax burden can sometimes be difficult to determine, the Scriptures are quite clear about our death burden which is understood in a two-fold sense.
Yes, they use the term “death” in the popular sense of the cessation of physical life as in the report, “Joseph died, being 110 years” (Gen 50:26). As a judgment on Adam’s sin, God cursed the ground and all that comes from it. As our bodies come from the ground, so they shall return (Gen 3:17, 19). Moreover, the curse of the ground has brought toil, tears, and hardship to our temporal existence. Our days in this fallen world are numbered by the author of life and death. He gives life, and he takes it away (Job 1:21). This is both a judgment of sin and an act of mercy by our Creator and Redeemer. We do not have to endure the pain and suffering of this fallen existence forever, just for a little while.
Using a more profound sense of the term, death, God warned Adam that in the day that he should eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die (Genesis 2:17). His wife received this warning also, and we know the tragic story. At the devil's suggestion (through the serpent), Eve chose to believe (falsely) that she could become like God; self-governed and in control of her own existence (Gen 3:5-6a). No longer trusting God, her depraved desire longed to be the master of her own life. Motivated by this rebellious and perverted goal, she ate of the forbidden fruit. Notice how her fall into sin did not begin with external behavior. It began in her mind and heart. Her corrupted beliefs, desires, and then motives led to her sinful external behavior. Eve's death to sin was caused by her rebellion against God and distrust of his word and these realities occurred before she ever got to the tree.
Adam acted on his own lack of trust and idolatry as he joined in Eve's rebellion. From Eve’s disobedience, he could stand with God or his wife, but not both. Adam refused to trust in God, and in rebellion he chose to make his wife his ultimate concern. From that idolatrous commitment, he also partook of the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6b). Their rebellion and lack of faith corrupted the spiritual and personal dimensions of their human nature resulting in the destruction of their original righteousness. In other words, they died, and the term “death” describes the condition of being unrighteous and alienated from our Maker.
The Apostle Paul explained the dire consequences of Adam’s fall to the Romans in this way: “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” (Rom 5:12). This means that the root of sin is death and it now reigns in all descended from Adam. Consequently, all born of Adam are under God’s condemnation (Rom 5:17-18, 21). All have inherited death from the moment of our conception (Ps 51:5). This means that we sin because we are sinners, not the other way around. From the fall of Adam, humans have been brought into the world with a compulsive rebellion against God. We would love and trust any other person or thing in life but him for our own well-being.
Our inherited dead condition is characterized by alienation, loneliness, moral and spiritual bankruptcy, loss of identity, and meaningless existence. Luther described this as a bondage to sin that includes an imprisoned slavish love of ourselves. This does not mean that we cannot love others or do anything right. Rather again as Luther emphasized in his catechisms, it means that we are incapable of ordering our life and our loves around an all-embracing fear, love, and trust in God. Our loves have become disordered and flow from selfish human pride that places the self at the center of reality. Distorted love and sinful pride have imprisoned us in death.
The good news is that in this deeper sense of death, the Scriptures declare that Jesus died for our sins. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), meaning separation and alienation from God. This is what Jesus experienced on the cross around the ninth hour when he quoted Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27:46). Again the Apostle Paul explained, “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). As Augustine commented on Psalm 51:1 (WSA III/17, p. 14): “For in dying Christ became death's slayer, and death died in him rather than he in death.”
Out of the death that Jesus died to sin, we have received life by faith in him. Life, in this sense, means a restored loving fellowship with our maker and redeemer. The Apostle John declared: “He who has the Son has life, he who does not have the son does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
About our death problem we can lament with the apostle Paul: “Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver us from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). But then we can also rejoice with him: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!...There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 7:25a, 8:1). So, about our death problem, we can either die to sin with the crucified Christ in our baptism (Rom 6: 3-11) and live, or we can just die. There is no other choice and of that we can be certain.