This is the second article in a series about how to think about death. Read the first.
Seeing the body of someone you love lying lifeless and cold in a coffin is sad, confusing, and, let’s be honest, extremely disturbing. In spite of our culture’s obsession with violence, and the fact that we’ve all seen our fair share of dead and mangled bodies on screen, we are remarkably ill-equipped to deal with actual death.
When someone dies, we get a little time to observe what death has done to a person. But then, after the ceremony, make-up and flowers, death really goes to work. The body goes down into the earth, and we all know what happens there. But even the scariest horror film cannot portray the abominable corruption that takes place in the grave.
The Bible is completely honest about death. The Bible does not cover dead faces with make-up, and it doesn’t fail to remind us of what death does to our bodies when they are in the ground. The Bible looks death in the face, because its central message from start to finish is that Christ has done something about it.
Though it’s hard to think about what’s happening under the ground after you’ve buried someone you love, there is gospel truth down there under all that dirt. Here’s what to think about the body in the grave:
This is the hardest part about death: worms. Rot. Stench. Darkness. Horror. I don’t want to think of the faces of people I love that way. It takes gospel faith to consider the full extent of death’s perverse effects on our bodies. Most people would rather remember what their loved ones’ faces looked like when they were alive. But the Bible invites us, instead, to imagine what their faces will look like when they’re raised. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). There was life in the past, yes, but there is greater and more glorious life in the future after death—radiant, physical, eternal life.
There’s something profoundly tragic about the fact that our bodies go back into the dust when they die (Gen 3:19; Eccl 3:19-20). But even the dust itself groans for the resurrection that will raise the sons of God (Rom 8:19-21). Why? Because the creation—particularly the earth in which the dead are buried—was designed to sustain, by God’s provision, the physical life of man (Gen 1:29-30). The dust does not want to keep us; the earth, designed to sustain life, takes no delight in digesting man’s flesh in death. It wants to give him up to Christ—to see him stand again on the earth and reign in righteousness over the creation forever with Christ in perpetual life.
Psalm 139:8 tells us that God is there with us even in death—not just in heaven (as we are accustomed to thinking), but also in the grave—in Sheol, where our precious bodies are buried, awaiting Jesus’ return. David also says, “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps 16:10). This verse, fulfilled in Christ (Acts 2:30-32), was no less of a reality for David, whose bones and life are the possession of his redeemer.
Make no mistake: God’s not done with that body in the grave. He purchased it with his blood, and he’s coming back for it. Until it is standing again on the earth in the presence of God, looking at him with physical eyes in redeemed flesh (Job 19:25-26), God’s work isn’t finished. Believer, the logic of the gospel demands that you build this into your surest expectation. To believe that Christ died and rose again without believing that the Christian in the grave who died will, in like form, rise again is to truncate the gospel in the most catastrophic way. Whatever is true of Christ is also true for those who are in Christ. Jesus was not given a ‘new’ body; his earthly body was made new (John 20:25, 27). Is he alive in his flesh or not? Has God actually destroyed his enemies or not? Then you too will be raised.
Whatever we know to be true of Christ as a risen, eternal man is what will be true of the body in the grave when it is raised in Christ (1 Cor 15:48-49). On the one hand, Christ ate, and could be touched, heard and seen (John 20:27, Luke 24:31-32, 41-43), proving that he was made of matter; our bodies, like his, will be every bit as physical. On the other hand, his body is not natural, but spiritual—Holy Spiritual (1 Cor 15:44). It’s not from the earth; it’s from heaven (1 Cor 15:42-47). Jesus’ body could pass through doors and disappear without warning (John 20:26, Luke 24:31). In perhaps the same way, our risen bodies will be imperishable and undying—but also physical. This is what we are commanded to hope for (1 John 3:2-3).
Don’t leave your own thoughts about the grave up to Hollywood’s imagination. The Bible has truth and good news for you, if you are willing to consider the decay and corruption that death does in the body of a believer in the dust of the earth. Pry your hands off your mind’s eye for a few moments and embrace, against the horror of death, what Christ has accomplished for those who are his!