Death, which in recent generations was 'the unmentionable subject' has, since the advent of the pandemic, reverted to being a normal topic of conversation. The reality of death as an ever-present part of our earthly experience has recalibrated Western minds to a more realistic understanding of our humanness. For many, particularly those who do not know Christ, it is a subject fraught with deep sadness, despair and hopelessness, although some welcome it as a release from suffering. The Old Testament teaches that suffering is usually the painful result of sin, whether Satan's activities since the Fall or a divine punishment for an individual, a community or a country.
But is God Himself able to suffer? Is He moved by human suffering? Theologians and philosophers have grappled with these questions for centuries. The general consensus was that, although God was loving, compassionate and actively intervening to relieve suffering, He Himself could feel no pain or sorrow because verses in both the Old and New Testaments tell us that He remains the same: He does not change. Two events contradict this, one being when Jesus wept after seeing Mary and the Jews that were with her weeping at the death of Lazarus (John 11:33-35). On the cross, the dying Jesus suffered the agony of abandonment by His Father, and the Father suffered grief for the death of His Son. But they were still united in their love for each other, a love that reaches out to godforsaken humankind.
For Christians, thoughts of death are thoughts of joyous expectation of our entrance into a new, better and fuller life, where there will be no pain or sorrow. At least that is what it should be. A committed Christian, however, once made the remark that she did not want to die until she had experienced life on earth to the full and enjoyed all it could offer. For that Christian heaven, appeared to have little attraction and was relegated to as far in the future as possible. Another committed Christian seemed to view death with tremendous foreboding, whether his own death or that of his loved ones. He appeared to be deeply afraid of being left grieving alone on earth: that he would grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. Is that how followers of the Lord Jesus should think?
Each year we mark not just the crucifixion but also the resurrection of Jesus as we celebrate His victory over death on the first day of Easter. His bodily resurrection from the grave is the heart of our faith. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers about four articles of faith which were of “first importance” – that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, that He was raised, and that He appeared in resurrection to many people on many occasions (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). This is the Gospel by which we are saved.
Paul goes on to write of the importance of Christ's real bodily resurrection. Amongst the early Christians there were those who had a Jewish cultural background and those who had a Greek cultural background. The Old Testament says little about life after death, but sometimes mentions Sheol as the place where the dead went to continue a weak and shadowy existence cut off from the living and from God. And although some Jewish scholars, including the Pharisees, believed in some kind of life after death, the Sadducees denied it completely. The Greeks feared death but believed in the immortality of the soul: the evil and burdensome body they neither wanted nor expected to have in the next life.
So, the teaching that Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15 is radically different from anything that the early converts to Christianity had believed before they knew the Lord, for this great chapter is all about the resurrection of the body – Christ's body and our body. This is the Christian hope! Since the resurrection death has no more dominion over Christ (Romans 6:9). We are united with Him in His resurrection, and therefore death has no dominion over us either. Death has been swallowed up in victory – it has lost its sting!
We are, therefore, a people of hope. Jesus has triumphed over sin and death and we who believe and trust in Him can look forward to our new spiritual resurrection bodies. In verses 39-44 we read: “All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”