An excellent article. I highly recommend this.
By Joe McKeever
“Who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
You are going to love this.
If death has been abolished, then to most of us, what we have seems to be a “dead man walking.” The corpse appears to be very much alive and well, this grim reaper who persists in continuing to mow down a fair to middlin’ number of victims every day.
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” said Paul in I Corinthians 15:26.
So, has death been abolished or not?
I’m indebted to a couple of old books for some insights worth their weight in gold. One is a biography of J. B. Phillips and the other is a quote from a book Mr. Phillips wrote.
J. B. Phillips (1906-1982) was an Anglican pastor and scholar, who during World War II began translating Paul’s epistles into everyday language for the young people with whom he was working. “Letters to Young Churches” was eventually published to great acclaim, encouraging Phillips to give the same treatment to the whole of the New Testament. The result was the wildly successful “New Testament in Modern English,” popularly known as the “Phillips New Testament.” This was followed by a dozen or more books, several becoming best-sellers. (Phillips was also a friend of C. S. Lewis, who encouraged him in his translations and writings.)
In a followup article on this website, we will share the story of Phillips’ lifelong battle with depression, an essential part of his story. To modern readers–that is, contemporary Christians–the wonderful thing is that God both used him in spite of his suffering and used the suffering to refine him. The result was a life of fruitfulness which continues to this day, long after he has left us.
In his book “Your God is Too Small,” written when his fame was at its height and his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic seemed boundless, Phillips talks about Second Timothy 2:10, God having “abolished death.”
His insights are treasures.
Christ taught an astonishing thing about death, Phillips said, “…not merely that it is an experience robbed of its terror, but that as an experience it does not exist at all. For some reason or other Christ’s words (which Heaven knows are taken literally enough when men are trying to prove a point about pacifism or divorce, for example) are taken with more than a pinch of salt when He talks about the common experience of death as it affects the man whose basic trust is in Himself: “If a man keep my saying he shall never see death” (John 8:51); “Whosoever liveth and believeth on Me shall never die” (John 11:26). It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the meaning that Christ intended to convey was that death was a completely negligible experience to the man who had already begun to live life of the eternal quality.”
Good stuff? Wait. It gets better. He continues:
“‘Jesus Christ abolished death,’ wrote Paul many years ago, but there have been very few since his day who appear to have believed it. The power of the dark old god, rooted no doubt in instinctive fear, is hard to shake, and a great many Christian writers, though possessing the brightest hopes of ‘Life Hereafter’ cannot, it seems, accept the abolition of death. ‘The valley of the shadow,’ ‘Death’s gloomy portal,’ ‘the bitter pains of death,’ and a thousand other expressions all bear witness to the fact that a vast number of Christians do not really believe what Christ said.”
“Probably the greatest offender is John Bunyan, writing in his Pilgrim’s Progress of the icy river through which the pilgrims must pass before they reach the Celestial City. Thousands, possibly millions, must have been influenced in their impressionable years by reading Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet the “icy river” is entirely a product of Bunyan’s own fears, and the New Testament will be searched in vain for the slightest endorsement of his idea.”
“To ‘sleep in Christ,’ ‘to depart and be with Christ,’ ‘to fall asleep’–these are the expressions the New Testament uses. It is high time the ‘icy river,’ ‘the gloomy portal,’ ‘the bitter pains,’ and all the rest of the melancholy images were brought face to face with the fact: “Jesus Christ hath abolished death.’”
All right. I’m going to interrupt–and return to it momentarily–to insert Phillips’ own experience early in his life. In the biography, “The Wounded Healer” (written by Phillips’ widow Vera and a friend Edwin Robinson two years after his death) we are told of a dream about which Phillips wrote in his own autobiography called “The Price of Success.” He had had major surgery from which he barely survived. The dream came as he was hovering between life and death.
In the dream, the young J. B. Phillips is trudging through this world with all its filth and rubbish. In the distance he could see the glorious beauty of a celestial world and he longed to go there. However, a valley lay in front of him. As he rushed toward the beautiful vision in the distance, he came to a narrow stream, which represented death. “It was spanned by a bridge which was guarded by a kindly figure who shook his head and sent him back to the world that disgusted him. He woke in tears to be told that he would live.”
(A note from Joe: We are well cautioned not to build our theology or base our hopes on anyone’s dreams, no matter how inspiring. However, we can see why Phillips would prefer his vision of death’s “narrow stream guarded by a kindly figure” to that of Bunyan’s fearsome “icy river.” So do we!)
Back to the passage from “Your God is Too Small”….
“The fact (that Christ has abolished death) seems to many to be too good to be true. But if it does seem so, it is because we have not really accepted the revolutionary character of God’s personal entry into the world. Once it dawns upon us that God (incredible as it may well sound) has actually identified Himself with Man, that He has taken the initiative in effecting the necessary Reconciliation of Man with Himself, and has shown the way by which little human personalities can begin to embark on that immense adventure of Living of which God is the Centre, death–the discarding of a temporary machine adapted only for a temporary stage–may begin to seem negligible.”
On the other hand, Phillips addresses those people who refuse to trust in Christ. “There is no brightly cheerful note in either the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament for those whose real inward trust is in their own capabilities or in the schemes and values of the present world-system. It is (as St. Paul insists almost ad nauseam) only “in” Christ, “in” the Representative Man who was also God, that death can be safely ignored and “Heaven” confidently welcomed. We have no reason to suppose that death is anything but a disaster to those who have no grip on the timeless Life of God.”
Wow. Powerful stuff.
Earlier in this segment, Mr. Phillips spoke of Jesus as being “The Focused God.”
In order for we humans to be able to comprehend the infinite God of unlimited dimensions, Phillips says, “There must obviously be an almost unbelievable ‘scaling-down’ of the ‘size’ of God to match the life of the planet….” The result was Jesus Christ. “God was in Christ. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” “All the deity of God dwells in Him.”
That’s why the life and then the death of Jesus on Calvary packed the power that it did. This One was God in the flesh (see John 1:14).
This is why His resurrection from the dead has such significance to us today: a) He is still alive and still around, and b) because He lives, we too shall live.
You smiling yet? I cannot wipe the smirk off my face. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Where indeed!
From here on in, child of God and believer in Jesus Christ, the news is all good. Lift up your head and rejoice!
We’re going to Heaven!
Joe McKeever is retired missions director for the New Orleans Baptist Association. Before that Mr. McKeever pastored churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.