Death Theology


The following article addresses the issues of death theology, known to theologians as thanatology. This article will establish two sound guiding principles using relevant data that support a clear and compelling definition of death from the perspective of one educated in pastoral thanatology. The basis of scripture will be founded on two passages from the book Romans and First Corinthians. These two passages, when exegeted correctly, give a solid perspective of biblical thanatology. 

1 Corinthians

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 ESV).[1]

This passage by the Apostle Paul paints a stark theological milieu of how we, as Christians, should view death.

One of the key components of this passage is how Paul uses the term “firstfruits;” an illusion to the Jewish Feast of Firstfruits in Leviticus 23:10. This is meant metaphorically to present Christ’s resurrection as a firstfruit or example of the future resurrection of all believers that he goes on to explain in 1 Corinthians 15:35-57.[2] He is laying the foundation of death overcome by faith in the life and personage of Jesus Christ. Those who follow him in death will undoubtedly follow him in the resurrection. Death then, by proxy, is a discipleship passage into victory. “Christ is the ‛first fruits’ of those who have died (fallen asleep), and as such, guarantees to all who belong to him that they too shall be raised.”[3]

Another key element of this passage is its significance to life after physical death. James Gunn writes:

The subject is not simply “the resurrection,” but “the resurrection of the dead.” That it is “the dead” who are in view is repeated no less than thirteen times in 15:12-52. So clearly what was in dispute was what happened after death and to the dead. This in itself provides a major clarification of the issue at stake, at least to the extent that it shifts the focus away from any thought of resurrection as all ready to be experienced in this life.[4]

This chapter clearly shows Paul’s intent that the church in Corinth, and therefore all believers, should accept the inevitability of physical death while looking hopefully toward the Kingdom of God ushered in by the end of all things.

Paul ends with the destruction of death itself. “So, the English version renders ’Εσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος. Εσχατος is an adjective used for an adverb of time.”[5] It is time itself, which is the main component of death that Jesus destroys, making our resurrected beings eternally in community with the triune Lord.

This passage begins with resurrection as our firstfruits but moves into the culmination and reasoning for death itself. Another way of theorizing it is that death is necessary to usher in the Kingdom of God. Believers need and should welcome, physical death to fully live in the manifested eternal Kingdom of God. Christ initiated it with his firstfruit death and resurrection that will ultimately bring the end of time itself and His eternal reign.

Romans

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 (Romans 5:12-13 ESV).

Here, in Romans, Paul gives two vital points; one is a causal effect, and the other eschatological. We saw the same two parallels in our Corinthians passage. 

Verse twelve shows the comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ. Each brings their causal agent to mankind; Adam brought sin which harbingers in death to all humanity. The keyword here comes: “‘Came’ is diēlthen, literally ‘passed or went through’ or ‘spread through.’ Eisēlthen, ‘entered into’ (the first clause in the verse) means that sin went in the world’s front door (utilizing Adam’s sin); and diēlthen, ‘went through,’ means that death penetrated the entire human race, like a vapor permeating all of a house’s rooms.”[6] When interpreting this passage, the original Greek is important to the hermeneutical conclusions. Adam brought sin which created death. It is our sin, which all men/women are guilty of that causes death, primarily our own, in the world.

Verse thirteen is rather difficult to interpret but stands as another metaphor for Christ’s salvation. Just as sin was in the world before the law, and death due to sin, it could not be measured unto the law before Moses receiving the Law at Sinai. “But technically it was not charged to our account as sin because there was no law to define it. One cannot break a law that does not exist. Nevertheless, death, the consequence of sin, was in effect from Adam until Moses, even for those who did not break a specific command like Adam’s.” [7] It is this type of pattern that Adams stands analogous to the relationship between sin and salvation.[8]

Conclusion

Both passages give a great theological understanding of death and salvation. This is the point, that both are intertwined. It was Adam that ushered in death. All men/women partake in it, but it is Christ that frees us from it. His Kingdom saves us from eternal spiritual death by grace and faith. The decisions we make on earth while alive, as shown by Adam, point to the need for grace and the question of faith. “They are full of hope, but it is a hope that is only made possible through the death and fruitful participation in Christ’s mission in the present.”[9] This participation in Christ’s mission is the entryway into living in the full manifested Kingdom of God at the end of time. 

Bibliography

Anderson, Ray Sherman. Theology, Death, and Dying. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Barry, John D. NIV Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Brown, Paul J. “Bodily Resurrection and Its Significance for Ethics: a Study of 1 Corinthians 15.” Trinity Journal 34, no. 1 (2013): 78–79. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001941100&site=eds-live.

Dunn, James D G. “How Are the Dead Raised? with What Body Do They Come?: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (2002): 4–18. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001499085&site=eds-live.

Fringer, Rob A. “Dying to Be the Church: 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul’s Shocking Revelation about Death and Resurrection.” Evangelical Review of Theology 41, no. 2 (April 2017): 174–84. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn4105519&site=eds-live.

Lang, John Peter. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008.

Mounce, Robert H. The New American Commentary: Romans. Vol. 27. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1995.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck, and John A. Witmer. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. an Exposition of the Scriptures. Vol. 2. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

Footnotes:


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.

[2] John D. Barry, Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 1 Co 15:20.

[3] Ray S. Anderson, Theology, Death and Dying (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 44.

[4] James D G Dunn, “How Are the Dead Raised? with What Body Do They Come?: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (2002): pp. 4-18, https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001499085&site=eds-live.

[5] John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 320.

[6] John A. Witmer, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 458.

[7] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 142–143.

[8] Ibid, 142 – 143.

[9] Rob A Fringer, “Dying to Be the Church: 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul’s Shocking Revelation about Death and Resurrection,” Evangelical Review of Theology 41, no. 2 (April 2017): pp. 174-184, https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn4105519&site=eds-live.

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