Why do we have to die?
Most human beings have asked the question. It cuts deep when you are facing a loss, or facing your own mortality. Or when you are a kid, trying to figure out the basics.
Why do we have to die?
The Heidelberg Catechism (that globally and historically popular, but locally and currently ignored, Reformed summary of biblical Christianity that I’ve been blogging on since its 450th anniversary) asks the question directly, but with a slight theological twist.
It comes up partway through the Catechism’s explanation of the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed says Jesus died, and they explain that his death was for us, to save us from condemnation.
So at question 42 they ask,
Q. Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?
Put it that way and it can sound oddly, dryly theoretical.
And the answer may seem simple: Of course we die. All creatures great and small eventually die.
So if it seems like a theoretical query, look deeper; listen to your heart instead of your noggin.
Any Christian who has been around a while has faced the puzzle. It comes across as a paradox really, a seeming contradiction between core teachings and personal experience.
First the teaching: Christ has conquered death.
You hear it most emphatically if you ever attend an Orthodox church in the season of Easter:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
You sing it about a thousand times, actually.
Scripture is no less insistent on the point:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-57 NRSV)
Second, the experience: death happens
Everyone who has lost a loved one or faces a terminal diagnosis hears that teaching and cries out,
Death stings right here. It stings a lot, actually.
It feels very much like death has had the victory.
But seeing and feeling the paradox doesn’t usually mean we have lost our faith. It means we have a puzzle to solve on our way back to stronger faith and joy.
Is Death Conquered?
The Catechism doesn’t dive into the existential crisis, the emotional black hole of death.
Maybe that’s a fault, I don’t know. Does any doctrinal statement of any denomination?
Instead our Reformed theologians of 1563, concerned as they are with how Christian teaching is helpful to us, comforting, and encouraging at every turn, keep their theological focus on the purpose of Christ’s death:
A. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life.
From the Catechism’s perspective, the ultimate problem for us all is sin.
We’ve gone the wrong way in God’s world. We need God’s forgiveness. Our death does not solve that ultimate problem.
Christ’s death did that — which opened the door to eternal life for us.
But the whole world still deals with the consequences of humanity’s sin.
The consequence is, first, death itself. Death is what God said would happen if humanity made the wrong choice (Genesis 2:16-17). We all still face it.
And so we die, as part of fallen creation — and you might say we can’t actually step through the door Christ’s death opens until our own death comes.
But the second consequence of humanity’s sin is our brokenness — our deep-rooted tendency to make more bad choices.
If this life didn’t end, neither would our string of bad choices. As Christians we struggle with our lack of holiness, our continual need to ask forgiveness. Death breaks the cycle with the transformation we long for.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on why we have to die, or on the Catechism’s answer to the question. Please leave a comment!
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