This may be a topic only for “dark Lutherans,” but if you’re not, you might still benefit from a little cogitation. If you never really think about death, can you ever really think about life?
We distinguish three kinds of death that the Bible mentions: temporal, eternal, and spiritual. We often generalize by saying that the fruit of sin is death, pure and simple. That remains true, but we can carry the distinction between the types of death a bit farther.
Strictly speaking, death is a separation from God, our Creator and the source of all life. God told Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or he would die. When would he die? That same day. That was the consequence of disobedience.
Today, most people are concerned about dying. We have insurance for it, insurance to help delay it, and whole industries that promise various ways you can hold death at bay. For a while. But everyone dies eventually. I think that people realize this deep down, and it’s something we all have to reckon with.
But the death that occupies so much of our thought is not the same as the death that Adam earned by disobeying God. They are different, and I can prove it two ways. First, Adam did not physically die the same day he disobeyed God. Second, God did not impose physical death upon Adam until after several other things happened.
So was God wrong in His prediction that Adam would die the same day? No. Adam died when he disobeyed God, but he died spiritually, not physically. When God found Adam trying to hide from Him in the garden (with Eve, who was instrumental in this whole process), Adam was already dead: spiritually dead. But when God promised a Savior as He spoke to the serpent, Adam and Eve believed Him. God’s promise was all that was needed, because of the power inherent within it. (Hebrews 4:12, Romans 1:16) So Adam was alive, then spiritually dead, and then… alive again when he believed the promise. Only then did God explain the consequences of having introduced sin into the world. Physical death was one such consequence.
Yet in the context of the other consequences of sin (see Genesis 3:16-19), physical death does not seem like a punishment. It has been called a chastisement instead, because the punishment for our sins has fallen upon Jesus, but consider again the contrast between life on earth after sin and life in paradise. If you were immortal Adam, hearing that you were beginning a life of toil, pain, sorrow and suffering, you would be delighted to discover that you were no longer immortal. Physical death is a one-way escape from a world of hurt. God designed it that way.
Unfortunately, some people do not trust God’s promise and mercy in Jesus Christ. It is not surprising, that the sinful world becomes such a burden that they want to leave it behind. After all, Christians feel the same way. But like Jesus Christ, Christians know they have a cross to bear before they leave. Jesus prayed in another garden that His burden might be taken away from Him. The bulk of His great burden was not physical death itself, but something far worse. Jesus’ special task was to endure a kind of death I haven’t mentioned yet, which we call eternal death. We call it eternal, because that is how long it lasts for someone spiritually dead: for eternity. (See 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9) Eternal death is the consequence when anyone (physically) dies who is already in spiritual death. So those who try to escape the burdens of this sinful world by taking their own life will find that they have jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
It is particularly sad when someone enters eternal death under any circumstances, because it is entirely avoidable — though not by anything we can do. The task of Jesus, to suffer eternal death, made Him a substitute for every sinner in the world, from Adam and Eve onward. He was forsaken by God the Father, though not for any sins of His own. Jesus Christ endured the torture of hell in our place. It was His suffering that satisfied God’s perfect justice on our account, making possible our forgiveness. The Son of God was utterly forsaken as a condemned sinner, because God’s justice and His love for us demanded it. Now, the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ has the same power as God’s promise to Adam and Eve. It is the same message.
Can we be sure that the forgiveness is real? Can we be sure that we have spiritual life now, that will continue beyond the grave? Yes. We can be sure precisely because Jesus Christ did not remain dead. He rose bodily from the grave, and ascended to reign over all things until the time comes for the world to end. Jesus’ physical resurrection is a fact. If it were not, His many enemies and detractors would have found His remains or other suitable proof of His death. But He has no remains, because His body is still living. That’s why we celebrate Easter every year, and every Sunday. Spiritual death is defeated, because faith in Jesus Christ provides us with spiritual life. Eternal death is defeated for the same reason. All that remains is physical death, but even that is not a curse or a punishment, but the beginning of everlasting life for all who trust in God’s promise.