Who are we in light of death?
Today, we continue our study of death based on the book, Remember Death, by Matthew McCullough. If you will, go with me to Genesis 1. While I was tempted to read the entire chapter, I think I’ll read only portions of it, starting at verse 1.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:1-10)
This pattern continues through the remainder of creation. God speaks, it happens, and God declares it good. Let’s skip down to verse 26.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:26-31)
The struggle of identity
One of the great struggles of humanity has been understanding our identities. Who are we in the grand scheme of things? On the one hand, we appear to be like nothing else we can observe in the universe. We are unique. We have a level of consciousness and self-awareness that no other creature can rival. We have superior intelligence and creativity. On the other hand, as many secularists have asserted, perhaps human beings are little more than evolved clumps of cells made from stardust.
Regardless of one’s view, science is science. Facts are facts. While no one has been able to definitively prove evolution, one thing remains certain. We can observe it. We can replicate it. Beyond all reasonable doubt, the science says we will die. Eventually, every last person will breathe his or her last breath. Eventually, every heart will stop beating.
Where does this leave humanity in our search for identity? Even someone who holds a secular worldview instinctively knows human beings are special. We do not treat rocks, trees, or insects the same way we treat human beings. We naturally understand human beings do not belong in the same category. We are, in fact, elevated above the rocks, trees, and insects. There’s just one glaring problem.
Here’s Solomon’s commentary on the matter in Ecclesiastes 3:
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. (Ecclesiastes 3:19, 20)
The reality of death creates undeniable tension for us. Even a staunch atheist wants to believe we are unique, elevated above the animals and everything else in the natural universe, but death stands in the way. How can we claim to be special when the fate of man is no different than the fate of animals or any other living creature?
Their memory is forgotten
Let’s take this concept down to a personal level. I want you to imagine you’ve died. A week or so has passed since your funeral. Close your eyes, literally or figuratively, and envision the world without you. What do you see?
Chances are, you see family and friends grieving. You see your spouse desperately trying to adjust to life without you. You see people visiting your grave. You see people listening to old voicemails you left them over and over again. You see them staring at your picture with tears in their eyes. Maybe you see people erecting monuments in your memory or naming buildings after you. If so, I can probably recommend a few good books on humility.
Regardless of what you envision, it’s an interesting exercise, which I’m about to ruin for you. Whatever you think may happen following your death, it probably borders on narcissism. Go back to that mental picture you created. Who’s the main character in the story? You are. Even after we’re gone, we struggle to imagine a world without us at the center of it.
By a show of hands, how many of you can tell me the full names of your great-grandparents?
The world has a short memory. Most people are forgotten within a just a few generations. Even if you happen to be someone in whom’s memory monuments are erected, those monuments are just as perishable as we are. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes observes:
I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who grew up to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:15, 16)
One could be the king of a great nation, but he’ll still be forgotten, which rules out any vain notion that we can achieve a semblance of immortality if only we secure our place in history. If only we make a name for ourselves while we’re still here, perhaps we can live forever through our legacy. Solomon disagrees. Ecclesiastes 9 says:
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6)
In other words, achieving immortality through the legacy we leave behind is not immortality. “The memory of them is forgotten,” Solomon says. “Plus, they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecc 9:5, 6). Even if people erect monuments in our memory and celebrate us when we’re gone, we won’t be here to witness it.
Who are we?
This is the tension death imposes on us. When we consider humanity in a broad sense, our gut tells us that human beings have greater value in the universe than any other creature, but death seems to call that notion into question. If we return to the dust just like the animals, how can we suggest we have more value?
And when we consider humanity at a personal level, we’re prone to think of ourselves as the main character in the story of the universe, but death proves we’re not. Solomon says, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecc 1:11). The world moves on without us. It doesn’t implode because we’re no longer here to be its center.
So, who are we? In light of death, who are we? Are we significant? Do we have the value we naturally feel we have? Or, are we merely an insignificant speck in the universe, no better than a goldfish we flush down the toilet? As one author writes, “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”
Who are we? And what are the implications of our true identities?
Let’s consider what the creation story teaches us about ourselves.
In the beginning, God created (Ge 1:1). If you’re taking notes, you may want to print that point boldly. Natural creation is not the result of a cosmic accident. The dilemma we face as mortal beings cannot be resolved until we understand and accept the world as God’s intentional design and creation. That is why Solomon’s primary message in Ecclesiastes to potentially secular-minded people is, “Remember your Creator” (Ecc 12:1). Life can have no meaning apart from God. Without God, we have no reason to think we have value. Without God, we’re just goldfish waiting to be flushed.
When I was living in North Carolina, I bought copies of John’s Gospel by the case and would leave stacks of them in various public places. On the inside cover, I would write:
I cannot make sense of the world or life itself apart from a sovereign Creator, who providentially rules the universe according to a wise, benevolent plan. If this God exists, it seems to me the most important pursuit of our lives is learning everything we can about him and his will. Perhaps this book will be a starting place for you.
Then, I would sign my name and offer my email address.
It’s been years since I left copies of John’s Gospel anywhere, but I recently received an email from a young man who found and kept one. He told me how he got stuck on that first line—“I cannot make sense of the world apart from a sovereign Creator.” The more he thought about it, he said, he couldn’t make sense of the world either. Then, after reading and meditating upon the book of John for the better part of three years, he finally reached the conclusion that God must exist. He could see no other possibility.
This young man is right. There is no other possibility. In the beginning, God created (Ge 1:1). Keep that in mind as we continue. All of creation flows from God and his purpose.
Let us make man in our image
The second thing to notice in the creation story is the pattern followed by an aberration of that pattern. What’s the pattern? God said, and it was so (Ge 1:3, 7). This is the pattern through the first five days of creation. God speaks, and the next part of creation is formed, but things are a little different on the sixth and final day. Glance down at verse 26.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
As God prepares to speak his final part of creation into existence, the text reads as though he pauses for just a moment to address, I believe, the other members of the Trinity. Rather than “God said, and it was so,” it is “God said, ‘Let us make man’” (Ge 1:3, 7, 26). Immediately, we see there is something significant about humanity in contrast to every other part of creation. Five days of creation seem to roll right off the Lord’s tongue, then something changes on day six.
Genesis 2 elaborates further on the difference. It says, “The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Ge 2:7). God takes an additional, seemingly unnecessary step when he forms the first man. The same is true when he forms the first woman.
The LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21, 22)
Even a casual reading of the creation story shows humanity is not like the rest of creation. We are different. We are special. We are unique. How so? God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Ge 1:26).
According to Romans 1, all of creation reveals certain attributes of God, but God designs only people to bear the image and likeness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Ro 1:19). He weaves his attributes into the very fabric of man and woman more than any other part of his creation. We are like him in a very real sense. We are intelligent, creative moral agents equipped with a mind, a heart, and a will. He gives us the faculties to mirror him and his character. He even grants us a measure of authority and responsibility over the rest of his creation.
God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth—notice how God intends for us to expand his creation as sub-creators, if you will—and subdue it, and have dominion. (Genesis 1:26-28)
Clearly, there is something special about humanity. God gives us unique dignity above and beyond the rest of creation. In fact, it is only after the creation of man and woman that we read, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Ge 1:31). According to Genesis 1, God declared that every part of his creation was good, but his creation of mankind is the apex. Everything else falls under man and woman. God intends for everything else to essentially serve man and woman.
In short, we’re not wrong to believe we have tremendous value as human beings because we do. This is by God’s design. Each and every one of us is an image-bearer of God. Each and every one of us is, in fact, special and unique. We not replaceable parts in some big machine. Oh, no. The wheel fell off. Well, slap on another. It’ll be as good as new.
Instinctively, everyone knows this is true. If I were to lose one of my children, for instance, I could have a hundred more children, and none of them would be the child I lost. We’re not replaceable. Every human life on this earth has sanctity by virtue of creation itself. We were made in the image of God.
You shall surely die
But then, we come to Genesis 3. As it happens, man wasn’t content to be God’s image-bearer. He wanted to be God. He wasn’t content to be a sub-creator. He wanted to be the Creator. And it all begins with a subtle question from the serpent. “Did God actually say—?” (Ge 3:1).
This question creates an interesting contrast between Genesis 1 and Genesis 3. In Genesis 1, God said, and it was so (Ge 1:3, 7). His word was undeniable. The power and authority of his word were clear. In Genesis 3, the serpent’s first temptation is call the power and authority of God’s word into question. “Did God actually say—?” (Ge 3:1). I wonder if there was any part of Adam that looked around the garden and thought, Maybe we shouldn’t question God’s word. Just look what it produced.
Regardless, Adam was well aware of what God had said. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Ge 2:16). Adam, if you attempt to subvert my will and define your life by your own terms, you will lose your life.
As the serpent continues his temptation, he directly contradicts God’s word, saying, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Ge 3:4, 5).
As we know, Adam listened to the serpent rather than God. He ate from the forbidden tree, and what happens? Immediately, Adam and Eve feel guilty, ashamed, and fearful. The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths in a vain attempt to cover their shame (Ge 3:7). They instantly feel themselves separated from their source of life and dignity. When the LORD God comes walking in the garden, he finds them hiding (Ge 3:8).
As we continue reading, we discover the devastation of sin goes even further. The hostility between humanity and the serpent increases. Our call to be fruitful and multiply now comes with pain. Tension rises up between men and women. The work we have to do on this earth will now be terribly difficult. And, of course, we will die and suffer the pain, separation, and every other horrible thing that comes with it.
For us, sin is a part of life, and death is normal, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning. Sin wasn’t part of God’s good design. He did not create us to die or even suffer, and that is why death produces tension within ourselves regarding our identities. We feel that we should be special, but death interrupts and argues, “No, you’re not. You’re no better than the goldfish that’s flushed down the toilet.”
When you think about it, death is an appropriate punishment for sin. If sin comes from a desire to be like God, then death is a cold, hard reminder that we are not God (Ge 3:5). Psalm 90 says, “God is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps 90:2). But humanity, because of our sin, is like grass that flourishes in the morning and is renewed, yet in the evening it fades and withers (Ps 90:5, 6).
Matthew McCullough writes
[Death] tells us we are not the center of the universe. We are not indispensable. The world will go on without us. We are not too important to die. Death makes a statement about who we are, and the Bible tells us [that] that’s its whole purpose. The dignity we feel and the indignity of death aren’t in absurd contradiction. The tension comes not from some mistake in an evolutionary code. The dignity we feel is real. But death shows it doesn’t belong to us.
What does McCullough mean—it doesn’t belong to us? We might say it doesn’t belong to us any longer. Our dignity was a gift, a gift we tossed away when we sinned against God, who gave us our dignity. We may still be image-bearers of God, but we’ve severely marred that image, and death is the proof.
Let’s say I buy a brand new car, then I proceed to drive that car right into a tree. The car had tremendous value, but it wasn’t designed for someone to drive it into a tree. The reason we feel ourselves to have value above the rest of creation is because that’s how God made us. And the reason we feel conflicted about that is because we drove ourselves into a tree. We stepped outside of God’s purpose and design. I’d still like to think of myself as the owner of a brand new car, and in a sense, I still am. But the truth is, the car is ruined.
Relax, eat, drink, and be merry
How does an atheist solve this dilemma? He doesn’t acknowledge God as our Creator, so he has no objective explanation for human dignity or the sanctity of life. He doesn’t believe in an existence outside of time and space, so death has the final word. He has no reason to think human beings have value, and he can have no hope in any kind of salvation. So, what does he do?
Albert Camus, a 20th-century philosopher, was known for statements like, “Knowing we all die makes life a joke.” He believed we may as well embrace the absurd. By absurd, he meant the conflict between our tendency to seek meaning in life and the impossibility of finding it. According to him, life is altogether absurd because we can’t reconcile the conflict between the dignity we feel and the obscurity death imposes. So, he offered two suggestions.
First, we could commit suicide. (Did I mention this man won a Nobel Prize?) Rather than delay the inevitable, Camus says give yourself a measure of control. You can’t give your life meaning, but you can, at least, determine when it will end.
Camus preferred a second option. He suggested we live in denial. Simply ignore the fact that life has no meaning. Pretend death isn’t the end. The Bible puts his philosophy this way: “Relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Lk 12:19). I believe most of the world is partial to this approach, but how does God reply? According to Luke 12, “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you’” (Lk 12:20).
It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27).
Who will deliver me?
There’s a significant reason the church should not avoid talking about death. There’s a reason we should not avoid confronting people with the inevitably of death, not to mention its shame and horrors. Confronting our mortality is a powerful catalyst for obtaining hope. This is why Moses prays, “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). This is Solomon’s motivation when he says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart (Ecc 7:2). There’s something to be gained by honestly facing death.
What is that something? Listen to Paul in Romans 6. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). Listen again to Hebrews 9.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27, 28)
The gospel offers a liberating, life-giving alternative to denial and despair. There is no need for denial: death’s implications for who we are provide a crucial backdrop for the work of Christ. And there is no need for despair: union with Christ radically transforms who we are.
We must hear and accept the statement death makes about who we are before we can fully rejoice in the message of the gospel. Death says you are less important than you’ve ever allowed yourself to believe. The gospel says you are far more loved than you’ve ever imagined. You are not too important to die. But you are important enough that God gave his only begotten Son, so that if you believe in him you will not perish but have eternal life. You will not be defined by death.
So, we have a problem with identity, but the gospel offers the solution. Not only does the Bible explain the problem, the gospel further offers dying sinners new identities. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2Co 5:17). “Put off the old self,” Paul says, “and put on the new self” (Col 3:9, 10). Thanks be to Christ, life can have meaning, and death doesn’t get the final word.
If we are in Christ, everything changes. While we still acknowledge all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, we also realize that we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Ro 3:23, 24). We are justified, not condemned. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Ro 8:1). God says we are innocent. As a result, we are indispensable and possess tremendous value because God has restored our dignity in Christ.
If we are in Christ, our identity is no longer in fallen Adam, but in our life-giving Lord and Savior. Death once disoriented us, confusing us about who we really are, but Christ reorients us. He assures us of who we are—that is, the children of our Heavenly Father. “See, behold,” John says, “what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1Jn 3:1). Paul writes, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38, 39).
But here’s the remaining dilemma, and I’ll end with this thought. Until a person truly feels the sting of death, until he or she truly embraces death as a serious problem—his problem; her problem—he or she never seek a solution (1Co 15:16). He or she will never turn to Christ that his or her identity might be found.
Consider Paul’s words at the end of Romans 7. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Ro 7:24). He knows he has a problem. He knows he is dying, and he knows what dying ultimately means. And because he knows, his heart could be receptive to the solution. He says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”