In What Sense Has Christ Abolished Death?
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a marvelous collage of Old Testament characters who lived the life of faith. After rehearsing these examples, the inspired writer offers this encouragement.
“Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2).
How is it that the sacred writer can describe Christ as possessing the “joy that was set before him,” while, at the same time, alluding to the torture of “the cross”?
Perhaps the answer lies, at least partially, within a passage in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The apostle says that God’s purpose and grace find their fullest expression in the manifestation of Christ who
“abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
The Greek term for “abolish” is katargeo, which means “to reduce to a state of inactivity.” The interesting thing about the participle, “having abolished,” is that it reflects an action already accomplished.
In what sense could it be said that “death” has been “abolished” already? Do we not all too often make that sad journey to the cemetery, bearing the remains of our loved ones? Are not we ourselves inching closer to that destined departure?
Clearly the sense of “abolished” is not that death, as an actual human experience, has been vanquished already. There must, then, be another approach to the “having-abolished” phrase; one that is in harmony with the reality that death still stalks each of us.
In a literal sense, the experience of death will not be terminated until the day of Christ’s return. Elsewhere, Paul addressed that very issue.
“Then comes the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be abolished is death” (1 Cor. 15:24-26).
Across the ages, death has ever held humanity captive to an enslaving horror. The hero of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh (the Babylonian “Flood” account) says, “Sorrow entered my heart; I am afraid of death.” Bildad, Job’s friend, described death as “the king of terrors” (Job 18:14).
David, ruler of Israel, once lamented that “the terrors of death have fallen upon me” (Psa. 55:4). The Greek poet Homer has Achilles exclaiming: “Say not a word in death’s favor.” The French writer, La Rochefoucauld, in one of his pithy epigrams, opined that “neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.”
These sayings, and thousands of others of equal grimness, serve as dramatic commentaries on the affirmation enunciated by the writer of Hebrews, who declared that “the fear of death” has enslaved Adam’s offspring (Heb. 2:15). Happily, though, in the same text, inspiration declares that Jesus Christ entered the human realm so that, by his death, he might deliver mankind from the slavish dread of the concluding physical experience.
This is what Paul meant when he triumphantly announced that Jesus has “abolished” death. By his own permanent escape from the bonds of death (by means of his resurrection), Christ has opened the way for his people to follow. He has the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). As our “forerunner” he has entered heaven (Heb. 6:20), preparing a place for us (Jn. 14:2).
What confidence we can have, therefore, in the eternal environment that lies before us (cf. Heb. 3:14). Our Savior has removed the terror of death. Perhaps, therefore, we might learn to say (with Paul) that we entertain a constant “desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better” (Phil. 1:23). Only in the post-death state will the child of God truly be “at home” (2 Cor. 5:8).