How Jesus Christ defeated death and how the early Christians saw the afterlife.
On January 15th, 5 year-old Payton Benson was sitting at her kitchen table, eating breakfast when a stray bullet from a nearby gang fight wounded and later killed her.
This event sent shockwaves in our city but it also happened about 6 blocks from my family’s current residence. When something like this happens so close to home and with a child who is so close in age to my own daughter, my wife and I can’t help and contemplate our own choices with our family. Is this the right place to live? Should we move? What if that stray bullet hit one of our children or us?
I’ve often ignored death. Frankly, I have always had a laissez-faire attitude regarding death. Meaning, I believe that if I had died and I went to hell, I would totally believe that I put as much effort as possible to live a virtuous life. If I die and then it’s lights out, then I guess I wouldn’t care because my consciousness would have disappeared.
In my early days as a Christian, I’d often think of the afterlife in medieval terms, where people turn into winged spirits when they die and float up to the clouds in a white robe and holding a harp like a Looney Tunes character. Or, the person finds him or herself in hell where horned demons with pitchforks poke you repeatedly and force you to watch Lars Von Trier films on repeat.
Through the years, my view on the afterlife slowly shifted. I still had a view of Christians in eternally spiritual bodies praising God in something like a never-ending prayer service for awhile. But it most radically started to shift when I learned more about the bodily resurrection in scripture and traditional Christianity. Surprisingly, I had been a Christian for a majority of my life and had never learned about the traditional and scriptural basis for a bodily resurrection. All that changed when I read Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. Wright beautifully explains the Christian realization of heaven as both tangible and real, and how in the end, heaven will meet earth where we’ll all rise to eternal life in God. Death is not something to be feared by anyone anymore.
Early Christians saw death as the conquered Goliath. As Paul said in Romans 5:12-14, sin came forth through one man and through sin came death. Sin’s end result is death. (James 1:15) Jesus Christ came and cut Death off at the head, so we could have true life now and forever. When He rose again, He did so with a real body, just like we will. Thomas the disciple could tell you that much, after poking his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and the gash in His side.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria beautifully describes Christ’s victory and the early Christian attitude towards death:
Death is destroyed, and the Cross is become the victory over it, and it has no more power but is verily dead.
Of this is no small proof, but rather an evident warrant – the fact that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take an aggressive stance against it and no longer fear it.
Instead, by the sign of the Cross, and by faith in Christ, they tread it down as dead.
For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Saviour took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished.
But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible. For all who believe in Christ tread death under foot as nothing, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ.
For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually begin to live, and become incorruptible through the Resurrection.
And they know that the devil that once maliciously exulted in death, once death’s pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.
And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him.
But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Saviour has accomplished against it.
For while still tender in years they make haste to die – and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it.
So weak has death become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed.
When a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him.
In the same way, death has been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot.
And all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on death, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old:
“O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?”
Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293-373): On the Incarnation, 27.
How did this happen? How did Jesus trample death down? It happened by Jesus being both God and man at the same time. I think a beautiful shadow of Christ in the Old Testament is the Burning Bush, which God spoke to Moses through. It was a bush consumed with flame, but unscathed by the fire surrounding it. This is how we perceive Jesus -filled with the consuming fire of God, contained in mortal flesh, but yet un-destroyed. (This foreshadows the consuming love which of God in New Testament eschatology, which I will be talking more of later.) Sin was destroyed before Him. Through His death, death sought to conquer Him and burn Him, but instead He vanquished it.
My life is already forfeit. I have already given it over whatever the outcome, whether I am stuck in the grave or not. And for my family, I have hope that one day we will be in eternity together. Is this hope in vain? I can’t be completely 100% sure. I do believe that there is no body of Jesus of Nazareth in the grave though. That’s the pivot-point of all of our belief as Christians. As Paul said, if there was no Resurrection, then we are to be pitied more than all. I guess I’d rather be pitied by the world than die without hope.
In part 2, I’ll discuss what is set to happen after we die and what changed with death.