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What Can Be Done About Death?

Peter Gurry
December 13, 2021

Over several weeks on the Shepherds and Scholars blog, we’ve been exploring death’s refrain in Genesis chapter 5. We’ve looked at what death is and what causes it. Now, we look at the most important question: What, if anything, can be done about it? What possible hope could there be from such a deep problem? Do we accept death stoically, or are we meant to fight, as Dylan Thomas says, by “raging against the dying of the light”?

Two Hints

We get two hints at how to answer this question in Genesis 5, one from the seventh person named and one from the tenth. These are the only two people in this genealogy for whom the “and he died” pattern we noted in earlier posts shifts.

First, there is the mysterious Enoch. Enoch does not die. The Holy Spirit tells us that “that all the days of Enoch were 365 years” but then the biblical text does not include the words “and he died” as we expect. Rather, Genesis tells us that “he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Hebrews 11:5 makes explicit what is implicit here when it tells us: “By faith, Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him.”

That’s the first hint. There has been one exception to death’s relentless reign. But he remains just a hint because, after all, he is an exception, and his life without death has no discernable effect on those who follow him. After him, death keeps marching on. So, while Enoch speaks to our need for someone to set the human race back on the right foot, he is not it.

Second, we learn of another whose name is Noah. He is so named because “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29). Don’t miss the echo of hope in that statement. Man was made from dust (Gen 2:7), and afterward is cursed by returning to dust in the death (Gen 3:19). As the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer famously says, “We, therefore, commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” We have come from dust and to dust, we will return.

And yet, with Noah’s name we learn that out of the cursed ground, out of that source of painful toil, comes one who will bring relief! Noah does this to a small degree by planting a vineyard in chapter 9. The fruit of the vine is a kind of relief. But we see in Noah a signpost to something so much more. The ultimate rest from death that we seek will not come from Noah. Despite his great righteousness, Noah turns out to be all too human—like his ancestors before him. Sure enough, at the close of chapter 9, we hear the dreaded refrain: “All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died” (Gen. 9.29).

So, we know we must look for someone else; Noah must point beyond himself to someone more. As one Old Testament scholar says:

The affirmation that relief comes from cursed ground reflects a way of thinking that easily runs toward crucifixion and resurrection in the New Testament. As help comes from the place of curse, so life comes from the reality of death (cf. Gal. 3:13–14).

“And Christ Died.”

With these two hints, we come finally and climactically to Christ. This one is, in fact, the second Adam, the one who reconstitutes our humanity in himself, the one in whose image we are “predestined to be conformed” (Rom 8.29). He is the one who swallows up death so that “through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2.15). As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 21–22).

In this way—and only in this way—the awful words of Genesis 5 become our salvation. When it is said of Christ, “and he died,” we are delivered. These words are good news for us because though he died, death could not hold him. Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, out of the very grave itself, comes Jesus, the second Adam, who relieves us from the painful toil of our hands. In Christ, we are delivered from the curse of fear and guilt and shame.

And so, the awful repetition of Genesis 5 is transformed when said of Jesus into the refrain of praise: “and he died!” Death, which was once our greatest enemy is now a transition, a mere translation from death to glorious life. We need not fear it. Not because we think it trivial, but because we know death itself is dead.

And so, Christians are those who can, remarkably, look death squarely in the face and hate it—for it is a curse—and yet not fear it—because Christ bore that curse for us.

A Warning and A Command

In light of this, the message for us today from Genesis 5 is one part warning and one part command.

The warning is that death is coming. And it is coming for each and every one of us. Death is inescapably personal. Your death is inescapably yours. The question is not whether you will die but whether you will go through it with Christ or without him. Will you face death alone or will you face it head-on, knowing that Christ has gone before and come out the other side alive? Either way, you must make that decision. It must be your faith—not mine, not your parents’, not your pastor’s. Just as death is inescapably yours, so is the faith in Christ that can save you from it.

That’s the warning. Now the joyous command: Trust Christ and live!

Like Enoch, you can walk with God in faith, placing yourself wholly and firmly in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Look away from yourself. Abandon self-confidence. Abandon what Adam and Eve wouldn’t: the desire to decide what is right and wrong. The desire to be your own god. Instead, trust Christ, who never disobeyed God, who never gave in to the temptation to be his own master but instead “being found in human form, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

The story of my life and yours will end in only one of two ways. As sure as night follows day, there will be the same end to your life as to Adam and Eve’s, Seth’s, Cain’s, Abel’s, Seth’s, Noah’s, and all the rest. I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But I know your gravestone will say just as theirs did, “… and he died,” “… and she died.”

The great question of the moment is whether you will face death alone or with Christ as your new head, your new Adam, and your only hope. Either his death becomes yours by faith or you will spurn him as Adam and Eve spurned God’s command. There is no third option.

So, let us trust Christ and be free. Let us trust Christ and find that this haunting chorus becomes a most blessed refrain.

And he died … and lives again!

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children and are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church.

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