Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: What does the Bible mean when it says: ‘The sting of death is sin’?
Humans not meant to die
The Rev. Kevin Vogts, Trinity Lutheran Church, Paola, Kan.: I bathed my father and fed him with a feeding tube on the morning of the day he passed away. He had battled cancer for five years, and I knew it couldn’t be long.
Yet when my brother called that evening with news of Dad’s death, it was a total shock. Though his death had been looming for years, and in many ways should have been welcome, I was overwhelmed with grief.
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Logically, death should be as natural as birth – just another phase in the cycle of life. So why do we celebrate births but mourn deaths?
It’s because deep down we know the truth: Humans were never meant to die, and death isn’t really natural at all.
God intended for us all to live with him forever. The Apostle Paul explains in Romans 6:23 why instead we now die: “Death is the wages of sin.” That’s what Paul means when he says in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Death stings us so, because we know, whatever the immediate cause, the root cause is our sin.
But Paul immediately continues with the Good News: “Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus came to do for us what we are unable to do. He perfectly fulfilled God’s law on our behalf by his own life of perfect obedience and won forgiveness for all our sins by the sacrifice of his suffering, death and resurrection.
Through faith in him, death is no longer a stinging punishment but the victorious entry into eternal life.
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, Community Christian Church: There are at least two ways of looking at the apostle Paul’s theological flourish toward the end of his first epistle to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 15:56).
Some folks focus on a traditional interpretation – based on their reading of the first four chapters of Genesis – that one ultimate consequence of sin is death.
Taken too literally, this can connote profound guilt for any and all experiences of death, tragic or natural, including the imputing of recrimination even upon innocent victims. And countless souls know the mercy that death can be and has been for their loved ones at the end of grueling, debilitating battles with disease.
In contrast, taking the phrase metaphorically, one can affirm that in death there can be and often is a “sting” – regret, embarrassment, sorrowfulness, remorsefulness, humiliation – because of past unresolved misdeeds, errors or offenses against others.
Paul’s overarching proclamation in the 15th chapter of Corinthians is a layered testimony, not an irrefutable template for understanding what happens when we die. He mixes his earnest anticipation of Christ’s second coming with understandings of what happens to our bodies after death and his trust in God’s provision of immortality.
In the end, trusting in God, and not our own worthiness, causes us to know the veracity of what Paul will declare just a few verses later: “... in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Still another way of putting this is to remember Bob Dylan’s insight: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” We are called to the grace of being born again and again and again through God’s love, which can assuage any “sting.”