How the gospel brings the dead to life.
Stories of death have been ubiquitous these last few years. News reports vacillate between myriad concerns over the current pandemic, punctuated with accounts of stateside shootings and foreign insurgencies. Most recently, images from Eastern Europe remind us of the fragility of life as Russian and Ukrainian soldiers die on the battlefield and Ukrainian civilians die in the streets. Reminders of our mortality are ever before our eyes.
Few enjoy pondering death and all the unsightly things that happen as our physical bodies return to dust. Corpses are best left in graveyards rather than our minds. Yet we are all surrounded by spiritual corpses every day: Ephesians 2:1 reminds us that before knowing Jesus, we were dead.
The God who raised Jesus to life offers hope for those who are dead in their transgressions and sins (Rom 8:11).
Apart from several rare but notable biblical exceptions, those who are physically dead, stay dead until the final resurrection.1 However, as odd as it might seem, the spiritual walking dead are a reality of this fallen world. The Bible draws a parallel between the decay of death and the reality of the spiritual necrosis in which all are born, and from which some will be saved. The God who raised Jesus to life offers hope for those who are dead in their transgressions and sins (Rom 8:11).
The gospel of Jesus Christ brings the dead to life through something I call soteriological necromancy. Soteriology refers to the theology of salvation. Necromancy, on the other hand, is a less tasteful concept involving communication with and even reanimation of the dead. By necromancy, I do not mean witchcraft; I simply want to shock you with the truth that God, by His sovereign power, communicates with the spiritually dead and calls them up out of their graves of sin and into new life.
Born in transgression and death
Regardless of who we are, we were all born entombed in the sarcophagus of sin (Ps 51:5; Rom 5:12). When Paul reminded the Ephesian church of their spiritual condition in Ephesians 2, he did not imply that they were mostly dead in their transgressions and sins, but that they were all dead—completely dead (Eph 2:1).2 The theological concept behind Paul’s words is that of radical corruption. Paul does not say the Ephesians were sickened by sin, fatigued by sin, nor even gravely wounded by sin. They were dead, beyond hope of resuscitation.
The spiritually dead's behavior is marked by “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these” (Gal 5:19-21). This is what we did, and this is who we were: zombies who roamed the streets under the cover of spiritual darkness, seeking to devour and destroy.3 But we have hope and are valued in the sight of God. Our fallen state does not negate our value as image-bearers. The Lord still loves His creation. In love, the unlovable are adopted into sonship (Eph 1:5).
The dead and the world
Spiritually dead people rebel against God. This rebellion against the Life-Giver is our grace-vacant human default. Apart from God, our corruption is radical and our depravity comprehensive. Both feet are in the grave. And this is not the work of the devil alone, lest we give him too much credit (or blame) for our own self-immolating innovations.
This is what we did, and this is who we were: zombies who roamed the streets under the cover of spiritual darkness, seeking to devour and destroy. But we have hope and are valued in the sight of God. Our fallen state does not negate our value as image-bearers.
Ephesians 2:1-3 attributes spiritual necrosis to three things: the world, the flesh and the devil. The world, the kosmou, the realm of culture, economics and government, is a place where good things can entice us and become idols of our heart’s desire. The world neither represents our internal self nor the life of our mind. Rather it serves as the mind-external objective realities that seduce us and demand our relentless pursuit of gluttonous acquisition.
The world consists of good things that allure us, entertain us and captivate us. Our sinful heart elevates these good things to a place of supremacy. The world offers us many ways to ruin our souls as it packages death in a variety of appealing ways. As Blaise Pascal observed, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it” (166/183).4
The dead and the flesh
The world and the flesh intersect. Flesh, sarkos, in Ephesians 2:3, represents the corruption of the heart that beats for its own gratification. Scripture tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things, beyond cure and beyond understanding (Jer 17:9). The heart is radically corrupt. The desires of the flesh are inclined toward evil (Ps 14:1; Rom 3:9-11). Lust is an erroneous story we tell ourselves to galvanize the sin we have already begun to commit.
The world consists of good things that allure us, entertain us and captivate us. Our sinful heart elevates these good things to a place of supremacy. The world offers us many ways to ruin our souls as it packages death in a variety of appealing ways. As Blaise Pascal observed, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”
To put it simply, the flesh represents the post-fall sin condition into which we are born and from which only God can redeem us.
Our flesh wants to convince us that we are not that bad, not that fallen, not that dead. Our flesh wants us to listen to our hearts, follow our dreams and believe in ourselves, so long as we are convinced that we are just fine on our own. We do not need God to raise us to life. And if God is not needed, then we can continue to strive by our own power to animate our phantom limbs and phantom hearts—an impossible task.
The flesh-driven soul believes it can manage its own sin. Yet, the flesh-driven soul loves its sin and will not let it go. It washes its dirty laundry in dirtier water.
The dead and the devil
Demonic forces capitalize on human fleshly desire and worldly allure (Eph 2:2). The devil acts as a faithful contributor and expert consultant to our pursuit of sin. Under the sophisticated tutelage of the devil, we are instructed in the ways of rebellion, both blatant and subtle. He is an unholy counselor, preying on our weakness, pain, fear and pride. He seeks to befriend us while he devours us (1 Pet 5:8; 2 Cor 11:14).
The seduction of Eve in Genesis 3 illustrates how these three components (world, flesh and devil) of spiritual necrosis work together to undermine the moral will of God. The natural beauty and appeal of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, coupled with an idolatrous curiosity and strong nudge from Satan, lured Eve into a conscious act of disobedience, for which she was ultimately held accountable by God. For Eve, the world was the fruit along with the wisdom and power it represented. The flesh was her hardened heart that turned from God. Had her demonic advisor held sole responsibility, she would not have faced God’s judgment.
For Eve, the world was the fruit along with the wisdom and power it represented. The flesh was her hardened heart that turned from God. Had her demonic advisor held sole responsibility, she would not have faced God’s judgment.
The devil is not solely responsible for our sin. Like Eve, many Christians pass blame onto Satan while ignoring their own sinful choices. We sometimes attribute particular hardships to spiritual attack, when in fact, we may have contributed all the necessary components to our own downfall with no help from the evil one.
Like Eve, the Church is often subject to spiritual attack. But before passing responsibility to Satan, we need to remember that the world and our sin nature serve as major contributors to spiritual disfunction. The triad of world, flesh and devil are so pervasive in their manifestations, it should come as no surprise that those who live under their dominion are ruined beyond human hope. But praise be to God! There is life in Jesus Christ (John 1:4).
Soteriological necromancy takes place when the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11), gives life and peace to those who were once subject to sin and death (Rom 8:2, 6). Just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, so too He breathes eternal life into Adam’s progeny—those whose souls have rotted away to dust through sin. By grace you have been saved.
Not by witchcraft nor demonic ensorcellment, but by the power of God have the dead been called up. This is not some secret art practiced in cavernous black dungeons by odious hags. Cauldrons and spell books play no part in this matter. Soteriological necromancy is initiated by God. It takes place when God’s people faithfully preach the gospel of grace to those who will receive new life by the Spirit’s regenerating work. This is the heart of the gospel by which every Christian lives: God reached into our spiritual sarcophagus and called us.
Not by witchcraft nor demonic ensorcellment, but by the power of God have the dead been called up. This is not some secret art practiced in cavernous black dungeons by odious hags. Cauldrons and spell books play no part in this matter.
Congregations who no longer delight in hearing the gospel preached and pastors who no longer delight in preaching it have elected to forgo the only life-giving medicine available to curb the spiritual wasting disease brought on by sin. A pastor, having lost the pleasure of preaching Christ, has lost both the ability and the right to shepherd the flock. A congregation, having lost the pleasure of hearing Christ preached, has wandered into dangerous pastures by means of apathy.
The gospel must never be an afterthought. The most wonderful story of hope is the one in which the Life-Giver whispers words of rejuvenation into dead men’s ears and watches as their eyes wrench open and air is drawn sharply into their lungs. As color returns to their faces, they stare into the face of their Savior for the first time. They take hold of His hand, rise to their feet and walk into eternity.
Exceptions include a handful of people raised to life by prophets, by apostles, and by Jesus himself (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37; 2 Kings 13:20-21; Luke 7:11-17; Luke 8:40-56; John 11; Matt. 27:50-53; Acts 9:36-43; Acts 20:7-12).
Some will note the reference to “The Princess Bride,” in which the dead hero’s friends bring him to a magician to determine if he can be revived. His fate depends on whether he is all dead or merely mostly dead.
See Jonah Haddad, “Reanimating Apologetics with the Undead.” Christian Research Journal, 37 (1): 2014.
Blaise Pascal, “Pensées.” Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin, 1966.
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