The other day I had a conversation with a friend that took a rather interesting turn. During a pause in the discussion my friend turned to me and said, very randomly I might add, “So, Jesus killed death.” This led to the following exchange (reconstructed from memory, so I’m essentially paraphrasing here):
Me: Well… not exactly.
Friend: Jesus destroyed death?
Me: No, that’s not really it either.
Friend: Jesus killed his own death!
Me: I suppose you could say that, but still, it’s not quite… it.
Friend: Ok, well then what is it?
Me: Well, Jesus conquered death. He didn’t kill it, and he didn’t destroy it, death is still around. It’s kind of like… I guess you could say that Jesus made death his bitch.
Friend (laughing): Jesus made death his bitch? Only you!
While I’m certain that the colloquialism will be offensive to some readers (and I apologize to anyone who might be offended), the message contained within is correct. Now, of course, for any of this to matter one must believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is factual, and not simply a Christian myth. If it is myth, as opposed to truth, then any debate over whether Jesus conquered death or destroyed death is a moot point, rather like arguing whether Superman or the Hulk would win in a fight. However, if the resurrection is fact, and not myth (this argument has been made by many and I have provided links to some good examples below), then this semantic difference actually does matter. Jesus did not kill death, nor did he destroy death, but instead he conquered death, both nullifying the power thereof for believers, and making death his servant, instead of his master.
The accounts of the resurrection themselves (if believed, see below) are ample proof that Christ was not contained or mastered by death. Of course, the crucifixion itself is prophesied in the old testament (most notably in Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and Zechariah 12), and his resurrection is also prophesied (notably in Psalms 16 and 40, also the story of Jonah is used as a type of resurrection by the new testament, and Hosea 6 is often seen as a prophecy as well, Hosea 13:14 is sometimes seen as a prophecy of the resurrection, but this does not place the verse in its proper context). However, throughout scripture the teaching is not that Christ has destroyed death, but that he has removed its vicious power. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul quotes Hosea 13 saying, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” And in Revelation 1 Christ himself tells us, “I was dead, and behold I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
The verse that most notably gives pause to the argument that Christ conquered, rather than destroyed, death is 2 Timothy 1:10 which reads, “…who abolished death and brought life…”. The term ‘abolished’ here is sometimes translated as ‘destroyed’, but most often as ‘abolished’ or ‘annulled’, and the Greek word used here is καταργήσαντος (katargesantos) which comes from καταργέω (katargeo). The basic meaning of this term is to ‘bring to naught, sever, or abolish’, and its meaning here is best understood by the term ‘annulled’. Paul is saying to Timothy that Christ, through the resurrection, has made the power of death inconsequential; not that he has brought an end to death. It should be noted, in this discussion, that Revelation 21 tells us that there will be an end to death, but this is a matter of timing. In the new heavens and new earth death will no longer be, but this does not mean that death no longer is.
Now, the conquest of death is no small matter. Christ’s victory over death, and his rulership of death is something that every Christian can and should rejoice in daily. However, we should not confuse the issue with poor terminology. If Christ had ‘killed’ death, as my friend stated, then logically everyone, or at least every Christian, should be immortal. Obviously, this is not the case, and thus the declaration of Christ’s destruction of death is not only a logical impossibility, but implies a ridiculousness to the Christian faith that is not truly associated with it. This is one example of the importance of theology and biblical hermeneutics. We cannot say that Christ killed death and retain any semblance of credibility. However, we can say that Christ conquered death (or in my colloquialism ‘made death his bitch’ – I still really like this), and thus understand that death should have no fear for the Christian.
Christ has removed the fear of death, and the power that fear holds over us, but he has not yet removed the presence of death. We will all die and, for the Christians among us, go on to glory with Christ. I, for one, look forward to this.