For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21 (ESV)
Having studied the immediate passage containing verse 21, we have embarked upon a two-part excursus into mining out the meanings of that verse’s two phrases. Thus, in our previous study, we attempted to explain and apply Paul’s idea that to live is Christ. I, to no degree, believe that we successfully explored the depths of that clause, but I do pray that I have provided a slight glimpse of how significant that thought truly is.
The same is true for our present study of the second clause, to die is gain. Whole books might be written about this truth, so we will not pretend to have seen all there is to see. Yet we will attempt to explore and map out some of this mighty notion.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT
We use the phrase “a matter of life and death” to describe something of near ultimate importance, which is fitting because all things come to us within the context of life or the cessation thereof. Every touch, smell, sound, sight, thought, emotion, and memory occur through the act of living. And since we are alive, living is all we have ever known. Life is hard, yes, and brutal and painful. But life is also present, real, comforting, and here. Despite the sufferings of life, it is still generally assumed to be better than the alternative.
“I’m sorry for your loss” is an insight into our perception of death. Indeed, death is the great trauma of humanity. A lifetime of struggle, growth, labor, laughter, and tears all lost in a single moment, the silence of the heart, the undying pause of the lungs, and the collapse of the mind. The blackness, for which sleep sought to prepare us, envelops, and all is lost. Life dies.
Try as we might to feel differently about the shadow of mortality that looms overhead, we cannot help feeling the loss of death. For being the natural end of all things, few things feel quite as unnatural. Yet Paul’s view of dying is the exact opposite; in fact, he boldly declares that death is gain. By this he means that there is an advantage to be found in dying. Death is not a loss but, rather, a gain. Dying benefits the Christian.
ARGUMENTS FOR THE DOCTRINE
Such a bold and counterintuitive statement from Paul begs an explanation. If death feels so wrong, how then can it be gain? Although we might present a great number of reasons from the Scripture, we will limit ourselves to three.
By dying, we become free of pain & sin.
Given the profound suffering present in the world, the promise of escaping from the pain is a great promise indeed! Revelation 21:4 gives us this guarantee of God’s work in the world to come:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
Why is it so significant that pain will be wiped away?
Consider first the nature of pain. Although unpleasant, pain is vital, which I mean quite literally as being necessary for living. Pain, often blaringly, warns us of danger, that something is wrong. People with congenital insensitivity to pain (or CIP) are born unable to feel pain and rarely live through childhood since serious injuries or disease can easily go unnoticed. Pain is a much-needed gift for living in a world filled with dangers and disease. We need pain because the world is broken by sin. Therefore, the promise of living without pain (and its associates: death, mourning, and crying) is promise that the world will be fully repaired. Paul provides us an insight to this in Romans 8:19-23:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
The sin of Adam and Eve during the Fall marred creation itself, which is seen when God cursed the earth since it was under Adam’s dominion. Therefore, all of creation yearns to be renewed, remade, and resurrected along with us. As we received redeemed and glorified bodies, so will creation be repaired so that pain and death are no longer present. In other words, God’s act of redemption through Christ will not only renew us but the world as well. In our new and resurrected bodies and world, the words of 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 will be realized:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
Death and its harbinger, pain, will be removed from the order of creation for good. God will by His own blood on the cross restore and expand our paradise of communion with Him that we forsook in Eden. By dying, we leave this world behind to be with our Lord, where we will wait until He makes all things new. For the Christian, therefore, dying is gain because through it, the Lord rescues us from this life of pain, suffering, and death.
By dying, we enter rest.
For some, it may sound strange that heaven, as we think of it, is not our final destination but rather a new earth with new bodies. This could lead us to question the restfulness of heaven. After all, if we are meant to long for the resurrection, would there still be a sense of restless longing even in heaven? Revelation 6:9-11 provides for us a glimpse at a kind of longing in martyrs who have died:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Here in John’s vision, he beholds the slain martyrs crying out to God for His judgment and vengeance to fall upon the earth. Those who often prayed for the forgiveness of their enemies in life now pray for justice in death. There is, therefore, a form of restlessness in martyrs even though they are in heaven. Yet notice that they are told to rest a little longer until the last martyrs are also killed. Thus, we can infer that while there is a kind of anticipation for God to finish His work, heaven is still a place of rest. Indeed, later in Revelation 14:13-14, John hears these words proclaimed:
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
Recall that Paul viewed living for Christ to be fruitful labor in this life, which is a joyous and privileged work, but it is still toil and labor. Dying is gain for Paul, in part, because it means resting from his labor. He was willing to stay longer in the flesh for the benefit of other believers, but after long ministry of suffering and nearly constant danger, Paul was longing to rest from his work.
By dying, we are with Christ.
Yet for all the beauties of living without pain and sin and entering into eternal rest, one reason stands above all others for claiming death as gain: when we die, we are united with Christ. This, of course, isn’t to say that Christians are not united to Christ at the moment when they repent and believe the gospel. We are indeed. Without the security of being in Christ, no Christian would be able to sustain their faith until the end. So we know that Christ is spiritually here with us, yet He is also away from us. The Spirit dwells within us and empowers us to be Christ’s representatives, but we still eagerly await His return. While Jesus walked the earth, His disciples did not fast because He was with them. Now we fast, longing for bridegroom to come and commence the wedding feast. In this life, we are with Christ, yet we long to be with Christ still. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 says it like this:
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Here we walk by faith, not by sight, away from the Lord, but when we depart from this present body, we will be with the Lord, at home with Him. John Piper calls this a deep sense of at-homeness. C. S. Lewis calls it the desire for a far-off country:
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.
Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
We are all looking and waiting for the joy of which the greatest pleasures here on earth could only provide the slightest taste. We are each longing for Christ, our true home. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Though now we see with our hearts, one day we will see with our eyes “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Now that we’ve discussed why to die is gain; let us now make some direct application of the doctrine.
Our hope must transcend this life.
For the first application, I would emphasize that our hope in Christ must transcend this life. Paul himself makes this very point himself:
1 Corinthians 15:17-19 | And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul labors to explain that Christ’ resurrection cannot be separated from our resurrection, or vice versa. If we deny a future resurrection, then we deny Christ’s resurrection as well. If we deny Christ’s resurrection, then we have no hope of salvation and those who die perish. Our great hope hinges upon Christ’s resurrection as proof of our future resurrection. Without this future hope, we are to be pitied above all people. We cannot, therefore, claim Jesus as a great teacher of morals for living our best life now. Such a thought is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.
Hope in a greater life to come is a centerpiece of the Christian faith. This is critical also to our present doctrine. If there is no hope of a great life to come after death or even that we can achieve the perfect life here, then to die would not be gain. Gain can only come whenever more is available. The simple statement that death is gain for the Christian reveals that the life to come is always better than this present life. We must come to the realization that this life cannot offer us the joy and satisfaction that we seek in its entirety. We need more, and in Christ, we will enter in. Hope, therefore, in our eternal life with Christ.
The hope that death is gain must give us courage to live for Christ now.
As for the second application, we must also know that fixing our hope onto heaven does not mean living this life as a zombie. In fact, our hope that death is gain must give us the courage to live for Christ here and now. Recall that Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:6 that we are always of good courage, even as we walk by faith instead of sight. Knowing that death is gain ought to give us the courage that the fear of death might destroy. The apostles, for example, were willing to suffer torture and execution because they knew that departing to be with Christ was far better than this life. They were ready to lose their lives for the sake of Christ.
But it must also give us the courage to deny our sinful desires. We can only do this if we firmly believe that something better awaits us. Our battle with sin is truly a war of desires. We only sin because we want to sin. Therefore, we will only stop sinning whenever we want something else more. Knowing that the heavenly riches of Christ await us the in life to come enables us to desire that far-off country more than the lusts and lures of this world.
OBJECTIONS & ANSWERS
Now that we have observed the doctrine of to die is gain, argued why it is true, and applied it, we answer an objection that may arise.
Death is a grievous evil.
Having tied this study of Philippians to the back of studying Ecclesiastes, we might remember the Preacher’s view of death to be significantly less positive than that of Paul. In fact, in many ways, death casts a looming and ominous shroud over all of Ecclesiastes, haunting even the corners where it goes unmentioned. The Preacher treats death as a great enemy of humanity, a foe that will always have the last laugh.
In Ecclesiastes 5:16, Solomon calls death a grievous evil: “This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” The common expression of coming into and departing from the world naked derives from verse 15. The immediate context refers to a man who lost all his riches, failing to leave an inheritance for his son, but the truth, of course, is that no one takes their money with them in death. Death makes real gain nothing more than a vanity since we cannot live long enough to see the full fruits of our labors. A full or empty bank account means nothing to the dead. Naked we arrived, and naked we shall depart. This is a grievous evil, says the Preacher.
Is this a biblical contradiction?
How can Paul call dying gain, while Solomon calls it evil?
The answer is that they are both correct. Solomon is correct in calling death evil, and Paul is right to say that death leads to gain for the Christian. To understand this unlikely pairing, we must understand the nature of death. Ecclesiastes treats death like an enemy because it is. 1 Corinthians 15:26 promises that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death is a consequence of humanities greatest plague: sin. Death seems unnatural because it is. Eternity is etched into our souls, so we feel the wrongness of life coming to an end. Cognitively, we understand that dying is inevitable, yet we live the majority of our lives as if we were immortal. Every death around us stings each and every time, as if deep down we hoped an exception might be just this once. But death is linked to sin, which means that death can only cease once sin is eradicated.
Yet Paul is also able to claim that death is gain for the Christian because Christ became flesh and blood “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” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Notice that Christ defeated the devil who wields death like a weapon and delivers us from the lifelong slavery of fearing death through death. Jesus, therefore, defeated His enemy through His enemy. By redeeming humanity through His death and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of death over us. Yes, we must still walk through our physical death, but now in Christ, our physical death is merely a transition into eternal life with Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ, therefore, boldly declares that our enemy is now also an instrument for our joy.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBEDIENCE
Since we have now argued for the doctrine, applied the doctrine, and answered an objection to the doctrine, we shall conclude with a final call to obedience.
Hope in Christ.
First and foremost, if you desire the confidence of Paul in saying to die is gain, you must hope in Christ. Why do I say Christ instead of God? Almost everyone when faced with death hopes in God (or perhaps I should say a god). Especially if we argue that there is no such thing as pure atheism, everyone holds onto something for comfort as they prepare to breath their last or witness a loved one doing so. We love to take comfort that there is a “better place” out there, but the truth is that a mere belief in God is not sufficient. James poignantly reminds us that the demons believe in Him as well (James 2:19). Our hope must be set upon Christ as the only mediator between us and God. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are still dead in sin. But if we hope in Christ, we are then not only made alive with Him in this life but we enter into joy, peace, and rest with Him in the life to come.
Hope, therefore, in Christ as your only Savior in life and death.
Live for Christ.
Second, use your life as fruitful labor for Christ. To die is gain is often highlighted more frequently than to live is Christ, yet we cannot possess the hope of death being gain unless Christ is also our life. The two clauses cannot be separated from one another. Our rest with the Lord only comes on the heels of living a life of fruitful labor for Him.
I believe that the fear of death and love of the world in many Christians is directly correlated with being slothful toward the work of the Kingdom. Now please do not hear what I am not saying. The fear of dying will always be more or less present. I recall hearing in some episode of R. C. Sproul’s Renewing Your Mind that while he was not afraid of death, he was afraid of the act of dying. I appreciate such candid honesty from a strong man of the faith because I too tend to fear the means by which I will die. Of course, I rebuke this thought with the promise of God’s timely grace, but I imagine it to be a lifelong battle.
Dying is frightening prospect, and there is no avoiding that truth. However, if our lives were as poured out in the service of the Lord as Paul’s life, perhaps we might less frightened of it. Paul toiled so tirelessly for Christ that death was a welcome transition from this life of suffering to one of rest and peace. It is the diligent worker, after all, who sleeps deeply, not the sluggard, and what is sleep if not a daily preparation for death? Each night our bodies collapse into a virtual coma, as our heart and lungs function only enough to keep us alive. For hours we helplessly shut down our senses, trusting the Lord’s hand to protect us and awaken us with renewed strength. If each day is life in miniature, then sleep is a daily death, yielding in the morning to new life. A well-lived day provides a well-rested sleep, which thrusts us brightly into a new day of work.
Labor, therefore, for the Kingdom. Toil hard for Christ, knowing that sleep is coming bring rest from our labor along with it.
No one wants to die, but for the Christian, dying is a means of great gain. By dying, we escape this world of pain and sin. By dying, we find eternal rest in the Lord. By dying, we enter eternal life at home with Christ. So long as we have breath, let us therefore hope in and live for our Lord.
Romans 14:7–9 | For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.