Power Over Life and Death: An Encouragement from the Old Testament in the Age of Coronavirus

For Christians, the biblical teaching that God holds power over death is a basic one. The resurrection of the Son of God--after suffering a sacrificial death on our behalf--is among the cornerstone teachings of the Christian faith. The resurrection of Jesus validates that he is who he claimed to be: the Son of God and Israel’s promised Messiah. It serves as an anchor for every hope that God’s people enjoy. Because we are in Christ, his fate is our fate. When Jesus died, we died with him. And because Jesus was raised to life, we too will be raised (Rom 6:7-8). 

The coronavirus has, among other things, brought the prospects of death into the forefront of many people’s minds, the high chances of survival notwithstanding. In the face of this pandemic, so many of us are unnerved, if not scared. We find ourselves in this state, even as we move closer to Easter Sunday, when the resurrection of Jesus is the focus of the Church’s attention. Why is this? On one level, it’s unnerving because death is an unnatural intrusion into God’s creation, which was made entirely good in the beginning (Gen 1). We are not created to die, so reminders of human frailty do not come easily to most of us. On another level, people fear the separation that death brings. We are unnerved not only by the prospects of our own death, and leaving behind those we care for, but also the death of our loved ones, whose companionship we greatly treasure and upon which we lean. 

There may be another, less obvious, contributor to our angst. We may be suffering from an understanding of God’s resurrection power that fails to consider the whole counsel of Scripture. Jesus’ resurrection--and that of his disciples--is not an idea that sprung out of thin air and leaped onto the pages of the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament’s resurrection hope is deeply planted in the soil of the Old Testament; it draws upon a theological stream in the Hebrew Scriptures, asserting that God controls everything, including life and death. 

This explains, in part, why Jesus refers the Emmaus road travelers to the Old Testament when they do not anticipate his resurrection (Luke 24:25-27). God’s pattern of demonstrating his control of the affairs of his people--intervening when death seems to be a certainty--recurs throughout the Old Testament. Abraham’s promise of descendants is threatened with extinction in Gen 12:10-20 and 22:1-18; yet in both passages, God intervenes, preserving his promise to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. A major theme of the book of Daniel is God’s complete control over the course of world history, including the rise and fall of the empires that oppress his people and resist his kingdom (Dan 7:1-28). It’s in the midst of this book that we read about Daniel being thrown into a lions’ den, only to be rescued by God (Dan 6:1-28). Bound by an irreversible edict he signed, not even the king Darius could save Daniel from his death sentence. Daniel appears helpless, but the God who controls the sweep of history also holds the keys to life and death. The jaws of the lions are shut, Daniel emerges from the den unharmed, prompting Darius to confess that Daniel’s God is the “living God” (6:26-27). God’s ability to “shut the mouths of the lions” when death appears to have the final word reveals that all other so-called deities are lifeless. 

A final example, that perhaps resonates a little more closely with our present circumstances, can be found in 1 Kings 17-18. Many are familiar with the events in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah engages in a showdown with the prophets of Baal. Through his prophet Elijah, God has declared that there will be a lengthy drought in Israel (see 17:1). This is a direct assault on the power of Baal, who was believed to control rain and vegetation. Yet it is Yahweh, not Baal, that shuts off the rain. And if any doubt was left regarding Yahweh’s control over all of nature after Elijah exposes Baal’s ineptitude before his own prophets (see 18:26-29), that doubt is removed when Yahweh brings rain upon the land once more (18:41-45). While the showdown between Elijah and the priests of Baal conveys a message that is clear enough, this message is ratcheted up several notches in the preceding passage in 1 Kings 17. Immediately after Yahweh declares a drought is coming, Elijah runs and stays with a widow and her son in Zarephath. The drought has affected the family’s water and food supply, but Yahweh shows his power over the situation, providing a continual supply of grain for making bread. He not only has the power to replenish the flour jar during a famine, however; he holds the power over life and death in all its forms. Hence, when the widow's son falls ill and dies, Elijah cries out to God, who raises him from the dead (17:19-23). The polemic against Baal worship, binding together these two chapters, exposes that placing faith in anyone, or anything, other than the true God of Israel is empty.

There are other examples from Scripture that could be discussed here. But the fact that Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, reminds God’s people again and again that he controls all things, including life and death, is full of significance. Jesus’ resurrection is no blip on the biblical radar; rather, it provides a resounding climax to all salvation history, which impresses upon God’s people repeatedly that life is his gift, and that he alone can defeat death. Hence, he is our only hope (Rev 1:18). He stops death in its tracks and raises his people to life. As the late Billy Graham passionately reminded us, in times of chaos, we may not understand God’s purposes; yet, even in these times, his power remains and thus he is worthy of our fullest trust.