The history of warfare has provided some shocking defeats. There’s the infamous battle of Cannae, of course, in which Hannibal routed the Roman forces, despite being significantly outnumbered. There’s the battle of Agincourt in which the English had a force just one-third the size of the French, yet inflicted vastly more casualties. There’s the utter destruction of the Spanish Armada in which the English navy and the wind and waves conspired to crush the Spanish forces. For every great military victory, there is a shocking defeat.
But the greatest is still to come. The last enemy to fall will be the one who suffers the greatest defeat in all of history, a defeat so great it is beyond our ability to even imagine or enumerate it.
In his letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul describes this enemy and its downfall: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In this portion of his letter he is consoling Christians about the reality of their eventual demise and assuring them that the grave is not the end, for just as Jesus rose, so will all his people. In fact, so will all people, whether they belong to Jesus or have remained obstinately distant from him.
To this point in history, death has claimed 100% percent of humanity. Every single person who has ever been born has also died. Despite human progress, despite advances in science and medicine, despite groundbreaking new technologies, the mortality rate continues at a tight 100%. We hear often of billionaires who are obsessed with extending their lifespans and of transhumanists who are attempting to upload consciousness to the cloud where a person could supposedly live on indefinitely. But we all know that it’s nothing but nonsense, nothing but a big distraction from the reality that death will claim us in the end. Even if we could double or triple the length of our days, death will eventually come calling and that will be that.
But there will be a time when death’s reign will come to a sure and sudden end. And in that day, all those who have died will be raised. Though we are accustomed to speaking about the resurrection of those who are in Christ, this resurrection will extend equally to those who are outside of Christ. Paul says, “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). Meanwhile, John says, “For an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth.” Yet this resurrected population will be divided into two groups with two very different destinies: “those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).
Death has claimed all of humanity but will be forced to release all of humanity. Death has reigned in total triumph but will experience total loss. Death has put us to death, but will itself will be put to death. And we know this because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a kind of proof and down payment to demonstrate that God has power and authority over death.
In even the greatest military victories there has still been loss. King Henry may have won the Battle of Agincourt, but he still lost several hundred soldiers. Though the English triumphed over the Spanish in the English Channel, they still suffered casualties. There are no perfectly clean victories. Except this one. For the grave will give up her dead. All of her dead. Though death has claimed 100% of humanity, it will retain 0% of humanity. There could be no more complete defeat, no more colossal calamity.
And so, though death intimidates us, we can approach it with confidence, knowing that its doom is sure. Though the grave yawns open to receive us, we can go that way certain that we will return. Though death will add us to its rolls, we know its victory will be short-lived, for, when God’s purposes are complete and the time is right, “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). We shall rise, we shall live, and to death we will say with triumph, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” And, if we love Christ, we shall go on to live with him and reign with him forever and ever.