Do You Think of Death as Gain? What Does the Bible Say?

Do You Think of Death as Gain?

Recently, Matthew McCullough observed a disconnect between the amount we think about death and its inevitability. He writes, “Medical marvels have come to us with a profound, often unnoticed side effect. The reality of death has been pushed to the margins of our experience. Every one of us still dies, but many of us don’t have to think much about it.”[1]

McCullough goes on to aptly describe why we are so death-averse, that is, why we avoid seeing or even thinking about death: “Death cuts us off from everyone we love. It means the end to everything we enjoy about life. And it is a head-on assault against our dignity and significance as human individuals. Who can fully stand up under the weight of this knowledge?”[2]

In direct contrast to this typical aversion, the apostle Paul wrote that “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). In this article, we are seeking to glean from Paul how death is gain.

Paul’s Goal

Paul stated plainly that his goal was that “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20, my translation). With that final phrase (see the italicized words), Paul makes plain that he is aiming to magnify Jesus in everything, at every point and with every breath—including his last.[3] We may wonder, how is Paul so sure that Christ will be magnified no matter what? The word “for” beginning verse 21 indicates that Paul is providing the reason he can magnify Christ whether he lives or dies: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Each phrase merits consideration.

To Live is Christ

Surprisingly (to me), Paul does not say, “To die is Christ.” Such a statement would naturally complement his later one, where he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (1:23). Instead, Paul wrote, “To live is Christ.” To understand this, we need to examine what it means for him to live:[4]

v.22 “If I am to live in the flesh, that will mean fruitful labor for me.”

v.24: “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

v.25: “I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”

v.26: “so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus because of my coming to you again.”

When we read these verses together, we realize that if Paul remains alive, he glorifies Christ in fruitful ministry (cf. 1:11), and the Philippians will glory in Christ. Therefore, to live is Christ because if Paul lives, God is glorified, and Christ is boasted in.

To Die is Gain

But, how is death gain? Two passages from later in Philippians help us. First, Paul describes the extent of Christ’s obedience as “unto death, even death on a cross” (2:8), and second, Paul seeks to “gain Christ” by “shar[ing] in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (3:8, 10). Those passages suggest the following: dying is gain because being faithful unto death is how Paul shares in Christ’s sufferings and—finally—gains Christ in the resurrection (3:11–14, 20–21; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Being “with Christ” is “far better” (Phil 1:23) because Paul valued Christ above all accolades and accomplishments (3:7–8). Do we?

Death Can Be Gain for You

Death is ultimately gain for all Christians. Elsewhere Paul teaches us that “the sting of death is sin,” and that “[God] gives us the victory [over sin and death] through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56–57).[5] Similarly, John records the words of Christ in Revelation: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).

Death is Gain for Believers

Death is gain for Christians because its sting (i.e., sin) is removed, and the devil cannot leverage death to cause us fear because Christ died for our sins. Now, faithfulness unto death is a pathway to life with Christ.

Death is Not Gain for Non-Christians

However, for the non-Christian, death is not gain but a shadow over life (Matthew 4:16; Isaiah 9:2). According to Jesus, “you shall surely die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall surely die in your sins” (John 8:24, my translation).[6] Jesus came so that all who trust in him would be transferred from this deadly destiny to one of eternal life: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

Trusting Jesus and valuing him more than anything this world can offer is how death becomes gain for you. All who trust in Christ are “more than conquerors” such that even death “will not be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37–39), but instead, death becomes our pathway to life with Christ.

 


Footnotes

[1] Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 36.

[2] Remember Death, 50.

[3] For more detail on the context of Philippians 1, see my earlier article about “Living with Christ Exalting Joy.”

[4] I will underline the related phrases, and unless otherwise noted, the cited biblical text is from the ESV, and underlining or italics are my emphasis.

[5] Similar are the words in Hebrews that Christ “delivers all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:15). Tom Schreiner writes, “Through Jesus’ death, those who are part of Jesus’ family are freed from the fear of death. If Jesus’ death frees his brothers and sisters from the dominion and fear of death, it seems that he dies in their place. The death they deserve he took upon himself so that they are now free from the fear of death that haunts human existence” (Hebrews, Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020], 106).

[6] My translation is aimed at highlighting the allusion to God’s initial warning in Genesis 2:17 about the consequence of sin. God said to Adam, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” The same peril that faced Adam faces all who refuse to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

David Christensen graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with his Ph.D. in New Testament (2021), after previously earning a Th.M. (SBTS, 2017) and an M.Div. (FBS, 2016). Happily married for over a decade and the father of two lovely daughters, David is an active member of Ninth & O Baptist Church (Louisville, KY) and is seeking a teaching position in Christian higher education.

Less than 1% of all money given to missions goes to unreached people and places.*

That means that the people with the most urgent spiritual and physical needs on the planet are receiving the least amount of support. Let's change that!