Ashes to Ashes, And Yet

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.—Genesis 3:19

Have you ever had the feeling that time is speeding up and life is racing ahead whether you’re ready or not? I was thinking recently about how quickly the stages of our lives change. Conversations with my friends have shifted from potty training and nap times to health concerns and caring for our parents, from showers to graduations, from weddings to funerals. It’s the natural progression of life.

We joke about the aches and pains and the wrinkles and gray hairs, but with each birthday and anniversary, we realize that aging is our reality. It’s not a comforting prospect, and as a society, we do our best to avoid even thinking about it. But life is fleeting, and death is unavoidable.

These thoughts have been on my mind recently. Dear friends of ours are going through difficult times. One recently lost her father. Another just put his mother in hospice care. It hurts to lose loved ones. This March it will be eighteen years since our daughter was stillborn. She shares a birthday with my grandmother who’s been gone just over two years now. I miss them and many others.

We grieve when our loved ones die, and rightly so. It’s a reminder of sin and brokenness. Death is painful and grievous. It separates us from our friends and family. Our hearts break, and we cry out to God.

Our lives pass quickly and often painfully. As Thomas Hobbes described, “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”[1] Even the familiar words from the funeral service remind us of our transience, we are “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Because of the fall, after we die, our bodies decay and eventually turn into dust. As God told Adam and Eve, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).

Seems pretty dreary, doesn’t it? And if that were all there were to our lives, it would be devastating and depressing. But thanks be to God that this is not the end of our story. As Christians, we are not nihilists or epicureans. We don’t disappear into nothing when we die, and the meaning of life isn’t simply pleasure and comfort. We were made for more.

The good news of the gospel is that even though we are sinners and have earned death by our sin, Christ has earned life for us through His life, death and resurrection. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7–8a, NIV). And because we’ve been given eternal life in Christ, death no longer has power over us. Yes, we still die, but we will rise again just as Christ has already risen.

As Paul says, “‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54b-57). This victory over death means our life is significant, and our future is hopeful. We grieve over death, but we have hope in the coming resurrection:

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:14–18)

Even our bodies, which will return to the dust, have a wondrous future. Most books, movies, and tv shows that use the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” quote stop before they get to the key part of the liturgy. The next part is “in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”[2]

Christ will come again in glory, and when He does, God will raise us from the dead, and our bodies will also be redeemed (Rom. 8:23). We will receive glorified bodies in the resurrection:

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. … Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly (1 Cor. 15:42–44, 49).

These glorified bodies will not grow old and die. Our bodies and souls will be free from sin and death and all the consequences of the fall. Yes, our lives are short, our bodies have aches and pains, and unless the Lord returns first, we will die. But we have a wonderful future ahead of us. We will live forever together with Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. What blessings we have to look forward to:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:1–4).

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