We buried our daughter, Hope, in the heat of June. Nothing in my life has ever felt so wrong as putting her body in the grave and simply walking away. Then came that October morning when there was frost on the ground and a nip in the air and the heat came on in our house for the first time, giving off the smell of burning dust. I lay in bed, feeling a wave of resistance and resentment toward the cold. I thought about the cold earth surrounding Hope’s body and I wept, feeling a sense of helplessness in surrendering her body to the coming winter. It’s a mom’s job to keep her child warm, isn’t it?
Around that time, our neighborhood began the annual ritual of decorating for Halloween. When my neighbors hung their orange lights on October 1, it seemed a bit early, but I told myself it was no big deal. I didn’t want to be the Grinch of Halloween. I love a carved pumpkin, bales of hay, a few corncobs, and a silly costume. And I’m all for loading up on bite-size candy bars. But then came the afternoon in late October when I drove through the neighborhood and passed a house showcasing a hearse with a casket coming out the back. A few doors down, several skeletons were hanging from trees. It felt like a punch in the stomach.
In those days my thoughts were regularly drifting toward the decay of Hope’s body in the grave. I wondered how long it would take until there was little left of her except for bones. So I felt assaulted by my neighbors’ seemingly harmless hanging of skeletons in the trees. It seemed like they were celebrating the very thing that brought me intense pain. I couldn’t help but want to ask them, Have you ever had to bury someone you love? For the next few weeks, when I drove by, I did my best to look the other way.
People want to tell grieving people, “That’s not her, that’s just her body in the grave. She’s in heaven.” But they don’t understand. I loved and cared for that body. I knew her and loved her in context of that body. And so I’m grateful to know that her body matters to God too.
Made Like the Man of Dust
Genesis 2:7 tells us that “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God chose the most lowly and humble matter possible—dust from the ground—and infused it with the most significant and glorious of all substances—his own breath. As Adam and Eve ate freely from the tree of life, all was well in the Garden. But then the serpent slithered in tempting them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And when they did, everything changed. Sadly Adam and Eve could not avoid the effects of the curse that infiltrated all creation. The work that was supposed to fill Adam’s life with meaning would become frustrating. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground,” God said to Adam, “for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Adam would now be buried in the ground, and his body would turn back into its dust.
Though the effects of this curse were devastating to Adam and to all who have descended from him, it was also laced with grace—the promise of an offspring of the woman who would one day walk in the dust of this earth, one who would come to put an end to death. Paul writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Gal. 4:4). He who existed in glory before the foundations of the world became a human, vulnerable to death—the kind of death that caused him to identify with the author of Psalm 22, who wrote, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” On the cross, Christ took upon himself the curse that destines every baby born on the earth to one day return to its dust. Yet because God did not let his Holy One see corruption (Psalm 16:10 cf. Acts 2:27), we know that we are not destined to be dust forever.
Re-Made like the Man of Heaven
We aren’t told everything we’d like to know about the bodies we will be given when Christ returns. But we do know that God intends to use the matter long buried in the ground or ashes that have been spread on the sea or stored in a box as the source material for bodies fit for the new heaven and new earth. He will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:21). Once again, God will breathe his own life into dust, but this time our bodies will not be vulnerable to disorder, disease, and death. We will be glorious!
It finally got cold enough this week for the heat to kick on at our house. And once again I smelled that familiar smell of dust being burned off the heating coils, and was reminded of the bitter reality of Hope’s body in the grave. It still moves me to tears. But it doesn’t have the power it once had to sink me into sadness. Tim Keller says that we have to “rub hope into the reality of death,” and I’m finding my confident hope in resurrection grows as the hope presented to us in the Scripture more thoroughly saturates my thoughts and emotions. Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:22, 49).
I believe that day is really coming. The sin of the man of dust will not get the last word in Hope’s life and death, nor mine. Instead, the man of heaven will come and call us to life. Everyone joined to him by faith can anticipate the day to come when once again, God will breathe his very own life into bodies that have become dust. We will experience all God promised when Isaiah prophesied, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isa. 26:19). This hope enables us to endure life and death in the winter of this world.