This article was previously posted on Mormonbasics.com
In 1 Corinthians 15:55 it says, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I have often wondered what was meant by the sting of death. It wasn’t until I learned more about the atonement that I began to realize what this verse was really talking about.
To talk about where the sting of death comes from we first need to understand a concept used in the psychology of child development called object permanence. One of the most beloved first games people play with very young children is peek-a-boo. They cover their face with their hands then, when they remove their hands, they say “peek-a-boo!” to the baby. The baby laughs and squeals with laughter.
What is it that causes the child to laugh, besides the fact that the adult is making a fool of him/herself? In the mind of the child the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” really applies. If you place a ball the child is looking at behind your back, to the child, the ball is truly “gone.” It has ceased to exist. It doesn’t exist unless the child can see it. That is why peek-a-boo works. Each time you have hidden your face then uncovered it again, it is as though you went away and have just come back.
A small child hasn’t learned yet that objects continue to exist even if they cannot see them. This ability to think in such a manner doesn’t develop until later. That is why sometimes when mommy walks out of the room the baby cries, unless you have distracted the child with something else. The baby thinks mommy is really gone. I mean, REALLY gone. It is very distressing to the baby. To very young children just closing their eyes then opening them again makes a person disappear then reappear. To them it is like magic.
Set aside the atonement
For a moment, pretend that you now live in the days of Jeremiah (I just drew his name out of a hat). It is supposed to be hundreds of years before Jesus will be born. No one has every been resurrected. This is a foreign concept, because it only exists in theory, since it has never happened before. The concept of resurrection is nothing but a fairy tale.
Your best friend gets very ill and dies from their sickness. Now they are dead. Truly dead. There is no life for them any more. They are gone and lost to you forever. Your sorrow over the loss of your loved one hurts so much because you will not ever see them again. The fabric of your world has been torn and you don’t know how to seal the breach. This is the sting of death. That sharp pain that has pierced your heart. It is the grief that causes it to be difficult to breathe.
And what of your friend? In the eternal scheme of things they are lost to God. They have died with sins on their head, causing a permanent breach between them and God. They will never be able to return to His presence (1 Nephi 10:21), since God cannot tolerate any amount of sin.
21 Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God; wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.
Can you imagine the sorrow of those who have lost their babies in death, who believe that those innocent children must be lost to God for all eternity? And what about our beloved parents or our spouse who dies, never to be redeemed from the dead. They are dead forever. Death is the victor, the winner. All things succumb to it. All things fall to it.
What is the result of dying, without the hope of rising again? In 2 Nephi 9:9 we are told that without any intervention on the part of God, upon death we become the servants of Satan.
9. And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.
So our fate for all eternity is to become angels to the devil. Can you see why death hurts so much? Can you see why there is so much hopelessness in some people when they lose a loved one? What a future to look forward to, for their fate will be ours as well. Life can only be seen with a tinge of bitterness if this is all we have to look forward to in the end. The sting of death hurts, and the grave really is victorious.
Use your object permanence
The ability of a more mature child to grasp the concept that being out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean being out of mind is a major step in thinking. It means that we can look at the absence of someone and know they still exist and that we will probably still get to see them at some point. It creates hope. It is hope that takes away the sting of what would otherwise be a tremendous loss.
The doctrine (teaching) of the atonement includes a resurrection. This guarantees that everyone will be rescued from an eternity as a spirit. We will be snatched out of the clutches of Satan forever. We need not have any fear that he will rule over us in the eternities, for we will have a body, which he will never have. He rules over the disembodied spirits, not those who are resurrected and are promised a kingdom of glory.
The hope of the atonement
Using 2 Nephi 9:10 – 15 we learn about the hope we can have because we believe in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In verses 10 – 12 we learn that through the sacrifice of our Savior both hell and paradise will deliver up all of their inhabitants to be resurrected according to the power of the Lord’s resurrection and his promise that we will all be resurrected as well. This means we will get not only our bodies back, but they will be perfect and whole, never to die again.
10. O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.
11. And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave.
12. And this death of which I have spoken, which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead; which spiritual death is hell; wherefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel.
In verses 13 – 15 we learn that because we get our bodies back, and they are perfect in both form and function, that our memories will also be perfect. That means that we will have a perfect recollection of all our guilt or innocence before God for what we did and how we behaved in mortality. Once we have obtained this perfect recollection of our standing before God, we will be judged of Him to learn where we will live for the rest of eternity, whether it be with Him or elsewhere.
13. O how great the plan of our God! For on the other hand, the paradise of God must deliver up the spirits of the righteous, and the grave deliver up the body of the righteous; and the spirit and the body is restored to itself again, and all men become incorruptible, and immortal, and they are living souls, having a perfect knowledge like unto us in the flesh, save it be that our knowledge shall be perfect.
14. Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness.
15. And it shall come to pass that when all men shall have passed from this first death unto life, insomuch as they have become immortal, they must appear before the judgment-seat of the Holy One of Israel; and then cometh the judgment, and then must they be judged according to the holy judgment of God.
Where is thy sting?
So death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? The resurrection of Christ, His atoning sacrifice, has saved us from you both. When we lose a loved one in death we mourn, yet it is with hope in our hearts because we know that our separation is only temporary. We have always known we were eternal beings, but now we know that because of the reality of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and His resurrection, we have a promise of immortal glory with our loved ones. No one we have ever lost is truly gone. We will see them again and have joy in our reunion.
This is our hope. This is why we work so hard to keep the commandments of God. We place our hope in Christ’s victory over the grave and over death. We count on our Lord being a person of perfect honesty, that when he promises us life eternal he means it. We can count on it. What is permanent is God’s love for his children. We can plan on a future with our loved ones, and if obedient to the commandments, we can include in our plans, a future with our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ. This is what makes death sweet, for death opens the door to resurrection and eternal life.
Kelly P. Merrill
Kelly Merrill is semi retired and writes for https://gospelstudy.us. He lives with his wife in Idaho. His strength is being able to take difficult to understand subjects and break them down into understandable parts. He delights in writing about the gospel of Christ. Writing about the gospel is his personal missionary work to the members of the Church and to those of other faiths who are wanting to know more about Christ's gospel and His Church.