There’s a scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Jim Gordon, Gotham City’s police commissioner, is being sentenced before a judge who happens to be a recently-freed felon. The ultimatum is presented to Gordon: would he rather choose death or exile?
The question is made complex because winter has descended upon Gotham, freezing the bodies of water surrounding the city. The exiled are forced to venture onto thin ice, and they will inevitably fall through. Gordon knows this, so he tells the judge, “Death.” He wants no part of an icy grave, no false hope.
The gavel smacks the desk, and the judge pronounces the sentence: “Death” but then adds “by exile.” The viewer knows what this means: Gordon will be forced out onto the ice, and his exile means his death.
The phrase “death by exile” was applied to Jim Gordon in that movie, but sometimes cinematic phrases can ring true to the way the world works. “Death by exile” is the story of mankind after the events of Genesis 3.
In the true story of the world, God told Adam that eating the forbidden fruit would mean death (Gen 2:17). Haven’t you noticed, though, that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit they didn’t die? Instead, they had a very awkward conversation with God. Adam blamed his wife, she blamed the serpent, and nothing seemed to resolve the problem. Everything had been good and blessed, but now things went wrong and curses were pronounced.
How does the story in the garden end? With exile. “[T]herefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:23-24).
If we understand the important biblical motif of “death by exile,” we’re able to see that Adam and Eve did die, though not physically that day. They experienced death by exile. Physical death was part of the curse God pronounced–from dust man came and to dust he would return (Gen 3:19)–but for now they had to leave the garden sanctuary.
Their spiritual exile/death became a major motif that winds throughout the subsequent stories of Scripture. No one is born in the garden. Everyone after Genesis 3 comes into the world already exiled from Eden. We all open our eyes for the first time in a state of spiritual death.
“Death by exile” is the story of Israel. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, Israelites were exiled to a land not their own. But prophets like Ezekiel intimated that this exile, this national death, would be reversed. God would speak to Israel as if looking into a valley of dry bones, and he would cause those bones to live again (Ezek 37:5-10).
We learn that the bones were “the whole house of Israel” (Ezek 37:11), which means that the restoration of the nation would be a resurrection from the dead. “Death by exile” preceded a “resurrection by return.” And, sure enough, when Israelites returned to Jerusalem under the decree of Cyrus the Persian, it was like life from the dead.
The story continues unfolding as Jesus steps onto the scene. He came to bear the whole gamut of our exile. The Word Made Flesh would be rejected by his people, die bearing our reproach outside the camp, and be forsaken by his Father as holy wrath came down on an old rugged cross.
In short, Jesus’ mission was death by exile, spiritually and physically, that the way to the Tree of Life might be opened again for those who trust in him. Jesus conquered death by his resurrection, and death will be the last enemy defeated at his return (1 Cor 15:26).
Death will not even hold our bodies in its grasp forever. Because of Christ’s death by exile and return by resurrection, we have the hope that dust will not be the final resting place of our bodies. The curse of death was reversed by Christ and one day will be reversed for all believers.
When our bodies die it is but a sowing. The reaping will come at the sound of a trumpet, and once-perishable-bodies will be raised imperishable (1 Cor 15:42, 52). There will be no more death, no more exile, only resurrection glory in the likeness of the Son of Man.