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Death and Dying

Life After Death

Various Scripture

Lesson audio

Is the Fear of Death Unreasonable?

It is a curious thing: Christians often find that they are afraid of death. Strictly speaking, the fear of death is unreasonable, as we shall see. But it's a little more complicated than that.

Clarification: The Fear of Dying Is Reasonable

Let us make a clear distinction here. The Scripture convincingly declares that the Christian should not be afraid of death. This, however, is not the same thing as the fear of dying. As Saint Stephen would've told us, being stoned to death is no fun. And it is entirely conceivable that dying of cancer is no fun either. But death itself has always been seen by the church as the entrance into life with Christ, life eternal. So why then do we make such a fuss about it?

Perhaps the reason is this: death reminds us that we are sinners. The shame of death is that it is a consequence of sin. And everyone knows that sin should be performed quietly and discreetly; therefore we do our dying in hospitals and nursing homes.

Absent from the Body

The Scriptures give us a different picture. Paul tells us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and therefore is not to be feared. We may make a few observations about that.

·         In the story of Simeon, we see a man who accepts his death as a departure.[1] He has seen the Lord salvation; it is therefore time to leave.

·         Paul himself expressed his own desire to depart, in terms of ambiguity: is it better for him to stay or to go?[2]

·         The thief on the cross gives us another portrayal. The question is simply this: who do you trust? He trusted in Christ, who told him he would be with him in Paradise that day.[3]

Sleep

Christ himself refers to death as "sleep".[4] It is an interesting association. Most of us do not fear sleep — at least, once we get past the monsters under the bed. It is certainly the case that Jesus knew the difference between death and sleep, but he referred to it this way to give us the proper impression of it. First, we are not to fear it. Second, like sleep, death has an end. It is not permanent; for the Christian it ends in the resurrection of the dead.

Please note just how Christ makes this reference. The disciples are originally confused, thinking that he means earthly sleep. He has to explain it to them explicitly. In so doing, he tells us something about this notion of death as sleep — namely, that we are to accept it as casually as he does. His view of death is one which evidences no alarm; rather, he accepts it calmly. He expects us to do the same.

Life after Death

So what do we know about life after death, before the resurrection of the dead? We know some things from the Scripture; we also know from the Scripture that knowing more comes at quite a price tag.

Gathered to His People

In the Old Testament we encounter a phrase, "gathered to his people" which means that a person has died. It is said of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron and Moses. That's pretty distinguished company! But the phrase itself gives us quite a bit of hope: it means that those people who have died before us, who are in Christ, are waiting for us in heaven. We will be united with our loved ones again. It is interesting that various people who have near-death experiences report seeing long-lost relations and friends as part of that experience. We should take this with a grain of salt; this may be a revelation of God, but if so it is probably a revelation specifically directed at the individual who got it.

Paul's Out of Body Experience

Paul himself has something which might be classified as an out of body experience:

2 Corinthians 12:2-7 NASB  (2)  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago--whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows--such a man was caught up to the third heaven.  (3)  And I know how such a man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows--  (4)  was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.  (5)  On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.  (6)  For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.  (7)  Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me--to keep me from exalting myself!

We should note that the messenger from Satan was probably cataracts; Paul complains elsewhere of having to write in very large script because his eyes were defective. The phrasing, "I know a man", is a commonplace literary device of the time; the man in question is Paul, being modest.

The message really for us is that he was caught up in the Paradise and then heard something which had two characteristics:

·         It was inexpressible in his language. English is probably the most flexible language on the planet today, but even that language can't express everything. So what ever it is that we will find when we are present with the Lord, we probably cannot describe it today.

·         More than that, it is not permissible to describe those things. Why that should be, I have no idea. I leave it to the reader to speculate.

What ever he saw, whatever he heard, was so important that he had to be given this thorn in the flesh to prevent his pride swelling up. Evidently, God has good reasons for telling us so little.

Known Conditions

Just what is it that we do know?

·         We know that we will be present with the Lord. That is to say, we will be in the presence of Jesus Christ. That alone is indescribable.

·         We know we will be present with the Saints who have gone on before us. At the very least, it will be a grand reunion.[5]

·         We also know that there are two possible destinations: heaven or hell.

Resurrection

The mention of heaven and hell rather bothers the modern preacher. Just bringing the subject up conjures up visions of some antique Puritan, rattling the chandeliers with his vociferous oratory, frightening the congregation half to death. It is now politely assumed that the subject is closed. In our own congregation the mention of hell from the pulpit has vanished. Indeed, the whole subject of sin seems to be a very delicate one now. We no longer baptize for remission of sin, we baptize because "it's the next step on your spiritual journey."

It is therefore necessary to remind the reader that virtually all the references to hell, judgment, fire and brimstone, and other such antique thoughts come from Jesus himself. It is as if his apostles did not have sufficient rank to tell us about this. The apostles do, however, tell us a fair bit about the resurrection of the dead.

The Second Death

The apostle Jude gives us a vital hint: the lake of fire, the second death, is the destination of Satan and his Angels.[6] They are being held for this punishment. From other passages we find the same thing happening to the wicked. It is uncertain from the Scriptures whether or not the wicked immediately go to hell, or into a pattern of waiting for hell(in the form of the lake of fire, the second death). The key point I would like to make is this: the lake of fire, the second death, is not intended for mankind. It is the designed fate of Satan, his Angels, the beast of revelation, and the false prophet. Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life will arrive there also. But remember: it is not God's will that anyone perish.

The Saints Return with Christ

In the more modern thinking churches, there is a tendency to ignore the return of Christ and the judgment to follow. But it is clear from the Scripture that these events will take place:

·         Christ will return. This is the ultimate answer to the problem of evil and pain. When someone tells you that God can't exist, because after all he would not allow a world in which pain and evil exist (and being omnipotent he could prevent it), tell them to look at it this way. Either God is not omnipotent, or he's not righteous, or he's not finished with us yet. At his return, there will be a judgment. Thus he must return.

·         There will be indeed the great judgment. At this time we find out whose names are in the book of life, and whose names are not.

·         When Christ returns, he will bring with him the Saints who have died. They will return in bodily form.[7]

This is so plain from the Scriptures that it is inseparable from the resurrection of Christ. The modern tendency to throw away the judgment, and thus the return of Christ, is a case of wishful thinking on extreme scale.

What Kind of Body

Of course, there is no sense bringing them back in the body they had. That's just going to decay even more. In fact, the Scripture assures us that this will not be done, but that we will have a new kind of body. We get some inkling of it from Christ's body after the resurrection. You will recall that he seemed to pass through locked doors and walls; he could keep us from recognizing him until the right moment; but also he could be touched, felt and was able to eat with the disciples. This is perplexing. Paul puts it this way:

1 Corinthians 15:35-53 NASB  (35)  But someone will say, "How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?"  (36)  You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies;  (37)  and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else.  (38)  But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own.  (39)  All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish.  (40)  There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another.  (41)  There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.  (42)  So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body;  (43)  it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  (44)  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  (45)  So also it is written, "The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  (46)  However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual.  (47)  The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.  (48)  As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly.  (49)  Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.  (50)  Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  (51)  Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed,  (52)  in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  (53)  For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.

Well, is that clear enough for you? I hope so. It's the best were going to get until Christ returns.

Of course, such a description may be of academic interest only. However, a little further on Paul puts the point to us. Since we are going to be redeemed this way, since we are designed to rise from the dead in this new spiritual body, then we ought to live like a Christian should. It should make a difference how we behave. If we know we are to be redeemed and raised from the dead, then our conduct here on earth should reflect that fact. Here's what Paul tells us:

1 Corinthians 15:58 NASB  (58)  Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

You know the answer; you have read the script of life and you know how it all turns out. Christ returns; God wins. Act accordingly.



[1] Luke 2:29

[2] Philippians 1:20-23

[3] Luke 23:43

[4] John 11:11-15 (the story of Lazarus)

[5] I do not know if this means we will get our questions answered; but it's fair to say that I, like most people, have a pretty good set to ask.

[6] Jude 1:6

[7] 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18

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