|Death for the Christian|
(by Chris Long)
Note: Most non-Christians, and oftentimes even Christians, shy away from the topic of death. But if that's you, it is even MORE important that you read this article - as it hopefully will change your whole underlying outlook on the subject. This article is easy to dismiss both because of the subject matter and also its apparent length (though it's actually only about 6 pages when printed), but which I would encourage you to really consider reading. The truths that are in this article are ones that have literally revolutionized the way I view death and eternal life, and I pray the same for you. If nothing else this should help really clarify or solidify things you already believe, and may well help "fill in gaps" on things that were previously a bit muddled. With that said, there are several related topics and angles I didn't address, and I know there are things I still don't understand or fully grasp. Thus, despite the bold title, this is by no means a "complete discussion" on the matter and of course I won't promise that every thought or idea shared is exactly right. But I think the bulk of them are. :) It is my prayer that this will be a blessing to you.
I would like to open with a short story by Corrie Ten Boom:
"A man and his son went over a long, narrow bridge. It was over a broad river, and the boy said, 'Daddy, I am afraid. Do you see all that water down there?'
'Give me your hand, boy,' the father said. The moment the boy felt his father's hand, he was not scared.
In the evening they had to go back again, and this time it was pitch dark. 'Now I am more afraid than this morning!' the boy cried.
The father took the little fellow in his arms. Immediately the boy fell asleep, to awaken the next day in his own bed.
This is what death is like for the Christian. He falls asleep and wakes up at Home."
The thing that just jumped out at me once again was the SO CLEAR realization that the "person" is not anywhere around - it's just the body. I might just as well have been looking at the wall because what I was looking at was not my friend anymore than the wall was! The whole reason embalming is done is basically to "preserve" the body - in essence to fool everybody... Because without that embalming, the body *WILL* clearly show that there is indeed NO LIFE whatsoever anymore in that which is left behind. Even with the embalming, it is clear that you're looking at that which is indeed dead.
I can't fully describe it, and if you've never seen a dead body, you might not understand this, but the spirit - that which is unseen but is truly "the person" is most definitely NOT there. When I saw my dad as he was still lying in the hospital bed where I had just seen him alive and smiling the night before, I can tell you emphatically that there was not one ounce of my dad in that room when I got there. His body was there, but he most definitely was not. Upon first arriving and seeing him, the waves of grief overwhelmed me so strong that I let out a wail of such proportions that I wouldn't be surprised if everybody in the hospital heard me. But then that clear realization hit me that I wasn't looking at him, but merely the "outer part" of him that was left behind - that he was not there in that room (and thus had to be somewhere else...) - and peace flooded my soul like I can't describe! And although I have had moments of grief since that day, that peace which comes from the Lord and springs out of my HOPE in Him and His Word (the Bible) has been an incredible sustainer.
It amazes me how some people can fool themselves into thinking that the body they are looking at really IS the person. But, you know - if the only "hope" you have in your worldview is that when you die, that's it, then I guess I can understand how you would equate the body and the person as one-and-the-same. Because if you have no understanding of the concept that we are all "spirit" beings that are first-and-foremost a spirit - that just live in (reside in) a physical body, then you are only left with the idea that the body you are staring at IS the person.
It hit me once again just how utterly tragic that worldview is. If I really believed I was looking at my dead friend, my dead grandmother, and my dead father, then I don't think I could have handled it. I can see just a glimpse into the state of those with no hope - and it is absolutely terrifying (and pitiful in the truest sense of the word) to me. The best that worldview can offer (which is what most of the world DOES offer) is to just hold on to the "memories" of the person. Where is the HOPE in that? Just spending time the rest of my days constantly thinking about what *WAS* - constantly living in the past? No hope of seeing the person again, no hope of a glorious future beyond belief. No hope - period.
I can't tell you how grateful I am that I am not in that boat, because if I had that worldview, I can see myself dealing with incredible amounts of grief (beyond which I could bear - since after all, nobody could really offer me any "definitive hope") - I can see being absolutely stinted and stunted in being able to truly go forward and live my life effectively, since I would always have the incredible "fear of death" looming over me and being unable to really deal with the grief of those that preceded me. In short, I myself would be the walking dead...which oddly enough describes the sad, but true, state of many people who are supposedly "alive" today - unfortunately even among some who might call themselves a "Christian".
The truth is that our bodies really are just our EXTERNAL shell - the part that we all see. But it isn't us. The Bible says that when believers in Jesus Christ leave this earth that they are "absent from the body" and are "present with the Lord" (see 2 Corinthians 5:8). Having seen the bodies of three believers now, I can first-hand bear witness that they themselves were most definitely NOT still present with the body, but had obviously LEFT the body and become "present" elsewhere. That which was life was indeed gone and all that remained was a completely dead body ("shell") that left to its own would show forth its true dead state in a very quick manner. They had indeed left the body and gone home to be with their Lord, their Savior, their Love.
Jesus said: "And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living." (Matthew 22:31-32 ESV). Those that are with God in Heaven are ALIVE with God; they are not dead. Notice also that Jesus put it in present-tense ("He IS...").
The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15 that: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." (NIV 1984) Our hope in Christ isn't just for life here - if it was and we just "ended" when we "died" then that would indeed be a pitiful state to be in! Rather our hope is for LIFE for all eternity! And "We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place..." (Hebrews 6:19a ESV)
For believers, we have incredible hope. This world is the best that it is ever going to be for unbelievers, but it's the worst it ever gets for us as believers - we're going to be with Jesus in beautiful perfection forever and ever - where things will be more wonderful than we can even imagine! But unbelievers who just have fooled themselves into thinking that the "grave is the end" have no hope whatsoever. Those that believe that we are here on earth by random chance (evolution), there's no real meaning, and when we die, we die, have absolutely ZERO hope. By all accounts, my grandfather fit this category (hopefully not to his last breath). I saw first-hand what such a worldview brings, and hopelessness is at the top of that list (other "beautiful fruit" of this worldview include: stubbornness, hard-heartedness, pride, negativity, a critical/judgmental attitude, and lack of love).
I saw my grandmother and dad, who WERE believers and did have hope and expectancy of eternal life, shortly before they left this earth, and there was a marked difference (and I mean night-and-day, or perhaps better to say life-and-death difference) from the state I saw my grandfather in hours before he died. I know that the Lord extended His hand out to my grandfather time-after-time (more than I even know) throughout his 98 years of life. I hope he took it at the end. As far as I know, as a result of his "hopeless" beliefs, he essentially gave up on life after my grandmother (his wife of 74 years!) left this earth - it was too much for him. As a result of choices he made that were fueled out of his "hopeless" worldview, he essentially was a 98-year-old man dying in a strange hospice setting where he basically died of starvation after his bodily processes started shutting down - with mostly nobody but a few neighbors around until the very last day....A very sad scene indeed.
Billy Graham once said: "I have talked to doctors and nurses who have held the hands of dying people, and they say that there is as much difference between the death of a Christian and a non-Christian as there is between heaven and hell."
This leads right into another common worldview that is prevalent regarding the subject of death which is "no, we don't just die and that's it, but rather we all die and go to Heaven." In other words that everybody leaves this earth and goes to the "good" place that we call "Heaven" - that everyone gets to be "present with the Lord".
As nice as this sounds on the surface, it actually doesn't even make sense when you start thinking about it that a person that rejects God their whole life would then be WITH God forever. They chose to not be with God (as He really is, in the way He provided), so why would they even really WANT to be with Him? But logic aside, the main problem with this view is that it is just based on "wishful thinking", because it most certainly is NOT based on the Bible. Which means that those that believe this view don't have any external, authoritative assurance that this is correct. Which means they don't really have any hope (even if they think they do) because deep-down they know that it's an opinion they hold without anything definitive backing it up. (Sidenote 1: This is why understanding and really knowing that the Bible really IS God's Word to humanity is so important and is a critical key issue that people have to come to grips with! Coming to that place is beyond the scope of this article, but there are plenty of good resources out there for those that are willing to open up and really honestly examine the evidence) (Sidenote 2: Although there are some people that try to cling to a few Bible verses to promote an "everyone goes to Heaven" view, anybody with any intellectual honesty looking at the whole of the Bible HAS to acknowledge that the Bible does not teach that - there are a myriad of very clear and direct teachings against that view - including numerous ones by Jesus Himself.)
The truth is that the Bible clearly teaches there is a real heaven and there is a real hell, and throughout the entire Bible it uses multiple terms to describe what are two "categories" of people. Category one uses terms such as: "dead", "unrighteous", "wicked". Category two uses terms such as "life", "asleep", and "righteous."
Whenever the Bible refers to believers in Jesus Christ in a "death situation", it generally refers to them in terms of having "fallen asleep"/"sleeping" rather than in terms of having "died." Even in the Old Testament, the "righteous" (as the Bible also says those that are "in Christ" through faith are) are often talked about in terms of "sleep" rather than "death". This is a major concept that many people (even many that call themselves Christians) don't really get, so stay with me.
Jesus himself used the "asleep" terminology on several occasions. For instance, Christians often refer to a certain story in John 11 as "Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead" - but that actually isn't Biblically correct in the truest sense because ACTUALLY Lazarus wasn't dead! I can hear Christians gasping already - "how can you say that?" I can say that because Jesus said it: "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him." (John 11:11b) And His disciples, not understanding - much like many don't still today - replied: "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." (vs. 12) They thought Jesus was saying he was actually asleep like we think of sleep. But that wasn't the case. In vs. 13 it says, "Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep." In the next verse, we see Jesus using the word they understand so he can communicate with them (i.e. Jesus went down to their level) and he told them that Lazarus "died."
This isn't an isolated occurrence either. Another story where people talk of Jesus "raising someone from the dead" is the story of Jairus' daughter (see Mark 5 and Luke 8). In Luke 8:52 it says: "And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, 'Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.'". Notice Jesus said NOT to weep because it wasn't worthy of weeping because she wasn't dead...she was asleep! He then proceeded to call her spirit back to her body - "And her spirit returned, and she got up at once." (vs. 55)
She wasn't dead. Jesus knew that the girl was much more than just the physical body. Many of the other people didn't know that - they laughed at Jesus (vs. 53). But the girl - the person she really was - WAS indeed ALIVE - and Jesus knew it. She just was in a different location. Jesus called her back.
Weeping wasn't really appropriate for her because in reality there really wasn't much to weep about. Yes, she was gone here - and yes, as any of you out there that have lost a loved one that believed in Christ know, it does still hurt and you might cry. But when you really understand the greater picture - when you really have confidence (not just "head knowledge") - when you really KNOW that they are alive and safe with Christ because of their faith in Christ and that you will see them again, there's less and less to weep about and more and more to rejoice about. We all have to "go", but what matters is the bigger eternal picture. When my dad left this earth several years ago, it was hard for my mom and I. But my mom said something not long ago that really jumped out at me. She said: "It's kind of like he's gone on a really long trip, but we will see him again." When you know someone is just gone temporarily from your sight, and not for good, it makes all the difference - literally. When you understand that they are alive in the FULLEST sense of the word right now and that by your faith in Christ, you will be alive with Christ in its fullness and see them again one day also, that changes things from being a tragedy with no hope, to just a "missing" sadness that they are not here, but a rejoicing for where they are and where you're going. It's the difference between despair and hope. Weeping and everlasting joy. (Sidenote: This begs the question of how to deal with a situation where someone you know that is not a believer dies - we'll get to that in a few minutes).
The Bible talks of believers in Christ "falling asleep" to differentiate from what the world knows as death - it's a whole different experience. I am trying to share a revelation I've recently been starting to grasp in a deeper way that I'm not sure there's been too much teaching on in Christian circles. Not everybody dies! Believers in Jesus Christ do NOT DIE! Death is indeed swallowed up in victory for the righteous (see 1 Corinthians 15:54). There is a reason why Psalm 23 talks of the "shadow of death" - it's a shadow, not the substance - for those that are righteous.
The terms "death" and "life" mean much more than the one-dimensional physical understanding that many people have.
Yes, everyone on this planet will leave this planet - and to our eyes we may think in human terms that everyone "dies" since we can see the body that remains. But Biblically that is not the case - everyone leaves this planet, yes. But not everyone dies in the real sense of what that means.
In 2 Timothy 4:1a, notice the phrasing from the Apostle Paul: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead..." Notice that there are "living" and there are "dead". Many people think of this in terms of people living here and everyone else that has died. But actually, taking what we already have seen - that not everyone is "dead" who in human terms we would say "has died" - this takes on a different twist. There are living. And there are dead. Much like when Jesus referenced that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living." (Matthew 22:32b). There are, eternally, two categories.
Further, the reality that the Bible teaches is that we are ALL actually born DEAD - it goes all the way back to the death that was introduced to humankind through sin - which goes back to the beginning of human history with Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God (see Romans 5:12). That death is not just death here, but death forever eternally. Those that really do die here (and not "fall asleep") are just having their physical body catch up with what is already the case in their very being - their spirit. Understanding this is a major thing.
Jesus said, "You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:23b-24)
Jesus was telling people that unless their "sin problem" was dealt with (for their sins bring death - see James 1:15), they would die. In their sins. Thus they would not be righteous (how could they be if their sins hadn't been taken care of?), but under condemnation. Jesus said: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:17-18)
Death and life will not co-mingle for eternity. There will be those that are dead, and those that are alive. And they won't be together.
But they will both be conscious. Again, being dead means much more than just a physical body understanding.
What I am trying to show is that death and life, contrary to how we have been trained to think of them, are actually states that describe every person on this planet that we would say is physically alive right now and these states do not change in eternity. Those that are dead now and leave this earth in that dead state, stay in that dead state in eternity (though they are conscious and are in torment - see below) and those that are alive now and leave this earth in that alive state, stay in that alive state in what is called "eternal life".
We are all born dead because of the death which is inherent in the human race due to sin - we are born separated from God. And if we leave this earth in that state, we will truly experience death in its fullness. It can then truly be said that we died because nothing changed that fact. And that would be a HORRIBLE tragedy! Death IS horrible! Because we were still in death, we would be forever separated from God who is Life - and all those that are alive ("the living") with Him. The Bible describes this place of eternal separation as hell. And Jesus says multiple times that there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" there (Matthew 13:42). I'm not sure what all that means exactly, but I'm smart enough to know that it doesn't sound very good....not good at ALL! It is a place of utter torment. (Luke 16:19-30 gives a vivid illustration). Jesus said to "not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)
However, that fact of deadness CAN be changed. We can be MADE alive! Though we are all born dead, we can all receive LIFE. We can transfer from that dead state to a state of Life.
The Bible early-on establishes the principle that while we are all in sin, and subject to death, that people can be made righteous through faith in God. For instance, the Bible says of Abraham, who you can read about way back in the first book of the Bible, that "his faith was counted to him as righteousness." (see Romans 4:22). It goes on to say: "But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Romans 4:23-25).
That Scripture's a bit wordy, but basically it is saying that we also are to be justified before God (thus made right with God) through faith.
Jesus said: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25b-26)
Notice that Jesus says He is life and that those that believe in Him will not die (just as has already been discussed). But then He makes it personal. It's application time. Do you believe - and I mean really believe - it? Because your answer to that makes all the difference.
John 3:36 says that "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him."
Those that leave this world having "eternal life" will live forever in the presence of God - they are in the "alive" or "living" category of people discussed. Those that leave this world without having "eternal life" must face the wrath of God - they are in the "dead" category of people. They are still eternally conscious but they do not possess "eternal life" - this is an important distinction that many people get confused about. In fact, it could be said that they have "eternal death".
Jesus said "You must be born again." (John 3:7b) - To be "born again" means something is going to be new. We're born into a state of death, but we're "born again" into Life - which is eternal.
Have you by faith, believed in and received Jesus? Have you received LIFE (which Jesus said He IS!)? It is through your faith in and receiving Jesus (who paid the penalty for your sins when He, who was sinless, died in your place on the cross - and then overcame death by rising from the dead), that you become "born again" and are justified and have peace with God. "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God." (Romans 5:1-2) A major part of that hope that we have is the Life that we have - forever!
And if you have received Jesus (and thus Life), then "the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." (Romans 8:2b).
Further, this applies to you: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus..." (Ephesians 2:4-6)
This Scripture takes us to another important truth. Just as those that are dead now here are also dead in the unseen realm, those that are alive now here are ALREADY alive in the unseen realm as well. Did you catch it? It is talking PAST TENSE that we have been "raised" up with Christ and "seated" with Him in Heaven.
This is why "death" for the Christian isn't really death at all. In a spiritual sense, the Bible says that believers in Jesus Christ are actually ALREADY seated in the heavenly realm with Christ! When believers leave this earth, it really is in a fundamental sense as Corrie Ten Boom alluded to in the story I opened with. It's like "falling asleep" here and waking up in our Home - the Home that though we haven't seen with our physical eyes, we've already, in a spiritual sense, been in and grown accustomed to!
We gain life when we, in faith, choose Life (choose Christ!) - and that life continues through our abiding relationship in Christ (and don't miss the importance of maintaining that "abiding relationship") - up to, including, and forever after, the moment we breathe our last breath here. Thus comes to pass the truth that what is mortal is "swallowed up by life" (see 2 Corinthians 5:4). And "Death is swallowed up in victory." (1 Corinthians 15:54b) And "thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:57b)
"For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling...so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage." (2 Corinthians 5:1-2a,4b-6a)
Unlike the dead in this world who SHOULD fear physically dying here because it means they leave this earth in their dead state - in their sins (as Jesus said) and thus have a VERY bleak eternal future to look forward to, there is to be no fear for the Christian in regards to leaving this world. Jesus came to "deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." (Hebrews 2:15b) In Christ we are set free from having to be a slave to fear of death (as those outside of Christ are - which usually they deal with by just forcing themselves to avoid thinking about at all costs). Jesus, who calls Himself our "Good Shepherd" (John 10:11) that takes care of His sheep (those that have believed in Him), will take our hand and walk with us "through the valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23:4b) and deliver us safely where we shall "dwell in the house of the LORD forever." (Psalm 23:6b).
Until that day when we are called Home, may we be about the Father's business - doing all He has for us to do. For we were "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10b). As Christians, there is a certain "balancing act" because part of us really longs to be fully at home with the Lord in the fullest sense. Sometimes our feelings about our present circumstances sway us emotionally more one way or the other. When things are seemingly going great and we've got lots of people (i.e. friends/loved ones) around us here, we might be more prone to not be in a rush to go home to Heaven. But in those dark times when we are hurting and all alone, all of a sudden the pull gets much stronger.
I'm reminded of the Apostle Paul talking about how he desired to depart and go home to be with the Lord (which he rightfully recognized as far better than this life on earth), and yet, he also understood that the Lord had a present work for him to complete on the earth. (Philippians 1:23-24). Just as Paul finished his race and completed what God had for Him, may we also strive to fulfill all that God has for us, with all our being. And then "depart in peace" (Luke 2:29) and run into the arms of our Jesus that loves us so very much.
Postscript: One of the hardest things to deal with as a believer in Jesus Christ is in dealing with those around you that you knew and loved that died and seemed to not know the Lord. As alluded to earlier, I have had to face that prospect in regards to my grandfather. My mother has had to face that in regards to her parents. In her case, it took her many many years to really come to a place where she really was able to emotionally face the prospect that she might not see them again. Likewise, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I may never see my grandfather again. In the natural, we sometimes as mere humans want to question God's "fairness" in situations like these, but the reality is that if someone tragically rejects God their whole life, it actually makes NO sense that they would then be WITH God forever. They chose to not be with God. It is sad - a tragedy of the highest order - but we have to accept it and in a sense let those people go in our hearts and just trust that God knew their hearts and has done/will do what is right and just. I can personally testify that Jesus can - and does - give the strength to do this "letting go". In the final analysis, I don't know for certainty the situation with my grandfather because I don't know what he might have done in his heart between him and God even in the last seconds of life here. And the reality is you don't know for certainty either - God knows the heart and will do what is right. We need to just commit those people to Him and trust Him, and with God's help, we can do so.
At the end of the day, remember that God will "wipe away tears" from your face, and "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (see Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4). Now that's something I'm REALLY looking forward to!! :)
Regardless of who we knew here on this earth that we might not know for eternity, we have a BIG family of people that we do/will know. And they are people that we do/will WANT to be with and they do/will WANT to be with us - forever. :)
The sad reality is that thousands (millions?) of unbelievers die each day all over this planet - those that are on the broad road that leads to destruction, rather than the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). It is absolutely tragic and if anything, I have an even greater desire to be bolder in my witness going forward. People are literally going to hell. We need to care, and do all we can do to shine the light and bring them to the Light - and the Life - Jesus Christ. Many Christians are very passive in their faith; it's time we all start to take a much more active role, just as the Scriptures tell us to. This is not a game!
We're all going to leave this earth one day - our time is short in comparison to eternity. We want to first make sure we ourselves are right with Jesus (and that we "Choose Life" - see Dt. 30:19), and then make sure we do all we can to help others be right with Jesus. Souls hang in the balance. It is literally a matter of Life and Death.
With love to you in Christ,
This is version 1.1 of this document (August 16, 2012 - minor editing).