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Questions about Death and Christian Hope, Part 1

On each of the last two Saturdays I have attended funerals. One was for a family member, and I was in the position of leading the service. One was for a family friend, and I was seated in the congregation at my home church. Some in our church family have recently been touched by death, and some are still living with the reality of deaths that occurred some time ago, adjusting to the reality of life without a loved one.

When death disrupts our living, whether unexpectedly or not, I for one find myself considering some of the most basic claims of the Christian faith, reflecting on the full array of the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a pastor who has been involved in dozens of funerals, I can say that it is a common experience, even for unbelievers or less-than-active churchgoers, to find oneself asking what the Bible has to say to us about death, life after death, and comfort and hope for the future. Whether the person we’ve lost had a clear and explicit profession of faith in Jesus, mere hints of faith, or no apparent faith at all, most of us find ourselves asking some basic questions at times of death.

I thought it might be helpful to share some words about the biblical witness surrounding some of these questions. We can never get to a place of fully knowing the answers to all our questions, but we can find some significant promises and hope in what God has chosen to reveal to us through Scripture.

Because it’s a bit lengthy, I will share these thoughts as a few shorter posts.

Part 1: Death and Grief, and Life after Death

Part 2: The Resurrection Body, and a Side Note about the Individual and the World

Part 3: Living with a View to the Resurrection

Death and Grief

Death touches all of us. Christians are not immune from death, and we all wonder about it, especially as it gets nearer. Nor are we immune from grief. All we know is what we’ve known in this life, in this world, as it is right now. And when we lose people from this life, or prepare to leave it behind ourselves, we are understandably touched with sadness.

The Bible recognizes that death is real, and that grief is real. Not only do we meet people like us grieving the loss of loved ones—King David mourning the death of his troublesome son Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33), a father desperate as his daughter nears death (Mark 5:23), two sisters bereaved by the loss of their brother (John 11:21, 32)—we also see Jesus himself shedding tears in the wake of death (John 11:35). Grief is an expected, if painful, part of our lives. But for followers of Jesus, grief is transformed. The apostle Paul put it this way: “We do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). He doesn’t say that we don’t grieve, but says that our grief is different, because we have hope. The hope that we have is centred around the biblical promise of resurrection. This hope doesn’t only affect the way we deal with death. It also affects the way we look at life.

Life After Death?

Most of what the Bible tells us is about future resurrection, but many people wonder about what happens at the moment of death, and what’s happening with their loved ones now. There are only a couple of passages that give explicit clues about life immediately after death—what many refer to as the “intermediate state” because it comes between our death and the final “day of Christ.”

The first clue comes in Luke’s account of Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 23:42-43). As Jesus was being crucified, one of the criminals who was being put to death along with him made a simple request (we might call it a simple prayer) to Jesus: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To this criminal, Jesus gave an equally simple assurance: “today you will be with me in paradise.” A second clue comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In that letter, Paul was being reflective about his own closeness to death, and considering what it would mean for his life to come to an end. He said that he was torn between a desire to live and a desire to die, because “to depart” was to “be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:23). Finally, in a somewhat obscure passage (2 Cor. 5:1-5), Paul seems to refer to our state after death and before the resurrection as being “unclothed,” while resurrection means being “clothed with our heavenly dwelling.”

What are we to make of these passages? What can we say? It seems that it would be wise not to say too much. However, what we notice in both Luke 23 and Philippians 1 is that, after their death, believers are said to be “with” Jesus. It is clear from Jesus’ word “paradise” and Paul’s statement that it “is better by far” that being with Jesus after death is a very positive thing. But to say what that means or how exactly that looks is to go beyond the Bible. Tales of golfing at the heavenly country club with Uncle Bob are just make-believe: they fail to realize that bodily resurrection is a future promise, and they make too little of what it means to be with Jesus. It will be a wonderful gift to be with Jesus after we die, even if we don’t know exactly how to picture that. But the emphasis of 2 Corinthians 5 is that this being with Jesus is not the final destination. Wonderful as it will be, “far better” as it is than life as we know it now, it is not the fullness of what we’re waiting for. The “clothing” that we long for is the resurrection body.

Next post: The Resurrection Body and a Note about the Individual and the World

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