Death is something we all have to face. It’s a great leveller! In more than one sense!
Death though is not “natural”; the wages of sin is death, death is the last enemy. However, salvation means victory over sin and death – death, because of Jesus’ resurrection is a defeated enemy. When Jesus died death was conquered – so much so that (Mt 27: 52) the earth quaked, some tombs were broken open and people who had died were raised to life! We don’t have to be afraid of death.
What happens when I die is a question most of us have to face at sometime or another.
Though, you may be surprised to know that not everyone will die! Those alive at Jesus’ return won’t die we’ll put on immortality.
About 10% of what I’m going to tell you is wrong! The only problem is, I don’t know which 10%! We need to test all things against the scriptures.
Many people claim to have had death experiences and have come back – many of them non-Christians. All seem to have a similar story to tell: an out of body experience, a tunnel, meeting someone.
One scientific study done by the university of Southampton has been set up to examine 1.500 survivours of cardiac arrest – the study known as AWARE (awareness during resuscitation) started in 2008 and planned to take 3 years. Time 18 Sept 2008
I’ve not seen any of their results yet.
Other Universities have departments of death studies.
At Bath there is the Centre for Death and Society
At Durham, Centre for Death and Life studies
There are a number of places you can get an MA in death Studies; including Bath and Lampeter,
However, personal experiences or scientific studies are not a reliable basis on which to base a theology or a doctrine.
So, what does happen when we die?
There are many responses to this.
The materialistic atheist on the other hand maintains that when we die we die, we get eaten by worms and that’s it. There is no continuity. We die we rot, end of story
Some maintain that we will be reincarnated, according to what we have done. If we have lived well then we may enjoy an eternal disembodied bliss, otherwise we might come back as a cockroach, an ant eater or an ant.
For the Buddhist they hope to get off the wheel of life and cease to exist or face reincarnation (again).
Two dear old friends, Abner and Fred, had many conversations through their life about death and what they thought Heaven would be like. They made an agreement that whichever of them died first would make every effort to make contact with the one that was still living and tell them what Heaven was like.
Well, Fred was the first to die and about a year later, Abner was truly missing his dear friend. One day, the phone rang...and when he answered it, he heard a familiar voice on the line.
Abner said: "Fred, is that you?"
"Yes it is my old friend, yes it is."
Abner was overjoyed, and said:
"So, tell me, what is it like where you are?"
Fred said: "This is wonderful. You wouldn’t believe what I am experiencing now. The most plentiful food and lushest fields you have ever seen, I sleep in late, have a long luxurious breakfast, and then I go and make love.
If it's a nice day I go out in the fields and make love some more. I come in and have a long lunch, then I go out into the fields again and make love all afternoon and retire early in the evening.”
Abner responded: "Heaven sounds so amazing!"
Fred replied: Heaven? Who said anything about heaven? I’m a rabbit in Minnesota!"
For many Christians it is a combination of the Buddhist and the atheist perspective. Our bodies get eaten by worms, but our souls or spirits get into n eternal bliss we call heaven. This however, is not the biblical picture! It is a Greek idea. It stems from a wrong view of what it means to be human. We are not souls or spirits trapped inside a body.
So, what do the scriptures say?
It is something that you’d think they have a lot to say on it. Isn’t that what Christianity is all about getting to heaven when we die? However, there is very little in the scriptures! The problem is that many of our ideas about heaven come not from the scriptures but from non-Christian culture.
As Tom Wright puts it:
“We should remember especially that the use of the word heaven to denote our ultimate goal of the redeemed, though hugely emphasised by medieval piety, mystery plays and the like, and still almost universally at a popular level, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope.” FATS p. 20-21
The Bible says nothing about going to heaven when we die.
In the Scriptures heaven is the hidden dimension of our ordinary life – it is where God is. It is not a place that we go to when we die.
Heaven is not our future hope – our hope is physical bodily resurrection and that will be on the new heavens and new earth.
In the OT it was clear that the dead go to Sheol. David Lawrence in his book Heaven It’s Not the End of the World illustrates it like this. (see slides)
Sheol is translated unhelpfully by the Authorised Version as hell. The two are different places. Sheol is simply the realm of the dead. It was a place of waiting – not punishment or rewards. There are some glimpses of resurrection in the OT but not much. There is some hint that the rewards and fate of the righteous and unrighteous will be different.
The Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ is usually translated as Hades in the NT. This again is the place of the departed and not hell. In Revelation 1: 18 we are told Jesus holds the keys to Hades. Death was not able to hold Jesus and one day when Jesus returns Hades will have to give up the dead.
The New Testament picture looks something like this: (image from Key note – adapted from David Lawrence)
Sheol becomes Hades. There is some sort of “Intermediate State” – the position of the dead between death and Jesus’ return. At Jesus’ return there is resurrection and judgement. The fate of believers will be physical resurrection bodies on a new earth and the unbelievers Gehenna. Gehenna, usually translated as hell, is the name of the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, where a fire burned all the time to destroy the rubbish that was chucked on it.
So, what then happens between death and the return of Jesus, in this ‘intermediate state’?
It was this question that bugged the Thessalonians – they expected Jesus to return pretty quickly, certainly within a few years of his ascension, but things were dragging on. Believers were dying – what was going to happen to them? Would they miss out? It is these questions that Paul is addressing in his letter to them.
Grieve – grief is important, but don’t grieve like the rest who have no hope.
Hope – because of Jesus’ death and resurrection there is hope. They won’t miss out.
Paul’s focus is not on the intermediate state but on the resurrection. The dead and those alive will meet the Lord.
Incidentally, the word meet here has been used to justify a rapture of the saints up into ‘heaven’ before the tribulation – a modern day theory popularised by the Scofield Bible and by the recent Tim La Haye Left Behind books. However, the word used is the word used to denote meeting a visiting dignitary. A group of important people would go out to meet the dignitary, to welcome him and bring him back to the city; not to go off into the distance with him!
In verse 13 and 15 We have the phrase ‘fallen asleep’.
Some have interpreted this to mean an unconscious sleep.
The dead are asleep. They have no consciousness of what is happening.
David Lawrence writes: ‘evidence from other New Testament passages seems to conflict with this. John [in Revelation] hears the souls of the martyrs in heaven not snoring but shouting’! (p 69)
Some have suggested that for the dead in Christ there is no intermediate state – it is as if they die and are at the resurrection at Christ’s return. This has much going for it. Not least an attempt to get away from a dualistic view of what it means to be human.
However, Jesus on the cross speaks to one of the thieves and says, today you will be with me in Paradise – this seems to imply a conscious awareness of Jesus after death. Lk 23:42, 43.
It could be translated ‘I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise’ – the today refers to when Jesus spoke it and not when the thief would be with him in Paradise. But then why would Jesus use the term paradise?
Paul in Phil 1:21 – depart and be with Christ – if this was an unconscious state how could he then say it would be better?
Why aren’t we told much about what happens between death and Jesus’ return?
I suspect because that is not our goal – our hope is resurrection bodies and the new earth. The physical is important!
There are three possibilities then for what happens when we die, in this intermediate state:
1. We are asleep and are not aware of anything until the resurrection
2. When we die we immediately experience the resurrection, so there is no intermediate state for the dead, but there is an intermediate time for those who are still alive
3. We are with Christ in paradise waiting for the resurrection
What is the take home from this?
Death is not the end. We don’t need to fear it as Jesus has the victory over it.
We don’t have much scriptural information about what happens when we die - because that’s not the focus of the gospel of the kingdom.
Our hope is not in heaven with harps but resurrection bodies on the new heaven and earth. We don’t look forward to life after death, but as Tom Wright puts it, life after life after death!