Christian Hope: What Happens When We Die?
2/9/2018 3:57:04 AM
Feb 4, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Psalm 88:3-6, 10-12; 2 Cor 5:1-10
Hamlet’s speech, “To be or not to be,” may be Shakespeare’s most famous passage. Certainly it is quoted and referred to frequently. The speech is a lone man’s internal wrestling with the question of what happens when we die. Depressed and in despair, Hamlet ponders aloud whether or not it is better to live (“to be”) with trials and difficulties (in his case the murder of his father by his uncle who then takes Hamlet’s mother as his wife and takes the throne from Hamlet) or to surrender to despair and take one’s own life (“not to be”).
Hamlet himself is ready to give up, he describes death as “sleep” but then realizes that in the sleep of death dreams may come! And what dreams might those be? Perhaps one’s sleep will be disrupted by torment? This fear, the fear of what happens when we die, the fear of judgment and Hell, is what keeps people from just killing themselves when things are going badly. Why else would anybody put up with all the sin, pain and corruption of the world? That is what Hamlet asks. That is what he wrestles with. Ultimately, the fear of death leads Hamlet to hatch a plan to expose his uncle’s murderous deeds. A depressing play, Hamlet ends with everybody dead. In that sense, it is a classic example of the “tragedy” genre or style of play.
Today, our culture wrestles with a similar question. What happens when we die? Do we just sleep? Do we just stop experiencing anything? Is death the end? Or is there something after death? Do we experience judgment for our sins? Do we “dream” so to speak? In our secular culture, the rise of suicide, euthanasia and a general disregard for life reflects a prevailing belief that things do just end when we die. That is certainly consistent with the naturalistic world view.
But not just a theoretical question, most individuals, most of us, wonder what will happen when we die. Does this life matter? Is there life after death? Does what we do in this life affect our experience of life after death?
This whole series, Christian Hope, has been focusing on the fact that Christians look forward to being resurrected like Jesus was on that first Easter Sunday. We look forward to having a physical body after the resurrection. We will not exist as disembodied spirits for eternity. In addition, our series has talked about the Biblical teaching that Jesus will be coming back to earth to dwell here on earth for eternity rather than us going to heaven for eternity. Jesus is going to redeem all of creation rather than just rescuing Christians and taking us out of this place.
But what happens when we die? Yes, in the future we anticipate being resurrected, but what about the mean time? What happens between death and the resurrection? Our ignorance about what happens after death is a cause of great fear and trepidation. It can also be a source of great confusion. So let’s take a look at what the Bible says about life after death.
To begin with, we first need to see what the Bible says about death before Jesus’ resurrection. Then we will take a look at what it says about death after Jesus’ resurrection.
Please turn with me first to Psalm 88:3-6, 10-12 and then 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.
What It Says
So, what do these two texts say? First, let’s begin with Psalm 88, a Psalm of lament. The Psalmist is in trouble, he is in despair. He feels so far from God. He says he is close to the grave and that means being separated from God!
In verse 3, the word translated “grave” is actually a proper noun, Sheol. Sheol is the Hebrew word for the place of the dead. In Greek, this word is Hades. Sheol is described in a variety of ways in the Old Testament, from a cavern for the dead, to a dry wasteland to even a ravenous beast! [Derek Kidner, Psalms, p. 61]
Verses 3 and 4 parallel one another, giving further explanation. The Psalmist says he is descending even to the Pit. The Pit is sometimes uses as a synonym for Sheol, but other times it appears to refer to a particular part of Sheol, a pit which served as a dungeon for the particularly evil people who had died. [Kidner, p. 122] So the
Psalmist is afraid that he is descending to the dungeon of the dead!
In verse 5 the Psalmist speaks of God’s forgetting the dead. This isn’t an issue of God forgetting as much as once people die, once they enter Sheol, they no longer experience God’s saving interventions. [Kidner, p. 62] Being dead, being in Sheol, means utter separation from God and God’s saving work.
Verses 10-12 give further insight into Sheol and what happens when people are dead. The Psalmist elaborates through this section that when people die their worship of God is cut off. In death, we are cut off from God and from our God-given purpose of glorifying him forever!
A special note on v. 11. The question is asked, “Is your love declared in Sheol? Your faithfulness in Destruction?” Destruction is another proper noun. In Hebrew the word is Abaddon. In Greek the word is Apollyon. Apollyon is named in Rev 9:11 as “The Destroyer.”
Psalm 88 paints a pretty bleak picture of what happens to us in death! And this is consistent throughout the Old Testament. Yet, even in the Psalms, there are a few hints of a future resurrection! There are a few glimmers of hope that death, the grave, Sheol are not eternal! [cf Ps 16:10; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24, Kidner, p. 62]
So what does this Psalm say? What does Sheol tell us? Sheol is the OT’s way of asserting that death is not the end of human existence! [George Ladd, New Testament Theology, p. 194] Death is not the end of our existence! There is something after death. Now, as described in the OT, the experience of Sheol is not really “life” because it is separation from God. But neither is it an end of our experience. And let me point out further, Sheol is not so much a place, like a geographical location, but a state of existence. The question to ask about Sheol is not “where is it?” but “what is it like to die?” [Ladd, p. 194]
As bad as Sheol may be, as depressing and listless as our existence there might be, Sheol or Hades is not Hell! Hell is the place of eternal fire. Hell is where the devil will be punished. Hell is where the unrighteous will go after judgment. That is, Hell will not be used, will not be populated, until after Jesus returns, after the resurrection and after the Day of Judgment.
This is the picture painted in the OT. Our existence after death will be shadowy, separated from God, an existence but not really life. It is “existence after death” but not a real “life after death” in the Biblical use of the term “life.” (Since life can only be enjoyed in the presence of God! (cf Ps 16:10; Ladd, p. 194)
But what about the NT? Let’s consider what is said in our second passage, 2 Cor 5:1-10. By way of context, this is a terrible chapter break. These verses are a continuation of Paul’s discussion in 2 Cor 4 in which he is talking about our experience of suffering in this body, but that our current suffering pales in comparison with the glory we have in store at the resurrection!
Following up on this discussion, Paul speaks about our “tents” in which we live. “Tent” is a reference to our mortal bodies which are subject to sin and decay. In contrast with our mortal bodies, Paul tells us God is preparing “houses” for us. These “houses built without hands” are our resurrection bodies that will not be subject to decay. Contrast a tent with a house! We may groan in our present, mortal bodies or “tents” but we groan because we long for our eternal resurrection bodies or “houses.”
One difficulty we face, however, is that between our present tent and future house, we may experience death. At that point, we will be naked or unclothed! We will no longer inhabit our earthly tent, but we will not yet have received our eternal house. We will be disembodied spirits, “naked” or “unclothed.” This is what people experience in Sheol. We should shrink away from this naturally because God created us to be physical beings. We are not made to be disembodied spirits. Being without a body is not something we should long because it is unnatural. We are physical creatures after all! God’s purpose for us is to have eternal bodies and he has sent his Holy Spirit to live inside us as a deposit or guarantee that we will, one day, live by the Spirit in eternal bodies. The Spirit that lives inside us now, the Spirit that is a deposit, is the same Spirit that resurrected Christ, so we can be sure He will resurrect us too, when the time comes.
Now, here’s the real power of what Paul says in this passage. Because of the Spirit, because of Jesus’ resurrection, in v 6, 8, Paul actually describes a very different experience of life after death than we saw in Ps 88! Paul says that being in our body (mortal body) means being away from Christ and that being away from our present body will mean being with Christ. That’s powerful! What is he saying? We’re going to get to that in a moment, but before we explore that, see how Paul concludes his argument in v. 10.
What we do in our mortal bodies will matter when we appear before Jesus. Because we are sure of the
resurrection and the Day of Judgment, we know that what we do now matters. Jesus will ensure that each person receives what they are due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad! So we are to live for Jesus in our present bodies precisely because we know we will have a future eternal body! Our lives, our lifestyles matter to Jesus. Our bodies matter to him and what we do in or with our bodies matters too.
What It Means
So what does all this mean? First, we see that there is existence after death. Death is not the end of our human experience! This moves the finish line of our lives further back.
When we look at the OT, we see Sheol and the experience of Sheol is not full life. It’s a shadowy, lifeless existence because of the separation from God. Also, within Sheol, there is the Pit. So if you’re really bad, Sheol is even worse!
In OT terms, Hamlet’s fears were legitimate! Had Hamlet lived in OT times, he would have been right to fear death because it would not be a sleep, an escape. Rather, the “dreams” of Sheol would be unpleasant.
But a huge change has happened. Reality has been altered! Remember, Paul spoke of leaving this earthly body as being “with Christ.” That’s powerful! What does it mean? Jesus’ resurrection changes death for the righteous! That is, for those in a right relationship with God, based on God’s evaluation, Jesus’ resurrection changes our experience of death from that of lifeless Sheol to closeness with Jesus. In Sheol, there is no worship, no praise of God, no experience of God’s deliverance, no true life. But since the first Easter, death means going to be with Jesus, which means true life, experiencing God’s deliverance, and being able to worship God in spirit and truth! Think of Paul’s words in Phil 1:23, that he eagerly desires to depart this life and be with Jesus! Not Sheol, but with Jesus.
For the righteous, Sheol (the state of the dead) is changed to Paradise! Paradise in the OT is a reference to either the Garden of Eden, where God walked with Adam and Eve, or a reference to the future Messianic Age. [cf Ezek 28:13; 31:8; Ladd, p. 195] With the Resurrection of Jesus, the Messianic Age has begun! The righteous dead now go to be with Jesus, to experience the Paradise that is the Messianic Age. In the Messianic Age, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death or Sheol!
This transformation of the experience of death, the transformation of the human state of existence after dying, sheds light on a number of passages. For instance, think of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus was promising that the thief would be with him in the state of death, formerly Sheol and separation from God, now described as Paradise and being with Jesus.
This means that even for the dead in Christ, Easter is a great turning point. It isn’t just significant for those alive in Christ, but also for those who died believing in Jesus, or, in OT terms, looking forward in faith to Jesus. This changes Ps 88’s understanding of death. Death, for the righteous, no longer means separation from God, being cut off from worship, from God’s love or from God’s saving acts! In fact, quite to the contrary! Death now leads to an experience of closeness with God and a more tangible experience of God’s greatest saving act, the Atonement for sin!
We are told, too, in 1 Peter 3:19, that after his death on the cross, Jesus descended to preach or proclaim to the prisoners. (There are other difficulties with this passage which we can’t explore today!) But, suffice it to say, Jesus went to the place of the dead, he went to Sheol, and proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God!
Today is communion Sunday and we read together the Apostle’s Creed. One line in the Creed, which gives some people trouble, is that Jesus “descended to Hades.” This is what the Creed is talking about! First, Jesus’ death was a real death. It wasn’t a different experience of death, it wasn’t a swoon, it was a true, full death like the rest of us. [JI Packer, Affirming the Apostle’s Creed, p. 85] But further than that, Jesus turned Hades, or Sheol, to a Paradise for those who believed in him during his earthly ministry (think of John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna in the temple) and the OT faithful.
Now there is life after death, not just existence after death! Sheol was existence, but the separation from God meant it was not real “life.” Jesus came to bring abundant life! Now there is even life, in terms of fellowship with God, after death. Not even death can separate us from the love of God! (Rom 8:38-39).
What, then, about our future resurrection? How does that fit into the equation? Life after death is described as being “unclothed.” What does it mean to be clothed with our heavenly house? The resurrection is about life after life after death! [NT Wright, Surprised by Hope; Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or
Resurrection of the Dead, passim.] For the righteous, when we die, we go to be with Jesus. We experience God. This is life! But it is incomplete life because God designed us to be physical creatures. This is called the “intermediate state.” Later, when Christ returns, the dead will be raised and given their resurrection bodies. These are our heavenly houses made without hands. These will be what we experience for eternity, these are part of eternal life. The intermediate state, being disembodied but still with Jesus, is temporary, not eternal.
Being disembodied spirits, even in Christ’s presence, is not what God intended for us. We were created physical creatures and physical creatures is what we will become! This time, though, we will not be subject to sin or death. In these bodies we will live with Jesus on a physical, redeemed earth.
Paul says that these eternal, incorruptible bodies are being prepared for us in Heaven. That our eternal bodies are currently in Heaven does not mean we have to be in Heaven to enjoy them. IN fact, other passages make clear we will experience these bodies on earth. NT Wright makes a helpful illustration. He says, “If I tell you I have a beer waiting for you in the refrigerator [or a pop if that’s wat you prefer], that doesn’t mean you have to crawl into the refrigerator to enjoy it!” [Wright, Surprised by Hope] No, it’s being prepared in the refrigerator, but I will bring it to you for you to enjoy and make use of.
This anticipation of our immortal bodies reminds us of the importance of what we do in our present mortal bodies! Time and time again, when Paul speaks of our resurrection, of our future glory, he follows it up with exhortation to live for Jesus now. It is because of the resurrection that we know what happens in our physical bodies matters to God. It is because death is not the finish line, it is not the end, that we know what is really important. It changes what it means to be a “winner” in this life. Winning or losing in life is not based on our accumulation of wealth, or power or our experience of pleasure or comfort! No! Winning in life, success, is based on Jesus’ evaluation of how we lived when we face him on the Day of Judgment. And that will result in either eternal, embodied life with him, or eternal separation from him!
So how do we apply all this? What is the usefulness of this? First, this is useful by way of understanding. There is a lot of confusion among Christians about what we believe about life after death. There is also a lot of confusion among non-Christians about what Christians are supposed to believe about life after death. Christians don’t just believe in life after death. We believe in life after life after death! Christians will experience a new closeness with Jesus after death, then we will be resurrected and given new, incorruptible, immortal bodies in which we will live with Jesus on earth for eternity.
This means that Jesus’ resurrection has removed the sting of death, as Paul says in 1 Cor 15. No longer do the righteous experience Sheol as a separation from God. This means that we no longer fear the grave the way the Psalmist does in Ps 88. We can echo Paul’s words in Phil 1:23 that do die is to be with Christ!
Hamlet had it wrong. First, death is not a sleep. There are, in fact, dreams so to speak. But for Christians, death means being with Christ. Those are wonderful “dreams” or experiences! When facing trials and persecution in life, the goal is not “escape” in “sleep.” Rather, the Christian’s goal is victory in Jesus! The Christian faces trials and difficulties knowing that even death is not the end but that the Day of Judgment will prove who is righteous and reward them appropriately. The affliction we endure now leads to reward at our resurrection in the future. Paul speaks of groaning in this life, in this body. He experienced far worse trials than most of us, or even than fictional Hamlet. But Paul knew his future glory far outweighed even his trials!
I think Hamlet was unsure of his salvation. Perhaps his faith was merely one of giving assent to facts? Did he not experience the Spirit in his life? Had he done so, he would have been encouraged to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with the power of the Spirit and the hope of resurrection. He would have fought for justice knowing the day of Judgment would set everything right.
Being with Christ in death, and then experiencing resurrection after our life with Jesus after death, help us keep the main thing the main thing! It helps us keep our priorities straight. Our physical bodies matter to God. He’s making new immortal ones for us even as we speak! Our physical world matters to God, he’s planning on redeeming this one and living with us here forever! What happens here, in this life, matters in eternity. There is a line from the movie Gladiator, “What you do in this life echoes in eternity.” That’s true! What we do in this life has eternal consequences, and what we do for God’s Kingdom, God’s authority, will last into his future redemption of creation.
This changes our priorities. Many today have the wrong idea about what it means to “win” at life! But Jesus changes what that means. Today happens to be Super Bowl Sunday. It’s Super Bowl 52 tonight, and the NE Patriots will face off against the Philadelphia Eagles. I read an interesting article this past week about the Eagles. Carson Wentz, their starting QB for most of the year, has been injured and won’t play today. But he’s a very outspoken Christians. He has set a leadership example on the field, but also with his faith. He has said that every game he plays for “an Audience of One.” That is, he plays for God alone. Before his injury, he was having an MVP season!
A number of his teammates are also very outspoken believers. So much so, that the team actually posted an 8 minute video of 3 of them giving their testimonies on the team’s official Facebook page! Every Monday night, the team hosts a couples Bible Study. Thursday nights there is a team Bible Study. Saturday night, before game day, there is an open time for prayer, sharing and accountability. All of these events are held in the team’s official practice facility!
In October, one wide receiver, Marcus Johnson, was baptised in the hotel pool by his teammates and coaches before a Thursday night game on the road. He tweeted out pictures of it the next day! The QB, Wentz, said, “I think what we’re always challenging each other with is not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Wins, losses, highs, lows, everything that comes with this game, it’s so easy to take your mind and your eyes off the ultimate prize, and that’s living for the Lord.” The players on the team say they’ve been encouraged to see their teammates push each other to grow as more than just players, but as men of God.
Wow! These guys are playing in the NFL, the most highly watched and highly paid sport in the US. They are about to compete for a championship. And they’re having Bible studies and baptisms before games. They know what’s important! Jesus has changed their priorities. Many people would say these guys are winning at life by playing in the NFL. They say they are winning at life by loving Jesus and living for him.
Life with Jesus after death, his return and our resurrection, change what is important. The pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of power, the pursuit of popularity, the pursuit of pleasure or even comfort are what our world chases after. And they all lead to Destruction. Jesus said, instead, we are to seek first the Kingdom of God. That’s what these football players are doing.
Are you experiencing suffering or difficult times? Are you experiencing prosperity and success? Whatever your situation, whatever your circumstances, keep your eyes on Jesus. We groan at times in this body. But our groaning now is a reminder of what we have in store for us in the future. Nothing can cut us off from Jesus like the Psalmist feared in Ps 88 if we put our faith in him and let him lead our lives.
Ask yourself, “Who do I live for?” Do you live for yourself? Do you live to look good in the eyes of others? Do you live for Jesus? At communion, we heard Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do you remember Jesus in all you do? Do you join with him in his atoning death? Remembering Jesus in all we do is what matters. It reshapes life. It reshapes death. It reshapes life after life after death.
Live for Jesus! That is what has the best eternal consequences. It is the best investment you can make with your life. Amen.
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