Life After Death

Death, it's not something we often talk about, or even like to talk about. As a matter of fact we don't even like to use the word death, dead, or dying. We prefer to say, "passed away" or "they have gone to be with the Lord."

Death is a hard reality, a reality that we all have experienced in some way already, whether as a result of the death of a co-worker, friend, or close family member. And ultimately we will all experience death first hand.  Yet it's still a difficult topic to think about, let alone discuss.

The truth is you and I will die at some point. Our physical bodies will stop functioning, our breathing and heartbeat will stop, and our brain activity will end. But is that all there is? The Bible says no!

Our reading from Corinthians today immediately follows Paul's writings about the resurrection of Jesus and its significance. And as we heard today, Paul explains what resurrection will be like for those of us, who believe and follow the resurrected Christ.

Please join me in a moment of prayer. Lord God, today's message addresses a difficult topic, a topic we tend to shy away from, yet it's a topic, which is so important to us as Christians. As we hear your word today fill us with hope and anticipation for our own resurrection. Now God remove all distractions from our hearts and minds so that your Holy Spirit might fill us with knowledge and understanding. Heavenly Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be focused solely on you, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

Make no mistake about it resurrection is a mystery and is the most critical event for all Christians.  Without the resurrection there would be no understanding of Jesus as God's Son or Messiah.  Without the resurrection the church would not have been born and we would have no faith. Yes, the resurrection is important and chapter 15 of first Corinthians is a key passage of scripture for trying to understand life after death.

And as we read and reflect on this part of scripture we must remember that Paul writes his letter not from personal observation or personal experience, not from biblical testimony, and not from well-established tradition of the still very young Christian Church.

No, Paul writes his letter entirely out of a revelation that God has given him. But before I address what resurrection of the body is and is not, let me first address some concepts we need to have a basic understanding of. The first one is heaven.

What is heaven?

Heaven is a spiritual realm where all believers in Jesus Christ share fellowship with each other and with God.  The book of Revelation describes heaven as a place of perpetual light.  In the Bible light is a metaphor for good and darkness is a symbol for evil, death, and sin. There will be no darkness in heaven. It will be a place of no tears, pain, or sorrow; it will be a place of great love, joy, and peace; it will be a place of growth, learning, and serving.

Heaven is not some place in outer space where we float around as free spirits. Heaven is a place free from our existing human realities. It's a place willed originally by God and lived by Jesus, as he lived on earth, and is now promised to us by the Holy Spirit working within us. Heaven is a place of rest, not rest in the sense of doing nothing, but rather rest in the sense of living free from frustration, stress, and pain.

The Bible doesn't speak very clearly on what happens to those who do not know Jesus Christ as savior.  But we do God is a loving, just, and merciful God. The Bible tells us that to know God we must know Jesus, and it's through Jesus that we come into relationship with God. And as Christians, we have an important responsibility to share this good news with others.

The next concept we need to look at is hell.

If people don't accept Jesus as their savior will they go to hell, and if so what is hell? Unfortunately we don't know all the answers to these questions. But we do know that those who oppose God, like Satan and his followers, will not be in heaven. Hell is not a place of fire and pitchforks located in the center of the earth, somewhere between the United States and China. Hell is a place where God is not, and is a place where all those things opposite of God exist: hate, jealousy, loneliness, stealing, murder, lying, coveting, distrust, and so on.

Another way of looking at hell is, as eternal death. This means that those who don't choose God and God's ways choose to die forever. They cease to exist forever rather than live in the presence of God for all eternity.

Some also want to know about a place called purgatory, a place between heaven and hell. Well the Bible speaks of no such place. Purgatory is a doctrine, which originated in medieval Catholicism and is taught in the Roman Catholic tradition. Purgatory, as taught, is a place where the souls of the faithful dead endure a period of purification and cleansing from sin, prior to their entrance into heaven. This is a doctrine that the protestant church rejects since there is no biblical foundation for it.

So now that we have an understanding of heaven and hell lets address resurrection of the body.

Lets look first at what Paul says resurrection is not. Our resurrection will not be a resuscitation of our physical body, which is akin to someone being returned from death by CPR. In fact Paul rejects the idea of a resurrection into the precise physical form we occupy now, which he calls "perishable, weak, and dishonored," when contrasted to the glory found in the resurrection body. Nor will our resurrection be a general gathering of our spirit with the spirit's of all those who have died before us. Resurrection does not mean a releasing of all the positive, psychic energy in the world. When we die we also don't turn into angels. This idea is not scriptural.

Angels are another order of creature that serves as God's messengers. Resurrection is also not "ghost making." Our detached spirits will not drift around the world, inhabiting places and haunting people. Nor does Paul believe that our souls are only a little piece of God that returns to its origin after our death. The Greeks believed in an "immortal soul" which exists within every person.  It gets released from the body upon death to join a spiritual order.

This belief, to some extent, was held true by classical protestant tradition for sometime, that immediately upon death our souls went to either heaven or hell, and our bodies remained in the grave. This theology has since been dismissed because: the separation of soul and body, even temporarily, is not biblical, and if we are judged for all eternity immediately upon death then there is no need for final judgment.

So what then is resurrection?

Paul explains resurrection by using the image of a seed. A seed and the plant that eventually, evolves from the seed are two very different entities. Paul says that God is the One who gives the plant its body that is so very different from the seed. In the death of our physical bodies, at the close of our life here on earth, God raises a new spiritual body. Our resurrected body will be immortal and imperishable, freed from the limitations set by our current, frail, physical life.

Paul believes the resurrection of the body is not simply a natural consequence of life and death. But rather resurrection far exceeds being a natural consequence. Resurrection is a gift from God. The resurrection of the body expresses God's grace in Jesus Christ. Not only are we reconciled to God, not only are we granted forgiveness of our sins, and not only do we receive eternal life with God, but we are also given the gift of a resurrected body - a body that is immortal and imperishable.

Paul's description of resurrection and eternal life leaves us with a feeling that eternal life can only be described as wonderfully mysterious and heavenly. When we are resurrected we will be known for who we are, but some things will be different. After Jesus was resurrected his body was no longer bound by space and time; he appeared; his body could go through walls; he still ate and drank; he didn't look exactly as he had in the past; and he could be touched.

However, he retained his personal identity.

We too will retain our personal identities, and will have the ability to be in a personal relationship with God, as well as, with others within the communion of saints. The resurrected body is no longer bound by the struggles and pains of this world in the way that our current bodies are. We will live in joy and freedom, and in the presence of God.What a gift, a gift that only almighty God can give.

Now let me attempt to address a very practical question, at the very moment of death what happens?

The truth is the Bible isn't very clear on this issue, and actually contradicts itself. Some people think that all people who have died will be raised at the same time, at some point in the future (1 Corinthians 15:52); and until that time we exist is a mode of sleep if you will. Other Biblical passages seem to indicate that we go to be with God immediately at the point of death.

Jesus' words to the thief on the cross were, "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43) and leads us to this conclusion.  The New Testament doesn't seek to reconcile these two points of views, or to even combine them in some way so that we might better understand.

The Bible is content to let both points of view stand in contradiction and leaves our questions unanswered about exactly when and how resurrection will happen. And I wonder if we shouldn't do the same, and just place our trust in God. I often wonder if this is what God wants us to do, place our trust in him, rather then giving us all the answers in this life.

If we had all the answers perhaps our faith wouldn't be as strong.

Nevertheless we are curious creatures and we are interested in what happens immediately upon our death. Without trying to be unbiblical I would like to share with you as best I can what I believe happens when we die, based on the study of biblical scholars and theologians who base their work on what we do know about the coming rule of God who raises the dead and makes all things new.

I believe that Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross applies to each of us; "This day," at the very moment of death, we will be raised with Christ. For us this means that the pain and suffering, and injustice, we experience in this life will be over. But since God is a God who loves and suffers with us in this world, then this is also true of those who have died and now live in communion with God.

Since God will never rest until his plan to create a whole new heaven and earth is fulfilled, then the dead who are with God now will not find perfect rest until that time either. Until then, those who have died and share God's eternal life still live in their new resurrected way, as we continue to live here on earth.

For those who have died, the kingdom of God has come in all its fullness, yet they too still wait for the time when there will be no more mourning, crying, pain, or death (Revelation 21:4).

They don't wait to get their bodies back so that their own personal eternal happiness may be complete; but rather they wait for the restoration of all creation, because their own joy in living with God will not be complete until everyone shares it.

This "already but not yet" character of life of those who have died may be bad news for those who want, total, instant gratification for themselves in the next life, as in this one.

But it's good news for Christians.

For one thing we can be comforted by the knowledge that not only God but also the whole company of heaven (which includes all of our loved ones who have gone before us) know and care about us and our problems, our suffering, and our needs.

It also means that after we die we will be given the privilege of sharing in God's own compassion for suffering people in a suffering world until that great day when there is a brand new world that once and for all will be God's good creation.

This is the hope we ascribe to as Christians, a hope only made possible through the grace of God, and the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As we look to the future, even to the future beyond our death, Christians are given the privilege of holding the profound hope that the future is in God's hand and not in the hands of humanity.

That future is bright and filled with the powerful gift of eternal life and a resurrected body. Hope in this future gives us strength and courage to live for today with an eternal perspective.

And because of resurrection hope we are able to look beyond this world, and this time, to a new world with all the eternal gifts God brings.

Thanks be to God for the gift of hope and eternal life. Amen!

Read other messages by Pastor Wade