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What happens when I die?

A sermon by Rod Benson

There are two certainties in life: birth and death. We celebrate birth, and while we also celebrate death through carefully crafted eulogies and respectful rituals, a death is usually an occasion for sadness and sympathy, reflection, condolences and hushed voices. Death is inevitable and unavoidable, but it is not a friend.

The question I want to consider today is: What happens when I die? What lies beyond death? Every civilization has a tradition of life beyond the grave – the Elysian Fields of the Romans, the Norse belief in Valhalla, the Happy Hunting Grounds of America’s First Peoples, the Christian story of resurrection, judgment and heaven.

The Christian hope is a clear and central aspect of the good news of Jesus Christ. The Bible provides answers to many of our questions about life after death. Indeed, as the second-century theologian Irenaeus stated, “The future is not an optional topic for classical Christian teaching. It is intrinsic to all its other aspects.”[1]

Over the next four weeks we will look in detail at what the Bible teaches about the future: the reality of heaven and hell; the return of Jesus Christ; the scope and certainty of salvation in Christ. But today I want to focus on “individual eschatology” – not the big prophetic events but what happens to me as a person after I die.

There are several confusing and contradictory beliefs about this aspect of human existence. First, some people believe that when we die we become angels. I heard that belief vividly expressed in a poem read at a memorial service for two children tragically killed in car accidents in Portland last year.

While it is comforting to think of lost loved ones, especially children, continuing to exist beyond death as angels, or as stars, and we need to be pastorally sensitive to people thrust suddenly into grief and loss, there is no warrant in experience or Scripture for such ideas.

A second view is that there is life after death, and it consists in some kind of existence as disembodied spirits after our bodies have died and disintegrated. But that is not what the Bible teaches. The biblical tradition robustly embraces the physical as well as the spiritual world, and bodily existence, and bodily resurrection.

Claims to a future disembodied existence are foreign to biblical teaching, and miss one of the beautiful truths associated with the resurrection of Jesus: “that the God who sustains our lives for eternity is the same God who created life in its physical, that is, material, expression … [and] the return of Christ to complete the work of redemption must include our bodies.”[2]

Third, some people, including Martin Luther, and many Seventh-Day Adventists today, hold to a belief in “soul-sleep” after death, drawing on the words of passages such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15. In “soul-sleep,” the non-material aspect of human personality falls into an unconscious state after death, and returns to conscious existence at the general resurrection when Jesus returns.

But as I understand it, when Paul refers to “sleep” in this context, he employs it as a metaphor for death. He is not suggesting that our spirits doze in some secure repository until Jesus awakens them.

Fourth, there is a belief widely held today, especially among secularists, that when I die I cease to exist in any form. That is, to put it personally, when my heart and brain cease functioning, there is no more Rod Benson, except an urn of ashes, or a coffin of bones, and traces of my brief existence in archives and in memory.

But that view, while convenient, does not accord with what we know of human experience, intuition and aspiration, and is soundly repudiated by Scripture. When God created humans, he gave us bodies, and he gave us spirits. The body grows old and dies, and its physical matter disintegrates, but the spirit lives on beyond bodily existence. As my first theological lecturer, Dr Jim Gibson, liked to say, “Only two things last forever: the word of God, and the human person.”

The book of Genesis assures us that, while sin brought about the sentence of death, and this includes dissolution of the body,

it does not include cessation of being on the part of the soul [or spirit], but only designates that state of being which is the opposite of true life, viz., a state of banishment from God, of unholiness, and of misery.[3]

Biblical statements that seem to imply cessation of existence are simply metaphors for death. The most impressive and conclusive of all proofs that death does not herald the cessation of existence is in

the resurrection of Jesus Christ – a work accomplished by his own power, and demonstrating that the spirit lived after its separation from the body … By coming back from the tomb, he proves that death is not annihilation (2 Tim 1:10).[4]

This is a vital observation. None of us escapes our human and bodily existence in an absolute sense – either through being transformed after death into a disembodied spirit, or by ceasing to exist. When Jesus rose from death, he had a body. It was recognisably human, and recognisably Jesus. The tomb is empty. The scars of torture and crucifixion remain in his flesh. After the resurrection, he spoke and walked, and ate fish beside the lake. “The resurrected Jesus is materially continuous with the Jesus who died on the cross.”[5]

And there will be a corresponding continuity between our bodies as we know them now, and the resurrected bodies promised to us by God in his word. And we will know each other, and recognise each other, and be reunited with our loved ones. And yet we will also be transformed (1 Cor 15:42-44). Eternal life will be very good! The life to come will be exciting! Unforgettable! Amazing! Bring it on!

The difference between then and now is that then there will be a complete absence of sin and all its effects and limitations. We will continue to maintain personal identity, and know one another, and enjoy the freedom to think and move and communicate, and all the other blessings of personal identity, but we will be transformed by the power and grace of God into creatures who “bear the image of the heavenly man” (1 Cor 15:49) – that is, our distinct personal identity will be intimately and perfectly linked with that of the resurrected, glorified, yet eternally embodied Son of God, our Lord Jesus.[6]

So if there is life after death, and this is what it entails for the Christian, what actually happens when I die?

My spirit separates from my body, which is buried or cremated. The means of disposal of my body has no bearing on what happens next. If I am a Christian, when I die I do not cease to exist. I do not become an angel or a star. I am not a candidate for reincarnation. And I do not “get a second chance” in purgatory.

There is no such thing as purgatory – the imaginary place, in Roman Catholic teaching, where the souls of Christians go to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted to heaven. The doctrine of purgatory is nonsense, and denigrates the perfect, efficacious sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the world.

To believe in purgatory is to believe “that we must add something to the redemptive work of Christ, and that his redemptive work for us was not enough to pay the penalty for all our sins.”[7]

On the contrary, the Bible taches that, at the moment of my death, I am ushered immediately into the glorious presence of God, saved forever from the penalty, power and presence of sin, and experience the life to come as conscious existence (2 Cor 5:8; Php 1:23; Lk 23:43; Heb 12:23; Rev 6:9-11; 7:9-10).

And there my spirit waits, at home with God, in the presence of Christ, in joyful anticipation of his return to the earth for the general resurrection where my spirit will be reunited with my same-but-glorified body, to begin my true eternal existence with Christ, and with all other faithful people of God from every time and place.

If I die tomorrow, and Jesus returns next Sunday, I will be absent from my body, and present with the Lord. That is why Jesus could say to the penitent thief on the cross, as they both awaited death by crucifixion, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). Today! Not “long into the future, thousands of years away,” but today!

Purgatory is a fiction and there is no hope of attaining salvation in this or any other life. Nor is there any point in praying for the dead, who are permanently beyond our help. The Bible teaches that God rewards us on the basis of actions done in this life, not in the life to come, or in any intermediate state where I have an opportunity to work for my salvation, supplementing the grace of God with my own achievements.

The Bible also teaches that those who die without trusting Christ for salvation are beyond redemption. Their final destiny has been settled by their rebellion against God and their embrace of autonomy from God in this life.

Their spirits go immediately to eternal punishment. Having finally rejected God and God’s mercy and grace, there is no second chance (see Lk 16:24-26). Their bodies will be raised on the day of final judgment and reunited with their spirits for final sentencing (Mt 25:31-46; Jn 5:28-29; Ac 24:15; Rev 20:12-15). It is a very sobering thought. More about this in coming weeks.

Death was never God’s will for us. It is an enemy, defeated at the cross but still monstrous.

The difference between Christians and those who have no hope … is not that Christians smile eerily in the face of death while the hopeless feel human pain. The difference … is hope itself … hope in Christ and his resurrection. We are free to grieve and to comfort the grieving, to recognize what we have lost, even while we trust and find consolation in the truth that death is not the end.[8]

We have no reason to fear death (Heb 2:15). Neither is death a punishment, for there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Death is merely a reminder that our salvation is secure but not finally complete until Jesus returns. Our death completes our union with Christ.

Have you been saved by God’s grace? Is the Christian hope your hope? Are there things you need to do to get right with God, to prepare to meet your Maker?

Or are you ready for glory?


Sermon 680 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 3 July 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, I.

[2] Jonathan R. Wilson, A Primer for Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2005), p. 120.

[3] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1976 [1907]), p. 992.

[4] Ibid., p. 997.

[5] Jones, in Gary M. Burge & David Lauber (eds), Theology Questions Everyone Asks: Christian Faith in Plain Language (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), p. 187.

[6] Ibid., p. 188.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 1994), p. 819.

[8] Jones, op. cit., p. 189.

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3 replies

  1. I always enjoy reading your sermons, Rod.
    Does the number indicate you’ve kept a careful record of every sermon you have delivered?

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