The Reality of Death and the Hope of Life

Dr. Brian Allison

This past week I was talking to a Church member who had recently attended a funeral. Funerals can be moments of hopefulness or moments of despair. If the deceased is a Christian, then for that one there is the hope of a future, glorious resurrection, the hope of eternal life, the hope of being with Christ, and experiencing unending peace and joy. Furthermore, the loved ones who are left behind have the hope of being reunited with that loved one who has died in Christ. However, if the deceased is a non-Christian, then for that one there is no hope of a future, glorious resurrection, nor of entering into the joy and wonder of heaven. The end for the unbeliever is eternal damnation and the experience of the wrath of God. Furthermore, the loved ones who are left behind cannot expect, with joyful anticipation, to be reunited with those who have died. To die without Christ is to die without hope, and to enter into a lost eternity.

The funeral that this Church member attended was the funeral of a university student, a classmate. No one is quite sure why he made this fatal decision, but in his room, he loaded a shot gun and put it to his head, and blew out his brains – a tragic suicide. He died without Christ. That funeral was a moment of despair. So, funerals can be moments of hopefulness or moments of despair, depending upon whether one dies as a Christian or as a non-Christian. 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14 reads, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in [or better, 'through'] Jesus."

What happens at death?

These believers at Thessalonica had some questions concerning the death of believers: Do believers perish at death? Will believing loved ones who have died be a part of the future resurrection? Will believers who have died be reunited with surviving loved ones? etc. Paul says, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep." (4:13a). Indeed, Christians may have questions concerning death, and what is involved in the death of believers. Now, apart from what Paul says here, we can say a number of things about death, as it pertains to the Christian. What happens when a Christian closes his or her eyes for the last time on the earth? First, at the very moment that a Christian dies, his or her soul is separated from the body and immediately enters the glory of heaven. The Christian enters into a new spiritual reality, a new spiritual dimension – the manifest presence of God (let us remember that heaven is not so much a geographical location as it is a spiritual dimension). 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 reads, "Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight – we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord." For the Christian, God is only a breath away – that last breath. Death should not be feared, but embraced. It is the portal into the manifest presence, the sublime glory, of God.

Second, the Christian soul that has been separated from the body and enters the presence of the Lord retains the full capacity of its rational powers. The soul enters the glory of God with a self-conscious awareness of its own existence and a self-conscious awareness of its environment. And so, for instance, in Revelation 6, with the account of the Lamb removing the seals from the scroll, we read, "And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" (vv. 9,10). The dear departed souls have the capacity for intelligent exchange; for rational communication.

Third, the Christian soul that has been separated from the body enters not only into the very presence of God, but also into sweet fellowship with Jesus Christ, a depth and fullness of fellowship that he or she has not hitherto experienced. When our Lord hung on the cross, with thieves hanging on each side of Him, the thief on His right hand repented. We read in Luke 23:42,43, "And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!' And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today [this very day] you shall be with Me in Paradise.'" Recall also the apostle Paul's words in Philippians 1:23, "But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better." As Christians, we should look forward to the time of departure through death from this world. Again, death is not something we should fear, but rather celebrate, because it is our promotion to exquisite fellowship with Christ. At death, we shall see our Lord Jesus face to face, and worship Him unhindered.

Fourth, the Christian soul that has been separated from the body enters into a state of unspeakable peace, joy, rest, and bliss. All pain, and suffering will have passed away. There will be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more heartaches, no more struggles, just unending tranquillity and calm. In this connection, Revelation 14:13 reads, "And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, 'Write, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!"' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.'" Again, in Luke 23, Jesus says (and He will say to us on that day when we die, if we have put our faith in Him), "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (v. 43). So, these are some of the things that will occur at the death of the saint. Thus, we ought not to be uninformed; we ought to understand these things.

The bodies will awake from sleep

Paul wrote to these Thessalonian believers with the goal of enlightening them about the saints' death – "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep" (4:13a). He wrote out of a pastoral concern. He wanted to encourage and provide hope – "that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope" (4:13b). When Paul uses the term 'asleep', he is, of course, using a euphemism; it simply refers to death. In John 11, we have the account of the death of Lazarus; and we read, "This He said, and after that He said to them, 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep.' The disciples therefore said to Him, 'Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.' Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to Him'" (vv. 11-15). From the perspective of the survivors, that loved one who has died in Christ simply appears to be asleep. The term sleep refers particularly to the body, not to the soul. There are those who teach 'soul sleep'. For instance, the Seventh Day Adventists teach that when a believer dies he enters into a soul sleep, and he sleeps until the resurrection. No, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord with our rational faculties fully intact. The body appears to sleep – and on resurrection morning, the body will 'awake'; it will arise, never to sleep (or die) again.

I am sure that you have been at a funeral viewing – perhaps of a friend or a loved one – and you have stared at his or her body in the casket; and you could have sworn that he or she moved. That, of course, is your mind playing tricks. We sometimes have the sense that the corpse will move or sit up again, or that its eyes will open. That is exactly what will happen on resurrection morning. The bodies of the faithful dead are simply 'sleeping'. One day they will awake, with the dawning of the eternal age. Death is not final; it is not permanent. Our deceased loved ones have not perished, just departed. The philosophy of my now deceased, unbelieving father concerning death was: "When you're dead, you're dead!" I know that my dad thinks otherwise now, having crossed the great divide. Death is not the final chapter in the story. The Christian looks forward to an endless saga.

There is hope beyond the grave

Paul wrote to these believers with a particular reason and motivation. He wrote to give them hope. He says, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest [unbelievers] who have no hope" (4:13). Again, death is not final; it is not the epilogue of the play, but the unending prologue of an eternal story. Hope is powerful, isn't it? Hope is healing. If you are without Christ, if you die, not spiritually possessing Him as your Saviour and Lord, you die without hope. Think about that for a moment. Do you know what it is like to live without hope, to live in despair, to have nothing to look forward to? I am sure that you have experienced such dark, and even depressing, moments in your life. That is a desperate situation. But, if you die not savingly knowing Jesus Christ, such dark moments will seem infinitely joyous in comparison to that dark moment which will immediately follow your death. My friend, in that lost eternity, you will continually curse the day that you were born. You will perpetually weep and mourn; you will incessantly grind and gnash your teeth, writhing with excruciating pain; you will forever experience the abyss of loneliness and despair, with absolutely no comfort or relief. Such an existence will truly be infinite torment and untold misery – for all eternity; not for a day, nor for a week, nor for a month, nor for a year, nor for a decade, not even for a millennium, but for all eternity. Such a concept is inconceivable. Therefore I plead with you, my unsaved friend, whoever you are, do not let that fate come upon you. I plead with you to turn to Christ, repent of your sins, and put your faith in Him. He will deliver your soul from death, and give you the assurance of something better – the hope of the resurrection and eternal life.

Now, we should grieve over the loss of a loved one; it is proper. Those who grieve over the death of loved ones who have entered a lost eternity, not knowing Christ, may also despair. But though we grieve over the loss of believing loved ones, we should not despair – "that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope" (4:13b). We should grieve as those who have great hope. Grieving is the natural response, the natural process, to loss or disappointment. In fact, love demands that we grieve. There are those that say, for instance, "Well, we should simply trust in Christ and thus we do not need to grieve. God gives us grace and we should have a stiff upper lip." Well-meaning people exhort, "Be strong, do not cry, everything will be all right. Be strong for the family, do not let them see you break down!" If you have ever given anyone counsel like this, you have given bad counsel. It is natural and right to grieve. It is the soul's expression of loss; and it is also the soul's way to heal. Hope tempers and eases the grief; and eventually swallows it up. With hope, there is comfort.

The ground and guarantee of the Christian's hope

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ground and guarantee of our hope, that is, our resurrection and eternal life – "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep [through] Jesus" (4:14). The ground and guarantee of our future resurrection and eternal life (and reunion with departed loved ones) is certainly the death and, more particularly, the resurrection of Jesus. Notice Paul's logic here. If we believe that Jesus rose again, then it logically follows that we should believe that our loved ones in Christ will rise again. Because Christ rose, that gives us the assurance that we also will rise. Christ's resurrection prepares the way for, and assures us of, the presence of a new humanity. 1 Corinthians 15:12ff. reads, "Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead [the essential content of the Gospel], how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead [heresy was being taught at Corinth]? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised [it logically follows; if we deny the teaching of the resurrection, that means that we also deny that Christ Himself has risen]; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain [for our justification is rooted in His resurrection]. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless [because in becoming a Christian, you believed that God raised Christ from the dead. It is not so much believing in the death of Christ that saves us, though that is important, but it is believing in the resurrection of Christ, which is the miracle; that is what requires faith]; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. [But Paul gives this resounding affirmation.] But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep." Again, because Christ has been raised from the dead, we also will be raised. His resurrection is the ground and guarantee of our resurrection. The basis of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A future reunion with loved ones

The return of Christ will mark the reappearance (and resurrection) of the dear departed souls. The departed souls will come from heaven with Christ – "Even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep [through] Jesus" (4:14b). It is God Himself Who will come to the earth at the end of the age. He will come to the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, 1 Thessalonians 4:15 reads, "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep." And yet, let us not miss the emphasis – it is God the Father Who will visit the earth, in an unprecedented special manifestation in His Son; and He will judge 'the quick and the dead' in Christ.

So, those who have died "in Jesus" will reappear. The phrase "in Jesus" is better translated "through Jesus." The point is that Jesus is the Mediator. The saint ought to see his or her death in reference to the person and work of Jesus. He is the One Who will preserve us, Who will protect and watch over us. He is the One Who will guarantee that we will participate in the resurrection unto eternal life. Christ's resurrection is not only the ground and guarantee of our resurrection, but He Himself is the hope and assurance of our resurrection – "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27b). Do you have the hope of the resurrection? You may have been reading this message, and saying to yourself, "Yes, well that is all very nice," or maybe you have not been seriously reading this message, but rather have been distracted, and you have said to yourself, "Well, this has not impacted me." Let me ask you again, do you have the hope of the resurrection and of seeing your believing, departed loved ones again? Do you know assuredly that if you were to die this very day that you would enter into the manifest presence of God?

What I have discovered as a pastor is that there are many believers who are afraid to die. Ask yourself the question, with God as your witness: Are you afraid to die? Let me ask you another question: Are you ready to die? If God were to come to you today, and say to you, "Time is up," and perhaps you go to sleep tonight and have a brain aneurysm, with no hope of seeing tomorrow, are you ready to die? Do you have the assurance, the conviction, the faith, that in the final closing of your eyes in this life, that they will immediately 'open' in that life?

This world is not our abiding home, my Christian friend. I suspect that some Christians would rather stay here longer than be there sooner. Would you rather be here longer than be there sooner? We need to ask God to deepen our hope, and to strengthen our faith, so that we long for that future life more than this earthly life; that we desire to die in order that we might be with Christ. Life seems to move pretty fast for many of us. For those in their seventies, life seems to be moving faster than for those in their teens. The older you get, the more you realize that some day you will die; and that it may come sooner than you think. The older you get, the more you think about death, for it is inevitable. Death is coming for each one of us. Death is knocking on the door for some right now. Are you ready?

I know for sure that you, my non-Christian friend, are not ready to die and to meet your Maker. I make another appeal to you. Settle things now. Get things right with God now. Do not say, "Well, I am only eighteen years old (or only twenty one years old, or only thirty-two years old, etc.) and I have many years yet to live. I still have time to be serious about Christianity, to be serious about seeking God and making amends." My friend, you may not have the time you bargain on. Even young people have aneurysms, even young people get into tragic car accidents, even young people are mugged and killed. My friend, you may not have much time left. I encourage you to cry out to the Lord, especially if you find that you are indifferent or complacent, and ask God to open your heart, to give you a deep concern about where you are spiritually and where you are heading. I do not say this to scare you, but rather to prompt you to seriously consider these critical issues. You may not have another chance. Settle things today with God. Put your faith in Jesus Christ, the hope of glory, right now.