“He’s dead.” “She’s dead.” How many millions of human hearts have been torn asunder by those words, spoken by a doctor, a state trooper, or a relative in regard to one’s wife, husband, baby, child, mother, father, brother, sister, or best friend? The thudding finality of the word dead is hard to describe.
So is the absolute contrast between life and death. One moment the person is warm, vibrant, looking into your eyes with love, touching you, laughing, exhibiting all his or her uniqueness in relating to you, and, if tragedy strikes without warning, shortly thereafter he or she is cold, motionless, oblivious to your pleas for them to speak to you, and, cell by cell, beginning to shrink away to nothingness. So incredible are the joys of life, so horrible are the pangs of death.
Given our experiential knowledge of the difference between life and death, common sense would dictate that a person cannot be both dead and alive at the same time and the definitions of these terms dictate the same. For example, Dictionary.com Unabridged defines death as follows:
“the end of life; the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism.”
This standard definition of death fits perfectly with the biblical usage of the term. In Scripture, a human is an integrated being who is either dead or alive.
Beginning in Genesis, the Word of God clearly shows us that death was never a part of our loving heavenly Father’s intention for mankind. To the contrary, had Adam and Eve obeyed His simple directives, they would have produced an everlasting race on a perfect earth. That is, of course, exactly what “the Last Adam,” the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, will one day bring to pass, and he is able to do so primarily because he himself tasted death, and conquered it. From its inception, death has been, and still is, an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). For a thorough exposition of the subject of what happens to people if they die, see our book; Is There Death After Life?
To illustrate the spiritual battle that has raged since Genesis 3 and will not end until Revelation 21, the Word of God sets forth a number of similar antitheses: God vs. the Devil, good vs. evil, truth vs. lies, light vs. darkness, righteousness vs. unrighteousness, life vs. death. In each of these dualities, understanding the dreadful reality of the latter magnifies the glorious reality of the former. For example, if we do not get in touch with the sin that dwells in us, we will not recognize our need for a Savior from that sin. Likewise, if we do not grasp how horrible death is, we cannot fully appreciate how magnificent life is, in particular everlasting life via resurrection.
While God’s Word magnifies these distinctions, Satan’s goal is to blur them. Herein lies the statement of the problem, so to speak: he has been extremely successful. Far more people, including most Christians, believe a lie than the truth. That is why, to adequately set forth the magnificent truth about resurrection life, we must first probe the lies about death. Then we can fully understand the joy of hope that is to be the foundation of each Christian’s life, that which keeps us going through all trial and tribulation.
As the antithesis of God, the Author of Life, Satan is the author of death (John 10:10; Heb. 2:14). As “the father of lies” (John 8:44), he vigorously promotes two lies about death that, if believed, have an extremely detrimental effect on the quality of people’s lives. He told the first of those two lies in his original conversation with mankind, when he said to Eve: “You will not surely die…” (Gen. 3:4).
In context, what was he saying? That there is really no such thing as death; a person can disobey God and live forever, which is just the opposite of what God says in Romans 6:23: “…the wages of sin is death….” It is sad to say that Satan’s relentless promotion of that lie has resulted in even the vast majority of Christians believing it. Think about it: most Christians are taught that wicked people will be consciously tormented forever in “hell.” Is that or is that not everlasting life? It’s a crummy life, but it is everlasting.
The second lie Satan promulgates is that God causes people’s deaths (see our book, Don’t Blame God). In the Christian Church, he couches this lie in euphemistic language like, “God called him home” or “He graduated” or “He’s in a better place” or “He went to be with Jesus.” Those phrases may sound appealing, but they do not begin to assuage the anguish of the husband or wife or child left behind, and, in fact, often add a burden of guilt. When a well meaning friend tells the mother of a teenager killed in a wreck, “It’s okay, she’s with Jesus,” the mother may well feel like screaming, “It’s not okay! I want her here!” And then she may think that is selfish and feel guilt on top of her grief.
To promote any of his lies, Satan must see to it that the meanings of words are changed from their biblical, and common sense, definitions. Instead of meaning, “the end or the absence of life,” death for many Christians now means, “separated from God.” Indeed, death does separate us from God, but that is because we are dead. “Orthodox” Christianity would have us believe that no one ever really dies. If I leave my wife at home to go do an errand, I am separated from her, but obviously not dead. No, dead means “not living,” and separated means “away from.”
Satan’s lie that there is no such thing as actual death requires also that the meanings of the biblical words “soul” and “spirit” be changed. The consequence of Satan’s lie is the erroneous teaching that only one’s body dies, while his soul or spirit goes on either to heaven or hell, or someplace in between. If we are to understand the truth about what happens when a person dies, it is vital to realize that Scripture never defines soul or spirit as a personal, conscious, incorporeal entity. In the biblical Hebraic understanding, man is an integrated being of body, mind, and an animating life force. Without the latter, he is dead.
The Devil always does his best to demean Jesus Christ, for whom his hatred is unbridled (2 Cor. 4:3 and 4). How does the lie that death is not the end of one’s existence do that? It diminishes the magnitude of Jesus’ monumental faith in his Father, which was evidenced by his willingly giving up his life and trusting God to raise him from the dead. Jesus knew that death was real, and that if God did not keep His promise to raise him up, he would never exist again. That is one reason why he so agonized in Gethsemane.
Chiefly, the lie that some part of us lives on after the body dies terribly dilutes the glory of resurrection. If Jesus did not really die, but was still living in some form, his subsequent bodily resurrection was no big deal. Of greater significance to you and me is his promise to raise us Christians from the dead and give us new bodies. What’s the point, if we are already enjoying everlasting life with him in heaven? If death is not real, resurrection is superfluous. And if we think that “death” is only “crossing the bar” or “passing on” (“pass away” is accurate), might we not more easily give up the fight for our precious life? Just as truth has practical benefits, error has practical consequences.
One reason for the smorgasbord of suppositions about what life after death is like is that death is absolutely terrifying to mankind in general. Though Satan has done a good job of euphemizing this mortal enemy, and due to believing his lie some people seem cavalier about dying, the idea of not existing is far more fearful and motivating than most people realize.
Even for a Christian, who has God’s promise of everlasting life via resurrection, death is a gruesome reality. Therefore God graciously employs a figure of speech to describe it, one that takes the edge off its horror. He refers to death as “sleep,” and we find this metaphor in the Old Testament and in the Four Gospels, as well as in the Church Epistles. When the mighty angel was telling Daniel about the future of Israel and of the two resurrections to come (that of the just and the unjust), he said:
Daniel 12:1 and 2
(1) “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book— will be delivered.
(2) Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
Jesus Christ echoed this metaphor in talking about Lazarus, who had died:
(11) After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
(12) His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”
(13) Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
(14) So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,
And you may well be familiar with this magnificent passage from the Church Epistles, that body of Scripture written specifically to Christians, people who are born again of incorruptible seed and thus guaranteed everlasting life:
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
(13) Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
(14) We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
(15) According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
(16) For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
(17) After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
(18) Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Verse 13 is one of a handful of places in Scripture exhorting us not to be ignorant about a particular subject. It makes sense then that the Devil does what he can to keep people ignorant (without knowledge) about this topic. Let us dissect these brilliant verses so that we can assimilate what God wants us to.
First, we see death equated to sleep. Then we are exhorted not to grieve like people without the hope of everlasting life through Christ. Grief is a godly and necessary process, but our grief is tempered by our hope of everlasting life underlying it. Verse 14 is talking about the Lord Jesus, at God’s direction, bringing Christians back to heaven with him by raising them out from among the dead, and verse 15 says (and verse 17 confirms) that those Christians still living will, as per 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, also then be given new bodies.
Verse 16 is both remarkable and appropriate, in its context. Jesus is shouting, the archangel is apparently harmonizing, and someone is blowing the trumpet of God. Gosh, that’s a lot of noise. Why, it’s enough to wake the dead! That’s the point.
Why is the sleep metaphor so valid, and so comforting? Well, let’s think about sleep. It is a temporary period of unconsciousness that ends with an awakening. For the Christian, so is death. When you go to sleep at night, the next thing you know it is morning. So for a Christian who dies, his next conscious thought will be seeing the Lord Jesus in the air at his appearing.
How simple is that? Think about a child at the funeral of his grandfather. If there is an open casket, what does it look to him like his grandfather is doing? Sleeping. So we might tell him: “We are sad because it is like Grandpa has gone to sleep for a long time, and we’re going to put him in the ground, but one day Jesus will come and wake him up, and then you can see him again, and none of us will ever die after that.” Can he grasp that and take comfort in it? Yes. But how about this: “Well, Grandpa’s body is dead, but don’t feel bad, because his soul, or his spirit, is still alive and is now in heaven with Jesus. Grandpa may be able to see you, but you can’t see him or talk to him now, though one day you will.” That theology is difficult for children, and adults, to find satisfying, either emotionally or intellectually.
Verse 18 is short, sweet, and significant in part for what it does not say. Note that it does not say that the way to comfort someone who has lost a loved one is by telling them that the person who died is now in heaven with Jesus. Certainly people who believe that do find some solace in it, but, given that it is not the truth, whatever comfort they have pales in comparison to the true comfort that Jesus Christ, the “…firstborn from among the dead…” (Col. 1:18), will in turn raise to life all who believe in him (1 Cor. 15:20-23). In the meantime, they are “resting in peace.” Think of their joy when the “alarm clock” goes off!
If you are not a Christian, Romans 10:9 tells you how to “Get a(n) (after)life.” Confessing Jesus Christ as your Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead is the only way to be saved from sin and death and have God’s guarantee that the Lord Jesus will one day raise you up to life everlasting.
If you are a Christian, your hope of everlasting life is not death, because death is not a friend that introduces one to Jesus. Rather, it introduces you to darkness and oblivion, for that is how death is described in Scripture. Death is an enemy that ends your life, and we must fight this enemy with all we have. God’s Word makes it clear that many Christians will be alive at the appearing of Christ, and since we don’t know when that will be, you might be among them. You might never die!
Even if you do fall asleep before Christ comes for the Church, you can “rest assured” that at your next conscious moment you will see the smiling face of your Lord Jesus, who will have given you new life. And he will thereafter reward you for your labor of love on his behalf. That hope is the basis of our joy. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Amen.