One of the first disciplines I developed in pastoral ministry was record keeping. I use a special book to record every wedding and funeral that I officiate. It has blanks that ask for specific items of information as well as extra lines for me to write any additional thoughts. For some reason I have recorded the age and cause of death for each person whose funeral I’ve conducted. As I prepared this particular sermon I spent some time looking through those pages. I’ve conducted funerals for people of all ages who have died from various causes including disease, accidents, combat and murder. This review made two immediate impressions on me. First, death is no respecter of persons. It does not discriminate according to age, race, gender, status or wealth. Death knows no prejudice. Second, we will all experience death. Our resources may prolong our lives but they will not prevent our deaths.
Among the great philosophical questions of life is, what happens when I die? The answers are varied. Some believe that death is the complete annihilation of life. There is nothing on the other side of death. Another view is that at the time of death we are reincarnated into another living being. Similarly is yet another position that believes that when we die our lives are absorbed into creation, giving energy to the wind, the waves, the trees and so forth. Gaining recent popularity is another view that the world is filled with disembodied spirits who have died but gone no where in particular. They continue to dwell in the material world and can be contacted through mediums.
But what is the Christian view? Where do followers of Christ find hope in the face of our greatest fear?
The biblical answer to death is resurrection. If you take the time to read the eleventh chapter of the the Gospel of John you’ll find the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Just prior to that miracle, Jesus engaged Lazarus’ sister Martha in an important conversation.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life.e Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God” (John 11:21-27, NLT).
Following that conversation Jesus proceeded to raise Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’ resurrection would serve as an illustration of resurrection for those who would witness it an for us as well. Like Martha, we believe that at the last day when Christ returns we will experience resurrection. But what happens in between? Like Jesus, Lazarus was in the tomb for a few days prior to his resurrection. What was going on during that time? What happens to us between death and resurrection?
The Bible does not offer a specific passage that outlines the answer to that question in one sitting. Like much of our theology, its pieced together from various Bible verses like a puzzle. As a Christian, I understand death as the separation of body and soul. I further believe the soul goes immediately into the presence of God at the time of death. Passages like 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23, Luke 23:43-26, Acts 7:56-59, and 2 Corinthians 12:1-7 provide some indication that at death we are immediately ushered into God’s presence. Beyond those core convictions, what happens between death and resurrection remains somewhat mysterious. The good news for Christians is that we don’t have to fully understand death to be free from the fear of death. We can still make every day count and live it to the fullest as we pursue God’s purposes and plans for our lives.