Death always arrives too soon.
It takes a lot for us to pause and think about life from a larger perspective. I remember Craig, a friend of mine. Craig was a committed non-Christian, but the two of us had a good talking relationship. One day he told me he had lost a cherished older relative. I can’t remember if it was an uncle or grandparent. The conversation was about twenty years ago. But he said something that has stuck with me ever since: “John, how come we get to a place where we’re finally understanding some things, gaining some insight into how life works, and then just like that, it’s over? I think Craig was on to something. For the most part, when death occurs, we always have a sense of the tragically premature.
We human beings are wonderfully made—body, soul, and spirit—wonderfully engineered by a creating God. But it seems as though we’re grossly over-equipped to live this pathetically short life. We possess serious cognizance, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, imagination, registrations of spiritual need. Before you know it, though, the whole thing is over. We’re left asking, Is this it? That kind of question is one of destiny—Where am I supposed to go next? Where are human beings meant to end up?
The atheistic view of naturalism assures us we’re not going anywhere. You’re headed into oblivion, silence. Your body is going to be buried where it will contribute phosphorus to the soil. That’s all. Being haunted by this thought, we put on a brave face, and make friends with death. We tell ourselves and others it is natural, and so we try to embrace it like a good sport.
But for most of us, that won’t do, especially if it’s your loved one that’s on their deathbed, or you yourself are on the way out of this world. Something inside all of us protests that this is not a normal thing. The whole circle of life philosophy—Lion King song and all—doesn’t work. It doesn’t provide any real answers.
In fact, if you feel skeptical of the “Death is the most natural thing in the world” claim, the Bible confirms your suspicions. Death is not your friend. It is your enemy (c.f. 1 Cor. 15:26), and not part of God’s original arrangement for us. Actually, death is the result of a terrible mistake, when the first man decided to rebel against God and commit sin. We fell into death along with him. Now it is an interruption that should not be there.
We are creatures made for immortality. I can’t prove this under a microscope, but within the felt corridors of our hearts we long for something that lasts beyond the grave. Not only so, but we crave a continuation better than the mediocre current existence we’re living. Nobody wants immortality along with all of their psychological imperfections. I don’t want to live forever full of anxiety, or anger. Nor does anyone want to spend eternity in a wheelchair or with cancer. We long for the forever state of perfection and glory.
The Bible presents an unparalleled view of immortality called resurrection. In fact, the word “hope” is linked to resurrection more than any other word.
There is a diversity of ideas floating around out there about the afterlife. One that was popular among the ancient Greeks says that after a person dies, he or she continues in some phantom-like shadowy existence. Another version says that when you die, you go away to a happy place—somewhere you enjoyed in your past life, that you can remain in forever. Then of course, there’s reincarnation, which speaks of the soul leaving the body, and recycling into another one (or, if you didn’t live a very good life, recycling into some lower species).
But scripture breaks rank with all these views, when it speaks of the body of the person eventually resurrecting, as well as the spirit and soul. It’s not just the immaterial parts of a person that continue on, but the body as well. This concept was largely unknown in the ancient world. For instance, in Homer’s Odyssey, a character, the Greek goddess Athena, explains to the hero that the gods may rescue, but not resurrect anyone. In the writings of another ancient author, Eusecylus, the Greek god Apollo says, “When once human beings die and the dust receives their blood, there can be no resurrection.” ¹
In the mind of those celebrated Greek poets, not even their gods could overcome the mighty power of death. Not one of them could touch resurrection. Besides, resurrection was simply an impossibility. What if a person’s body was burned to ashes? Dismembered? Consumed by a wild animal? And not to mention the natural processes of decay, when a body dissolves into the ground. Resurrection was an impossibility. And so the immaterial concept of afterlife permeated the ancient Greek world. Any thought of existence beyond death was largely nebulous, if not metaphorical.
That was why, when Paul showed up in Athens for the first time, announcing that Jesus had resurrected, it was shocking to them. The apostle hadn’t meant his proclamation to come across as a philosophical alternative to the pagan philosophies around him. Rather, when he spoke about life beyond the grave, he said that God raised a man (c.f. Acts 17:31). Resurrection was an event that happened before it was ever something taught in Sunday school. Paul meant it in the fullest sense of the word.
The bodily resurrection of Christ carries important implications. Second Corinthians chapter 5 verse 15, says, “he [Christ] died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
We’re used to hearing that for our sake Jesus died. We’re not so accustomed to hearing that for our sake Jesus was raised. But that seemingly small detail implies something for you.
Romans 8:11 says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” If that same Spirit involved in the resurrection of Jesus dwells in you, then you share a connection with the Lord’s own resurrection. That’s why First Corinthians 6:14 goes on to say, “God raised the Lord, and will also raise us up by his power.”
Paul adds a further layer of understanding to the nature of resurrection: “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54). It is more than a dead body coming back to life; it is a transformational event. When this change occurs, “then shall come to pass the saying that is written: death is swallowed up in victory. Oh death, Where is your victory, oh death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). That’s a taunt! It’s a mocking of something that the whole world fears. Christ’s resurrection is so far beyond death that it can turn around and laugh at it.
In Christ, the so-called afterlife is not a partial experience, where the body lies here, and the soul is out there, or up there somewhere. It is thorough and substantial—the body, soul, and spirit joined back together, and raised in glory.
A man traveling in Europe came across an old neglected grave site in a cemetery. The headstone read, “Not to be opened for all eternity.” No doubt that was the opinion of the person who put the inscription there, as if to say, There is nothing beyond this grave, regardless of what the person believed who is buried here. Ironically though, an acorn had fallen between the soil and the massive concrete slab that covered the grave site. Over years of time, an oak tree had grown up through the slab, cracking it in half, and in effect, “opening it.” In the same way, resurrection cannot be held down, or sealed in. It is also transformational, just as a small seed slowly turned into an oak tree.
All the founders of the world’s religions, and all the heroes of human history have gone into graves. They were sealed into their tombs or were covered over, and they’ve stayed there to this day. Only one came out after going in. This is an important fact, because we all follow someone, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Perhaps you follow Charles Darwin, who has a material explanation for everything. Maybe you follow Freud, who has a psychological explanation for everything, including religion and sex. Some follow Marx, who has a sociological and political explanation for everything. Others follow Oscar Wilde into a life of frivolity.
Regardless of who has influenced us, we become connected in a certain way with their resurrection. Beware. Everyone resurrects eventually, whether you are a Christian or a non-Christian. Jesus described this inevitability as a resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous (c.f. John 5:29). There will be a time when everybody rises, but neither the quality nor the experience will be the same for everybody. Before it happens, you want to make sure you have a straight line connection to the person who came out of the tomb—Jesus Christ.
Second Timothy 1:10 speaks of “Our Savior Jesus Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Through the gospel.
And so the big question is, What have you done with the message of the gospel?
Mock it? Deny it? Ignore it?
Believe it? Receive it? Trust it?
Answer now, or answer later.
¹ I am indebted for these quotes and observations from Joseph Dobson’s excellent book, Paul and the Giants of Philosophy.