What Happens When You Die?
What happens when you die? Join us this Sunday for the last message in our “I Have a Question” series where we look at what happened 2,000 years ago and how that changed the way we view and understand death.
Alright, this will be the last week in our series, “I Have a Question.”
In this series we’ve talked about how everyone has questions and doubts, and we want to be a church where every person is respected and every question can get raised and dealt with in a real, open, and honest way.
Our model for how to handle tough questions, not surprisingly, has been Jesus.
One of my secret missions as a pastor is — I want to get us, and our friends, and our neighbors, and as many people in the Bay Area as I can to think again about the life and teachings of Jesus.
I believe we live in an area of highly educated spiritual ignorance.
I was talking to a guy recently, a real bright man, and he said, “It’s like that verse in the Bible, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.’”
That’s actually not in the Bible.
Often people dismiss Jesus without knowing what Jesus really said. So we want to be a church where everyone is welcome to ask their toughest questions.
Alright, the last question we’ll ask in this series is a big one — “What happens when you die?”
What happens to a human being when they die?
From what I read in statistics the death rate is still hovering at about 100%.
The reality is, you’re going to die. I’m going to die. The question is, what happens next?
If you walk through a cemetery you realize what some people think about death by reading their gravestone.
I read a collection of unusual gravestones:
One in Pennsylvania says:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake. He stepped on the gas instead of the brake.
There’s a tombstone of a hypochondriac that just says:
I told you I was sick.
Mel Blanc, the voice behind all of the cartoon characters in Looney Tunes — he’s was the voice of Porky Pig who would say at the end of every movie, “That’s all folks!”
So that’s what his family put on his tombstone, “That’s all folks!”
So a question for us today is — is that all folks?
Does death mean the show is over; or is it possible that somewhere the real show is just beginning?
One of the most profound books of the last century was written by a man named Ernest Becker. It’s called “The Denial of Death.”
Becker says the thesis of this book is, “We arrange our lives, we human beings, around ignoring or avoiding or oppressing the most irrefutable fact in the whole world, which is, ‘I’m going to die.’ You’re going to die.”
Becker says that the avoidance, the denial of death, is the mainspring of human activity.
We arrange our lives around trying to be real busy and distracted from this truth because it’s too big for us.
We’re all going to die. We don’t like to talk or think about that, but it’s true.
Now, this question — What happens when you die? — isn’t just incredibly important; it’s incredibly tender.
I know of a family that lost their son and the dad said, “We’re part of a club we never wanted to join. Every year when his birthday comes, or it’s the anniversary of the day he died, or it’s a holiday, we think about how old he would be now. There’s just pain.”
I think of a family in our church with little children who lost their daddy just over a year ago and they have so many questions; so many questions.
That’s part of why a church exists, for people who are struggling with death and they don’t have any other place to go.
I imagine everyone here has had someone you love die, or if you haven’t, you will.
Every one of us will face death ourselves. Which is why I’m so glad you’re here for this.
Two thousand years ago an event happened that not only launched the Christian faith but also produced the most radical change of view about the afterlife than any community in history.
Now I know death touches the heart and emotions, our feelings and fears, as deeply as anything in the world, but actually for the rest of this message, I want to try to cover as much information together as we can because I believe that when it comes to life and death we need something more than to feel comforted.
Above all we need truth.
I believe if you aim at trying to feel hope you may end up with wishful thinking, but if you aim at truth you get hope thrown in.
So for the rest of this message, I want to try to trace the history of what happened way back then.
I want to try to pinpoint exactly what changed 2,000 years ago so we can understand what they said and what they believed, so you can decide if there is hope when you die.
Now to begin with, in the early days of Israel’s faith in God, ideas about the afterlife were actually quite vague, quite shadowy.
The Hebrew word for the realm of the dead in the Old Testament was the word sheol.
You need to know in the Old Testament there were almost no descriptions of what life in sheol would have been like or looked like. It was pretty close to nonexistent.
This is from Psalm 6. The psalmist says:
Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? [ sheol ] (Psalm 6:4-5)
Often sheol is simply translated “the grave,” because that’s pretty much what it meant.
Probably the book in the Bible that has the most discussion of death is a book called Ecclesiastes.
If you ever wonder, “Can I love God and still have doubts about stuff?” this is your book.
This is part of what the writer of Ecclesiastes writes.
The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:3)
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, [in case you missed that] there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
It’s kind of a downer paragraph.
People are surprised that Ecclesiastes made it into the Bible, but the rabbis decided there was an honesty and a grittiness to this writing that God wanted in his book.
I’m so glad, because I feel like that sometimes. I have doubts, I have questions, and there is so much mystery to this subject.
Now I want to point out one real important, often-overlooked truth.
Very often in our day, skeptics, or people who don’t believe in God, will say the reason people cling to faith in God is people are afraid of the reality of death and they just want a ticket to the afterlife, so that’s why they believe.
It’s thought to be more rational or more courageous just to face the fact that death is the end.
There’s a famous poem by Dylan Thomas that goes:
Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But rage is a hard philosophy of life to live rationally by.
“What are you going to do today, honey?”
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
“Well, in between raging, can you pick up the kids from school?”
I was talking to someone recently who said, “I wanted to believe there was hope beyond death, but I was afraid my desire made that belief a crutch. I figured it must be more rational to believe there’s no hope beyond death because I don’t want to believe that.”
But a lot of times I want to believe something is true, and it turns out to be true.
I want it to be true that the sun will rise in the morning, and guess what? It rises in the morning.
I want it to be true that my wife loves me, and guess what? She does.
Truth is independent of whether I want it to be true or I don’t want it to be true.
What’s striking is that faith in a living God did not emerge in Israel because it was thought to be the ticket to an afterlife. The key issue for Israel was not — Is there an afterlife; the key issue was — Is there meaning and accountability and justice to this life? Does the universe have a Maker? Is there anyone to rage against?
For all the pessimism of the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, this is his takeaway in the last chapter.
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth. (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
Not rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Remember God. Love God. Serve God.
That’s why there was another observation in Ecclesiastes that would haunt Israel, that haunts the human race still, that haunts you and me. The writer puts it like this:
He [ God ] has also set eternity in the human heart. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Everyone dies. Every creature ceases to exist, but God has set eternity in the human heart.
I think about it like this sometimes. One of the most amazing aspects of nature to me is how God has placed in animals, or however you think it got there, a kind of built-in homing instinct of incredible accuracy.
Some of you know way more about this than I do.
Homing pigeons, I understand, can find their way home from places they have never been on the planet so accurately they were actually used by the ancient Romans and by Genghis Khan.
Dung beetles actually navigate home by the Milky Way.
Salmon leave the ocean and travel to the exact spot on the exact river where they were born. They navigate by magnetic waves.
A gray whale will travel all the way to the little lagoon off Cabo San Lucas to give birth and care for her little family. What are the odds she would migrate 12,000 miles to live in her exact home in Alaska? But she does.
A mother emperor penguin will let the dad care for her little penguin for four months while she goes off to feed her face. What are the odds she will find her way back to live in that exact spot with that exact penguin? But she does.
I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. I came to California a long time ago to have children, care for a little family. What are the odds I will return to live out my final days in Chicago, Illinois?
Absolutely zero. Like, I would bet on the Cubs winning another championship in my lifetime first.
So anyway, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “God has put a little homing device in your spirit.”
God has set eternity in your heart, and it whispers to you that death is not the end — that there is something more, that this life is not all there is, that you are not home yet, but there is a home. God has set eternity in the human heart.
Is that true?
Now over time, a teaching came from some in Israel that it is.
A prophet named Isaiah said to Israel these remarkable words:
But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise—let those who dwell in the dust
Dust was an image for the Hebrews for mortality. That’s why it talks about God creating from the dust. God remembers we’re dust. We’re the stuff that dies.
wake up and shout for joy—your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. (Isaiah 26:19)
A prophet named Ezekiel had this vision that would become famous where he sees this valley of bones. Not just bones. Does anybody remember what kind of bones?
Dry bones, because there’s no life in them.
God asked the prophet:
“Son of man, can these bones live?”
The prophet said:
“Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” [I don’t know. People don’t know.]
“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life… Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37:1-6)
There’s this very dramatic vision where bone comes to bone, and they get covered with flesh, and then God breathes his life into them, and there is life where there was death.
The word for this picture, the word for this belief, is resurrection. This is a really important word.
This belief — resurrection — was unique to Israel in the ancient world. Not every belief in the afterlife is a Christian belief. But this belief — resurrection — was not shared essentially at all in the ancient world outside of Israel.
Some in the ancient world and some today believe in an afterlife by reincarnation — that you might come back as another person or a creature of some sort. That’s not resurrection.
Resurrection says you are coming back as you.
So hopefully you like you.
Some people in the ancient world and today believe you live on by being absorbed into nature or the spirit of the universe, kind of like a glass of water getting poured into the ocean — that you live on somehow in the earth, or in the breeze, or in people’s memories, or in some general way.
That is not resurrection.
Resurrection means God is going to bring you back to life as you in a body that has been transformed so it will never die again.
Not just that, in a world that has been transformed to defeat suffering and sin and death.
Now if people don’t understand clearly about resurrection — this is part of why it’s so important — then they find this strong ambivalence about phrases that are much more often used in our day that you don’t find in the Bible much, like “going to heaven when you die.”
So I’ll put this as a few questions.
Just a show of hands on this one if you don’t mind.
How many of you would like to go to heaven when you die?
Okay, pretty close to everyone.
How many of you would like to go right now, today, as soon as we’re done with this service?
Okay, that’s a smaller number.
What’s up with that if you believe heaven is such a great deal?
See, here’s part of the problem — most of us actually have an idea of heaven that has been informed a lot more by images and literature in the Middle Ages and then cartoons in our day than anything else.
I could do this whole message as The Far Side cartoons.
I actually have one right here.
Welcome to heaven; here’s your harp. Welcome to hell; here’s your accordion.
That’s a picture a lot of people have.
Let me put this question a little bit differently. Let me get all the way through it. I’ll ask for a show of hands on this one as well —
How many of you would like to wake up and have the world set right? No more hungry children. No more terrorist attacks in the news. No more broken families. No more drought. No more violence in the Middle East. No more racism. No more poverty. No more death.
Not just that, not just the world, but you would be set right. You’d speak the truth all the time with courage and love without ever thinking about it. You would be a great friend. You would do excellent work. Your body would be filled with energy, and every morning you would be filled with more joy than the morning before. How many of you want that?
Well, if you want that, you want resurrection. That’s resurrection.
Some people think we’re supposed to want for God to destroy this earth we love and take us to the clouds somewhere and play the harp or something. That’s not resurrection.
The apostle Paul wrote — notice this. This is in his letter to the church at Rome, chapter 8.
For the creation waits in eager expectation…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)
Resurrection does not mean that God is going to destroy his creation. He loves it. He made it.
He’s going to redeem his creation. He’s going to burn off, purify, everything that’s not right. He’s going to make it right.
The greatest reality show in history is going to be “Extreme Makeover: Universe Edition.”
Now no one in the ancient world, outside of little Israel, believed in resurrection.
And not everyone in Israel believed in this notion of resurrection — that God was going to give bodily life back to the righteous and set his creation right.
A group called the Sadducees did not believe in this.
This is from the gospel of Mark.
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him [ Jesus ] with a question. (Mark 12:18)
In seminary one of my professors thought a funny way to remember that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection was — they were “sad, you see.”
I don’t think it’s funny, but some people do. I’m sure Lisa Herrington, the queen of puns, thinks it’s funny.
Some, like a Jewish writer named Philo, agreed with pagans that there would be a kind of afterlife with spirits or ghosts or something but did not believe in bodily resurrection.
Then 2,000 years ago, a community sprang into existence overnight. They were called Christians.
Initially, they followed a man named Jesus, a teacher, a rabbi, because of what he taught and how he lived.
Then he died, and that little movement was done.
Then three days later, it wasn’t done. Quite literally, overnight came the most dramatic change in beliefs about the afterlife in history.
A guy named Tom Wright writes about this is in a little book called Surprised by Hope.
He talks about how normally people’s beliefs about the afterlife are very slow to change, but all of a sudden overnight we see a radical shift in beliefs in this little community.
I’ll just walk through them real quickly.
First — There was a new consensus.
Instead of the variety of beliefs about the afterlife that had been true for Israel, like the Sadducees and people like Philo and so on, every one of these followers of Jesus in the first couple of centuries believed in literal, bodily resurrection. There was a new consensus.
Second — There was a new centrality.
Think about this. The resurrection became so central to their faith, take away stories of Jesus’ birth and all you lose are two chapters in the gospel of Matthew and two chapters in the gospel of Luke; take away the resurrection, you lose the entire New Testament.
Third — There was a new view of time.
Those Israelites before Jesus who believed in resurrection believed it would happen all at once for all of the righteous at the end of time.
Now, out of nowhere, with no precedent for this, a group of people believe that the resurrection has begun with a single person, Jesus, and that it will one day in the future come for all who trust Jesus.
That’s why the apostle Paul, for example, writes:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20)
That idea of the firstfruits is they’re the beginning — indicating that one day the harvest is coming.
Jesus is the firstfruit. One day the resurrection is coming.
Fourth — There was a new view of humanity.
The resurrection, which only Israel had believed in, was now viewed as God’s intent to redeem not just the nation of Israel but now every single member of the human race who would humble themselves and repent.
That could be you.
Fifth — There was a new view of God.
No one expected a crucified Messiah, and therefore, no one expected a resurrected Messiah.
Jesus revealed a God who would die for you so you could live with him.
A crucified God will stand with you in your suffering so one day a resurrected you can stand with God in God’s glory.
Lastly — There was a new hope.
The apostle Paul writes these unbelievable words, and if you’re suffering, if you’re afraid, if you’re in pain, just let these words wash over you.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
The homing instinct deep in your soul is correct. One day death is going to die! I’d kind of like to see that. I’d kind of like to be around for that.
God has placed eternity in the hearts of human beings because God wants to place human beings in the heart of eternity, starting right now.
That’s our hope, see.
Now I want to answer a few questions because there are so many around this big question, “What happens when you die?”
A lot of people wonder, “What happens to me between when I die and when I get a resurrected body at the final resurrection?”
Because, again, that resurrection is going to come when God sets everything right and we all get our resurrection bodies and the earth is renewed.
So what happens between when I die and when I’m resurrected?
No one knows for sure.
Paul, who taught about that final resurrection, also said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
We know when Jesus was on the cross, he said to the repentant thief who was next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though that final resurrection of all things is still in the future.
There’s a brilliant English thinker, John Polkinghorne. He’s a physicist and a minister, and he has a metaphor for that in-between time.
He says maybe when we die it will be like God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again.
So no one knows for sure, but to be absent from the body is to be present with Jesus Christ. And one day resurrection is coming, we’re told by the writers of Scripture.
Another question — What will death be like? When I die, what will that moment be like?
Of course, there’s huge mystery because all of us are on this side, but I’ll tell you maybe the most amazing statement Jesus ever made (and he made a lot of them).
One day, Jesus said:
Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death. (John 8:51)
What’s up with that?
“Will never taste death” it says in the next verse.
In other words, you won’t experience it.
When Dallas Willard had pancreatic cancer and he was nearing the end of his life on this earth, he said, “When I die, I think it may be some time before I know it.”
You see, if you follow Jesus, you’re already standing in another world — the kingdom of God.
He said the kingdom of God is now here. The eternal realm of God’s presence is here, and you’re standing in that, and you, your conscious experience, will just go right on.
Death will not interrupt your experience of life with God at all.
I was trying to think of an illustration of this.
I broke my jaw many years ago so I had to have my mouth wired shut. They gave me a shot of anesthesia and said, “Count backwards from 10.”
I was real concerned because I knew this was going to hurt and I didn’t think the anesthesia would be strong enough, so I started counting backwards, and when I hit one I said, “I told you it’s not going to work.”
And they said, “We’re all done.”
I had actually gone to sleep and woken up again and had no idea.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
Another question — What will resurrected living be like?
Again, a huge problem here is most people have never given adult thought to the afterlife. We just think in cartoon terms.
Another cartoon from The Far Side.
“Wish I’d brought a magazine,” says the man sitting on a cloud.
People think they will bored by heaven.
I had lunch with a friend sometime ago who said something along these lines. He said, “I know I’m supposed to want to go to heaven. I know that’s supposed to be the hope of my life, but frankly, it sounds kind of boring.”
Some people have the idea that heaven will be like the ultimate retirement village — that you can have adventure and risk and work and so on in this life, but then after you die you just have an eternal weekend in Palm Springs.
I’ve had someone ask me in all seriousness, “Will there be golf in heaven?”
His reasoning was, “I can’t be happy unless I’m golfing, and heaven has to be a place where I will be happy. Therefore, there must be golf in heaven.”
I had to explain:
Theologically, it is true that heaven is presented as a place of ultimate joy. But maybe your mind will need to be transformed so that you rejoice in what it is that heaven offers.
Do you really believe God made you and saved you for nothing more significant than an eternal round of golf?
Besides, we know there won’t be any lying, swearing or cheating in heaven, so how could golf be there?
Jesus’ friend John says we will reign with God.
In one story, Jesus says the master will say to us:
“Well done, my good servant! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” (Luke 19:17)
What would you do if God put you in charge of 10 cities?
Are you ready for that?
What if he just gave you one city?
What if God put you in charge of San Francisco or Pleasanton or Tracy, with all that smell? What would you do?
See, eternity is not going to be an endless church service on clouds with harps and palms. How boring would that be?
So how should you think of your destiny?
Your destiny is to be absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort under unimaginably splendid leadership on an inconceivably vast scale with endless cycles of productivity and enjoyment — That’s what lies before us in the prophetic vision that eye has not seen and ear has not heard.
Would you like that one one more time? I didn’t make that one up. Take a look. It’s from Dallas Willard.
Your destiny is to be absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort under unimaginably splendid leadership on an inconceivably vast scale with ever-increasing cycles of productivity and enjoyment, and that is what eye has not seen and ear has not heard that lies before us in the prophetic vision.
People wonder, “What will my resurrected body be like?”
I know one woman who said, “I’ve never liked my nose. Will I get a different nose?”
You may be thinking, “Could I get Chris Hemsworth’s body?” or, “Could my husband get Chris Hemsworth’s body? That would be like heaven for me.”
It’s interesting. In Jesus’ resurrected body his wounds are still visible, but instead of being signs of defeat or ugliness, they become signs of glorious love. They become beautiful.
Alright, the most important question is — so what? If God has placed eternity in your heart because he wants to place you in the heart of eternity, if there’s going to be resurrection, what’s the takeaway?
It’s so interesting. This comes at the end of the longest writing in Scripture about the resurrection. It’s in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 15.
Therefore, [Because of the truth of the resurrection, because it’s coming.] my dear brothers and sisters, 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 Corinthians 15:58)
Nothing you do is in vain because resurrection is coming. Therefore stand firm.
Not rage, rage against the dying of the light. Not fill out your bucket list with little experiences for your own human heart.
Give yourself to God fully. Trust God. Love God. Serve God. Do your work with God and for God. Live with God because God is still in the business of saving people from sin and death.
So don’t give up when you have trouble, when you’re sick, when you’re broke, when you’re scared, if you’re alone, if you’re afraid, if you’re divorced, if you’ve failed.
This is from N.T. Wright:
What you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are—strange though it may seem—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God, every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk, every deed that spreads the gospel, [every prayer ever prayed, every gift ever given, every holy thought, every gracious word] all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.
You can become, through Jesus, not just a consumer of hope, but a beacon of hope, a signpost of hope, a vessel of hope, and one day we who today sit here will be together again with those we have loved and lost who also serve and follow this God in his redeemed and resurrected world.
The great story which never ends, in which every chapter is better than the one that went before.
That — if you believe, trust, and follow Jesus — is what happens to you when you die.
That’s good news.
Let me pray for you.
I want to invite you right now — If you’ve lost someone you love, or maybe someone you know and care about is very sick, or maybe you’re facing a condition or a health situation, or just the thought of death terrifies you, there is a hope for you. There is a resurrection coming for you.
God wants to pour out his love and his presence and his comfort on you right now. Right now.
If you give your life to God, if you ask for his forgiveness and his grace, you can know that nothing, not even death, can ever separate you from him.
God, thank you for this great mystery that you have set eternity in our hearts. We offer you our hearts. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Blue Oaks Church