Reflections on Death and Eternity for Followers of Christ
Those two words comprise the shortest verse in the Bible. Like many who will read this, I’ve lost more than my share of family, friends, and loved ones. Throughout my personal journey, I have found that too often the words that are intended to help, unintentionally cause hurt. Here are a few commonly said and completely unhelpful statements:
“God needed another angel.” First, this implies that God was short on angels and had to take your loved one for himself, regardless of how much hurt it caused. Second, people do not become angels. The Bible never even suggests that.
“Time heals everything.” Not necessarily. For some people, time seems to heal. For others, their wounds are still very real twenty years later. This statement minimizes people’s pain and suggests that they will get over it. God heals. Time is not God.
“God had another plan.” I certainly believe in the sovereignty of God and that He has a plan. However, saying this in moments of tragedy passively suggests that people should blame God.
“These things just happen.” Do they? I have no words for this one.
“I know exactly what you are going through.” Do you? Each person’s pain is unique. Even if you have been through something similar, don’t assume you know what they are feeling.
Jesus modeled a better way. Jesus wept. He didn’t offer explanations when He stood at the tomb of Lazarus. He didn’t correct them for their pain. He just wept with them. The Apostle Paul gave this same counsel in Romans 12:15-16, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep…Do not pretend to be wiser than you are.” The truth is, none of us understand why tragedies happen. Some things just don’t make sense. Thankfully, they don’t have to. When someone is hurting, we can give them the gift of presence. Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved Psalms of all times. In it, the Psalmist declares that he will fear no evil because, “You are with me.” Job’s friends became infamous through their failed attempts at comfort. However, they started out doing the right thing. “Then they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. Meanwhile, no one was speaking to him at all because they saw that his pain was severe” (Job 2:13). They sat with their friend, unthreatened by his silence. That is the gift of presence.
I cannot answer the question of why tragedy happens, other than acknowledging that we live in a fallen world and many things that should not happen still do. What I can do is offer hope for those who are born-again and live by faith in Jesus Christ. Take a moment and reflect on what the Bible teaches about eternity for those who are saved. Let’s begin in First Thessalonians chapter four:
13 But I would not have you ignorant, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.
This is not saying that believers should not grieve. Rather, it teaches that in our grief, we should remember that there is hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and arose again, so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
Many people want to know where their loved one is immediately after his/her death. The simple answer is, they are with God. If He’s going to bring them with Him, then they must be with him.
15 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 will not precede those who are asleep.
While this passage is often used to explain the order of the rapture, it’s first intent is clearly to comfort believers who are still living while their loved ones have passed on. Paul seems to be writing against the idea that the souls of the departed have to wait for those who are still living to be caught up. The dead in Christ have already joined our Lord. They are with Him now.
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall be forever with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
When Jesus spoke about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke chapter sixteen, He painted a beautiful picture of what happens in the moments following a believer’s death.
22 “It came to pass that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s presence.”
At the moment of his death, angels took Lazarus to join the father of his people. This description of death reminds me of a beautiful Old Testament image of death. It is repeated over and over, but here are a few instances from the book of Genesis:
Genesis 25:8- “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”
Genesis 35:29- “And Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, being old and full of days, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”
Genesis 49:29- “Then he (Jacob) charged them and said to them, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite”
They were gathered to their people. What a powerful, personal image of eternity. I have heard people say that this simply refers to burial. The text indicates otherwise. In both Genesis thirty-five and forty-nine, Isaac and Jacob were gathered to their people before they were buried. Jesus appears to have employed this image when He spoke of the angels carrying Lazarus into the presence of Abraham. When believers die, they do not just float off into eternity. They are gathered by angels to join their loved ones who have preceded them in death. In the cinematic adaptation of JRR Tolkein’s The Return of the King, King Theoden cites this hope with these words, “I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.” Some people are oddly troubled by this idea that after death you are consciously aware of the presence of loved ones.
I’m amazed at the number of people who seem to think we won’t remember our loved ones after we die. I call this the amnesia theory of Heaven. However, nowhere in Scripture does it imply that our knowledge or memories will become lessened in Heaven. On the contrary, they will be perfected. In First Corinthians chapter thirteen, the apostle writes,
12 For now we see as through a glass, dimly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know, even as I also am known.
In Matthew chapter eight, Jesus said that many would come from the east and west and “dine with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). If we are going to know the patriarchs, I am confident we will know friends and family. We will be gathered to our people. When I say that people will have their memories and know others, some worry that they will be sad. Revelation assures us otherwise.
God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. There shall be no more death. Neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)
Not only does the Bible teach that believers are conscious in the presence of God immediately after they die, it also teaches that there will be a physical resurrection of the dead, and we will receive bodies that are free from all natural blemishes and limitations. The Corinthian believers struggled to understand this, so Paul explained it in First Corinthians chapter fifteen.
35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? With what body do they come?” 36 You fool! What you sow is not made alive unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not sow the body that shall be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 Then God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.
Paul further explains the nature of the new body.
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. 45 So it is written, “The first man Adam was made a living soul.” The last Adam was made a life-giving spirit. 46 However, that which is spiritual is not first, but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second man was the Lord from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 As we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
Concerning that glorious moment, he writes:
51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible will put on incorruption, and this mortal will put on immortality. 54 When this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then the saying that is written shall come to pass: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your sting?
O grave, where is your victory?
While it’s amazing to think about seeing our relatives, enjoying a life without sorrow, and having a new body without natural limitations, the central focus of eternity will be Jesus Christ Himself. Revelation chapter seven describes a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual host worshipping before the throne of God.
9 Then I looked. And there was a great multitude which no one could count, from all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb!”
11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures and fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying:
Blessing and glory
and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever!
Revelation twenty-one describes God’s vision of the future,
3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven, saying, “Look! The tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them. They shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God…6 He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the spring of the water of life to him who thirsts. 7 He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.
Have you ever wondered what Heaven will look like? Revelation twenty-one paints a picture of the capitol city, New Jerusalem, that will one day descend from Heaven to Earth.
9 One of the seven angels…came to me and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, her light like a most precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were written: 13 three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 He who talked with me had a golden rod to measure the city and its gates and wall. 16 The city lies as a square, its length as long as its width. He measured the city with the rod: one thousand four hundred miles. Its length and breadth and height are equal. 17 He then measured its wall: two hundred feet by the measurement of a man, that is, of an angel. 18 The wall was built of jasper and the city was pure gold, as clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all kinds of precious jewels. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; 20 the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprase; the eleventh, jacinth; and the twelfth, amethyst. 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city has no need of sun or moon to shine in it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
Perhaps a city, even one with such incredible beauty isn’t how you envision eternity. Remember, that’s only the capitol city. Revelation twenty-two expands the vision.
Then he showed me a pure river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 in the middle of its street. On each side of the river was the tree of life, which bore twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 There shall be no more curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. 4 They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. 5 Night shall be no more. They need no lamp nor the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.
When Jesus came to a funeral, He wept.He wept because He knew His friends were hurting. He wept because sorrow and pain are all too real in this age. He did not weep, however, for the person who had passed into God’s presence. For that individual, they have entered into our hope, into a place of life, beauty, and joy.
Frank Bartleman, eyewitness to the Azusa Street Revival, explained this tension well when he wrote about the death of his young daughter.
The angels carried her, and she went to meet them. They carried her off and left us lonely hearted. Oh, what a void her absence leaves with us! But we sorrow not as those who have no hope. She is safe forevermore. Saved from an unfriendly world and a life of suffering…The great ordeal of life is past for her. She has gone on before, ahead of us, saved from the sorrow of parting. She has escaped safely, while we must struggle on. Her work is finished in the cool of the early morning of life, and she has gone home, spared the heat of the journey. The angels will care for her far better than we could, and she will be inconceivably happier. For her own sake I would not recall her if I could. So, we lay her body away in the full assurance of a glorious resurrection. Someday her glorified spirit, all radiant and rapturous with the blissful joy of Heaven, will meet us at the ‘beautiful gate.’ We trust it will not be long.
Bartleman’s words remind me of King David, when his infant son died in Second Samuel chapter twelve. Throughout the seven days that the child was ill, David fasted and was inconsolable. When the child died, his people were afraid to tell him. When he learned of the child’s death, however, he cleaned himself up, requested food, and went into God’s house and worshipped. Everyone was amazed! They couldn’t understand why David acted better after his child passed than he had while he was ill. The king explained that while his son was alive, he was begging God for healing. Now, David said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). David understood that death is not the end. Our loved ones may not return to us, but we can go to them one day.
The great preacher, D. L. Moody similarly reflected on the necessity of being prepared to enter eternity with these powerful words.
We say this is the land of the living! It is not. It is the land of the dying. What is our life here but a vapor? But look at the other world. No death, no pain, no sorrow, no old age, no sickness, not bending forms, no dimmed eyes, no tears. But joy, peace, love, happiness. No gray hair. People all young. River of life for the healing of the nations, and everlasting life. Think of it! Life! Life! Life without end! And yet so many men choose this life on earth instead of the life in Heaven. Don’t close your heart against eternal life. Only take the gift, only take it. Will you do it?
At Link Church, we are grieving the loss of one of our young members, Ashlynn Barnes. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the death of a sixteen-year-old girl. Jesus wept. We weep also. We grieve along with the Barnes and Duff families. We grieve with Lamar High School and with individuals and families throughout Johnson County. Still, we do not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope. While our hearts are broken, we are thankful for hope. As we wait in hope, we pray along with John the Apostle, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)
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All Bible quotes are taken from the Modern English Version.
The above image was borrowed from a blog written by Duncan Pile.
Frank Bartleman. How Revival Came to Los Angelos.