May 30, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE?
I Corinthians 15:50-57
There is a verse in Job that always makes me smile. “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14) What makes me smile is the first word. “If.” When it comes to death, the question is not “if,” but “when.” It’s going to happen.
Leo Durocher said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality by being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Leo Durocher was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. But not until after he died.
Everybody dies. We know that. It’s going to happen. The question is, what happens after we die?
Today’s scripture has a word that is a good one to keep in mind on this subject. The word is “mystery.”
“Lo, I tell you a mystery . . .” I Corinthians 15:51
There’s a lot we don’t know about what happens after we die. No matter how much we study the Bible, we will still have lots of unanswered questions. God has revealed all we need to know on this subject, but not all we want to know. That’s our starting point today: That we don’t need certainty. But that we do need faith.
We’re going to begin by looking at some of the conclusions people have reached about life after death. Some of these are hinted at in the Bible but none of these can be said to be what the Bible teaches.
1) When you’re dead you’re dead. There are a lot of people who will tell you they believe this and a lot more who won’t tell you they believe this, but give them a lie detector and you’ll get the truth. Which isn’t surprising if you’ve ever looked at a dead body. It sure looks like the end for that person. The evidence for life after death is not to be found in a corpse.
People who believe that when you’re dead you’re dead, tend to respond in two very different ways. One way is to squeeze all the living they can into this one and only life. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The other is to just resign themselves to the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death. As Macbeth said, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.”
2) We live on after we die in the memories of others. We’re dead. We’re gone. But if we are not forgotten, we live on. I think of people who have influenced my life. I will never forget them. I will always thank God for them. I’m a better person because of them. They are always with me. So in a sense, they did not die.
But what about the people nobody remembers? Or what about the passage of time? Eventually we are all going to die and all our memories of other people are going to die with us. If life after death means no more than being remembered, it’s not much different from “when you’re dead you’re dead.”
3) We live more than once. This is not a Christian idea, though there are Christians who believe it. We usually call this reincarnation. It is part of the Hindu religion. You may have once been a dog, but if you were a very good dog, maybe you were reborn as a human. Or it can go the other way. You were a really bad human, so maybe you were reborn as a fly. Think about that next time you take out your fly swatter. The goal in Hinduism is to keep advancing through multiple births and rebirths, until you have achieved liberation from this material world and you are united with Brahman, which is Hinduism’s vague and undefined concept of God.
4) Immortality of the spirit. You may think this is what the Bible teaches. A lot of people do. I have to catch myself now and then even though I know better, because I have been taught this as long as I can remember. The idea here is that the body dies, but the spirit lives on. And that it’s the spirit, not the body, that is the real you and the real me.
I am guessing that some of you are wondering how you can possibly believe in life after death without believing in an immortal spirit. For many of you, this idea that your spirit leaves your body at the moment of death is not only a comforting thought; it’s also one of your core beliefs. You may be a bit angry with me right now. Or thoroughly confused. Hold on, I’ll have more to say about this when I get to what the Bible teaches. But before we get there, there is one other widely held notion about what happens when we die.
5) Near-death experiences. Even people who don’t have much use for religion pay attention to this one. There are people, quite a few people, who have experienced clinical death, but did not die. They came back. And their reports on what it was like, as they hovered between life and death are amazingly consistent. There always seems to be a bright light, a long tunnel, and a desire to keep moving through that tunnel. There is not a feeling of terror, but a feeling of bliss. Loved ones who have died are there, ready to welcome them. Often there is an out of body sensation. Like hovering in the air and looking down on the scene where loved ones are gathered around their bed. Almost always they tell us they did not want to come back. They say that after their near-death experience, any fear they may have once had of dying is gone.
There are books about this. Quite a few. They always sell well. Some are written on about a fifth grade level. Some are more scholarly. If you are one who has always believed that when you’re dead, you’re dead, the testimony of those who nearly died and came back may change your mind.
But so far we have been looking at what people think and not what the Bible says. For the rest of our time today, we are going set aside what people think and even what we might think, and go to the Bible with an open mind. The answers we find there may not be as clear as we would like. Some mystery will remain. But again, God has revealed all we need to know. We don’t need to have all our questions answered. We do need faith.
There are two basic assumptions that run through the entire Bible. 1) We were created for a relationship with God. And we miss life’s purpose without that relationship. 2) Sin is a rejection of that relationship. In other words, sin is separation from God.
These two assumptions do not change as we go through the Bible. What does change is the understanding of what these assumptions mean for us when we die.
The earliest and oldest concept of life after death in the Bible has to do with a place called Sheol. All people went there. God was not there. The idea was that since our sin separates us from God, death seals that separation and makes it final.
But as we read through the Bible, we find this concept of Sheol as a place where God is not, changing. Psalm 139 says there is no place where God is not.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I go from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! (Psalm 139:7-8)
We also see in this passage the idea that we don’t necessarily have to go to Sheol when we die. We might also “ascend to heaven,” which sounds like a better deal, even though God is in both places.
Later in the Old Testament the concept of Sheol seems to go away and the concept of resurrection is introduced. Here is an example:
But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, 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).
This is introduced but not really developed until we get to the New Testament.
The New Testament is all about resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the central event in the New Testament. And there is a clear connection between his victory over death and our victory over death. As it says in our scripture:
Death is swallowed up in victory . . . Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:54,57).
The resurrection of Jesus proves that God’s power is greater than death’s power. Not just for him, but also for us. He told us so:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live . . . Because I live, you shall live also (John 11:25, 14:19).
One of the four gospels, John, is all about eternal life. This is where we find the verse:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
Eternal life is two things. 1) It is life that we can enjoy here on earth before we die. 2) And it is life that does not end after we die.
Jesus does not get specific about how all this works. Paul does. Or at least he tries. In what may have been the earliest book of the New Testament, I Thessalonians, Paul gets specific in a way that has created a lot of confusion.
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 . . . For the Lord himself will come down from heaven . . . and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, those who are still alive will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (I Thessalonians 4:14,16-17).
Some Christians read this and conclude that there is going be a future “rapture,” when all true believers will go straight to heaven and everyone else will be “left behind.” There is a whole series of books and movies based on this premise. This is a modern doctrine that in my humble opinion is misguided.
The other place where Paul gets specific in a way that is less confusing and more helpful is I Corinthians 15. We read 8 verses from this chapter. There are 58 verses. I encourage you to read all 58. “Less confusing” does not mean crystal clear and easy reading. But I think you will find it worth the effort.
This is where Paul takes on the Greek idea of the “immortal spirit” that we mentioned earlier. This is what I know a lot of you believe, and a lot of you are surprised to learn that this is not what the Bible teaches. Paul is here giving us an analogy from nature to help us understand. You bury a seed, and you might well conclude that the seed is dead and gone. But no. There is a plant that rises from where the seed was planted. The seed is not the same as the plant, but it’s not entirely different either. There is continuity between the two.
And so when we die, there will be continuity between our flesh and blood body and our new “spiritual body.” That is what Paul calls it. What that is going to be like, I don’t think anybody knows. It’s a “mystery.”
You might ask, why is this a big deal? Why can’t I keep on believing that when my body dies, my spirit will go on living? Well, you certainly can and probably most of you will. But the important point is that the Hebrews understood God to be telling them that the human body is more than just a shell that we will one day escape. The human body is the temple of God (I Corinthians 3:16). When that body dies, we die. We are dead. But since death is defeated, we don’t stay dead. We are given a new body. A “spiritual body,” whatever that means.
What it doesn’t mean, I promise you, is a scene out of “The Night of the Living Dead.” We are not going to become a bunch of zombies stumbling around, terrifying everyone we meet. I say this in a humorous way, but the question often is asked about cremation. Is it OK for my body to be destroyed? Won’t God need my old body in order to give me my new “spiritual body”?
I can tell you with confidence that the new life God has for you in heaven does not require the preservation of your earthly body. Our bodies will become dust, either quickly through cremation or slowly through decomposition. The new life God has for you is going to be something new, and glorious, and wonderful.
The Bible does not teach that everyone goes to heaven. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this in a sermon about life after death. It is through faith in Jesus Christ that we receive the gift of eternal life. Thankfully it is God who makes the judgment calls about who gets in and who doesn’t. God is more merciful than we are, which is a good thing, because none of us deserves it. All of us are sinners.
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
What happens when you die? God has told us all we need to know. Not all we want to know. Yes, inquiring minds do want to know. But a lot of the details will have to remain a mystery. We’ll find out soon enough. For now, what we need is not to have all our questions answered. What we need is faith.
There was a doctor who made house calls. He was talking to a patient who was very ill. The patient took hold of the doctor’s hand and said, “I’m afraid to die. Can you tell me what it will be like?”
The doctor said, “That is not my area of specialty. And it looks like you might find out before I do. I wish I could tell you more.”
At that moment there was a scratching and a whining on the other side of the closed door. The doctor opened the door and in bounded his dog. The dog jumped up on him, nearly knocking him down. The doctor had his inspiration. He turned to the patient and said:
“You see my dog. He has never been in this room before. He knew nothing about what it would be like inside. He only knew one thing. He knew his master was here. So when I opened the door, he ran in with no fear. Only joy.
“I know little about what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing. I know my Master is there. So when he opens the door, I will pass through with no fear. Only joy.”
God, you gave us life. Thank you. We know that the body you gave us, amazing as it is, was never designed to last forever. Some of us are becoming very familiar with the signs that we are wearing out and running down. One day we will die. That day is in the future for us, but that day has already come for many of our loved ones. Thank you that in your great plan for life you have also planned for what comes next. Thank you that though we grieve for our loved ones, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope is in you and your promise of eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In his name, by his grace, Amen.