“Philip, remember that you must die!” Thus said a slave of the ruler of Macedon daily to his royal master. And the poet Lowell wrote,
Life is a sheet of paper white Whereon each one of us may write His line or two, and then comes night.
Many false concepts of death and the hereafter have created widespread doubt and despair. The insecurity of life is matched by the insecurity of death. In this sermon we will resolve the “mystery” of death by examining its reality, its nature, and the promise of life after death
I. THE REALITY OF DEATH
In his book A View from the Hearse, Joseph Bayly writes about the personal tragedies he has suffered. His boy died of leukemia just before his fifth birthday. There were nine nightmarish months between his son’s diagnosis and death. He laments, “Everything changes, death is changeless. . . The door of the hearse is never closed. Dairy farmer and sales executive live in death’s shadow with Nobel Prize winner and prostitute, infant, teen, old man. The hearse stands waiting for the surgeon who transplants a heart, as well as the hopeful recipient, for the funeral director as well as the corpse. . . Death spares none.”
Death does not consent to let itself be forgotten, even though one of Tolstoy’s characters declared that “the essential thing, when we are speaking of death, consists in not thinking about it.” Notwithstanding, death walks at our side, and with the complicity of uniformity sculptures its mark on the faces of those dearest to us.
The biblical word confirms its reality. Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Earlier Solomon declared, “The living know that they will die” (Eccl 9:5), and the prophet Ezekiel declared, “For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek 18:4). Later, Paul declares that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27).
If no one can escape the certainty of death, what happens when we die?
II. THE NATURE OF DEATH
The Genesis account of the creation of man is that “the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and at death “the dust returns to the ground it came from” (Eccl 12:7; cf. Gen 3:19).
According to chemical scientists, this “dust,” besides other constituents, falls into a chemical form. For instance, there is sufficient carbon to provide lead for nine thousand pencils, enough phosphorus to make 2,200 match heads, about a bucket full of lime, a quarter pound of sulphur, about a spoonful of magnesium, and enough iron to make a two-inch nail.
Life reduced to dust! What shocking chemical reductionism! Death is the opposite to life. By it and from it comes no good thing. No consciousness, no intelligence, no communication either with or between God and man. This sad reality is validated by four explicit biblical facts related to the state of man in the realm of the dead:
1. In death the thought process perishes. “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Ps 146:4, KJV).
2. In death, the dead have no part in anything that is done on earth. Read Ecclesiastes 9:5–6.
3. In death, there is no participation in any activity. There is “neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Eccl 9:10).
4. In death, the capacity of the dead to fellowship with God is absent. “It is not the dead who praise the Lord” (Ps 115:17).
Unmistakably then, death is the antithesis of life. Everything that is present in life is absent. Everything that makes a person human—personality, thought process, social life, free will, moral obligations—ceases at the moment of death.
But there is an encouraging metaphor for death used by Bible writers. The psalmist writes, “Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (Ps 13:3). Says Job, “So he lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, people will not awake or be roused from their sleep” (Job 14:12). Even Jesus describes the death of His friend Lazarus as a “sleep” (John 11:11–14).
From this metaphor then, we can conclude three realities:
1. Like sleep, death is a state of unconsciousness.
2. Like sleep, death is temporary.
3. Like sleep, death implies an awakening.
And that glorious “awakening” is the promise of life after death.
III. THE PROMISE OF LIFE AFTER DEATH
Following Sir Walter Raleigh’s execution, among his papers was found a poem showing his belief that death was but the close of a chapter, that in a day to come, it, too, would be successfully conquered:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust My God shall raise me up I trust.
Centuries earlier the apostle Paul asked the question, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8). Christ answers the question with the assurance, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28– 29). Centuries before Job expressed his confidence in life after death when he declared, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another” (Job 19:25– 27). Referring to the interval between death and resurrection Job said, “All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come” (Job 14:14). Even more, he tells us where he would be waiting: “If I wait, the grave is mine house; I have made my bed in the darkness” (Job 17:13, KJV). Later, Daniel wrote, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2). What a promise for life after death!
The reality of death is an unwelcome disturber of life, and yet a summons to number our days, maintain our faith in God, live responsibly, and serve sacrificially. The nature of death is a disruptive disintegration of life and yet, in that dislocation of dust, we are remembered by God and angels guard the place where we rest until the trumpet sounds the call to awaken.
The promise of life after death is a reminder that God is faithful and that He fulfills His promise “to seek and to save that which was lost,” soon to be realized in a restored creation, a glorious reunion with loved ones in a place where no one will ever say goodbye. We have this hope. Amen.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.