Facing Death with Hope: life, death and life
Today we come to a topic that no one wants to talk about, but about which it seems everyone is asking. When I asked for questions for the burning questions series, the largest group of questions was about death. I received questions like, "What happens after we die?" "Is cremation ok for Christians?" "What about people who commit suicide?"
I found it interesting that the little bit of anonymity provided by those slips of paper allowed people to ask questions they might have wondered about, but felt kind of funny asking. There is no reason, however, to feel funny asking about death. This is one sermon series that I know, with absolute certainty, applies to each and every one of us in this room. In fact, each and every person in the world will someday face death. They say death and taxes… well; there are people who cheat on their taxes. No one cheats death.
So, we are just going to plunge into this series within a series on death and eternal life.
I am starting today with the foundational sermon on what happens to us after we die. You can see the map of where the series is going on the screen right now. Next week hard deaths especially suicide. Then funerals and rituals. Then I'll go on retreat, but Robyn will pick up with "comfort those who mourn." And Harry will teach about heaven. Finally, after a couple of weeks yet to be determined, we will conclude it with the second coming of Christ and Resurrection. That's because I wanted to save that topic for Christ the King Sunday.
So, that is where we are going, and I know it will be a wonderful series.
So let's jump right into "Life and death."
In preparation for this, I went back to the basics. I read every Old Testament passage I could find pertaining to death and what happens after death. There really are not that many that are helpful.
Here's what I learned:
First, death is a natural part of creation.
Human beings are made of earthly stuff. We are created of the same stuff that makes up the rest of creation. Dust and water. Earthly stuff wears out. Our bodies were not created to last forever.
Some argue that death didn't come into the world until after the fall of Adam and Eve. That is not exactly true. I understand the confusion because I have trouble wrapping my mind around it too. Death did exist before the fall, however, because God tells Adam "if you eat of the fruit you will surely die.[i]" For human beings created of the dust of the earth, death is the natural end. God's promise has to do with Man's relationship to God. Disobedience would change the divine human relationship forever and, in reality, would be the death of that relationship.
Death is not the consequence of the fall either. If we read the sentence that God pronounces on humanity, in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, we see pain in childbirth, we see brokenness in Adam and Eve's relationship[ii], we see the struggle for life as the "thorns and thistles[iii]" grow in the fields. Then God says, "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.[iv]"
Basically, God says you will have to fight and scrap for the things you need in life. You'll have to work until you die. Death is not the curse. Death is not the punishment. It is the end of the punishment. The struggle and toil is the punishment. Death is the relief.
The fact is that nothing that comes from the ground will last forever. Created things are by definition finite, as contrasted with God who is infinite in all ways.
Dying is just part of living. And when a creature dies, human or animal, its body immediately begins to deteriorate until it completely returns to the elements from which it came.
The second thing I noted is that there is more to living than our physical, finite, created bodies.
In Hebrew, there is also Nephesh and Ruach, which roughly correspond to the Greek words Psuche and Pneuma. To make a long story short these words correspond to the non-material part of a person. There appear to be two aspects to this. Now be careful because these words are all used in a variety of ways and it can be very confusing. Nephesh and Psuche are often translated "soul." They roughly correspond to that which makes us alive. Every living thing has a Nephesh or in Greek a Psuche. People have it, animals have it, trees and plants have it, I suppose we would even say that amoeba, and the smallest microorganisms have Nephesh or Psuche. This is what makes living things different from say a rock. It is not personal. In other words, it is kind of a life force, rather than being identified with one particular individual. . Nephesh or Psuche is the quality of being alive. Although it is created by God, it is not divine or spiritual.
Notice the soul dissipates after death. It does not move on to another creature, or another life. That would be reincarnation, which is completely foreign to the Christian understanding of death.
(PPT CLICK)Ruach and Pneuma, on the other hand are often spiritual. Fundamentally they both mean wind or breath in their respective languages. But there is more. When people were created God breathed into them the breath of life. The wind of life. Even though the word Ruach is not used in Genesis 2:7 we see later the concept of the Ruach of God being in people. Zechariah 12:1 for instance talks about God forming the spirit (Ruach) of man. You'll recognize Psalm 31:5 because Jesus quoted it on the cross. "Into thy hand I commit my spirit [ruach]" (Psalm 31:5)
I think the overwhelming Biblical evidence is that there is something unique about humanity and that uniqueness lies in the fact that we were created with a spirit. Distinct from a soul. Distinct from all other living things, every human has within them a spirit, or what in our Quaker seminary was called the "spark of the divine." It is that spark which comes from God and returns to God.
Human beings are more than physical bodies, in fact, we are more than living creatures, and we are, by virtue of the spirit of God in us, fundamentally and uniquely spiritual beings.
The third step is to know what happens at death.
When a creature dies their soul departs, and the body stops functioning in any way. The process of decay takes over. In that sense death is the opposite of life. When living, our bodies fight off decay. They resist, by almost miraculous means, bacteria and parasites and all the other things that go into bodily decomposition.
When the life force- "the soul," leaves the body there is no more living (except in the few cases of resurrection that we see in the Bible.)
The spirit, however, is the portion of us that continues after we die. I know we use the two terms interchangeably. I have too, but to be precise it is the spirit that continues after death.
If you have been following me, you may have figured out by now that theologically animals don't have spirits, and therefore don't live beyond this life. That includes pets. Theologically speaking, "all dogs do not go to heaven." Before you rush the stage in protest, though, hear this. I believe that our understanding of all this is pretty limited, and that we will all find the things we love most when we get to heaven. So you can make your own call on pets. Frankly, the Bible just doesn't say.
But you might wonder where does the spirit go?
Have you ever heard of Hades? That is the Greek word. The Hebrew parallel is Sheol.
When we die, our Souls depart into nothingness. Our bodies begin to decay and we are buried. Our spirit, however, continues to exist in the place of the dead: Sheol or Hades. I am just going to say Sheol, but you know that Hades is the same thing.
Sheol is not a place of punishment. It is a place for the dead. If you believe in an eternal spirit, you have to explain where these spirits go. Now everybody goes to Sheol. Righteous, unrighteous, Jew, Greek, Roman, Men, women, children, everyone goes to Sheol.
Later Hebrew thought came to believe that not everyone went to the same place in Sheol. They begin to talk about the separation of Sheol into a place for the unrighteous and a place for the righteous.
(PPT CLICK )The Unrighteous go to Gehena (or the valley of Hena). Now Gehena is a literal place just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In 2 Chronicles, the priests of Baal sacrificed children in this valley. Later it became a trash dump with rotting stinking burning trash. Since our understanding of the afterlife is so limited, they named the place for the unrighteous dead after the worst place they could think of. Gehena. Even though this was the worst place they could think of, it was not a place of punishment. It was merely a place for the unrighteous spirits to hang out.
(PPT CLICK )The righteous, on the other hand (and not necessarily just the righteous Jews) go to paradise, or what is often called the bosom of Abraham. The name paradise comes from a Persian word, which means "king's gardens." It conjures up images of the lush private gardens that surrounded palaces. Gardens filled with beautiful and wondrous things. It also conjures up images of the Garden of Eden.
We see this division between Gehena and Paradise in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16[v]. And we see Jesus promise paradise to the thief who hung on the cross with him. Upon the thief's profession of faith, Jesus replies, "I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.[vi]"
The tricky part of this is that Paradise, as Jesus understood it is not heaven. It is the place for the spirits of the righteous dead. Heaven comes after the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. We tend to roll all of that together, thinking it happens immediately at death. Not so according to the Bible.
The comfort is we know that Jesus is in paradise. He promised the thief. "Today you will be with me in Paradise." Paradise, therefore, will be infinitely better than our lives now. Now heaven might be infinitely more glorious than paradise, but for that, we will have to wait. We know that those who call on Jesus… those who believe in his name will be with him in paradise. And I want to leave it there because that is where Harry will pick up in a few weeks.
The last Question I want to address today, doesn't really fit anywhere else. Can we contact the dead and can they see us?
The only examples of ghostly conversation in the Bible is a divine revelation. The ghost of Samuel appears to Saul and gives him the word of the Lord.
That is the only example. IN fact Leviticus specifically forbids necromancy- talking with the dead.
---That being said my conclusion is
· Is it possible to contact the dead? Yes.
· Is it common or approved. No.
· And as to whether they can see us… I don't even pretend to undertand what that life will be. Adam Hamilton has a nice bit of speculation when he says that He doesn't want his mom and dad watchin' everything he does. But God , being a proud father, might quite possibly call our loved ones over say during our wedding, or when we are doing something really good, or when we are having a hard time, to say "Hey, come here, and look at this."
Bottom line, there is way more to the spiritual realm than you and I can understand. People do report very strange experiences that I can't explain. So the final answer is I don't know. I guess I'll have to wait to find out on the other side.
The truth is this is all speculation. It is, however, educated speculation, informed by God's revelation in scripture. But I have never been there, and neither have any of you, so the truth is that it is speculation. It is the best our little finite human minds can do when we encounter the infinitely divine realities of eternal life. We use things we can understand like the Hebrews used Gehena to understand the place for the unrighteous spirits. We use golden streets, and angel choirs to describe our vision of heaven. The truth is that paradise and then heaven will be so much more than we could ever imagine or describe while we are on this side of death.
Therein lies our hope.
(PPT CLICK)But therein also lies our challenge.
· (PPT CLICK)As we stand before the mysteries of life and death and life, we are challenged to humbly bow and confess that these things are too wonderful for our minds or our lips. We cannot understand them. To think otherwise and argue about them is ridiculously self-righteous. Humble thanksgiving is the proper attitude as the servant of God approaches these glorious realities.
· (PPT CLICK)As we stand before the mysteries of life and death and life, we are challenged to look above the pain and suffering, the injustice and brokenness of this world to the life that is to come. We must work to bring the kingdom of heaven to be a reality on this earth, but until the Kingdom comes in all of its glory, we keep our eyes on the hope and not despair (No matter how dim that hope may seem)
· (PPT CLICK)And finally, as we stand before the mysteries of life and death and life we are challenged to (borrowing my favorite phrase from the funeral service) we are challenged to "live as one who is prepared to die, so that when we die we will go forth as one who is prepared to live."[vii] Paul says, "If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord"[viii]