It has become apparent to me that it’s time I write a concise reflection for what it means for someone to die. Now I realize there are a myriad of books on the subject and I’m hardly an authority, but I’m a student of the Book and I know God is guiding my pen for reasons that are beyond my comprehension. My only job is to be faithful to that calling. It’s important for me to say up front that the basis for my reflection is solely what I find in the Bible. I’m not concerned with popular culture or New Age theory, only what is recorded in the Scriptures and unpacked in a way that is concise and relevant to our lives today.
When we speak of death in the Scriptures, there are really three distinguishable forms. The first is spiritual, which can be more generally stated as our “fall from grace.” The second is eternal – or the final separation of us from God. This is Jesus with the goats and the sheep (Matthew 25:32). The third is physical or the separation of the soul from the body. (Systematic Theology, Oden vol 3 – pg 381). It’s this third form that I’m focusing on for this study. Not that the other two aren’t pertinent, hardly, but this is what we most often mean when we speak of death. The reality that a person is made of two distinct parts which are separated at death is only so clearly obvious when we look upon the dead. The shell remains, but the part that animates the body is no longer present. We’re left with only a vague reminder of who that person was and that truth is felt more deeply depending on how well we knew that person. I’m thinking of the last time I saw my grandfather’s body. Clearly not the man he was just days before when I last saw him. Something was changed, different, missing. It was years later when I knew how to describe that.
This truth that we’re comprised of a body and a soul is taught in Scripture. Matthew 10:28, “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” and Luke 12:4, “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do.” I like this, “Death is more fittingly described under the metaphor of severance than annihilation.” (Oden) The word for soul, nephesh, by definition means “that which is alive.” It’s my soul that animates my body. It’s what allows me to think, allows me to feel, and gives me the ability to reason and the emotion to cry. You might see my picture and be able to recognize me, but the only way to truly know me is by becoming more aware of my soul. It’s wise to bear that, to allow others to become more aware of whom you are.
As Jesus died on the cross, He spoke, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) This is the same as the Psalmist, Psalm 31:5, which, by the way, was part of the Bible that Jesus knew. It then follows, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.” (Matthew 27:50) When Jesus died, at the moment in time when death was defeated, it wasn’t His body that did the work. That very Body had another purpose to serve that would be accomplished three days hence. James writes, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead…” This is what we mean when we say that Jesus died on the cross. He most certainly didn’t cease to exist. He wasn’t annihilated, nor did He become one with nature. He wasn’t sent back into the queue for another rebirth as some other person and/or creature. That’s blasphemous. When He died, His soul was separated from His body. What happened to Him is the same that happened to the thieves on the crosses that died next to Him. Now, their final destinations were different, but the process by which that occurred was the same for both of them. The same is true for us today. When we die, most likely at the moment in time when we draw our last breath, our soul is separated from our bodies and we depart to be with Christ. This is so beautifully illustrated by the death of the first Christian martyr Steven in Acts 7:54-60. It’s worth the time to stop and read it. Paul writes later in Scripture, “…to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) It really is that simple and there’s nothing to fear. At the moment we need it most, when the assurance of what we believe becomes our reality, the Author of Life is ready to welcome us.
If we can therefore conclude that a person is made of two parts, and that the very definition of physical death is the separation of those parts, how then do we conclude that the part that we cannot see lives on? Scripture tells us that the soul is not just a figment of our imagination – a trick played by our minds using seemingly random electric impulses flowing from one part of the brain to the other. John 10:27-29, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” How about John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Scripture is full of the hope of eternal life. The promise of reward for things to come based on the decisions and sufferings that we endure while living in this “tent” as the Scriptures often refer to the body (2 Corinthians 5). But how do we know that place is real? That there really is a distinction between heaven and hell?
Take a look at the story of the rich man and Lazarus as recorded in Luke 16:19-31:
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
While this story can give us many clues, ultimately the answer to the question regarding the reality of heaven is one of faith. To believe that things are more than they appear, that a place exists beyond our senses is not from a lack of reason, but does require the acceptance that there is more to life than what we can perceive. The story teaches that in Scripture, there really is a place called heaven, “Abraham’s bosom” in this instance, and that there is a fixed “chasm” between that and a place of “torment.” The story teaches that messages from the after-life are never sufficiently convincing to persuade someone to believe in God when we have the Scriptures (i.e. Moses and the Prophets) that fully point to the existence, mercy, and beauty of our loving and holy God. As far as the Bible is concerned, heaven and hell are real places and I’m fully convinced that we’re on a path to one place or the other. Death is the method by which we enter into either place and that once we’re there, no amount of begging, pleading or prayer from this side of eternity will change the course of our blessing or condemnation.
Those that have read our blog know that when I speak of Kyleigh, I’m very dogmatic about the fact that I know where she is, and that I know she is safe. You may be wondering, what is the basis for that belief? I’m convinced that in regards to our eternal destiny, the Bible teaches that there is an age of culpability; or an age when we alone are responsible for our decision to accept His grace, or to turn from it. It would be nice if I knew of one or two verses to point you to, but I don’t. I think it happens sometime in the teenage years, but everyone who reaches that age when they are free to choose to align oneself with God or to rebel against Him, will choose separation from God. Everyone. “There are none righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10) We do this through sin. It’s at that point that the sinner must be reconciled to God. These folks are often called “unrighteous” in the Bible, not because the other group (i.e. the “righteous”) is a collective set of do-gooders, but because they have accepted a Substitute who stands on their behalf when the time of judgment comes. I’m convinced that everyone who dies at whatever age not knowing that Substitute – the unrighteous – would have never chosen otherwise. We have only ourselves to blame for the choices we make. It’s not the circumstances that are forced upon us, but how we respond to them that truly matters.
There are a group of folks like Kyleigh, but also includes every miscarried, aborted, infant, toddler, and every other child up through that age of accountability that also belong to God. It’s this group that you see in the Gospels of Mark and Luke being brought to Jesus. I like the account in Luke 18:15-16 best, “And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. But Jesus called for them, saying, ‘Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” Kyleigh is a resident of the Kingdom of Heaven, not because of wishful thinking on my part, but because God has explicitly revealed that as such. I’m bold in this proclamation because the 2000 year old text which is alive and so relevant today permits me to be so. She is a resident there. Her life is eternally meaningful. And because I am certain of my own fate, I know without doubt that I will see her again.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones.” (Ps 116:15)
They say in life that only death and taxes are certain. Regarding the later, that’s clearly not true as it generally depends on where one is born as to whether or not he/she will be taxed. As to the former, it’s written, “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:50-52) Some folks won’t die but go straight from this life to the next. This brings us to the only certainty in life.
All of us were created as eternal beings. Not from eternity past through eternity future as if stuck in some kind of cosmic hamster wheel in which we’re never allowed to get off. But from the moment of conception, when God breathes life into us and energizes our hearts through a time without end, we are all eternal. The only relevant question is not if you are an eternal being, but where do you plan to spend it? You get the choice and for certain, that choice outlives your flesh. Do you choose eternity in blissful reunion, or do you choose a life of eternal separation which is only best described as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:50) I pray you choose wisely not just because your choice determines your future, but because you are missing out on all that life has to offer now. There are so many ways to help you make that choice. Talk to a friend, have lunch with a Pastor, email me – whatever – but don’t delay. Take the time that you must, but you don’t want to depart from here undecided. In this case, no decision is in-fact, a decision.
Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Version, copyright Zondervan, 2002