The Problem of Death
You are going to die. Sorry to be so blunt about it. I am going to die, too, but that probably doesn’t make you feel any better. Regardless, the two of us may as well face it: we are going to die. It’s a more sure bet than taxes…and that’s saying a lot.
Everyone dies. It is a universal phenomenon and no one can remember when it wasn’t so. The oldest people on the planet today aren’t much past a hundred. No one expects them to make it to two hundred either. But even if they did, no one would expect human lives to go on indefinitely. Even the ancient Methuselah was required to call it quits at age 969.
Death sometimes comes peacefully and at an old age. Other times it is more violent and can strike the very young. In a sense, none of us is ever very far away from it. Take away our oxygen and fifteen minutes later we’re history. In fact, when you pause to consider the delicacy of human life and how little physical effort is required to snuff it out (I won’t mention the gruesome possibilities, but you get the idea), it becomes a wonder that any of us live as long as we do.
Disease, accidents, and violence can lead to death, but this is not always the case. On the other hand, even if a person manages to escape all these things, the body just seems to finally wear out. Scientists tell us that our cells are constantly dying and being replenished. After a while, the replenishing just can’t keep up with the dying…and there we go.
People will go to great lengths to postpone this inevitable date with destiny. Some folks are fanatical about it, but most of us just do what seems reasonable on a day-to-day basis. Only the depressed actually try to hasten the day. But no matter how much effort is invested in living, no sane person expects to do more than postpone death. Cancellations are unheard of.
Since death is so certain you would think it might absorb our thoughts, but it usually doesn’t. It comes screaming in at us from time to time and we shove it back into the recesses of our consciousness just as fast as we can. Not all of this repression is unhealthy. God obviously wants us to focus on living. That drive is instinctive within us, and the Bible affirms that God’s nature and desire for us is life.
Perhaps, though, an occasional reminder of our mortality is just the medicine we need to live a more vibrant and worthwhile life. This is certainly one of the purposes of a funeral.
Why Do We Have Funerals?
What is the point of a funeral, memorial service, or visitation time? First and foremost, it is to provide comfort to the grieving. Every time someone dies, we have lost something. The earth has become poorer. Just like every time a baby is born, the earth becomes richer. The closer one is to the deceased, the greater the loss and, therefore, the greater the grief. Those most affected by the loss gather together to comfort one another.
Do you remember the first time you ever attended a funeral? You may have been a child. If so, the deceased was probably someone close to you because children aren’t usually taken to funerals unless they themselves need to be part of the grief relief. I remember my first time. It was awfully sad, but it was comforting, too. When we gathered at a relative’s house for a meal after the burial, it surprised me how everyone seemed to know what to do. I didn’t know what to do, but there was so much order in what was happening that I could go with the flow. There were tears, but there were smiles, too. There was some silence, but a lot of quiet talking. Above all, there was the sense that life was going to go on. More soberly, more sadly perhaps. But grief-stricken though everyone may have been, there was a common understanding that this would not be the end of the world.
Looking back on it now, I can see why, mixed with the grief, there was the understanding that life was going to go on. Death was no surprise. The adults had seen enough of it to know. I was still a child. Death had not yet made enough claims in my small world to reveal its universality to me. But it would not take too many experiences before I, too, realized that death is as much a part of this world as the air we breathe. Even when its victim is young, the surprise only has to do with the timing of the death, not the fact of it. Though it is far from the mind when you first hold a newborn life in your arms, death is the most certain part of that child’s destiny…as it is your own.
While knowing that the world will go on provides a stabilizing force to the community of mourners, it provides no meaningful hope. The one force that makes more difference in the comforting process than anything else is genuine hope – hope that there will one day be a recovery of that loss. When people have a hope of seeing that loved one again, the grief has breath in it. Without hope, the grief is suffocating. Hope causes life and light to spring out of the dark shadow that death has cast. There is a world of difference between saying “goodbye” and saying “see you later.”
Comfort for the loss, however, is not the only value in gathering after a loved one has died. Among the others is the reminder of our own mortality. Children perhaps do not need this reminder, but certainly adults can use it. We need the sobriety that it brings. It helps us to remember that we only have a limited amount of time to spend on this earth. We ought to spend it well. I used to count my money when I went to the state fair. I had so much for the day and I wanted to spend it wisely in order to make the most of the day. The same is true of life on earth.
It seems as though we do not think enough about our own mortality. I am not talking about becoming morbid; there is no value in that. But there is value in recognizing that today might be the last day we ever see anyone we love on the earth. How do we want to be remembered? What is the last emotion or reaction we want to have produced in them? I ask these questions because, though we know death is inevitable, we often live as if we never expect it to come. We think an unkind word from our lips can be covered over later. But what if there is no later for us…or for the person who suffered the wound? We never know. If we would occasionally give serious thought to the limited duration of our stay on this earth, the days we do live would be far more enjoyable – not just for us, but for those who have to live with us.
That you are reading this book means that you are not afraid to face the issue of death. You are willing to give it some serious thought. This attitude will pay you dividends not just in learning the Bible’s good news that everyone is going to heaven, but in living quietly, joyfully, obediently, and courageously day by day before your Creator who loves you.
But back to those funerals. What happens to people when they die? Burial and cremation only tell us what happens to the body of the person. What happens to the person?
What Happens to People When They Die?
If you want to know what happens to a person when she or he enters a grocery store, you follow them and watch. Therefore, if you want to know what happens to a person when he or she dies, you follow – but wait, we don’t want to follow! Not yet, anyway. Because of this, it becomes very hard to say what happens to people when they die. Is death a black hole that consumes and annihilates a person? Or is it a gateway into a more glorious existence than earth? Or is it something else? It is impossible for us to say, because all our normal methods of research fail us. Neither our eyes nor our ears can help us. Nor do our senses of taste, touch, or smell do us any good.
There are those who testify of near death experiences. I can appreciate those who describe such things, but I am in no position to question or verify any of them. I have never had such an experience myself. We can, however, safely draw one common thread from all their varying accounts. That is that death is not a cessation of existence. This is the common theme we have heard from all the folks who believe they’ve stepped through the gates of death and made it back. But that death is not the end of existence is something the Bible had been telling us all along.
As early as the book of Genesis, in describing the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel, it says:
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died)… Genesis 35:18 NASB
We see then that Rachel did not cease to exist. Rather, death marked the departure of her soul from her body. Where did her soul go? That is the question of this book. But let’s take things one step at a time. That is, let’s first become completely certain that the person who dies is going somewhere!
We see what happens to the body at death. More precisely, we know what happens to the body at death and so we don’t want to see it. It decays. It returns to dust. This is just what God said would happen when He told Adam,
“…you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19 NASB
Our bodies are comprised of the elements of the earth. Once death occurs, the body decomposes, returning to those same elements. Science confirms this.
The Bible had earlier said,
Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Genesis 2:7 NASB
The word “being” in this verse is more commonly translated as “soul.” Therefore though we are made from the dust of the ground, there is more to us than just the dust of the ground. We have a soul as a result of God breathing life into us. That is, there is more to you than meets the eye. And while what can be seen of you comes from the earth, the unseen part comes from God Himself.
The obvious implication of “her soul was departing” is that Rachel did not cease to exist upon death. If all there was to Rachel was the body, then Jacob buried dust in dust and that was that. But death is not a dead end – it is a departure. The soul departs from the body.
A Definition of Death
The Bible is already giving us a better way to understand death. If all we go on is our physical senses then we have to say that death means the end. Finis. No more. Your aunts, uncles, great-grandfather, army buddy, and school chum are all gone forever. What you saw of them is all there is. But the Bible is constantly telling us that there is more to this creation than what we can see. And all you saw of your loved ones is not all there was, or is, to see of them. We just see the “dust” part; the “breath of God” part is invisible. And while the body may be subject to decay and corruption, how could the breath of God ever stop being?
It does not really take death for us to know that there is more to a person than what we can see. There was certainly more to David than Goliath could see. We are all the time surprised by what people do. We “didn’t know they had it in them.” And what about you? How many people really know you? Probably not very many. The real you lies beneath the outward part that people see. No one can ever fully know what is inside another person, but then that’s how we know for sure that there is more to a person than what can be seen. And the most rigorous autopsy cannot reveal it – because it’s gone by that time.
Death is when that inner person is separated from the outer person. The outer person perishes because it was only for that inner person that it held together in the first place. For as the Bible also says,
…the body without the spirit is dead… James 2:26 NASB
Death, then, is when the body and spirit are separated. Until that time, they are inseparable.
Some of our workplace arguments are because we didn’t get enough sleep the night before. That is, the body is affecting the mind. Some of our trips and falls are because we’re preoccupied with financial worries. In this case, the mind is affecting the body. The issues of the spirit and the body are so closely intertwined that sometimes the closest examination cannot separate one from the other. A human being is not two, but rather one cohesive whole. And death is defined as the separation of the hidden part of us from the revealed part of us. Until then, it is just awfully hard to tell where the body ends and the spirit begins.
“Spirit” comes from the same word as “breath.” That’s why “in-spired” means a person has something “breathed” into them. That’s why to die is referred to as “ex-piring.” They have breathed out their last. When Jesus died on the cross, the Bible says,
…He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. John 19:30 NASB
Later, they would remove His body from the cross, but His spirit had already departed. Death had brought about the separation of His spirit and His body. He came to earth to completely live out the human experience. He did not bypass the tie to His mother’s womb; neither did He bypass the separation of spirit and body that death brings to humans.
The Bible also says,
And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. Luke 23:46 NASB
We see, then, the connection between the spirit and breath. People stop breathing at death. The corresponding spiritual reality is that the breath (that is, the spirit) departs. Our quest in this book is to determine with certainty just where it goes.
Before going any further, though, let’s dwell on the fact that death is not the end of our existence. We go on. We depart. Only our body remains for our loved ones to see, and that not for long. God forbid, but if our bodies are tragically mangled in a fatal automobile accident of what ultimate loss is this? God can supply a new body just as He supplied the first one. It’s not as though He would have to recover the missing limbs and learn plastic surgery. The essence of our being is the breath of Almighty God. Most of us never liked our noses anyway.
There is more to our existence than our bodies. This has implications not just for the day of death but for every day. Jesus said,
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matthew 6:25 NASB
The more we limit daily life to physical reality, the more we diminish ourselves. The body needs attention, yes. People appreciate the fact that we bathe it, deodorize it, clothe it, and otherwise care for the thing. But is the unseen part of us less worthy of attention? Does it not daily need to be bathed, deodorized, clothed, and otherwise cared for?
Every day that we ignore our unseen needs, we die a little. The greatest value in knowing that there is life after death is the hope that it brings to an otherwise limited future. But it also directs us to take very good care of that inner person, since it is that inner person who is going on, while the outer person remains to merely decompose. If it makes sense to take care of your body, and it does, how much more does it make sense to take care of the part from which you will never be separated?
Why Is There Death in the First Place?
Someone may want to ask why we have to die at all. The Bible tells us in the story of Adam and Eve which is too well known to repeat here. The apostle Paul looked back on it this way:
… just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– Romans 5:12 NASB
Now I don’t know how much you may struggle with the reality of Adam and Eve, but surely no one has a problem accepting the reality of sin. It is more commonly found than death itself.
We recognize it all the time. “He cut me off in traffic.” “She didn’t give me the raise I deserve.” “He makes me so mad!” “There ought to be a law.” We may not use the three-letter word “sin” to label all such acts but the idea is precisely the same as the Bible’s. And we may not always agree about what exactly constitutes one of these “sins,” but few people are heard to report that nothing but goodness is happening to them all day long.
The Bible reveals to us that sin is the means by which death claims its victims. This has been the case from the very beginning. Sin leads to death. Cause and effect. The universe is not random; it is ordered.
Someone may argue that babies who die surely have not sinned and that this invalidates Paul’s argument that sin is the cause of death. But if someone brings a snake into the house and an innocent child is bitten and dies, is it still not a sin that brought the snake into the house in the first place? Similarly, it was indeed sin that caused the death of Jesus, but not His own sin. He had none. It was the sins of those around Him that brought about His death. And thus sin causes death…one way or the other.
Of course, not all sins lead immediately to death, but there would not be death in the universe were it not for sin. God established His creation in splendor and glory and peace. Death had no shadow to cast until man sinned. The garden of Eden was beautiful. All that was necessary to preserve that state – which was without thorn or thistle – was to heed the one command that God gave the first man and woman. When our ancestors failed to do this, death became a permanent part of the human landscape.
Let’s leave the babies and just talk about adults. How about you? Is sin only something that happens to you…or have you yourself felt the pangs of guilt? I can tell you that I have felt them. In fact, if I were to number and categorize all the sins I know about, far more would show up in my account than in anyone else’s I know. But this is normal. You are probably the same way. For sins are not just a matter of outward deeds like murder and adultery, but inward thoughts like hate and unforgiveness. The words you express are a small fraction of the thoughts you think and so the main arena in which your sins are committed is viewed only by you (and God).
Therefore, every adult (except Jesus) should be able to name far more of his own sins than he can of anyone else. Even the best human beings have their moments of failing. The wise Solomon said,
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. Ecclesiastes 7:20 NASB
And the apostle Paul said,
…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23 NASB
Anyone who has ever tried to live a moral life is painfully aware of his or her shortcomings. “Shortcomings” is a good word for sin, whose root meaning includes “missing the mark.” Like an archer shooting at a bulls-eye at twenty paces, I have often felt like my arrow got tangled as I let it go and fell six inches in front of my feet. “Falling short” therefore would be a kind way of describing some of my efforts at righteousness.
Though our failures humble us, we must not allow them to excuse us from continuing to try. A basketball player cannot give up free-throw shooting with the excuse that he cannot achieve perfection. He shoots every shot trying to make it even though he knows that the most he will achieve is a percentage of the total number of shots he takes. And if his success rate is 80% he does not intentionally miss two once he hits eight in a row. He shoots every time for a goal. This is the way it is with any worthwhile endeavor. Nobody is perfect. But the closer you come to perfection, the better your chance of having your picture put on a cereal box!
More practical than commercial endorsements, though, is the promise of a longer life. The Bible teaches that avoiding sin prolongs one’s days on the earth. As the daughters of a certain man said to Moses,
“Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin…” Numbers 27:3 NASB
This Korah fellow had hastened the day of his own death by instigating a rebellion against Moses’ leadership. The father of these women had kept clear from that fateful insurrection and therefore had lived longer. Still, since no one but Jesus has ever lived a sinless life, death eventually came to their father.
It is plain common sense that the less one sins the longer one’s life will be. The Bible says,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Ephesians 6:1-3 NASB
A child who avoids playing on a busy street, avoids running with the wrong crowd, avoids drugs, avoids sexual promiscuity, and so on is probably going to outlive another child who defies his parent’s instructions on all these issues. Likewise, a motorist who obeys traffic laws is probably going to live longer than one who flouts them. You can apply the principle throughout life, and you don’t need the Bible to do so. Righteous living keeps one away from the many snares of death.
Don’t let the “probably” throw you. There are always exceptions, but you don’t throw out the rule because of them. As Solomon said,
There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. Ecclesiastes 8:14 NASB
Just because he saw some exceptions to the rule that righteous living is rewarded did not mean Solomon was prepared to abandon the rule. For he also says,
Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. Ecclesiastes 8:12 NASB
The wise Solomon knew that appearances can be deceiving. There may be occasions when it looks like living right is a fool’s pastime, but only a fool would find in them an excuse to abandon righteous pursuits.
Because Jesus died at age 33 do we conclude that righteous living does not pay and cannot extend one’s life? Of course not. One of the earliest books of the Bible was written for the specific purpose of showing that although the righteous life brings health and prosperity, there may always be exceptions for reasons we cannot immediately understand. We are speaking of the book of Job. This dramatic case reveals that though the justice of God is continually at work in the creation, our lack of complete knowledge often makes us unable to explain the justice of everything we see from our limited human perspective.
It may even look at times like there is no justice at all on the earth. But such judgments by us are always premature and hampered by our enormous ignorance. Our judgments are premature because we have not given enough time to see what God’s response to the evil will be. Nor could we contain all the facts at His disposal. Nor can we ever be fully aware of all He is doing at that very moment. By the time a woman finds out that a new life is in her, God has already been at work for some time. God is always working out justice, though its fruit may take time to ripen. And, of course, watched pots can be notoriously slow in coming to a boil.
It is always wise then, to avoid sin, in order that life may continue as long as possible. Not only that, but each day of life is far more enjoyable if lived faithfully before God. Righteousness is its own best reward. If we do die before our time, such as Jesus did, we may trust that God will remember and see that the afterlife has adequate compensation for the loss.
Therefore, we conclude that death exists because sin exists. And death abounds where sin abounds. To avoid sin is to postpone death. But because avoiding sin completely is impossible to us, avoiding death is impossible, too. And even Jesus, who never sinned, partook of death because there was so much sin around.
Is Death Too Great a Penalty?
Does death seem too great a penalty? Should God be charged with being unfair? I don’t think so. It’s a wonder to me that He gives us seventy or eighty years to walk the earth He created when the largest part of our time is spent thinking about our needs more than His or anyone else’s.
There are so many joys to be savored in this life. There are the roar and the spray of a waterfall, the smell of coffee brewing in the morning, the crack of a baseball bat connecting for a home run, the smell of grass after it’s been mowed, the chatter of children playing a game – where do you stop? The riches of this creation are endless in number.
Even where there is sin, He has shown us how to live. We forgive. We turn the other cheek. We return good for evil. We love in spite of everything else. At least this is the way Jesus lived, and the way He has told us to live. Even if we have to suffer gross unfairness like Job, Jesus, and countless others, we can be an inspiration as they have been to us. When I see a blind person playing the piano or a man without legs walk across the country on his hands, I am humbled. It makes me want to be more thankful. It makes me want to be more productive with the gifts I have been given. If the blind and crippled gave up I couldn’t blame them, but I would be so much the poorer. They prove to me that life is more important than difficulty. In the midst of sin and death, God’s love and life just shine more brightly. Nothing can douse them.
And if God has marked the end of existence on the earth with a thing called death, why should I complain? He gave me life in the first place. It is His to give and His to take away. If all He gave me was one lifetime, I’d still be in His debt. But He has promised more than that, for He has spoken all through the Bible that death is not the end. There is more. And when you consider the length of eternity compared to this life, then whether someone dies at age two or age ninety-two, how much difference will it make? The important thing is that we made an entrance into this world – even if it was only so far as a mother’s womb. For once we make it in, we are never forgotten!
We have seen that death is the separation of the soul from the body. It is the end for that body, but not the end for that person. Yet we are homo sapiens and cannot conceive of life without a body. What does this mean? It will become clear as we follow the Bible’s explanation of things.
To Where Do the Departed Depart?
Our search in the Bible must begin at the point of death, for that is where we lose contact with folks. It is from this point on that we must look to a source other than our physical senses. The Bible is a trustworthy guide in all those areas we cannot see.
If at death the spirit leaves the body, where exactly does it go? Where are our deceased loved ones – and everyone else’s? Where have the billions of human beings who’ve died gone to? And where will the future billions go? I have already given up all my chance at suspense in this book by telling you in the title. However, there is more to the story than just the punch line. It was not always true that everyone went to heaven. There was a long period of time when everyone who died went quite a different direction. Jesus Christ changed all that. I will show in chapter and verse both about the first destination, and all about how Jesus changed things.
The description of these things given by the Bible is simple but is not quick. The problem of death was no small thing. God worked patiently over hundreds, even thousands of years to bring about His ultimate solution. The stage had to be set for Jesus. Starting with Abraham, and the succeeding generations of descendants, God established a nation, gave it laws, and worked through its history to prepare the way. We may never know all He had to do to solve the problem of death. But we can know what He tells us in the Scriptures. And we can know that He loves us, and that He has worked painstakingly and with insufficient thanks to make sure that death had only temporary effects on us all.
The Scriptures say of Jesus,
…since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. Hebrews 2:14-15 NASB
By the time you finish this book, you should have no fear of death – either for yourself or anyone else. For, like Paul,
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NASB
We must, however, let the Bible tell its story in its own way. It took over 1,600 years to be written. And though the prophets trusted all along that God would solve the problem of death, it was not fully revealed until near the end of that time just how He was going to do that. If we want a clear understanding, we must follow the story from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end. If we do, then the punch line will not be merely a hope for you, but part of your daily joyful reality. The more thorough our examination of the Scriptures, the more confident will be your happiness.
If you’re like most folks who have some exposure to Christianity, you’ve probably heard that people are either going to heaven or hell. The first thing you’ll notice in our study is that the Bible paints a very different picture. When I say we’re going to let the Bible tell its story in its own way, this means we’re going to begin with what’s called the Old Testament. This makes up three-fourths of the Bible and constituted all the Bible that Jesus and His contemporaries had. Everything spoken and written in the New Testament was written in the context of what they called the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). Therefore, before we can fully understand what the New Testament writers are saying about life after death, we have to gain their understanding of what the Old Testament writers had been saying long before them. For there is no contradiction between the two testaments: they speak with one voice for they have but One inspiration. We will slowly and methodically rebuild the foundation of truth from the Old Testament upon which Jesus and His apostles built. (I will show you passages from both the New and Old Testaments which convey this view, though we will not get into the heart of the New Testament’s teaching about resurrection until Chapter Seven – The First Resurrection). This foundation – though it was well known to Jesus, the apostles, the New Testament church, and other Jews of that time – will probably be different from what you’ve heard, but it will be the Bible’s teaching. And I promise that we will eventually talk about heaven…and we will even talk about hell. Just remember that I have declared the conclusion in the title: Everyone is going to heaven!
So let’s be patient. You and I are a captive audience anyway. Physical researching can never uncover the mysteries of death, or any other spiritual realities for that matter. If we are to know about such things, the Bible is our only completely authoritative source. We have nowhere else to go for a sure answer. Our patience will be rewarded in knowing and understanding that the problem of death has been solved by Jesus Christ once and for all.
End of Chapter One