Date: 11 Jun 2017
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
There are very few people who like to discuss death let alone what happens when we die. There are those who are afraid of dying for a variety of reasons and whilst we prepare for the birth of a new baby, no one seems concerned about preparing for death. We even go so far as to use euphemisms for dying; we say someone has passed away, or passed over, or departed. People seem scared to even use the words! Why should that be? It is after all a natural process that will eventually happen to all of us.
The American film director, actor, comedian and excellent jazz clarinet player Woody Allen, was once quoted as saying that he wasn’t afraid of dying he just didn’t want to be there when it happened! He’s not alone in thinking that as there are many people in the world, perhaps even some in this room, who can identify with that sentiment. Woody Allen also went on to say, “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?” Death though isn’t a laughing matter, and nor is the fear of dying, something which worries huge numbers of people. Why should that be? Benjamin Franklin, a great American politician and scientist, said that the only two certainties in life were death and taxes. A vast majority of us will have paid taxes at some stage in our lives and I can guarantee that 100% of us will face death eventually; unlike taxes it cannot be avoided.
The big question is: why are we so afraid of dying? Is it the physical act and potential pain associated with it? Is it the fear of the unknown? Is it that generally speaking we won’t be able to control when and how it happens? All of those questions are pertinent and understandable. I’ve no doubt at all that if we are honest we have all asked similar questions at some stage in our lives.
Let’s just give some brief thought to those questions. There is no doubt that some deaths will involve pain and suffering whilst some will be totally sudden and painless. I’ve heard of people simply dropping dead in the street and if they suffered any pain then it was only for a fleeting moment. On the other hand there are those who are injured in road, rail or air crashes, or terrorist attacks who suffer for quite some time before eventually succumbing to their injuries. However, assuming that they are discovered and recovered fairly quickly after the accident or incident, then there is a lot of pain relief that can be provided by modern medicine. Within reason that medication can be applied for some time, at least for a long enough period for the individual to pass away peacefully or make a full recovery.
Many of course are afraid of the unknown. When we go to the dentist we know that we will experience some pain. When we drink too much alcohol we know that we will probably have a headache the next morning. In both cases we still go ahead and do those things despite knowing what is to come. Where death is concerned none of us have any personal experience of dying and so what happens is completely unknown to us. We may have experienced the death of our parents, or close friends, or sadly even our children, but none of us has experienced it ourselves. That means that we have no personal experience of precisely what happens at the exact moment that we die. We can only speculate on what may happen and what, if anything, happens to us as individuals when we do die.
Lack of Control
During our lives I think it is true to say that as adults we are generally in control of all that happens in our lives. We decide for ourselves where we live; what we do to earn a living and who we work for and where; who we marry and whether or not we have children. As far as death, or rather the timing of our death, is concerned, we have no control whatsoever. Death happens. If we die in an accident that by its very nature means that it is sudden and unexpected. If we die as a result of a serious illness we may have a vague idea of how long we have to live although no Doctor is able to say with absolute certainty just when we will die; it simply isn’t possible.
What Happens Next
Having accepted that we are going to die at some stage, the next question surely has to be, “What happens next?” Once we’ve died, what happens to us, if anything? Does everything go black and that is the absolute end or is there something else beyond life? Many people talk of meeting their maker, some in trepidation at what might happen when they do finally meet Him. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
Many do believe that they will have to meet their Maker, or at least a supreme being, in order to discuss their life and what they did in that life. It is at that meeting that many believe the decision will be made as to whether they spend eternity in heaven or hell, and there seems little doubt to me that the vast majority of people do believe in those two distinctly different places. Very few are able to describe what they are like but they do at least accept that they exist.
Sadly there are those who believe that death truly is the end, that there is nothing else, especially if they are to be cremated leaving no body behind for anything else to happen to.
Christians, that is those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, believe that once they have died and left their mortal body, they will go to heaven to be with Jesus. They too will have to face their Maker, in their case God their heavenly Father and He will judge their lives. Generally speaking Christians will go straight to heaven after a very quick meeting with God. We also need to understand that it doesn’t matter if someone is buried or cremated since it is not their body that we are talking about but the soul or spirit. It is our spirit that will join Jesus in heaven.
The Bible describes heaven in great detail although I will give just an abridged description. Heaven is the place where God lives and His glory shines throughout. There is no need for sun or day and night since God’s glory provides all the light that is needed. The walls are made of gold and covered in precious stones. A river of clear crystal water flows through it and on each bank are trees full of fruit. It is a place of peace, tranquillity and beauty. On the other hand hell is described in the final book of the Bible as being a “fiery lake of burning sulphur” (Revelation 19:20). That doesn’t sound good to me and so very obviously I would want to be able to go to heaven rather than to hell.
How to get there
A big question for those who aren’t Christians is “how do I get there?” How do I become a Christian? There is an old saying that says “those who are born once will die twice whilst those who are born twice will die once”. There are two births, a physical birth and a spiritual birth and that leads to two deaths, a physical death and a spiritual death. Christians who have been born again, that is born twice, will only face physical death they will not have to face the spiritual death which leads to being permanently cut off from God. Those who are not born again as Christians will sadly have to face the two deaths.
You may wonder how this can happen, how can someone be born again? On one occasion Jesus had been talking to a man named Nicodemus, a member of the ruling Jewish Council, and had told him that he must be born again. Nicodemus asked Jesus how that could happen given that he was an old man. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:5-8)
Those who are born again Christians have no need to fear death because they know that it will lead them to being in heaven with Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, probably one of the greatest early Christian missionaries, told the people in Philippi that, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Christians may live in this world but in reality they are citizens of heaven. Earlier Paul had told the people in the same church, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). He had not been well and whilst he knew that he was needed in places like Philippi, he also knew that in his heart of hearts he wanted to die so that he could be in heaven with Jesus Christ.
We cannot avoid the fact that death will come to us all at some time in our lives. Many, like me, hope that it will come later in life, and we certainly hope that for our children. However, we also know that it is God Who decides when we will die and for Christians we have that promise of eternal life in heaven with Him.
If you are afraid of dying then think very carefully about what relationship you have with God. Do you acknowledge His existence? Do you know His Son Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour? If the answer to those questions is no, then I would suggest that you need to think about learning about God and Jesus. Coming to faith in Jesus will most assuredly take away any fears of dying that you may have.