20th July 2014
What happens when I die?
This is the last of the common questions we’ve been thinking about over the past few months. It is one of the most important. If whatever happens is fixed and there is nothing I can do to change it, then I don’t have to spare the question another thought. But if what I do now affects my destiny, I need to know. What does Jesus teach?
When Lazarus died, Jesus said he had ‘fallen asleep’. Lazarus’ death was not the end for him; his spirit was still alive, and could be called back to earthly life in Lazarus’ restored body. In that way it was like sleep, when we can have experiences (dreams) though our body is ‘dead to the world’. Unlike natural sleep, of course, the dead body in time decays.
On the cross, one of the thieves asked to be remembered when Jesus came in his kingdom. The thief believed that when the Messiah came at the end of this age there would be resurrection and judgement, and the righteous would then live for ever in the Kingdom of God where there would be no evil, not even death. He asked to be part of that. Jesus’ answer gave him more: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Paradise was thought of as a garden – like the Garden of Eden – where the righteous waited for the resurrection. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 mentions a vision of Paradise, which he also calls the 3rd heaven; and when he talks of his own death he looks forward to departing and being with Christ. That was not going to be his final destiny; he knew that was still to come.
Jesus taught that he will return to earth at the end of this age, in all his glory, and that he will judge the living and the dead. Judgement will be according to what each person has said and done – each human being is fully accountable to God for the way they have lived. Everywhere in the Bible the fairness of this judgement is emphasized: God is love, and nothing unfair will happen. The purpose is to root out all that is not true ‘wheat’ (see our Gospel reading) and has no place in the Kingdom of God – including all who have had no proper place for God in their earthly lives. Their destiny is pictured in many ways – on the rubbish heap (‘Gehenna’, or ‘hell’), in the lake of fire, in outer darkness – all pictures of destruction.
After judgement, the Kingdom of God will come. There will be a new heaven and a new earth – a new creation for a new age. The righteous will be welcomed in, and be part of this fulfilment of God’s eternal plan, living in the presence of God in unimaginable happiness.
The good news of Jesus is that we can receive our citizenship of the Kingdom of God here and now! If Jesus is our Lord now, we are his people for ever. The penalty that justice demands for our failures and misdeeds has already been paid, by Jesus on the cross. Jesus is our Saviour as well as our Lord, so we do not need to fear the Judgement. Because of our obedient faith in Jesus and our love for him, we are accepted and loved by God, and already live in his presence, with new creation life already begun. As Jesus said, ‘Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ (John 11:26.)
1) How important is it to know that justice will one day be done?
2) What difference does the hope of eternal life make to our lives now?