“There Is Hope”
March 28, 2007
What Happens After Death?
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Thank you for being here, friends. There are going to be three parts to the message. The first part is what happens after death for the believer; the second part is what happens after death for the unbeliever; the third part is to address a range of practical questions which arise because of this question of what happens after death. So we have a lot to do in a short period of time. Let's ask for God's help again as we prepare to do it.
Lord, it's so important that we understand what You tell us about what happens after death, because so many people live as if this life is all that counts, all that matters, all there is. And we know, O God, that in many ways this life is but a staging ground for a much longer enduring reality, but an enduring reality which has two and two only destinations: everlasting joy and satisfaction and fulfillment in Christ, or everlasting sorrow, frustration, and un-fulfillment without Him. Surely there could be nothing more solemn than for human beings created in the image of God to consider our end. Give us wisdom as we do this to think Your thoughts after You, according to Your word. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Every human being that has ever walked on this planet has to deal with three problems: the problems of guilt, meaning, and death. No human being, however seared his or her conscience may be, does not from time to time feel the pangs of guilt, and asks the question, “In light of my guilt [that is, in light of my own self-recognition that I have done wrong], how can I be put right? How can my guilt be dealt with? How can the wrong-doing that I have done be resolved in such a way that I'm made right, that I'm put right with God and others?” Every human being wrestles with the issue of guilt.
Every human being wrestles with the issue of meaning. Even professors who tell their college freshmen that there is no meaning to this life, ultimately speaking, and that they must supply their own meaning to this life, even professors who say that know that that does not work. Human beings aren't built to survive that way. If there is no meaning to this life, then human beings would not be able to go on. Human beings do not live as if there is no meaning to this life. They live purposefully and purposely.
And every human being wrestles with the question of death. What happens when I die? What is death? What is beyond it? How do I address the fear of that transition? And I want to say to you that only Christianity, only the Bible, only Christ, only the gospel can give you an answer that will suffice to those three questions, and I'd love to talk about all three of those questions with you today, but my job is to think about the third one. How does the Bible speak of death, and what happens after?
I. What happens after death for the believer?
Well, the Bible teaches us that God has for us in Christ and in the gospel not only blessings here and in this life, but even blessings after this life is done. The Apostle Paul will say emphatically in I Corinthians 15: “If our hope is in Christ for this life only, then we among all men are most miserable.” If our hope is in Christ for this life only, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Now that's not some charlatan on the street corner, that's the Apostle Paul speaking. He's saying that I'm not trusting in Christ simply so that this life will be fuller or more prosperous, I'm trusting in Christ for this life and forever, for this life and eternity, for this life and the life to come, now and hereafter…now and after death. And so the Christian hope is a hope that not only controls our present living of this life, it controls our future anticipation of what is to come.
The Shorter Catechism speaks to this question. I've got the S.C. Q.37 in front of you on the outline, because I know that most of you haven't memorized The Shorter Catechism, or don't remember what Q.37 says. Here's what it says:
“What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?”
And it answers:
“The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”
And Thomas Vincent, who wrote an early commentary on The Shorter Catechism, says that this answer teaches that the benefits of believers at their death are twofold, first in regard to their souls, and second in regard to their bodies.
So what I want to do is concentrate on four blessings which belong to believers alone, even in the valley of the shadow of death, which are ours immediately upon death. What happens to a believer not just within the first thirteen seconds after you die, what happens to the believer the minute we slip this mortal coil? What happens to the believer the nanosecond our final breath has left our bodies as our brain and our heart fail us? What happens instantaneously for the believer at death? These four things I want to draw your attention to, and in large measure these things are drawn out of II Corinthians 5:8 (I encourage you to go and study that passage in its context); Hebrews 12:18-24 (I'd encourage you to study that passage in its context); Philippians 1:21-24; and I Thessalonians 4:13-18. We will have opportunity to look at these in more detail.
These four blessings belong to all believers. Now let me quickly say that just because these blessings belong to believers who have a sure and certain hope in the promises of the Bible, in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and anticipate God fulfilling the promises of these four blessings to them, does not mean that death is easy for the believer. I've shared with you on a number of occasions — some of you dear friends to me, in your hour of trial — the words of the great English Baptist minister, William Kiffin. He of course believed all the promises that we're about to study. He believed the Bible, every last jot and tittle of it. And yet when his wife died, he wrote these words:
“It pleased the Lord to take to Himself my dear and faithful wife, with whom I have lived nearly 42 years, whose tenderness to me and faithfulness to God were such as cannot by me be expressed, as she continually sympathized with me in all my afflictions. I can truly say that I never heard her utter the least discontent under all the various providences that attended either me or her. She eyed the hand of God in all our sorrows, and so constantly encouraged me in the ways of God. Her death was the greatest sorrow to me that I ever met in the Lord.”
Now my friends, I want you to understand that those are the words of a Christian, and the Lord would not be standing by William Kippen to deliver him a rebuke. In fact, the Lord, through the Apostle Paul, explicitly says to believers, “You do not grieve as those without hope.”
Now notice what he does not say to believers through the Apostle Paul. He does not say you do not grieve; he says you do not grieve as those without hope. In your grief there is mingled an inextinguishable, inexhaustible, irrepressible hope, so that with Job we say, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him”; so we say with hope as we face the valley of the shadow of death, we have been blessed by God with joy inexpressible and full of glory. So it is not that in the face of death (because of the promises that we are going to study) that a Christian approaches death with stoic indifference and emotionless detachment. Do not think for a second that we are commending that sort of an approach to death. But we are commending for the believer an approach to death which is filled with the comfort of God because of the certainty of His promises.
Now there's one more thing I need to say before we look at these particular promises of God. The way that a believer approaches death is fundamentally different from the way an unbeliever approaches death. Thomas Boston once said:
“All men must die, but as men's lives are very different, so their account in death is, also. To an ungodly man, death is loss, the greatest loss; but to a believer, it is gain, the greatest gain.”
Now we need to understand why that is, and that is in part what we're going to do today. Why is death totally different for the believer and for the unbeliever?
Richard Baxter elaborates on this, and I think he elaborates on it helpfully…and again, I have this quote in front of you, because it's so important. I want you to see it in Baxter's own words:
“There is a great deal of difference between the desires of heaven in a sanctified man and in an unsanctified one. The believer prizes heaven above earth, and had rather be with God than here, though death stands in the way and may possibly have harder thoughts from him. But for the ungodly, there is nothing that seems more desirable than this world, and therefore he only chooses heaven over hell, but not over earth; and therefore shall not have it upon such a choice.”
You see what Baxter is saying. Nobody in his right mind would choose hell–though many do. If asked they’ll always say, “Oh, yes, heaven over hell, please!” But Baxter is saying that the mark of a Christian approaching death is that the believer desires heaven over earth, heaven over this life, Jesus over the things that are most precious to him in this world, and not just as what is preferable in comparison to a life of torment in hell forever.
Blessings that belong to believers alone.
So what benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? Four. In the catechism passage we just read we learn of four blessings which belong to believers alone, even in the valley of the shadow of death, and those blessings are why the death of a believer is not only a day of mourning. It is truly a day of mourning, but it is also and especially a day of triumph. Our hopes and hearts are full, as Christians, at death because we trust Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, but our hearts are especially comforted upon the death of a believer because the believer has trusted in Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. And, therefore, as we contemplate that believer's death, whoever it may be, no matter what the state of their life in this world, the conditions of their trials and tribulations, the believer is the recipient of these four things immediately upon death.
One, with Christ. In death believers are immediately with Christ, whom they prize more than all things here. Now don't miss this, my friends. This is the great blessing of the believer at death, and everything else pales in comparison to it.
Look at II Corinthians 5:8. The Apostle Paul is speaking of himself and by extension to all believers, as he addresses the Corinthians, and he says: “We are of good courage, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” For the Apostle Paul to be absent from this body (this is his way of speaking of death) is to be at home with the Lord. Now we're going to come back to that idea of being at home with the Lord in just a minute, but what I want you to see right here is that immediately upon death where does the Apostle Paul anticipate being? With the Lord. And that is the greatest blessing for the believer, because the believer prizes Christ above everything else.
Samuel Rutherford once said, “I am so in love with His love that if He were not in heaven I would not want to go there.” He longed to be with Christ because he prized Christ, and he treasured Christ's love for him above all else.
You understand that this is the goal of every gospel minister. Every gospel minister knows that you were made for joy, but that the problem in this world is this world tries to trick you into thinking that it can offer you joy when you can only find joy in Jesus Christ, and so the gospel minister is fighting for your joy, not so that you will joy in the passing trivial things of this world, but so that you will joy and delight in Christ alone, and that the things of this world will fade in their value before your eyes, and that He will be exalted and you will treasure Him and long for Him, and want to be with Him. And the Apostle Paul is assuring us here that to be absent from the body (as a believer to be absent from the body, to die) is immediately to be with the Lord.
You ask me, “Where is that going to be?” I don't know. It doesn't matter. All I need to know is this: to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Where is the Lord? He's at the right hand of God. Where's the right hand of God? I don't know, but my Lord is there and that's all that matters. I'm with Him. I'm present with the One for whom my soul longs. And for the believer, He is more precious than husband or wife, than parents or children, than riches, than fame, than power, than ambition, than influence, than success, than pleasure. He is more valuable than anything. No wonder Job could say, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise him,” because he himself would say in Job 19,
“Though worms destroy this body, yet in my own flesh will I see God; with these eyes, I, and not another.”
And this was his longing, to be present with God. And this is the first and greatest blessing that believers receive. We are with Christ. “We are of good courage, I say,” Paul says, “preferring rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
Two, made perfect. Believers are immediately perfected in holiness. In death — immediately after death — what happens? Believers are perfected in holiness.
The author of Hebrews (in Hebrews 12:22, 23) speaks of the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and he's emphasizing that those of us who have come to Christ are part of this perfected company of believers. And immediately upon our death as we enter in our spirits into the presence of God — yes, disembodied from these mortal bodies awaiting the resurrection (and we’ll talk about that next week and following) — but immediately believers are perfected, perfected in holiness, made perfect in godliness, freed from sin, made in the likeness of Christ.
Over and over in the book of Revelation as it describes the saints who have gone before us– that is, believers who have died in Jesus Christ who are like us awaiting the day of resurrection. It describes those believers with Christ, perfected; no longer committing sin, no longer struggling with the temptations that result because of indwelling sin, freed completely from the very possibility of sin. If you are like me, there is no thought that is more comforting, because a thousand times a day this heart is tempted to disloyalty to my God. It is tempted to love things which I ought not to love, to betray my Lord and God, and to be in a place where never again…never again…will I have the slightest tinge of temptation to defect from loving loyalty, cherishing service to my Savior, is the sweetest possible contemplation: made perfect in holiness, with our minds illumined and our wills made perfectly upright; our actions matching perfectly God's perfect will. And the thought of the bliss and the rest of that is overwhelming. Yes, the thought of the transition of death can be daunting, even to a believer, but to realize that to get to the other side means a final cessation of that internal warfare against sin…it's beyond our imagining. I don't know what it is like to live with a heart that is wholly given over to my God. Not for one second in my life have I lived in that kind of heart. But then I will. The warfare over, the battle done, my heart wholly and solely His; your heart wholly and solely His, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel. Instantaneously in the moment of death, that battle done, Satan never ever again able to get his hook in my heart and use something in my heart to pull me away from my Lord…perfected in holiness.
Three, in glory. Believers pass immediately into glory. Again in Philippians 1:23, the Apostle Paul says that he has the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is much better. Why is it much better? Because with Christ we pass into glory. What kind of glory? We pass into a glorious place. We are, Jesus says in John 14:2, upon death welcomed into — what? Into the Father's house. We’re welcomed into the Father's house in heaven. What was it that the Apostle Paul said in II Corinthians 5:8? That to be absent from the body was to be — where? At home with the Lord. Oh, doesn't that concept change the way you look at death!
I can remember in the years that I was studying in St. Louis, and then in Edinburgh, Scotland, on numerous occasions thinking, “You know, if I can just get home and be with my family, everything will be all right.” I can remember driving down the interstate or flying on a plane across the ocean thinking, “If I can just get home, I’ll be all right.” And here's Jesus, here's the Apostle Paul saying, ‘Let me tell you what happens. The minute you pass into death, you come home.’
I love the way Isaac Watts paraphrases the end of Psalm 23. You know, the part where David says, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I love the way that Isaac Watts paraphrases that:
“Here would we find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
Not like a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.”
The minute that death comes–home! Safe in the Father's arms. Safe with your older brother, Jesus Christ, who shed His blood that you could come home. Immediately! You remember Jesus saying to that thief on the cross that one of the gospel writers tells you had been mocking Him at the beginning of the day, along with the other one. Somewhere during that day, that thief was convicted by what he saw and heard from Jesus Christ and he began to rebuke the other thief, and he says ‘Don't you know who you’re talking to here?’ Finally he says at one point, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” Like a child at home, he passed into glory…the glory of a glorious place…the Father's house…home. And believers immediately enter into that place, into that society, into that state. It's important for us to remember that.
Many of you remember our dear friends, John and Doreen Slater when they lost little Michael, their first son, four years old, through a recurrence of cancer. And how they cared for that child! They held and nurtured that child as his life slipped away. I said to Doreen at one point, “Doreen, you understand that Michael is going to go instantaneously from your arms to the arms of Jesus; and for him on the other side, it won't seem like there's been any separation from you. It will be like walking through a portal, and his Savior is waiting. But then you will come. Now for you, how many years it will be, I don't know. Your heart will be empty. But for him, he’ll look around and not only will his God be there, his Savior will be there, but you’ll be there.”
Four, United to Christ, resting in the grave and awaiting the resurrection. A triple blessing. In death believers remain united to Christ, resting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection…United to Christ, resting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection. Now you've just got to turn to this passage because it's so important. Not just the little snippet that I've given you, but you've got to turn to I Thessalonians or hone in on your neighbor with a Bible and look over his or her shoulder. All the “T's” in the New Testament are together…the Thessalonians come first. I Thessalonians 4. Look. The Thessalonians have been upset by somebody who has been teaching in their midst that there's some sort of uncertainty about what happens to believers that die before Jesus comes again. These Thessalonians are certain that Jesus will come again, and they’re certain that if they are alive that they will be with the Lord; but they’re not certain about their relatives who have died in Christ before them. They’re uncertain about this, and apparently somebody has been teaching them something stupid. And the Apostle Paul pastorally wants to correct this, and he says in
I Thessalonians 4:13:
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”
Now there's that famous passage. And by the way, notice that Paul doesn't even say this in terms of the imperative. He doesn't even say “do not grieve” as those who have no hope; he says ‘It's my pastoral concern for you that you do not grieve as those who have no hope.’ Now how tender and caring and realistic God the Father is as He inspires the Apostle Paul to say to us these words! Now here comes the comfort. Here's how he's going to comfort:
“If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”
Now let's stop right there. Isn't that a beautiful way to describe a believer's death? “Fallen asleep in Jesus.” Our Lutheran friends often put that on the gravestones of departed saints: “Asleep in Jesus.”
You see that the point of that is that the metaphor takes all the sting out of death. Death is not a place of darkness and uncertainty. It is a place of repose and rest where Jesus Himself in the hour of death is cradling and caring for the believer.
But that's not all Paul has to say, and we’ll have more to say about this later, but understand he says:
“This we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
In other words, we are not in a position that is better than the position of those who have already died in Christ. No, in fact, when the Lord returns they will rise first. Their bodies
“…will rise first, then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
I want you to understand that the Apostle Paul is stressing there that God will so care for their bodies that at the Last Day those bodies will be transformed, united with their spirits, and will even go before us as we are caught up to be with the Lord. (And we’ll talk about what happens after that soon.)
It's important to understand that your loved ones who have died in Christ, who have died resting and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, are more alive now than they've ever been because they are united to Christ. And nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
I've shared with you before Clement Graham's note on the flowers that he had on the casket at his wife's funeral: “You are alive in Christ, and forever in my heart.” I can well remember Donald McLeod saying at Douglas McMillan's funeral that it is hard for us to contemplate this big, loving, energetic man dead and immobilized without energy and vigor and life and force and activity; and then he reminded us on the basis of I Thessalonians 4 that Douglas is more alive, more vigorous, more energetic, more active than he's ever been before. He's been perfected. And so that metaphor of “asleep in Jesus” is not a metaphor of inactivity, it's a metaphor of rest. It's reminding us that at the end of the long struggle comes rest. Four blessings that all believers have immediately upon death….
II. What happens after death for the unbeliever?
What about unbelievers? Well, this is the hard truth, isn't it? This is the hard truth. If believers are with Christ and perfected, if believers are united to Christ and at rest, then the Bible also teaches that unbelievers are not with Christ. And they are sealed in their imperfection, and they are in a state of condemnation, and they are permanently separated from Christ, never again to know peace and rest.
A dear friend of mine, John MacLeod, who was voted the Scottish Journalist of the Year twice in the late 1990's and the early decade of this century, had the temerity as a columnist for The Glasgow Herald, the largest secular newspaper in Scotland, to write an article on hell, which he called “Between Satan's Spandau and a Hard Place.” It's a fascinating article. I wish I could read it all to you, but I simply want to share with you this one part of it:
“There are few of us who care to acknowledge our through and through depravity, and there can be no one reading this column who has never been bereaved. To face the possibility of hell as our final end is enough; to realize that many or any of our loved ones may be there already is to know true horror.
“Now, your intrepid columnist is a buoyant and cheerful fellow, and nothing would delight him more than to be able to assure you, his readers, that hell is a medieval fiction, but he cannot. Hell flows logically from the teaching of Scripture. The terrible end that awaits the ungodly is stressed from Genesis to Revelation. It is as much a part of the New Testament teaching as the Old; indeed, Jesus in the gospel refers more to hell than anyone else in the Bible. He believes in it in sober earnest. After all, He created it. For hell is not the place of Satan's kingdom, it is the place of Satan's banishment by the Lord.
“The doctrine of hell necessarily flows from the founding precepts of Christianity. Man is created in the image of God. He is above all other creatures. He has self-awareness, self-knowledge, the capacity to relate, the capacity to create, the capacity to dream. He is immortal. The soul — the think — must live forever. It cannot cease to be, because God created it. In our hearts we all know that death is unnatural and change appalling, the grave obscene; but when man has rejected God in this world, when he has gone his own way, when he has rejected God's instruction, His moral Law, what then? The logic of God precludes eternal fellowship with such a being, who has despised His Law and defied His will. And when the gospel itself is spurned, the way of Christ's atonement, what can there be at the last but for God to grant such a soul its own heart's desire?” 1
You see what he's saying. You want none of God here. God will give you what you want. It's so important for you to understand, my friends, that there will be no one in hell who wants to be in heaven. There will be no one in hell who wants to be in heaven. Jesus, in Matthew 8:12, says it's a place, yes, of weeping; but it's also a place of gnashing of teeth. And you understand the image there. You know, when you get mad and you just want to hit somebody, and your teeth just start clenching down? You’re gnashing your teeth. What are people in hell gnashing their teeth at? God! There's no repentance there. There's no ‘I wish I were with You, God.’ There's no one in hell who wants to be in heaven. They've repudiated God in this life: they forgo Him forever.
You know, the Greeks had a saying that went like this: “Whom the gods would destroy, they answer their prayers.” The point is sometimes we want things that will kill us, and sometimes we get them. And so those who want to forego God in this life, He says ‘Fine.’
This is John again:
“I've never doubted the reality of such a place, the Hades of deep and lasting darkness. I've never thought of it in popular terms, like a nasty boiler room run by little men in red tights. Hell is ultimately a negative. It's a place of nothing but anguish. It is a place without God, without anything of God, without light, without warmth, without fellowship, without peace. No rack, no pincers, no claws; only the fires of an awakened conscience and a burning thirst of a frustrated ego. The wicked ones of history will be there, the killers and the exploiters. They will be there. The libertines and the gossips and the rapists and the drunkards, they will be there. Those whose gods were sex or money or ambition or power, they will be there. Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians…if their only faith was in their religiosity, who had nothing for eternity but denominational adherence, they will be there. And in the darkest, thickest corner of all, the nice ministers and the jolly vicars and the benevolent bishops who told their people that it was heaven for all, and that love is all that matters.
“And this I believe,” [John goes on to say] “…I believe, too, that there is only one escape: by flight to Christ and faith in His finished work, living in His service, but never looking to such service for my salvation.
“But there is the final paradox. To believe in this latter end of all things and to live and walk in a world that will one day melt in fervent heat, to walk among the living dead with my bright smile and my polite talk and never to challenge and never to warn.”
What happens after death for those who do not rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone? No Christ. No fulfillment. No fellowship. No love. Eternal separation. It is the most solemn thing in the world.
In my sinful moments–and I stress my sinful moments, because every true believer in God knows that God is good–but in my sinful moments there's no doctrine that I wish more wasn't the case. I wish I could say that this doctrine is not true. But you know, what it all boils down to, my friends, is there is nothing more fair in this world than hell.
If you want unfairness, if you want discrimination, I can give you that. That's called heaven by grace. Heaven by grace is the most unfair doctrine in this world: that though I, sinning and deserving condemnation, get heaven forever because the One without sin took my condemnation, that is unfair. But hell? It's the fairest doctrine in the world. You get what you want, and you get what you deserve. You’re paid what you earn. It's the fairest doctrine in the world. Heaven, that's unfair.
So brothers, sisters, give me unfair! I’ll take heaven by grace. Amen.
1. BETWEEN A HARD PLACE AND SATAN’S SPANDAU (Or, Why I Believe in Hell) John Macleod Glascow Herald, April 8, 1992.