We don't like to think about death. It's not a pleasant subject, and we avoid even discussing it seriously or giving it any diligent study. If our career plans involved a foreign assignment, our desk would be littered with brochures and travel folders as we would try learn all we could about our forthcoming destination. If we were scheduled for an exam that our lives depended upon, we would be studying in earnest. Yet the most certain event in our future is one we try our best to ignore and attempt to relegate to a comfortable distance.
I once suggested to a financial executive (who was about 50 years of age) whom I was traveling with that he probably had less than a thousand weekends left in his life. He was startled! "What do you mean?" he gasped.
"Do the math," I suggested. With an actuarial expectation of about 20 years left in his life, and with nominally 50 weeks/year, that leaves him with about a thousand weekends. (When we say "twenty years," that sounds remote, academic, intangible. When we think of "weekends," it tends to confront us with a more graspable reality!)
Our appointment with death is an absolute certainty - probably our only certainty. It may come sooner than we expect: a car crash, a stray bullet, an unforeseen stroke. We all know of personal examples where death has come suddenly, without warning, without any preparations. When it finally does come, what do we expect it to be like?
Shedding Our Misconceptions
One of the penalties of our casual - or reluctant - attitude about death and dying is that most people are steeped in myths and misconceptions. Almost every commonly held belief is erroneous, misleading, and contrary to what we do know about the subject.
There are numerous books that have been published about "near-death experiences,"
which at best are less than reliable sources, no matter how well intended. But
there are several incidences that we can trust as reliable. Stephen, as he was
being stoned, gave us a glimpse:
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. - Acts 7:55,56
So this notion that being greeted by the Lord Himself - at least in his case - is not fanciful. As serious Christians, we can take significant comfort from Stephen's experience. Paul also speaks of a "near-death" type of experience in which he was caught up to paradise. 1 Since this happened 14 years before writing about it to the Corinthians, some scholars believe it may have coincided with his experience at Lystra where he was stoned and dragged out of the city and left for dead. 2 (Whether this was a "near-death" experience or an actual death-and-return, we'll have to wait until we can ask him.)
Messages From the Dark Side
What makes this subject so difficult to research is that most information is not only unreliable, it is the specific focus of deceit by the ultimate Deceiver himself. One of the first mistakes is to look for answers in the wrong places. Channeling, necromancy (attempted communication with the dead), and all forms of commerce with demonic activity are expressly prohibited in the Scripture.3 Even such ostensibly harmless things such as a Ouija board or role-playing parlor games can prove extremely dangerous and are not to be taken lightly.
Satan's deceptions are designed to eliminate any awareness of a coming
judgment and accountability, and to promote the perceptions that all roads lead
to the same place. (Remember, he is the "prince of this world," and the "prince
of the power of the air."4) Don't be among the nave or impressionable:
this is very dangerous territory:
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. - 2 Corinthians 11:13, 14
Also, Jesus warned us to:
Enter ye in at the strait [narrow] gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. - Matthew 7:13-15
If the gate you're relying on is wide, with a large majority taking advantage of it, you've got the wrong gate ! And for many, the truth about death should be terrifying. They will be in for a shocking surprise.
Heaven and Hell
This subject also squarely confronts the issues of Heaven and Hell. Unpleasant. Controversial. And clearly the subject of fanciful folklore in all directions and dimensions.
The HebrewSheol, and the GreekHades, are not the grave. The grave is where the body goes. Sheol and Hades is where the departed spirits go. (For this brief discussion, we'll regard them as equivalent.)
Gehenna,however, is their final disposition. Hades is cast into Gehenna at the end.5 (In fact, their topology appears to be opposites: Hades is presented as geocentric; Gehenna is in "the outer darkness.")
It is significant that Jesus spoke much more about "Hell" than He did about Heaven.6 The very concept of the need for a Savior presupposes the avoidance of the otherwise certain destiny of desolation and eternal punishment. The good news is that you and I are the beneficiaries of a love letter: a letter written in blood on a wooden cross erected in Judea about two thousand years ago and which is the fulcrum of all history and the entire universe. The crucifixion was not a tragedy: it was a crowning achievement. His achievement makes it possible to avoid an otherwise certain destiny.
The Physics of Immortality
There are many in the secular world who do not even take the existence of the "afterlife" seriously. There are many who do, however. Frank J. Tipler, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University, is a major theoretician in the field of global general relativity, that rarefied branch of physics created by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. In pursuing a mathematical model involving the end of the universe, Tipler (a professed atheist) came to two conclusions (one obvious, and one stunning):
1) Using the most advanced and sophisticated methods of modern physics, and relying solely on the rigorous procedures of logic that science demands, he discovered a proof of the existence of God. (You're thinking, "No kidding, Dick Tracy!")
2) He also now believes that every human being who ever lived will be resurrected from the dead.
He claims to have arrived at these conclusions about God and immortality "in exactly the same way physicists calculate the properties of an electron." (While I personally disagree with much of his published book, this turnabout for a professed atheist is interesting.7 You can learn more about the resurrection from the most important chapter in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 15.)
A far more insightful book is by Erwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die. He is a truly delightful friend, has pastored the Moody Church in Chicago for over twenty years, and we used his popular book as our point of departure for our current briefing package on this subject. We also explore the intrinsic architecture of man, why he is immortal (saved or not), and we attempt to repair some of the misconceptions about Sheol, Hades and Gehenna, and the real nature of our present physical reality, as well as some of the more problematic issues involved in the "afterlife."