What happens when I die? (Nov 15, 2020)
What happens when I die?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
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The unknowns in life are what often make us worried, apprehensive, or anxious. Take, for example, the unknown of when COVID will end and we can get back to normal life. I heard on the radio the other day the comment that if we only knew, if we only had a date, something like: On January 1st COVID will be eradicated and we can get back to normal life – then we would have something to look forward to, something to get us through, something to look forward to. A hope that will carry us through the next couple months. But, since that is still an unknown, depression is up. Anxiety is up. The stresses of work and ever changing school schedules are compounded. There’s no certainty to look forward to and therefore we trudge on into the darkness with no end in sight.
Probably one of the biggest unknowns that everyone will one day face is, “What happens when I die?” It’s not like there’s a plethora of people who have experienced it and lived to tell their tale. There’s no internet reviews of it or YouTubers filming their experience in it so that you can “try it out” and experience it through their lens. For a great number of people, death remains the one great unknown. What happens when I die?
It seems that the Apostle Paul hadn’t had the opportunity to speak about this during his short stay in Thessalonica. He most definitely focused on Jesus who was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rm 4:25). Read some of Paul’s letters and you will get fired up for Christ’s return when he will gather all believers to himself and take them to heaven. But after Paul had left Thessalonica and gone on to other mission fields, a question started to arise among the Thessalonians. As time went on, some of their brothers and sisters in the faith had died. But Jesus had not returned yet. What will happen to them? Have they missed out? Are they lost forever? Is there any hope of seeing them again?! They were ignorant of what happens when a person dies.
Many today will tell you that ignorance in certain matters is a non-issue. Ignorance is innocence. If I am “agnostic,” that is “not-knowing” if there is a god – “ignorant” of any god – then I’m innocent on the Last Day if a god does appear and judge. Afterall, how could I have known for certain? Likewise, since it seems impossible to know for sure what happens when I die, then it’s a non-issue. I can’t be sure of anything after death, and my ignorance leaves me innocent in the matter. But does it really? Is ignorance really innocence?
No, not at all. In fact, even now – before any kind of eternity – ignorance concerning death is very harmful. Because what are you left with when a loved one dies and you know nothing of what happens to them in death? Does it make you feel better? Does it leave you feeling indifferent? Not at all! There is a gravity to death that weighs you down. There is a fear of death. There is a raging against death lest it takes you or your loved one into its eternal clutches.
And what can you do then? What can you do when someone you have built a relationship with, someone you’ve devoted time to, someone you’ve spent a lifetime growing closer to is suddenly torn from you… forever? There’s only one thing you can do when death remains an unknown. You grieve. You “grieve like the rest (the remaining, the left behind), who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13). And the only comfort you can offer is completely hollow. Completely empty. “Against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another. Fare thee well.” That was one such condolence offered to one who was ignorant of what happens in death.
That’s this side of things. There’s also the eternal side of things – the eternal ramifications. In this, your vain hope is that there is no existence after death. The best you can hope for is annihilation, which Scripture tells us is wishful thinking. Scripture says the real gravity of death is not death itself, but what comes after and what is truly eternal. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). That’s God. Even more heartbreaking than an empty “celebration of life” for one who has passed into the great unknown of death is knowing what comes after and knowing that there is no reversing of the fate.
Like the 5 virgins in Jesus’ parable who met Jesus, the bridegroom, unprepared. Jesus will return. All will see him. And when they do, there will no longer be any time to prepare. There will be no innocent ignorance in death. Though you lived right alongside believers. Though your behavior may have been top tier and your works of service abundant, the difference is clear when the Lord returns. The difference is clear when this life ends. Those unprepared because of their ignorance of death may cry out, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” (Mt 25:11). But he will reply, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you” (Mt 25:12). And your ignorance will be revealed for what it is. Not innocence, but embarrassment and eternal doom. The doors of heaven to be shut forever. Death is forever.
“We do not want you to be ignorant about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thes 4:13-14). In Jesus’ own words regarding Jairus’ daughter who had died, “She is not dead but asleep” (Lk 8:52). There’s a big difference for you when you are not ignorant of “What happens when I die.” Death is forever, but Sleep is temporary.
And Paul immediately grounds his claims in something that is known. “We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thes 4:14). You know this to be true! You’ve heard the eyewitness accounts. I, Paul, have seen him with my own eyes! After Jesus died, he rose from the dead, never to die again. So what seems like the great unknown, is actually known! We are not ignorant. You do not have to remain ignorant. “We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thes 4:14). Paul starts with something the Thessalonians know. Something that you and I know. That Jesus died and rose again – demonstrating his complete power over death. Then he adds the second point that goes hand in hand: Jesus promised that his resurrection means that we too will rise. “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn 14:19).
Paul is challenging the Thessalonians to see the ramifications of their faith. See the eternal ramifications of your own faith! God has proclaimed something about Jesus, that he is indeed alive. Death has no power over him. And in this, God proclaims something about you too. Death cannot hold you from the living God. He will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. In two short verses, Paul puts to rest all of the fears and concerns that people have about death. He reveals what was previously unknown so that you do not have to remain ignorant.
What a comfort we can find in these words as Scripture turns death on its head! Sleep is something you know! Death is unknown. Sleep is something we often long for, death is dreaded. Sleep offers soothing rest, death brings unspoken fears. A person wakes from sleep. There is no apparent end to death. So central is the thought of sleeping in the Christian’s concept of death that it is a word used throughout Scripture in reference to believers who have died.
And this is not a euphemism that Jesus or the Apostle Paul are using. This is what death really is for the believer. It is a sleep in which a person is completely unaware of anything around him, but from which he awakes to use all his abilities and senses again. Therefore, we aren’t afraid, because just like sleep we know that we will get up again. These words counteract the devastating effects of grief and sorrow. This means an eternity you can look forward to with joy. And, a life you can journey through with unfailing hope.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thes 4:18). Talk about these facts so that you can encourage one another! And not just to fellow believers. But to unbelievers as well! Do you wonder what you might say to someone who has lost a loved one? Let’s not just say, “I’m so sorry.” Tell them about what you know to be true. Tell them about why you know it to be true by pointing to the one who has experienced death and lived to tell his tale. “Brother, sister, I don’t want you to be ignorant. I don’t want your grief to be endless. Let me tell you about what happened when Jesus died. Let me tell you about why Jesus died and rose. Let me tell you about the sleep of death that is no longer permanent, because Jesus rose triumphant.