I have had several people ask me about the sermons I preached in February about resurrection and life after death. I am including my manuscripts for those two Sundays here on The Word and Spirit for anyone who would like to read and explore the topic further. This is the manuscript from Sunday, February 17, 2019.
12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
It is funny sometimes how a seemingly innocuous experience as a child can shape how we feel about things into adulthood. A barking dog that gets too close can inspire a lifelong fear of the animal. Going up into a treehouse and looking down with a dizzying feeling can lead to a fear of heights. A negative experience with a classmate can make us suspicious of anyone else we meet for the rest of our lives with that same name. And it can affect how we think about really important things. As a child I saw an episode of a television show, the sitcom The Jeffersons – you know the one about the wealthy dry cleaner and his wife. As ridiculous as it sounds now, this episode reinforced in me an absolute paralyzing fear of hell. I grew up in a tradition that liked to talk about hell so I was already behind the eight ball. But in this particular episode, George falls asleep after being rude to his maid Florence. He dreams that he is on a game show, and his answers on that game show will determine if he goes to heaven or hell. The final question he is asked concerns his behavior towards Florence – whether he has acted rightly towards her or not. He has not, and so he is sent to hell. This is a true story! They open the lid to a pit, and there is screaming and smoke, and they push him in. I was scared to death, and it reinforced to me how scary a place hell was and how I was going to go there if the good didn’t outweigh the bad in my life, like it was all some cosmic game show.
I found the clip on YouTube this week, and I won’t show it to you because it is absolutely ridiculous how cheaply produced it is and how completely un-scary it is to watch it all these years later. But the point is this – our view, and so often our fear, of things like death and what comes after death, is shaped by things outside of the biblical witness. I grew up afraid of a cheap 1980s television show set and the sadistic imaginings of the preachers at my church, who probably had their religious imaginations inspired more by popular culture or the writings of Dante and John Milton or Greek philosophy, than they were inspired by Scripture. And these things, as ridiculous or unbiblical as they may be, stick with us into adulthood. And so, as the lectionary brings us to these important passages from 1 Corinthians over these next two weeks, it is important that we pause and see just what the Bible has to say about death, and what happens after death. And maybe we can challenge these cultural notions with biblical truth.
Now, of course, we get our ultimate understanding of death and life after death from the experience of Jesus. And perhaps nowhere is this more plainly explained for us than in Paul’s writings here to the church in Corinth. What has happened for Jesus, he is basically saying, will happen for you. And the word to remember here, the final word, is resurrection. It is easy for us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter and remember its importance for him, but it is sometimes difficult to remember that this is our destiny too. Resurrection is not something that happened to Jesus because he was the Son of God – it happened to him first because he was the Son of God, but it will happen to all of us. As Paul says, Jesus is the first-fruits of resurrection, but we will be the final harvest. In fact, Paul argues in this passage that if it doesn’t happen for us, then it didn’t happen for Jesus. And if it happened for Jesus, then it will happen for us. Furthermore, he places the very foundation of our faith upon the idea that both Jesus and all humans will be raised from the dead. For Christ it is a present reality and for us it is a future one.
I mentioned in the Word and Spirit Guide this week how rarely I see this emphasized when I go to funerals – Christian funerals. The truth is we cling to Greek philosophical ideas more than we cling to Christian truth. Plato argued about 400 years before Jesus that the body and all material realities were bad, or at least less good than the spiritual realities (which were pure goodness). When we died, our spirits were released from our bodies like birds flying free from a cage. These spirits lived on and were eternal. Compare that to what we typically think of when we think of death – that our bodies are a shell, not the true representation of who we are, and our spirits are the true representation of who we are. When we die, our spirits go up to heaven for eternal reward or they go down to hell for eternal punishment. Is this biblical? Is Jesus ever represented as a disembodied spirit who has left his body and gone on to heaven? No! We’ll look more at this particular point next week, but the biblical conception of death and life after death has nothing to do with this Greek philosophical idea of the disembodied eternal spirit that leaves the body behind to enter paradise. This is more reflective of the early Church heresy, called Gnosticism, which tried to blend Greek philosophy with Scripture in order to appeal to Greek Christian converts. It was condemned by the early Church; it went on to teach that there were even levels of heaven that you could enter if you had the right spiritual knowledge. It is heresy, yet your typical Christian funeral sounds more like Gnosticism than Resurrection.
The struggle we have is that resurrection, in the biblical sense, does not happen immediately after death. This is the problem that Paul is dealing with in the church in Corinth and that he deals with in other churches – especially Thessalonica. The first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would come back in their lifetime and that the faithful would not have to face death before Jesus came back. But what happened is that the faithful began to die off – and the early Church panicked as to what happened to those who died in the meantime. If the resurrection didn’t happen in that first generation, what happened to the dead? This problem has only been compounded over twenty centuries of the “meantime.” Resurrection means waiting for Jesus to return. Resurrection, for us, is a future reality, and we are so uncomfortable with what happens immediately after death. And to this particular point, Scripture does not reveal much. And it certainly does not talk about spirits leaving their bodies.
The scriptural view of humanity is that we are holistic – our bodies are just as good as our spirits. Without one, we are not whole. Scripture is not dualistic – in fact, from my reading of Scripture, I see at least seven different facets of our human person that all work together to make us who we are: heart, mind, body, spirit, soul, will, and relationships. We do not exist separately as any of these, but only as a whole. Perhaps we are so hesitant to talk of resurrection because the thought of the world going on without our awareness of it is too frightening, or because it brings a certain finality to death in the meantime. The truth is, I don’t know what happens in between death and resurrection, and I don’t think any of us know, because Scripture is so silent on the topic. Remember that when we read Scripture, we have to read it as a whole, and not pick verses out here and there to prooftext what we want to believe. The overwhelming witness in the New Testament is that the dead will be raised at the coming of Jesus Christ, and we will all stand judgment together at that time – those who have chosen to follow God going to the reward of a new heaven and new earth and those who have chosen not to follow God going to destruction – that is, having their choice to not be affiliated with God honored by God.
There are a couple verses that muddy the waters – Jesus, for instance, tells the thief on the cross that he will be with him in paradise that day and Paul says that to be absent from this life is to be present with the Lord. But neither of those support the Greek philosophical view of disembodied spirits. Nor do they outweigh the vast teachings on resurrection. Then we read some verses that seem to show Jesus descending to the place of the dead and releasing those who had died before the time of the cross and empty tomb. This is reflected in the full, original Apostles’ Creed text, and is noted in a footnote in our hymnal, where it reads that Jesus “descended into hell.” This, though, is not reflective of our western view of hell as a place of torment, but of the Jewish understanding of Sheol, the place where all the dead go regardless of their goodness or badness, so to speak. And the Gospel references to hell or Gehenna or Hades are images of the literal trash dump that was outside Jerusalem that burned continuously, consuming the trash that was discarded from the city.
Ultimately, as with so much of our Christian faith, we have to sit with the uncertainty of what happens in-between death and resurrection. Paul likens it to sleep, when he writes about it to the Thessalonians. He also reminds us that nothing, not even death, separates us from the love of God. We have chosen to teach our own children that those who have died are waiting on Jesus and the resurrection, not in a frightening way or even in a way that they are aware of the waiting, but in the sense that we are all waiting on the final culmination of the kingdom of God in the resurrection to come. How you choose to deal with or understand or make sense of the unknown is ultimately your choice. But regardless, I hope we can take comfort in what the Bible does clearly teach. Death, for us, is not final. We do not need to be afraid of death. We do not need to worry about our loved ones who have died before us. Our hope is resurrection. If we have placed our lives in the hands of our Lord Jesus, trusting him with our whole selves, then we will be secure in his love and his life eternally. It is not about outweighing the bad with enough good to keep us out of hell and sneak us into heaven. Jesus Christ has opened his arms and his kingdom to those who will receive him, and when he comes in final victory, he will call his beloved forth in resurrection life, and we will be with him from everlasting to everlasting.