Christian Hope in Death
CHRISTIAN HOPE IN DEATH
"What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at 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."
by Geoff Thomas
What are the common characteristic views of death at the present time? Dr. Lloyd-Jones suggests three: "First, there is a fear or hatred of death. Death is the last enemy, that haggard person that comes ever nearer and nearer, and we have a horror of it. Another attitude is that of resignation. It has got to come and I have to face it, so it is no use worrying or being annoyed about it. Then a third view, which men have tried to make popular in the last hundred years or so, is that we must have courage, we must stand up to it and refuse to be frightened; not resignation but a kind of defiance. And then, lastly, there is the Christian’s attitude" (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "The Life of Joy," Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989, p.101)
The Christian attitude is that after death every believer goes into the presence of Christ. The Shorter Catechism puts it so perfectly: "What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at 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." There is that statement of the Lord Jesus in his story of Lazarus and Dives: "It came to pass that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom." That is death to the Christian.
So the fear of death is being conquered in every Christian. When the young volunteer missionary, John G. Paton, was telling an old man about his plans to take the gospel to the South Sea Islands the man warned him, "You will be eaten by cannibals!" Paton replied, "Mr Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms. I confess to you that if I can but live and die serving and honouring Jesus Christ, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer." ("James G. Paton, Autobiography", Banner of Truth, p.56)
It is so important that Christians often consider the theme of heaven, and not in a superficial way, but to think about it so that we understand it better, and that it makes a fruitful impact upon us. Progress and joy in the faith can only come to us with a growing understanding of heaven. A number of good books have been written on the subject in the past few years, but one in particular is outstanding and that is Edward Donnelly’s "Biblical Teaching on Heaven and Hell" (Banner of Truth, 2001, 127 page paperback). Yet we need to address ourselves to many more books, articles and sermons on this theme. Baxter spent time each day considering the hope of heaven. Out of his meditations came his classic work, "The Saints’ Everlasting Rest." It was written to give Christians energy and direction for present living. The New Testament point is Christians should know what their hope is, and draw from it power to resist whatever discouragements and distractions present circumstances produce. Today in the professing evangelical church triumphalism reigns. There is an unreadiness for pain and death, and that contrasts so unhappily with the realism and hope the New Testament writers inculcated in their readers to prepare them to leave this world in peace when their time came. So Christians should think and speak about heaven more, and ministers preach more on this theme. The world is curious as to what happens after death, and we have something to say to mankind, and it becomes the most wonderful news to all those whose trust is in the finished work of Christ, the Son of God.
The sad fact is how little true Christians think about heaven. One reason is that we are so preoccupied with this world. Ted Donnelly uses this
illustration: "If I take a coin in my hand and hold it close to my eye, it will block out the sun and I will see nothing but that small shiny coin. Now the sun is bigger than a coin, but because the coin is close it blocks from my sight something incomparably greater. The daily realities of life may be neither big nor, ultimately, important, but because they are close to us, they impinge upon us. And the danger is that the very closeness of this world blocks out the infinitely vaster prospect of the glorious world which is to come" (ibid, p.65).
There are other reasons that we neglect to think about heaven; for example, we are too comfortable in our materialism. Our toys make us happy. Many also consider heaven as nothing more than the ‘inevitable next stage in man’s existence’. They are drifting to some vague world created by their own imaginations. People are also unexcited about what they imagine heaven could be like: Ted Donnelly says, "As a child I had no desire to go to heaven, for it seemed to me a boring place. My vision was of a church service which went on and on for millions of years, while I had to sit in a spotlessly white suit on a marble seat, not allowed to move throughout all eternity. Such a view of everlasting life was of limited appeal to a small boy! Of course, when the subject came up at home I feigned a decent enthusiasm, but it was largely synthetic. I didn’t like the sound of heaven and was in no hurry to get there" (ibid. p.66).
The pew may not be very enthusiastic about the pulpit speaking on heaven. It is frequently bringing pressure to bear on ministers to preach something ‘practical’ and ‘relevant’. It says, "We need something here and now for today. What concrete benefit will I get from sermons on heaven?" But limited temporary improvements to your life now – is that all you think the church has to offer? "We can give you a better marriage, instruct you in how to raise children, tell you how to find inner healing." Is that what the pulpit is all about? Are there not study manuals, conferences, dynamic speakers and 12 week seminars on offer everywhere dealing with those kinds of themes? What about this fact, that the Lord Jesus Christ can bring you to glory for ever? We shall soon meet at Jesus’ feet! If we are not talking about that in tones of wonder love and praise it is little wonder that men are not interested in the gospel.
That Christians are "too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use" is the lie inspired by Satan. It was Professor C.S.Lewis in his book "Mere Christianity" who said, "If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who made the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on the earth precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven." They were men whose happy spirits were like those of children looking forward to going off to the seaside, packed and ready to depart a long time in advance. The formula for this readiness is ‘Live each day is if thy last’ (Thomas Ken) – in other words, keep short accounts with God. J.I.Packer says, "I once heard Fred Mitchell, at that time director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, enforce this thought shortly before his own instantaneous homegoing, when the plane in which he was travelling disintegrated in mid-air. Mitchell lived what he taught, and his biography was justly given as its title the last message radioed by the pilot of the doomed plane – ‘Climbing on Track’. I hope never to forget his words" (J.I.Packer, "Knowing Christianity," Harold Shaw Publishers, 1995, p.246).
Paul was full of longing for heaven: "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (v.23). Why did the apostle judge it to be better? Not because of the discomforts of the wretched prison existence. He had learned contentment in whatever state he was in, and he appreciated how to be abased in chains. Of course he would cherish his liberty, but he was not choosing death as the better alternative to his present sufferings. Nor was Paul longing for what lay beyond death as the ultimate escape from bodily existence. He did not think of himself as a soul trapped in a body and that it would be gloriously liberated by death. The Greeks all around him thought like that, but not Paul. His body would for ever be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and he longed for the day when his body would be raised from its grave, new, incorruptible and glorified. There was no trace of dualism or anti-materialism in Paul’s thinking. His body was from God and for God.
Nor were Paul’s longings for heaven some fantasy escape-mechanism, a figment of diseased religious imagination, that could keep his spirits going during those prison years. The concept of heaven was not created by Paul as a compensation for the sufferings many Christians were experiencing. Men have criticised the Christian teaching on heaven as a religious invention, to buy submission from those whose lives were characterised by decades of wretched poverty and injustice. Thoughts of heaven merely blunted the urge for revolution by its promises of future blessedness. This is what Karl Marx believed, religion was a drug, the opium of the people. Men and women, because of the wretchedness of their present existence, were encouraged to hope for something beyond this world, so Marx taught. There is the Marxian analysis of history and world affairs, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, feminism, racial equality, the slump-boom cycle of capitalism, false consciousness, . . . and no heaven. Men created the concept of ‘heaven’ because things have gone wrong on earth, but, Marx said, once society is sorted out and its ills put right then the need to fantasise about a world to come would disappear. This life would then provide the perfect fulfilment of all human aspirations. Until then, in this sad and unjust world, religious and social leaders preach heaven to take the minds of the poor off the troubles which are all around them. But Marxism itself is utterly utopian.
How do we answer that? In saying that the fact that some people long for something very badly does nothing to prove that their longed-for object is fantastic. I may long for cooked lobster, but there is none in our house. I long for a better car and I actually purchase one. The question of whether there is lobster or a new car doesn’t hang on my needs and desires but on how vital or worthy those needs may be. Is there a lobster for sale at the fishmonger’s shop, and can I afford it? Is there a car for sale at the right price? So it is with heaven. Some people long for it as a pre-eminent hope while others scorn its existence. The central question is this: is there a heaven before us, and how do we know? If heaven is a reality then let me adjust my living to that fact. The apostle Paul, and all who have believed like him, have been assured about heaven because they had grounds to believe in such a place. If they have been mistaken then let that be pointed out to us all. The question of truth always comes before questions of human fantasies and sufferings and needs. You say that you would like to believe in heaven but you can’t. Why not? What are your grounds for disbelieving? There are the greatest grounds for Christian hope.
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