What Happens To You When You Die? Part 1

THE PASSAGE

Let’s open in our Bibles to Hebrews 9:27-28:

27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Here ends the reading of God’s Word. Let’s pray. 

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION

Father, please grant us humble, teachable, and obedient hearts, that we may receive what you have revealed, and do what you have commanded for your glory and the good of our neighbor. We ask by the power of your Holy Spirit, in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

My early theological training was not from a rabbi, but rather a rabbit. His name was Bugs Bunny. Every Saturday - you know, the sabbath - I would sit at the furry feet of my favorite teacher. During Saturday morning cartoons, Bugs taught me about death, hell, and heaven.

He taught me that good people go to heaven, and that bad people go to hell. He taught me that hell is a little like a very hot hotel overseen by a horned devil inexplicably holding a pitchfork and wearing a red latex body suit. He taught me that we become winged angels in heaven when we die. Also, I learned that heaven is cloudy, full of harps, and - frankly - boring.

All of this is to say that Bugs Bunny probably should have attended a fully accredited seminary, and my Sunday School teacher had a huge mess to help me clean up 24 hours later.

If you’re like many people today, the thought of an afterlife is absurd - a superstitious leftover from a pre-modern, less scientific world. You believe that people are simply cosmic accidents, the products of matter plus time plus chance, and that death is little more than a cessation of whatever we call existence. The chemicals stop flowing; the neurons stop firing; the temporary illusions of meaning and purpose come to an end. Your body stops functioning, eventually decomposes, and becomes - like that amazing but utterly depressing Kansas songs says - dust in the wind.  

Sidebar: that song bums me out so badly, but if you really want to bring me down, play “Cats in the Cradle” or Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” Wow. Those wreck me. Which brings me to a rather curious observation. 

Many of us might say, as a matter of philosophical abstraction or modern-scientific erudition, that there is no meaning and purpose to the world; that our species and our lives are the product of stardust and blind material forces working by chance over billions of years. But very few - very few - of us live like it. We don’t create art or write songs or fall in love like people who believe that this is all there is. We write songs like “Cats in the Cradle” and “Time in a Bottle” and are affected deeply and profoundly by them because we sense that our lives are meaningful and significant and can be won to right things or wasted on the wrong. 

The Bible gives us an answer for this. You know what the writer of Ecclesiastes said? He said that “God has put eternity in man’s heart” (3:11). It’s there. It’s inescapable. It’s hardwired into our spiritual DNA. Of course, we can try to suppress it, but won’t completely succeed (Rom. 1:18ff). We won’t succeed because we’re created in the very image of God, and his law is written indelibly upon our hearts (Gen. 1:26-27; Rom. 2:14-15). It’s woven into the fabric of our humanity. There are aspects of human existence and parts of human nature simply defying a purely naturalistic explanation. There is more. Much more.

This isn’t a trivial matter. It’s very practical. There is a certainty to death. None of us are exempt. We’re all going to die. You are going to die. Maybe not today. Maybe not next week. But it’s coming. Some of us worshipping today might not even be here the same time next year. So, let me ask you: are you ready? Do you understand the reality of death and what is going to happen to you when you die? 

This morning, please know that I’m not trying to scare the “H-E-double hockey sticks” out of you. I’m not trying to get you to buy “fire insurance.” In reflecting upon our mortality this Lenten season, I’m not trying to make sure Jeff, Drew, Joe, and I don’t need to fudge facts at your funeral. I want us to look more deeply at our future deaths primarily as a way of transforming our present lives. As we’ll see, our view of eternity has tremendous implications here and now. 

WHAT IS DEATH?

So, what exactly is death, according to the Bible? Paul gives us a helpful, succinct answer in 2 Corinthians 5:8. He says, “We prefer to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.” Notice what that entails. Paul says that death, for God’s children, is to leave our bodies behind on earth and to be spiritually present with God in heaven. Physical death is therefore the separation of our bodies from our souls. 

Now this is where Bugs Bunny had it all wrong people, all wrong. Don’t trust a rabbit from Long Island with the questions of your eternal destiny. I simply can’t say that enough. 

All kidding aside, most popular portrayals of the afterlife are permanently disembodied. You’re just ethereal, a spirit with no physical body. That’s the aim; that’s the goal. The Bible knows nothing of that. 

It is true that those who die before the return of Jesus Christ will experience an intermediate and disembodied state. However, this is not permanent. It’s transitional. It’s not the ultimate destination. Listen now to how Paul describes the glorious hope of resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51-52):

51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

Look at what he’s saying. There are several beautiful truths here. First, he speaks of “sleep” (v. 51). This is the Bible’s poetic way of referring to the death of those in the Lord. Because of Jesus, death is defeated; it has no hold on us. And so, when we die, we enter God’s rest. We don’t get hell; we get a hammock. Can I get 100 righteous people to say, “Amen!” Turn to your neighbor and say, “Because of Jesus, I don’t get hell. I get a hammock.” Sorry - I’m still basking in the afterglow of Bishop Andrew’s message last week. I also love hammocks. 

Second, when Paul says we “shall not all sleep,” he’s saying that there is a generation of God’s children who will be alive at the return of Jesus Christ. Their bodies will not go down to the grave. Instead, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet [the return of Jesus Christ],” they will be changed. What is the nature of this change?

That brings us to another beautiful truth of these verses. At the trumpet, Paul writes, the dead will be raised imperishable. In other words, there is going to be a reunion of body and departed soul at the resurrection of the dead; our souls will reunite with their bodies, never to separate again. They’ll be imperishable, glorified. Do you see that?

Human death is not natural. It’s a corruption of the created order. It’s the just consequence of our sin and alienation from God, the One in whom we live, move, and have our being (Rom. 5:12; Acts 17). Scripture therefore refers to Death as God’s “enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). If you hate death, I’ve got good news: God does, too. Death is anything but normal; it’s abnormal. In Christ, God waged war on Death and conquered it. He’s now repealing its curse. For this reason, Paul wrote this to the church at Rome (8:19-21):

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

I’m messed up. You’re messed up. The whole world is messed up. But God is making all things new again. He’s making things right. Everything sad is coming untrue. 

WHAT HAPPENS AT DEATH?

Again, in 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says that, “We prefer to be absent from the body and present with the Lord.” But what will it mean to stand in the presence of God on the day we die or fall asleep in the Lord? Listen to what the writer of Hebrews describes in 9:27-28, our passage this morning:

27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

At death, we immediately enter not only God’s presence, but his judgment. 

Paul echoes this in 2 Corinthians 5:10:

Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

Let’s look at a few things here. First, Paul says that it is the ambition of believers, both “at home” (here, on earth) or “absent” (there, in glory) to please God. This shows that our lives, present and future, are integrated. Whether here or there, our aim is the same: to be pleasing to Him. 

Many of us have a hard time with the idea of being pleasing to God. On the one hand, some of us say, “God can’t be any more pleased with me than he already is because of Jesus Christ.” I don’t need an ambition to please him; Jesus already pleased him for me. On the other, some of us say, “I need to make myself pleasing to God. I need to say the right things; think the right things; and do the right things or God won’t be pleased with me.” So, is the first one or the second one, right? The answer is neither. 

Yes, in Christ, God is already pleased with you. Jesus lived for your righteousness and died for your unrighteousness. God’s not only cleansed you of your sin; he’s clothed you in his righteousness. You’re cleansed and clothed, beautiful and loved in the sight of God. Nothing you could think, say, or do (or fail to think, say, or do) could make you any more or less a beloved child of God. 

However, this does not preclude your efforts to please God; it actually propels them. You’re not earning God; you’re learning to enjoy him. It pleases God when you grow to believe and behave as his beloved child. Your renewed affections, attitudes, and actions please your Father in Heaven. 

Now, this bears greatly on our view of future judgment awaiting us when we die. Let me show you three ways as we close.

We will all stand before God in judgment. No one is exempt. None. Our passage makes that clear. It’s appointed to us that we will die and then stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Maybe it’s today. Maybe it’s tomorrow. Maybe it’s years and decades from now. It’s not a question of if, but when.

We will be judged by Jesus Christ. 

The child of God need not live in fear of this coming judgment. The Apostle Paul longed to be with Christ which he considered better by far (Phil. 1:23). To the Philippian church he wrote (1:20-21):

20 [It] is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

How can we be so confident before God at our judgment? Because our judge is also our deliverer! As we said before, Jesus lived for our righteousness and died for our unrighteousness. In the words of Paul, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus took our guilt and shame upon himself at the cross, and forever removed it from us. He’s removed our transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). We now stand not only blameless, but also holy, before him (Eph. 1:4; Col. 1:22). Our confidence is not in our record or resume for him, but his for us!

Because of God’s grace, we will receive reward, not retribution. 

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “If God forgives us, why does he intend to judge us?” It’s a good question. Here’s the short answer: God’s children aren’t judged for retribution but rather reward. 

It is true that no one will escape judgement. Jesus pledged it:

27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done (Mat.16:27).

“Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every person according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). 

Even so, we do not need to fear. Jesus was right: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). When it comes to the wages of our sin, Jesus paid it all. There is no double jeopardy in the Kingdom of God.

The works God will judge are those works of righteousness we’ve done by the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ, for his glory. First, these will confirm that we are indeed God’s children, that we have true, living, and saving faith (Eph. 2:8-10; James 2:14ff). Again, let’s be clear: these works are not - in whole or in part - the root or ground of our salvation; they’re simply the inevitable fruit and evidence of it. 

Second, these are basis of heavenly rewards. Most famously, Jesus promised rewards for the faithful stewardship of God’s graces in his Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Paul also spoke of them when he told the Corinthians that, “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor” (1 Cor. 3:8). Similarly, John spoke of the final judgment as a time of reward saying, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward” (2 Jn. 1:8).

We will speak more of these rewards in two weeks, when we discuss heaven. 

God freely offers salvation in Jesus Christ, but in no one else.

There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ. Jesus said it himself:

36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them (Jn. 3:36).

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Jn. 14:6). 

The apostles said it too:

12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). 

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). 

11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (I John 5:11-12).

There is no life apart from Jesus. There is no forgiveness apart from Jesus. There is not shelter against the storm apart from Jesus. 

God is gracious. He’s slow to anger, abounding in love. He’s given you time to repent, to turn back to him and find mercy and grace - forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Don’t wait. You can know you’re forgiven today. 

Let us pray.