Approaching Death Summary


  • The second date on your gravestone (and mine) is already fixed and known to God. And the world, including our own little world, will go on without us. Death is the one certain thing about our future. We Christians should take the lead in facing up to our own death and sensitively encouraging others to do the same. This study of the End Times is not meant to be theoretically. We need to ask how we should live in the light of the Bible’s teaching about the End Times, and that includes the subject of death.
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  • Many of us have a fear of death. That is natural and we should face up to the fact that we have that fear without feeling ashamed, seeking help and advice if necessary.
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  • An organisation called the Dying Matters Coalition (http://dyingmatters.org/) was set up in the UK in 2009 and has produced a wide range of resources to help people start conversations about dying, death and bereavement. These conversations can cover funeral arrangements, where people want to die, but also emotional and spiritual considerations. Families commonly report that it comes as a relief to everyone once the subject is brought out into the open.
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  • “Promotion to glory!”

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  • This wonderful phrase comes from the Salvation Army: “Promotion to Glory.”  What a prospect! The believer can be certain that whenever and however death comes glorious eternal life will follow. In fact, eternal life has already begun. Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:24-25).
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  • “Death … will [not] be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39); it has been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). There is a death sentence on death and ultimately even physical death will be totally destroyed (1 Cor 15:26).
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  • So the believer can be absolutely confident that death will be a transition from an incomplete to a complete experience of eternal life. We “die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13) and our “life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom 14:8) and in death we are “together with him” (1 Thess 5:10). Death is a partnership with Christ. He, and he alone, goes through death with us.
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  • What about the “intermediate state”?

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  • We know that ultimately we shall experience the resurrection of our bodies, but what happens between death and resurrection, i.e. in what is called the Intermediate State?
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  • Here we enter another area of controversy. There are different ways of understanding what the Bible teaches about the Intermediate State. The majority view is that immediately after death we consciously live in paradise. Another view is that of “soul sleep” which believes we lose consciousness between death and resurrection, so the Intermediate State is an unconscious state. Some people go further than that and hold that we (body and soul) pass completely out of existence between death and resurrection so the resurrection is a complete re-creation. Still others believe there is no Intermediate State.
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  • We will briefly examine these views.
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  • View 1 - The intermediate state is conscious

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  • People who hold this view use the following arguments:
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  • a)      Believers who die are “with the Lord.” See 2 Cor 5:6-8; Php 1:23. Prof. N T Wright asks: “Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as ‘far better’ than what he had in the present?”  Other scholars agree
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  • b)      Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus. (Matt 17:3). There is no reason not to take this as a literal event.
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  • c)      Jesus speaks of the rich man and Lazarus being conscious (Luke 16:19-31). This is not a literal story but would Jesus have made such a clear statement about the consciousness of the departed if it were not true in principle?
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  • d)      Jesus told the thief on the cross he would be with him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43). It doesn’t seem very convincing to say that what Jesus really was saying is: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise … but you won’t know anything about it because you’ll be unconscious!”
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  • View 2 - The intermediate state is unconscious

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  • People who hold this view point out that the word “sleep” is used of death in the New Testament. Jesus spoke of Lazarus having “fallen asleep” (John 11:11-13). Acts describes Stephen the martyr and David falling asleep (Acts 7:60; 13:36) and Paul describes some of the witnesses of the resurrection as having fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:6). Paul frequently uses “sleep” to describe dead believers. They have “fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:14-15) and “sleep in death” (1 Thess 4:13 cf. 1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thess 5:10). However, this can be just a figure of speech. When someone dies it appears that they have fallen asleep.
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  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia comments: “Because the dead are asleep to our earthly life, which is mediated through the body, it does not follow that they are asleep in every other relation, asleep to the life of the other world, that their spirits are unconscious.”
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  • View 3 - The intermediate state is complete annihilation

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  • Some Christians believe that when a believer dies, the whole person – body and soul – ceases to exist. So our deceased loved ones no longer exist. But at the resurrection they will be re-created. Various scholars hold this view.
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  • They point out that Lazarus did not report any wonderful after-death experiences. They also say that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does not refer to a reunification of body and soul but simply that “the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor 15:53). They claim this means there is no natural immortality of the soul.
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  • However, again, if deceased believers have simply passed out of existence I cannot see how Paul would have written that he “would prefer to be away from the body and AT HOME WITH THE LORD” (2 Cor 5:8) orI desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Php 1:23). And how could Moses and Elijah have met with Jesus (Matt 17:3) at the Transfiguration if they no longer existed? Nor can I see how Jesus would have said to the dying thief “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” if the man was just going to pass out of existence.
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  • View 4 – There is no intermediate state

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  • Those who hold this view refer to 2 Cor 5:1-5 and say it teaches that the believer will never be ‘naked’ (without a body) but will either be in the present body (‘earthly tent’) or the resurrection body (‘a building from God … and eternal house … a heavenly dwelling’). They also refer to the martyrs seen under the altar in Rev 6:9-11 who are not presented as without bodies because “they are clothed and speak.”  
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  • More important, those holding this view ask whether those who have died live in the same historical time frame as we who are alive. If they do then this would imply some form of disembodied intermediate state. However, if the dead are outside time, as we experience it, an intermediate state would not be necessary.
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  • So, from our perspective, we can say believers who have died are ‘sleeping’ but from their point of view they have already experienced the resurrection. From our point of view their resurrection is future but, because they have passed out of time, from their point of view they have already risen. So when Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” he is talking from the point of view of dead believers about an immediate resurrection.
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  • However doesn’t this view contradict the NT teaching on a general resurrection at the Return of Christ?  The answer is only if eternity includes the continuation of time as we know it. If dead believers pass out of time into eternity then, from our point of view there is gap between their death and final resurrection. But this is not the case in the eternal sphere beyond death which is not governed by time.
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  • Conclusion on the intermediate state

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  • As I have pointed out, this is one of those areas where Christians differ and Scripture is not completely clear on the matter (because its main interest is resurrection not an Intermediate State). I find the idea that believers cease to exist for a lengthy period when they die very difficult to accept and it doesn’t seem to square with the biblical material. I also find it difficult to square the soul sleep view with the biblical material. The idea of a conscious Intermediate State has much more going for it but I think, on balance, that I am most convinced by the last view above, that there is no Intermediate State but that believers experience resurrection immediately because they pass out of the historical time of this world into eternity. However, I think we should avoid dogmatism, not least because, in the end, what matters is that all the views agree that when a believer dies the next thing s/he experiences is joy in the glorious presence of Christ.
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  • How can I have a positive attitude to death?

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  • Many people fear death. There is:
  • 1.      fear of the unknown,
  • 2.      fear of the actual dying process,
  • 3.      fear of going through a huge transition alone,
  • 4.      fear for loved ones who will be left behind
  • 5.      fear of being rejected by God.
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  • 1.      Overcoming fear of the unknown
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  • It is true that we don’t know a lot about life after death. But we do know where we’re going and we know who is waiting to greet us and care for us. If Jesus said to the thief on the cross “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) he surely will say that to US on the day of OUR death. We can meditate on that now – and as we approach the time of our death. A sudden, unexpected death or death after unconsciousness makes no difference to this sure hope. Whether we’re able to think about it at the time or not the Lord will be saying it to us. So we “die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13) and “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom 14:8)
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  • 2.    Overcoming fear of the dying process

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  • Obviously, there can be a natural fear of sickness, pain or injury becoming the cause of death. That is part of normal living which is subject to “the changes and chances of this mortal life.” We can trust God for peace and pain relief, even in fatal illness. The latter normally comes through medical skill. But we can also claim by faith the wonderful promise in Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7). So we can reject anxiety by:
  • ·         turning to our ever-present Lord
  • ·         turning our fears into prayer topics
  • ·         thanking God for his goodness and love
  • ·         claiming by faith God’s promise of the peace which transcends all understanding.
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  • On a different level I have at times, half seriously, said: “So many people have died - it can’t be that difficult.” There is a serious side to this which I find helpful. When we die we’re not experiencing anything which millions of others (including friends and relatives) haven’t gone through. I find that encouraging.
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  • 3.    Overcoming fear of going through this huge transition alone

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  • There is a gulp factor in going into the uncertainty of death and eternity alone. No-one will be there to support us – except one – the only one who can accompany us through death: Jesus. The Lord has said: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb 13:5). Death will not be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In the helplessness of death we can bask in the love of Christ, knowing that “underneath are the everlasting arms.”
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  • 4.    Overcoming fear for loved ones left behind

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  • This is a very natural concern – linked with the sadness of separation. There is no way of avoiding that separation and the grief of those who will be left behind. But God will be good to them and bring them healing through the trauma of grief. There is no way of avoiding the pain but, again, it is some comfort to know that millions have gone through it and come out the other end. But, more significant, is the long-term perspective. If our loved ones are believers we can look forward to an eternity together even if we are separated for years.
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  • (Obviously, it is also good to discuss matters with loved ones. You need to make a will and you may wish to let them know your wishes about how and where you should be cared for if you become incapacitated or about aspects of your funeral. It is also important to sort out practical matters to do with dependents, business, paperwork, etc.).
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  • 5.    Overcoming fear of being rejected by God

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  • I am writing all this for believers – those who trust in Jesus. If you are not yet a believer it is very important to put your trust in him, asking for whatever help you need from a local Minister or mature Christian. You might find my booklet “What is a Christian anyway?” helpful. You can download it from my website at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/WhatIsAChristianAnyway.pdf
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  • If you are a believer then remember what I wrote in the section on “End Time Judgment” on “How will believers be judged?” http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/blog/?p=518#_How_will_believers . Here is a brief summary: Paul wrote “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Rom 14:12). He also wrote about the judgment of believers and says that the “quality of each [believer’s] work” will be tested and if it is not worthy that believer “will suffer loss” (1 Cor 3:10-15).
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  • However the wonderful, and very important, truth is that believers will not be condemned, rejected or lose their salvation. They will be saved and enjoy eternal life in heaven. The Bible teaches that this is certain. Anyone who trusts in Christ is saved, has eternal life and will not come into condemnation. But that believer’s character and behaviour will be judged and this will lead to reward or loss. However that believer will not lose his/her salvation. Salvation (justification) is by faith. Nevertheless it is a solemn prospect that we shall each stand alone before our Lord as judge and he will judge how we have lived our lives.
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