(Based on Revelation 21:1-5 and John 14:1-6.)
Today we continue with the series called “The Last Minute of Play” and the theme verse of this series is “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 4:15-16). And the Big Idea of this series is that if we could live now with the same clarity and purpose that we will have at the end of our life, we will be able to live a more meaningful and joyful life.
And today we are thinking about what happens when The Final Buzzer Sounds. In a timed sporting event—such as hockey, soccer, football or basketball—when the Final Buzzer sounds, the game is over and play comes to an end. But what happens when life comes to an end? It turns out that how we each answer this question has a great influence on whether we think that there is any meaning or purpose to life. Andy Steiger, in his book Thinking: Answering Life’s Five Biggest Questions, writes “…if we want to know the meaning of life we first need to determine if there is an author of life and if eternal life is possible.” My goal as your pastor is to help you live a purposeful life as a follower of Jesus Christ. So that is my first reason for inviting you to consider what will happen to you when you die. My second reason is to address the fears that we tend to feel when we think of our own death. And my third reason is to try to clear up any misconceptions we may have about life after death so that we can live in the confidence and joy that comes with a biblical understanding of life after death. So our three points for today are 1). The fact of the resurrection, 2). Our fear of death, and 3). The wonder of what is to come.
So, point one, the fact of the resurrection. It is important for us to admit at the outset that the entire Christian faith either stands or falls on the basis of one particular event. And that event happened around 30 AD, when a person by the name of Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem, was buried and then rose again from the dead on the third day that followed. Now either that event actually happened or it didn’t. If it actually happened, then Christianity is true and we have hope in the face of death because of Jesus. But if that event did not actually happen, then the entire Christian faith is a fraud and there is no verifiable hope for anyone of having life after death.
Now you might be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute! There are other religions that claim to offer life after death. If Christianity is false, that does not mean that they are also false.” And you would be right. But no other religion in the world makes the claim that the founder of the religion is a God-human who died for the sins of the whole world and then rose again from the dead. Buddha does not make that claim, Mohammed does not make that claim, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, does not make that claim, and Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, does not make that claim either. Other religions in the world may offer life after death, but no other religion in the world backs up that claim with a historically verifiable example of someone rising from the dead. So that is why I say, if Christianity is false, then there is no verifiable hope for anyone of having life after death.
Now your faith, and how sincere it may or may not be, has absolutely nothing to do with whether Jesus’ resurrection is true or not. Your faith does not make Jesus’ resurrection true, and if you are agnostic or atheistic, that does not make Christianity false. Similarly, what you or I or others say about Jesus’ resurrection does not make it true or false. Either Jesus really did rise from the dead, or he didn’t. Jesus’ resurrection is a matter that lies in the realm of facts, not in the realm of opinion or belief.
Now I cannot prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus really did rise from the dead. But I can point you towards evidence that would lead one to conclude that he really did.
There is evidence in the Bible. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[that is, Peter] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3-8) So what is Paul doing here? Like a police officer giving testimony at a trial, Paul is both giving an eye witness report and reporting that there are other eye-witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Those who received his letter could then check with those living witnesses to see if what Paul said was really true.
There is also evidence outside the Bible from unfriendly sources that refer to Jesus’ existence, his death and his resurrection. In the early second century, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “to put an end to the rumor that he had ordered the fire, Nero invented charges of guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a group of people whom the Roman mob called ‘Christians’ and hated because of their shameless activities. During the reign of Tiberius, Christus, who gave his name to this group, had suffered crucifixion under the procurator Pontius Pilate” (Annals 15.44). Around the same time, in 112 AD, Pliny the Younger, who was the Roman governor of a region in present-day Turkey, wrote the following about Christians, “… they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and to sing… a hymn to Christ as if to a god” (Letters 10.96, 97). Writing in the late first century, Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “At this time there was a wise man named Jesus and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive” (Antiquities 18:63).
There is also literary evidence such as the fact that, according to Scripture, the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. In that culture, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in a courtroom, so one would never write a story that way in that time unless it were really true.
There is the evidence of the profound change in the disciples of Jesus, who were transformed from being indecisive and cowardly to being people of conviction who were willing to die for their faith. What could make such a dramatic difference in people’s lives? Well, seeing someone who had risen from the dead would do it. Also, church history tells us that all of the disciples, except for John, died as martyrs for their Christian faith. Now those disciples knew whether Jesus really did rise from the dead or not. Why would they die for something that they knew was a lie? They wouldn’t. The most logical explanation for their willingness to be martyrs is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
There is much other evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and if you want to learn more I encourage you to seek out more information from writers like Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas and others.
Our second point for today is our fear of death. Now it is perfectly natural for us to be afraid of death. Years ago when I was a sales agent for a petroleum company, my bookkeeper told me a story about her son. When he was a little boy, he broke his arm. His parents took him to the hospital and the doctor said that he would have to set the bone so that the arm would heal properly. This was going to be a painful process, but the doctor told the young boy not to worry because he was going to put him to sleep. The young lad became very, very anxious and his parents could not figure out why. Later they discovered the reason. A few weeks prior, the family pet had to be taken to the vet, where it was decided to put the animal to sleep. The little boy was upset because he thought that he was going to die.
Probably most of us feel some level of fear when we think about our own personal death. And our fears usually fall into one of two different categories: First, what will happen to me before I die, that is, how painful will it be? And second, what will happen to me after I die? With regard to the first category of fear, what will happen to me before I die, we live in a time where we can point people to medical science for strategies that are available to us to provide care and control pain before we die. So we don’t need to worry so much about that.
With regard to what will happen to us after we die, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3) Jesus is saying to us, when the time comes for us to die, we do not need to worry, because Jesus has taken care of death for us. All of the worries or concerns that we may have about going through this one-time, one-way process are disarmed because Jesus has already died our death for us. All of the dark, scary and lonely aspects of our death have already been suffered for us by Jesus and now there is no way that death can come between us and Jesus. Jesus has prepared a place for us in his Father’s house on the other side of death and Jesus will go through our death with us. And with his infinite goodness, Jesus has transformed death. Instead of a hopeless end, Jesus gives us endless hope. With Jesus, death is now a doorway into a more wonderful life beyond.
This brings us to our third point, the wonder of what is to come. It is important for us to acknowledge that there are two stages to life after death. The first stage is sometimes referred to in the Bible as “paradise,” for example, when one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into you kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise ” (Luke 23:42-43).
When a follower of Jesus dies, their soul is unnaturally separated from their body, their body is laid in the ground, and their soul goes to be with Jesus in paradise. Some passages of the Bible speak of this stage as being like sleep, so whether a person is fully conscious or not, we don’t know. But we do know, based on what the Bible tells us, that the follower of Jesus who dies will be alive and they will be with Jesus. So that is stage one of life after death.
Stage two of life after death will start when Jesus returns to this earth in a visible way. And everyone who is alive when Jesus comes back will not experience Stage 1 of life after death. They will go right to Stage 2. Here is how the Bible describes the second and final stage of life after death which I will read to you from 1 Corinthians, chapter 15 of The Message,
But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:
Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?
It was sin that made death so frightening and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God!
So when Jesus returns, he will reunite our bodies and souls and raise us from the dead, making us fully alive and fully human in a way that will be so glorious that it is beyond what we can fully comprehend right now.
Now the second stage of life after death isn’t only for human beings. In Romans 8 we read, For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)
When Jesus returns, all of creation will become perfect in beauty, wholeness and wonder. All evil and corruption will be scooped out of this world like one would use a spoon to scoop a fly out of a bowl of soup. As good as the good things in the world are right now—the beauty of creation and the love of family and good friends—those things will be even better when all things are purified, renewed and glorified when Jesus returns. We thank God for the many good gifts that he has given us in this life. And though we grieve over the thought of leaving them behind, we look forward to what Jesus has for us in the future, knowing that the good things of our life now will be revealed in their glorified state on the Day when he comes, and we anticipate the surprise of a future that will be far beyond what we can imagine.
The fact of the resurrection and the wonder of what is to come are true whether you believe them or not. Your faith makes no difference in those matters. But where your faith does make a difference is in the fear that you may feel when you think about your own death. Do you believe that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead? And do you believe that Jesus will raise you from the dead too? Jesus has promised us that we he will take care of us when we die. So we do not need to be afraid. This is what we believe. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on November 1, 2015.)
 Andy Steiger, Thinking: Answering Life’s Five Biggest Questions (Abbotsford BC: Apologetics Canada, 2015), 20.