Is There Life After Death? Can We Be Sure?
May 28, 2000 | Ray Pritchard
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When Barry Grunow left for work on Friday morning, he had no idea he would never come home again. It was the last day of classes at the Lake Worth Community Middle School, just a few miles south of West Palm Beach, Florida. Mr. Grunow was teaching a seventh grade English class at 3:30 p.m. when a 13-year-old student shot him with a semi-automatic pistol. The school year’s final dismissal was only 15 minutes away. The student had been sent home earlier for throwing water balloons in class. He was a member of the National Honor Society with no record of previous trouble. Barry Grunow was only 35 years old. Nicknamed “Shaggy” because of his bushy hair, he was a popular teacher who often joined students in pickup basketball games after school. He is survived by a wife, a five-year-old son, and an infant daughter. The mother of one of his students said, “He was a great man. I always enjoyed it when my kids were going to be in his classes. Every way you look at it, it’s a tragedy. It’s scary.”
Lotions and Potions
Life is short and so uncertain. “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14b). And Moses said to the Lord in Psalm 90:5-6, “You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.” It is sometimes said that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes. But that is not wholly true. A clever man with a good lawyer can find a way around most if not all of his taxes, but no one escapes death. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, “The statistics on death have not changed. One out of one person dies.” Worldwide, there were approximately 53,835,300 deaths in 1999. That works out to 4,486,275 per month, 147,494 per day, 6,146 per hour, 102 per minute, and 1.7 per second.
And most importantly, each of us will one day die. And our loved ones will die too. This is not a fact we like to face. Ours is a death-denying society. We don’t like to talk about it, think about, or hear about it. We don’t even like to say that someone has died. We prefer to say he “passed on” or she “departed” or he “isn’t with us anymore.” It seems so harsh to come right out and say that someone died. Sometimes we deny death by working so hard and so long that we have no time to think about death. And we diet, exercise, work out, jog, bike, Move, Groove and Lose with Richard Simmons, eat vitamins, stop smoking, lay off the fatty foods, go to Heart Check America, track our cholesterol, keep a weight chart, and cut back to only one Big Mac instead of two. Or we stop drinking coffee or Coke or Oberweiss milk shakes. We use lotions and potions and creams. If we’re really serious, we start taking fish oil and then we add fiber to our diet every night before we go to bed.
All those things are good in themselves. We ought to take care of the body God gives us. But the fascination with health and a youthful appearance goes beyond merely trying to stay in shape. It touches a deep uncertainty within the soul of contemporary culture. We desperately want to stay alive because we don’t want to die. And we don’t want to die because we aren’t sure what will happen next. It’s more than simply loving this life, it’s a deep-seated fear of death that Hebrews 2:14-15 speaks about when it says that Christ died “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” The fear of death forces us to confront our own mortality. Sooner or later we will all die. Hebrews 9:27 reminds us that we all have an appointment with death. And that’s one appointment we won’t miss. And we won’t be late for it either. When the Grim Reaper comes knocking at your front door, you can’t slip out the back door.
This sermon is the first in a new series called Final Questions: A Biblical View of Life After Death. This series is built around seven questions regarding life after death. The first three sermons deal with controversial issues—the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and purgatory. The next three sermons deal with major Christian doctrines—hell, heaven, and the resurrection. The final sermon discusses what death means for the Christian and how we can face our own death with confidence. Someone asked me this week why I am preaching this particular series right now. It’s hard to answer a question like that because I don’t have a clear answer myself. All I know is that I’ve been thinking about these questions for several years now. It’s been on my heart that we should spend some time looking at what the Bible says about the other side of death. After all, you’re going to be dead for a long, long time. In fact, you’re going to be dead a lot longer than you’re going to be physically alive so it only makes sense to be ready for your own death whenever it comes. And beyond that, I think the Christian faith offers the only solid answers to the Final Questions. The Bible tells us everything we need to know about life after death and it tells us everything we can know with certainty. Outside of the Word of God, we are left with speculation and personal opinion. In the next few weeks, if you listen closely, you’ll discover an enormous amount of helpful information that will equip you to answer the questions people have. And if you don’t know Christ, I pray these messages will stir up your heart to seek the Lord. You need to know what will happen to you if you should die tonight.
This is not an unimportant question. On Thursday of this week, Hillary Clinton was speaking in Rochester, New York, when someone asked if she thought she would spend eternity in heaven or hell. “I cannot tell you where I will be,” Mrs. Clinton responded. “I can only hope and pray that I will find favor in God’s eyes.” (The New York Post, Friday, May 26, 2000). Without meaning any political commentary, I can simply say that we are all in the same boat with Mrs. Clinton. She needs to know, and we need to know, each one of us, what will happen to us when we die.
Can We Be Sure?
In this message we want to consider the most basic question: Is there life after death? And can we be sure? I think the second question is more important. It’s a simple fact that most people believe in some form of life after death. Even people with no religion believe that “something” in us survives the grave. (A 1998 Harris Poll revealed that 84% of those surveyed said they believed in the survival of the soul after death.) If I answer yes to the question, “Is there life after death?” I’m only affirming what most people instinctively believe. But it’s the second question that grips the mind: Can we be sure? When you stand by the casket looking into the face of a beloved husband or wife, when you lay your parents to rest, when the sad moment comes to say good-bye to a lifelong friend, or if you should have the solemn duty on this Memorial Day weekend to remember the sacrifice of someone who died in the service of his country, in those moments theories, hopes, and wishes won’t do. We need to know that we will see our loved ones again. We need to know that death is not the end.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it this way:
Life is real, life is earnest,
And the grave is not the goal:
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.
Our hearts unite in agreement with those words, but can we be sure they are true? It depends on what sort of certainty you seek. If you will not be satisfied by anything other than scientific proof, then I can’t help you. By definition the soul is the immaterial part of man. Since it is immaterial, it cannot be weighed or measured, has no mass or shape, and is not susceptible to any sort of scientific analysis. It’s not that the soul is unscientific, it’s simply that science deals with the observable and the soul cannot be observed by normal means. Some years ago I remember reading stories about scientists who measured what happens at the moment of death hoping to prove that when the soul leaves the body, its exit can somehow be traced with sophisticated devices. But it was all in vain. At the moment of death your physical body dies. That can be measured. The soul lies beyond the reach of the laboratory.
But that doesn’t mean the soul doesn’t exist. Not at all. It merely suggests that we must look elsewhere for the certainty we seek. Over the centuries wise minds have warmly debated this question. From Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Woody Allen, writers, philosophers, poets, and playwrights have pondered what happens when we die. Here are seven arguments that help us know the answer and find the certainty we seek.
Argument #1: Universal Belief
A century ago a great debate raged over whether belief in life after death is universal. Now the results are in and they are conclusive. It is virtually impossible to find any society in ancient or modern times that has not believed in the immortality of the human soul. One writer calls this argument the “democracy of the dead.” In fairness it must be said that beliefs have varied widely from time to time and from place to place. Some cultures have had very primitive concepts of the afterlife while others are quite advanced. But the point remains that it is virtually impossible to find any society which, left to itself, does not develop a belief in life after death. This includes the Aborigines, Eskimos, Druids, Greenlanders, Hindus, African tribes, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, the Asian cultures and nations, Buddhists, Shintoists, Taoists, the followers of Confucius, Greeks, Romans, Essenes, Jews, Muslims, Etruscans, all Indian tribes, Persians, Polynesians, and the Scandinavians. And the list could be much longer than that.
But what about Communism, which is officially atheistic and materialistic and therefore denies the possibility of life after death? It’s quite true that for many decades government officials did all they could to stamp out religious belief in Communist lands. While they were in power, they succeeded in producing millions of people with no religious understanding. Yet the moment the Iron Curtain was lifted, people began returning to God. And it’s a simple fact that the church in China grew by millions during the last 50 years.
I realize that mere numbers don’t prove a thing is true. But belief in life after death is so fundamental to human nature that the burden of proof is on those who deny it, not on those who affirm it.
Argument #2: Desire for Justice
We live in a universe governed by certain moral laws, especially the common notion that good should be rewarded and evil punished. Yet in this life the good often die young while murderers live to a ripe old age. Psalm 73 is all about the problem of wicked people triumphing while the righteous take it on the chin. The writer says he almost lost his faith while pondering this dilemma. Then he went to the temple and the Lord reminded him that this life is not the end. The wicked who get away with evil in this life will certainly be punished in the next. And the righteous who suffer unjustly will be rewarded by the Lord. There must be life after death to right the wrongs that are left over from this life.
Argument #3: Near-Death Experiences
For centuries people from all backgrounds have reported strange events at the end of human life in which they seemed to catch a glimpse of life beyond the grave. In the last 30 years, thousands of these reports have been catalogued and carefully studied. While not all the visions square with what the Bible says about the afterlife, the sheer number and the variety suggests that these experiences reflect the reality that physical death is not the end of the road but rather a bend in the road. We should not be gullible and believe everything we hear and read, yet the fact that so many people do indeed have intimations of life beyond death suggests that there is indeed “something” there. And many Christians have testified to visions of heaven. As he lay dying, D. L. Moody cried out “Earth is receding. Heaven is approaching. This is my crowning day.”
Argument #4: Teaching of the Old Testament
With this argument we pass from the shaky ground of human experience to the solid ground of the Word of God. It is sometimes suggested that the Old Testament says very little about life after death but that is not true. The Hebrew Old Testament refers many times to a place called sheol, which is the shadowy realm of the dead. Sheol is not merely the grave but it is a realm of conscious existence after death, a place where both the righteous and the unrighteous exist as souls apart from their bodies. In Psalm 16:8-11 David contemplates his own death. He knows that his body will die but he himself (that is, his soul) will continue to exist and that one day his body will be raised from the dead.
I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
To those verses we can also add:
Psalm 49:15 But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.
Ps 73:24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
Ps 23:6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Solomon settled the issue in Ecclesiastes 12:7 when he said, “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
We could quote other verses but the point is clear. This life does not end at the moment of death. When physical life ends, the soul continues its existence.
Argument #5: The Words of Jesus
Nothing means more to a believer than to know what our Lord has said on this topic. Once the Sadducees tried to trick him with a question about a woman who had had seven husbands. They wanted to know whose wife will she be in the resurrection? They were trying to trick Jesus because they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. But Jesus turned the tables by quoting Moses who called God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Here is the kicker in Luke 20:38, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Did you get that? As far as God is concerned, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive. They are physically dead but alive in his presence in heaven. At the moment of death believers go to be with the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why Christ said to the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That statement makes no sense unless there is life after death.
Argument #6: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Here at last is the central proof. We know there is life after death because Jesus came back from the dead to tell us all about it. He is the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26). When quoting these words of Jesus during a funeral service, I like to point out that there is a seeming contradiction if you look closely. First Jesus says that those who believe in him will live even though they die. Then he says those who believe will never die. So which is it? Do believers die or do we not die? The answer is yes! We die physically but we do not die spiritually. We bury the body but the soul goes into the presence of the Lord.
If we need an argument from experience, here is one we can trust. Before we can be sure, we need to talk to someone who has experienced death and come back to tell us about it. And it needs to be someone who died, came back from the dead, and never died again. Only one person in history fits that description: Jesus Christ. When we face death, we need the assurance that the grave will not have the final word. “The most certain assurance of life after death for the Christian is the historical, literal resurrection of Christ. The Christian believes in life after death not because of an argument, first of all, but because of a witness” (Peter Kreeft).
Argument #7: The Homesickness of the Heart
We know that this life is incomplete. Even the best and most talented come to the end of life and look back with a sense of work undone, dreams unfulfilled, and gifts never developed. And we all have memories of foolish mistakes, things we wish we hadn’t said or done, stupid decisions that hurt us and others, choices that led us down the wrong path, sometimes for years at a time. We all feel this way if we are honest. As I grow older and a bit wiser, I feel it more and more in my own heart. This world is not a safe place nor is it a place where I can truly feel at home. There is a real sense in which we are born dying. We come into the world saying Hello but almost immediately we start saying good-bye. We grow up, graduate, leave home, move away, get married, have children, they grow up, graduate, leave home, move away, get married, have children who grow up, and the process continues. All the while we are saying good-bye. Such is life in a fading world. The psalmist said it well when he prayed, “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath” (Psalm 39:4-5).
How many of us have completed some great project, achieved a great goal, fulfilled a long-cherished dream, finally checked off everything on our to-do list, only to find that we are still vaguely unhappy? We climbed to the top of the mountain and when we got there, we discovered it wasn’t worth the journey. And we said to ourselves, “Is that all there is?” Three thousand years ago Solomon put his finger on the problem when he declared that God has put eternity in the heart of every person (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We were made for God and we were made to know God. And we can’t really be happy until we have a relationship with him. That’s the vast “God-shaped vacuum” inside every heart. We were created with a “homing instinct” for the God who made us. Heaven is our true home and we will never be happy anywhere else. That’s why Paul was not afraid to die. “Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT). That’s a wonderful phrase—”At home with the Lord.” If I ask where you are going when the church service is over, you’ll probably say you’re going home, referring to the place where you currently live. But at best that’s only your temporary earthly home. Our true home is in heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Nursery of Eternity
What does it all mean for us? It certainly means that death is good news for the Christian. Right now we are like the caterpillar firmly stuck to the soil of planet earth. We can only dream of soaring to the heights. But in us there is a new nature calling us upward, to a new and better life. Someday we’ll crawl inside the cocoon called death and by God’s grace we will emerge like butterflies, born to a new kind of life. We don’t look like butterflies now but that’s truly what we are meant to be. We were made to soar higher than the angels because we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.
What, then, is this life? It is the nursery of eternity. We either use the 60 or 70 or 80 years we are given to improve our souls through the knowledge of Christ or we waste these years in earthly pursuits and end up destitute and lost. “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Thousands of years ago Job spoke for all of us when he asked, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14). The answer is yes. If you know Jesus, you live forever with him. But if you don’t know Jesus, your future is grim indeed.
Do you want to live forever? I do. Here’s the good news. Eternal life is a gift, a free gift from God. There’s nothing you can do to earn it. And the harder you try to earn it, the more it slips from your grasp. The only thing you can do with a gift is to accept it or reject it. Would you like to receive the gift of eternal life? It’s yours for the asking. Here’s a simple prayer that can help you express the desire of your heart: “Lord Jesus, I want to live forever with you in heaven. I believe you are the Son of God. I believe you died on the cross for my sins. I believe you rose from the dead. I believe there is no other way to heaven than through you. With all my heart I trust you alone as my Lord and Savior. Come into my heart and save me. Amen.”
Death may seem to triumph for a season as it enters into our homes, and one by one, takes those nearest and dearest to us. And sooner or later death will come for you and for me. But death cannot win in the end. Jesus fought and won that battle 2000 years ago. There’s an old gospel song called “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” One of the verses contains this phrase, “There’s a light in the valley of death now for me, since Jesus came into my heart.” We still have to go through the valley of death but it’s not dark anymore. Jesus entered the valley for us and he left the light on so we could find our way to heaven. The child of God need not fear death for the grave has lost its victory. In the hour of death if you know Jesus you may be sure that the grave is but a doorway to glory. May God give us faith to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who holds the keys of death and Hades in his hands. Amen.