Dealing with Death
“But I do not want you to be ignorant brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.”
For most people, death is not an easy thing to swallow. And for good reason, because we were not created to die. God created humanity with the intent that we would always live life to the fullest, without ever needing to worry about something as hideous as death. But the sad truth is that everyone’s life will eventually expire due to the entrance of sin into our world.
As I write this article I just received word yesterday that an older woman at my church just passed away. The response from the daughter and granddaughter of this woman really inspired me. They both posted very positive pictures and words about their recently deceased loved one. They showed that they were not “as others who have no hope,” but that their complete confidence in the promises of God can help people to remain positive even in the toughest of times.
This was a big deal for the apostle Paul. His first letter to the Thessalonians shows that he did not want them to react to death in the same way that others did. This does not mean that there would be no grieving process, but the hope that would be shared in times of death would be a strong witness for the truth and would draw people to their Savior who died and rose again for them. Putting Jesus at the center of what may be the most heartbreaking and mysterious aspect of life was a key goal of the apostle as he taught people the gospel. It should be our goal as well.
How Jesus Thinks About Life and Death
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
In the gospels, Jesus doesn’t seem to have the same understanding of how life works as everyone else did. He never really focused so much on the first death that occurs in most people’s lives, but only seemed worried about the second death. When Jairus’s daughter had died and Jesus comes on the scene with a bunch of people mourning her death He says, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” He was always seeking to point the minds of others to the greater reality of the world to come.
In the scripture above from John 6, we can see that Jesus’ great desire was for everyone to understand that because of His willingness to lay down His life, no one would have to fear death any longer. In fact, the gospel of John does an excellent job of connecting the gospel and death and creating this paradigm shift that Jesus wanted His followers to adopt. Nowhere is this concept more clearly explained than in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.
The Resurrection and the Life
“This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
This is yet another scripture that reveals how Jesus thought about death. We know in this story about Lazarus that he ends up dying, and being buried for four days before Jesus comes. Yet Jesus here says that the sickness would not be unto death. Once again, we see that Jesus was only really worried about the second death. Anything other than that was simply sleep to Him.
In this story Jesus wants to make a point to His followers, so much so that He allows people to feel the grief that losing a loved one brings. He tells His disciples, “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.” It may seem strange to many of us that Jesus was actually glad that He was not there to heal someone, especially someone He was close to, like Lazarus. But Jesus was not just interested in healing physical sicknesses. He wanted to focus everyone’s attention on what they should truly be aiming for. He uses death to help us understand that this temporal life should not be our main priority. Eternal life is what should consume the minds of those who follow God.
Jesus pounds home this point when He comes to the distressed sister of Lazarus, Martha, by telling her these famous words:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
To me, these are some of the most profound words that Jesus ever spoke concerning death. The state of the dead can easily be summed up here. If there must be a resurrection, then people who have died are sleeping, just as Jesus says previously in this chapter, and waiting to be woken up. Jesus never speaks of Lazarus here as if he’s enjoying paradise at that moment, or as burning in hell. He spoke of going to wake Lazarus up from sleep.
Jesus is trying to get Martha, Mary, and the rest of the people present to understand how important it is to believe in Him as the long-awaited Messiah. To do this would ensure that they, and we, never truly die. Then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead as a picture and promise of what will take place at the end of time for God’s faithful people.
What About the Rich Man and Lazarus, and Hellfire?
“So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”
The story in John’s gospel also speaks to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in the book of Luke. Many who believe in the soul departing straight to heaven or hell after death run straight to this story Jesus told to prove their point. But the fact that there is such a big story in the gospel of John about Jesus raising another man named Lazarus from the grave should put serious doubt in our minds that Jesus meant the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to be interpreted that way. If Jesus meant for that parable to be taken so literally, then I would imagine that He would not have bothered bringing His good friend Lazarus back from the dead. He would have just reminded everyone that Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom.
The way that Jesus will deal with both the righteous and the wicked is very fair. We have read in a previous article in this series that there will be resurrections in which everyone receives their reward or punishment. At the end of the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.” This could not be true if people are already burning. Jesus’ way of judging assures us that someone who refused to accept God but may not have committed such atrocities as people like Nero or Hitler, will not suffer a harsher punishment because they have been burning long before these other men were born.
Jesus also speaks of differing punishments in the gospel of Luke:
“And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few.”
This scripture is important because it does away with the thought that all the wicked will burn eternally in hell. If some are beaten with many stripes, and some with few, then there would seem to be an end to the punishment, not an eternal burning. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus also speaks of the destruction of the wicked, rather than an infinitely, ongoing, punishment.
Apologetics and Jesus
“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”
In this series, I have not spent much time dealing with troubling scriptures or answering objections to our faith. The reason I have dwelt just a little bit on it here is because of my atheistic background and the topic we are discussing.
The thought of a God who burns people for eternity has made many an atheist. It was Christian friends of mine, depicting God as someone who would only punish me, who played a part in my bolstering my atheistic belief system for part of my life. It is the loving, righteous, and equitable nature of our God that has drawn me to Christianity, and kept me here. This is why I chose to speak in a slightly argumentative way when dealing with the state of the dead and hellfire.
My goal for this series, though, is to inspire us to lead more often with the simple teachings of Jesus when speaking about some of our major doctrines as Seventh-day Adventists. Understanding how to defend our faith so that others can have a proper picture of God’s character is very important. But I have found that after giving Bible studies myself and teaching my students whole Bible classes, common people are way hungrier for Jesus and the gospel than they are for proof texts and winning arguments.
Jesus’ way of teaching is still by far the greatest the world has ever seen. To come as close to that as possible is my goal as His disciple. I know that I am still far from reaching that goal in this series, but I pray I have moved you to study the Master Teacher more, and allow Him to teach you how to speak the truth in love.
 1 Thessalonians 4:13 All scriptures are taken from the New King James version.
 John 6:51
 Luke 8:52
 John 11:4
 John 11:14
 John 11:25-26
 Luke 16:22-23
 Revelation 22:12
 Luke 12:47-48
 John 16:13-14