What happens when you die?
Updated: Nov 10
Sermon preached All Saints Sunday, 5 November 2023, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Buderim, Qld, Australia.
Watch the sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/live/IEb0VWwDEuU?t=1500
What happens when you die? Although not a popular topic in polite conversation, this is one of the big questions of our existence!
Differing worldviews have different responses:
Atheist: nothing happens, you cease to exist, your body decays into worm food, and full stop.
Pantheist: you become part of the universe e.g. tree, mountain, river, stars (as in the Lion King).
Spiritualist: you become a ghost, with your spirit floating around, perhaps haunting things.
Reincarnation: you endlessly live multiple lives, each in another body and situation, depending on your “karma.”
Christian caricature: your soul floats up into heaven, sits on cloud playing a harp with chubby baby-like angels firing arrows.
We don’t talk much about death. It’s become an uncomfortable subject, a taboo topic. Our western culture has sanitized death. We seem to have hidden death behind hospital curtains, in coffins, now with push a button the body is whisked away, out of sight.
But St Paul does ‘not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13). So, as followers of Jesus, what do we believe about death? What happens when you die?
(1) Death is a mystery. St Paul in a long chapter about death and resurrection says, “Listen, I tell you a mystery.” (1 Corinthians 15:51). In our New Testament epistle reading we likewise heard, “What we will be has not yet been made known.” (1 John 3:2). We simply don’t know everything we want to about death, it’s a mystery. How can we describe the indescribable, how can we talk about something we’ve never experienced? That said, although a mystery we do know some things about death. Scripture uses word pictures to paint us a fuzzy kind of picture of what happens when we die. Metaphors drawn from this life are used to help us understand the next. For example: Isaiah says that this life is covered by a “shroud,” and at the dawn of the next age this “sheet” will be removed. ‘On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.’ (Isaiah 25:7–8). Right now we see a dim reflection in a “mirror,” but then we will see “face-to-face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Although a mystery, Christ has come to reveal eternal truths, and to lead us with confidence through death.
(2) Death is a new birth. Scripture personifies death, making it out to be a person, even a person with considerable power. Death is described as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). As an enemy, death “seizes you,” “grips you,” “holds you down” (Acts 2:24). Because of this, death, Scripture says, is “agonising” and full of suffering (Acts 2:24). While some deaths are peaceful, the reality is that some deaths are not. Palliative care seeks to minimise pain, while leaving the timing of death in God’s hands. However our end, death is agonising because it’s connected with sin. St Paul says, ‘The wages of sin is death.’ (Romans 6:23). Because of sin, death causes suffering and grief, both for the one dying and for those left behind. Those left behind are separated from their loved ones by death — grief is simply the natural response to loss. Grief can affect our emotions, our behaviour, our sleep, our appetite, our thinking — it’s often expressed bodily with tears, sobbing, loss of appetite, tiredness, or aches and pains. But the hope we have is that this “agony” of death is simply the beginning of something else. The word “agony” that Scripture uses to describe death is actually the word for “labour pains.” So death is the struggle of a “new birth,” with this “labour” leading to new life. St Peter says in one of his sermons, ‘You put Christ to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’ (Acts 2:23–24). That last enemy — death — tried to seize Jesus, to hold him down, but he slipped free, like a newborn baby delivered from the womb. And this means that as hard or agonizing as death may be, it’s actually a new birth.
(3) A dead body returns to the dust. Like a flower that blossoms then wilts and returns to the soil (Job 14:2), this body of dust returns to the dust. “From dust we are, from dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19). In a typical death, if there is such a thing, breathing becomes laboured and eventually stops, the heart ceases to beat; with blood no longer flowing the skin colour changes, and body temperature cools. If you’ve ever been around a dying person, there comes a moment when their breath/life/spirit goes out of them. ‘The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit/breath returns to God who gave it.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7). After death, we care for a deceased body with dignity, because our body is a gift from God. For example, we don’t just chuck bodies in the rubbish! We careful store deceased bodies, even dressing them, before burial or cremation, returning the body to dirt and dust. Scripture often describes death as a seed being buried in the dirt (John 12:24-26; 1 Corinthians 15:35–44). But just as a seed sprouts into a new plant, death is not the end and new life awaits to burst forth from the dirt. ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.’ (1 Corinthians 15:42–44).
(4) Death is being woken up from sleep. Scripture often uses the picture of sleeping to describe death (Isaiah 26:19; 60:1; Malachi 4:2; Romans 13:11; 1 Corinthians 15:51–57; Ephesians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). Our word “cemetery” derives from a word meaning “dormitory” — a cemetery is a “dorm room” with “beds” (graves and coffins) where the dead “sleep.” So what happens when you die? This picture hints that, just as we do not sense time passing while asleep, a dead person does not sense the passing of time — they likely close their eyes in death, and wake up in the next age. And just as an alarm clock rudely wakes us up in the morning, a loud “trumpet call” will wake us up in the next life (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:51–57; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17). Handel’s Messiah has a famous movement based on a passage in 1 Corinthians 15: ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be rais’d incorruptible, and we shall be chang’d.’ (1 Corinthians 15:52–53). Listen here:
(5) There will be a resurrection of the body. Scripture promises that the dead shall be resurrected. Interestingly, death is always connected with going down, but resurrection is connected with standing up. The word “resurrection” literally means “to sprout,” “to arise,” “to rise up,” “to stand up erect.” The bodies we have now will lie down in death, but stand up again in the resurrection. We will be ‘changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’ as St Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). It will be like putting on new clothes. ‘The perishable will clothe itself with the imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 15:53). We will take off this perishable, weak, frail body, and — like putting on clothes — put on a new imperishable, strong, glorious body, one that won’t wear out but will last forever. We heard in our epistle reading: ‘What we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him.’ (1 John 3:2). Our resurrected body will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. Jesus’ resurrected body was recognisable (somewhat), he could breathe and talk, he could touch and be touched, he could eat and drink, walk and work, and be in relationship and community with others. When we die, we will be like him — raised with a new body! Hence we confess: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
(6) There will be a presentation/judging. “I believe in Jesus Christ … who ascended into heaven … from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.” You will be presented and introduced to God. This judgement is nothing for followers of Christ to fear. We will be presented to God mature and perfect (Colossians 1:28), robed in white, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9,14). We'll be introduced as friends of Jesus, the Son of God. Judging simply means “to set right,” not merely to dish out a punishment. God’s default position is not to judge to condemn, but he judges to save! Jesus himself says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” (John 3:17–18). Those who wilfully reject the Son are condemned, they will get their wish to be apart from God. But what will happen to those who don’t know Jesus? Good question! Honestly, I’m not sure. Thankfully I’m not the judge — God is. What I do know is that God the judge is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abiding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6). His will is to set things right, to bring justice and justify through his Son, Jesus Christ. Everyone is ultimately in the hands of this gracious heavenly Father.
(7) There will be a new heaven and new earth. In Revelation we hear about John’s vision, ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.’ (Revelation 21:1). What happens after death is not merely spiritual, but material also. There will be a new earth: new soil, new air, new water, new trees, new bodies. Isaiah uses the picture of a party or feast (Isaiah 25:6), and Revelation of a wedding banquet (Revelation 19:7–9; 21:2). So it seems there’ll be things akin to eating and drinking, dancing and laughing, meaningful work, praise and worship. But there’ll also be no more hunger, no more thirst, no more back breaking labour in the scorching hot sun, no more tears (Revelation 7:16–17). You will be with God for an eternity in a perefected material world. That sounds like good news to me! “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4).
One final question: Can I prepare for my death? We may not know the hour or manner, but we can somewhat prepare for death. In a sermon on this topic, Martin Luther makes some helpful practical suggestions: (1) make arrangements for temporal goods and property to avoid squabbles (e.g. a will), (2) forgive as you are forgiven, (3) look at God toward whom death leads, not your own life, (4) prepare with confession of sin, the sacraments and prayer, etc. See full summary here: immanuelchurch.au/funerals
(click on “I want to prepare for death” and scroll to the end).
So, what happens when you die? It’s a mystery, but the sheet covering this life will be lifted off, and you will see God face-to-face. Although a struggle, the labour of death results in a new birth. You’re a flower that blossoms and wilts, like a seed buried in soil that springs up. The trumpet will sound and all the sleepers will wake up. Like putting on new clothes, your body will be resurrected. You’ll be presented to God. Friends of Jesus will stand together with him, mature and perfect, robed in white, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. And we’ll feast at the wedding banquet, enjoying the new creation, praising and worshipping God forever. Amen!