A Little Theology of Death

Too often I find people (Christians) are quite convinced that once dead a person is immediately “in Heaven”. In fact to suggest otherwise might actually be considered a tad scandalous and maybe inappropriate.

The reality however is that it was not that long ago when the dominant theology of people was one that said that death was a form of metaphysical sleep and the sleeper would awaken upon the completion of history and the marriage of Heaven and Earth.

SIDE NOTE: These same people who struggle with the idea of not being immediately whisked through the Pearly Gates upon death often also struggle with the Biblical truth of Heaven and Earth becoming one upon the completion of history – but that’s for another post.

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So the idea above is fairly plain…I have seen this again and again and again at cemeteries all over. Prior to the mid-20th century (roughly) virtually every grave stone references the dead being “asleep” or “at rest”.

There is a very strong theme that runs through scripture that once a person has died they have fallen asleep until such time as they are raised at the end of days contrary to what Bible.org is sternly stating on the subject. The writers there are convinced that the imagery is quite metaphorical and that we are immediately whisked to Heaven.

Of course this begs the question what’s the point of a final judgement if everybody is judged as they die? Maybe only good Christians get to Heaven immediately and the rest simply sleep until judgement. Of course this would suggest that there would be no need for Christ to separate the lambs from the goats at the end because there would only be goats and they could all be shoveled into Hell at one time.

There are references such as that of Christ telling the thief on the adjacent cross that “today you will be with me in Paradise” but then of course it is the prerogative of God to do such things while not breaking with the broader reality that God is making come to pass. Not to mention that to be asleep and then to wake is but a moment and surely the time between the death of the thief and the reality of his coming to Heaven would be as a moment. 

Yes, you say, but what of 2 Corinthians 5:8 which says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”? Clearly if we believe that we somehow go on in after death (whether asleep or trouncing through Heaven’s fields) we must also believe that this reality can only be sustained by God and thus whether asleep or awake we will be present with the Lord so-to-speak.

There are also plenty of references to Paul speaking of how much better it would be if he were dead because than he would be with Christ – but again, as the first systematic theologian Paul no doubt could very easily have understood that death as sleep is still to be present with Christ not to mention the immediacy of the transition between “going to sleep” and being awakened.

Two of the more compelling verses are that of 1 Samuel 28:15 which tells the story of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor and John 11:11-13 which speaks of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead (which are both excellently creepy ghost stories that one should tell on Hallowe’en).

In 1 Samuel 28:15 Saul has the witch raise Samuel’s ghost and the ghost immediately speaks: “Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?””

Unless Heaven was believed to be in the grave something is amiss with Samuel have been brought “up”. Further to this Samuel has clearly been “disturbed”. If Samuel is in Heaven then how is it that some random witch has managed to yank his spirit back to earth? What power is this? The word for disturbed in the Hebrew is very much what one would expect to use when one is violently ripped from a deep rest:

רָגַז verb be agitated, quiver, quake, be excited, perturbed (Phoenician Iph. (+ Infinitive absolute Qal) disquiet, disturb, Inscription Tabn.4.6.7; Late Hebrew Hiph`il provoke to wrath; , tremble(with rage, fear, Dozy); V, VIII, rumble (of thunder, Frey), a trembling disease (of camels), etc.; Aramaic רְגַו tremble, rage, be enraged; Zinjirli רגז wrath, Lzb367);

Once again we are faced with the possible response that “while Samuel was pretty awesome being a prophet of God and all that he was not a Christian and so we should not expect that he would be in Heaven…plus he lived before Christ.”

Well and good except we’re back to the point where it is being suggested that judgement has occurred prior to judgement.

One than might respond and say “yeah but what about Moses and Elijah…they went straight to Heaven…chauffeur and everything?” 

These two were simply very worthy exceptions to the rule and as exceptions to the rule there must, in fact, be a rule and that rule, as far as the general sense of scripture is concerned, is that people “sleep” at death until awakened at the end of days.

Let’s look at John 11:11 where Jesus interacts with Lazarus:

“After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep;but I am going there to wake him up.””

Why not say Lazarus had gone to Heaven and I am going to bring him back? Some would say because no one could go to Heaven until AFTER Jesus had died and was resurrected. But this would be to ignore the myriad references in the New Testament post-resurrection of death as sleep. 

There is a particular Greek word for sleep which is used in the New Testament post-resurrection references which is means death:

koimaó (κοιμάω): sleep, fall asleep, die

Original Word: κοιμάομαι
Part of Speech: Verb
Transliteration: koimaó from NG2749
Phonetic Spelling: (koy-mah’-o)
Short Definition: I fall asleep, am asleep
Definition: I fall asleep, am asleep, sometimes of the sleep of death.

We find it everywhere – in Corinthians, Thessalonians, Peter and elsewhere. All of the references are of believers, post-resurrection, who have died. All are described as asleep. The early Christians were not ignorant of theology…they laid its foundation. If they believed that the death of believers meant an immediate and present transition to an aware state in Heaven they would have expressed that as part of their theology – they did not. 

I believe we have developed an inappropriate theology of death that focuses on instant,, non-corporeal, transition to Heaven because we are not comfortable with the idea of having to wait. We want to go there NOW.

The reality though is that this is not the main thrust of scripture in the few areas it speaks of these things. Further to this when the Bible does speak of being with God it is in our full selves – physical bodies and souls…not divorced of our bodies. The idea of a purely spiritual afterlife where we have shuffled off this mortal coil is very much a Greek Platonic idea and not Biblical. The Bible speaks of a very real marriage of Heaven and Earth.

This is something very worth looking forward to with the awareness that while I may sleep I will not feel the passage of time but will awake as though after a night’s rest and when I awake it will be to a new and perfected creation, of which I am a part.

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