Death

Dying Well

Recently I was given two reminders of the reality of my own impending death. I say impending, because I have a disease that will at some place, at some time, in some way, do what God did not intend – separate my spirit from my body. This disease is known as mortality, and the cause of it is sin. And while I am so thankful to God for his amazing grace in the Lord Jesus, that my eternal future is secure, these reminders were powerful none the less.

The first reminder was a funeral that I did. It was for a 96 year old woman. The second was watching one of the last vlog posts of Nabeel Qureshi, who entered into the joy of his master, Jesus Christ, after enduring a year-long battle with cancer.

It has given me pause to ponder the questions:

How do I die well? What does it mean to do well?

I remember hearing of a Bishop’s wife who was at a women’s prayer meeting and the women were praying for a Christian woman who has a terminal illness. After many ask God to comfort her and to heal her and to give the doctors wisdom as they treat her, she asked God to enable her to ‘die well’.

There was some disquiet amongst the prayer meeting, how could she be so insensitive? How could she even mention the ‘D’ word? How could she give up hope?

Yet I believe these questions say more about the problem in Australian culture (in fact I would say the problem with Western culture) than it does with the Bishop’s wife’s prayer.

The problem that was highlighted to by Assoc. Prof. Richard Chye, who is the Director of Palliative Care at Sacred Heart Hospice in Sydney, who in the SBS 3 Part Documentary in which three terminally ill people talk about Living the End said this (at the 22:30 mark of the vid)

Culturally I don’t thing we deal with dying well…even more so now with the westernisation of our culture has put death into a much more secretive too hard basket…and we drammatise dying as being something that does not happen often”.

From my observations, I believe our culture dramatises dying as if it won’t happen at all. We live as if life is permanent; as if we won’t die, and if we ignore it, deny it, then someone how, some way, death will pass us by. We never see it and this is deliberate. If we are honest death frightens us, it puzzles us, it angers us, it confuses us and it hurts us.

Christians are not immune from death, Christians acquire the same illnesses as the non-Christian, Christians are killed from accidents and mishaps just as the non-Christian is.

However observing the responses from the prayer meeting and the request to God that a fellow believer die well, is it possible that us Christians in the west also don’t deal with dying well?

Why is this the case? Here are thoughts I have:

We imbibe this world– We all know the story about the frog in the pot – the theory goes that if you place a frog in boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if you place a frog in warm water and slowly bring it to the boil it will die. The reason is that the frog does is so immersed in the warmth of the water and comfortable it does notice the changes, changes that will lead to its demise. We live in the pot of this world, and swim in the water of our culture, we feel the pull and currents of the various loves, passions, pleasures and morés of our culture. And therein lies the danger, if we are not discerning, if we don’t critique our world in light of the Scriptures, we don’t notice that we change with the culture, we become like our culture and we like our culture…and we dislike those things our culture dislikes…things such as death, the use of the D word, so we end up ignoring death also, not thinking about it and become offended when a fellow Christian prays for that another Christian will die well.

Our grip on this world is too tight – There is Christian singer named Colin Buchanan. He writes very funny and entertaining songs for children, but they are songs that are packed with the Scriptures and good theology. In one of the songs the chorus goes: “Passing through, passing through, on the way to heaven. Don’t let this old world get its group on you. God’s children are only passing through”. Although I agree with Colin, perhaps one of the reasons we baulk at thinking about what it means to die well, is because we grip onto the world so tightly that we see Heaven as the consolation prize, and this life is the main thing and as a result don’t see as ourselves as temporary residents on this world.

We are vague about what happens when we die – We tell our children that when we die we go to Heaven. Which of course is right and proper, but as adults we become vague on the details. We don’t notice what the Scriptures says about Hades/the place of interval, we don’t think about the fact that Heaven is our final destination, that Heaven will be on a redeemed earth where our bodies and spirits are reunited into a perfect resurrected body. We don’t think about the end times, and perhaps have a panmillenial approach to Jesus’ return (i.e “Who cares about the details, God has it sorted, it will all pan out in the end”). Vagueness I think can lead to uncertainty, which can lead to doubt, which can turn into fear, a fear that feeds our culture’s fear of death, of talking about death, which prevents us from dying well.

Compartmentalisation – So we compartmentalise dying from our thoughts, and heaven, we reserve heaven to being that place we go to when we die (which hopefully will not happen for a very very very very long time), so I can get on with living my life now, enjoying my family, church, work, etc now.

So what does it mean to die well?

Dying well means dying:

Full of faith – Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. (Heb 1:1). The Christian’s faith is not an empty faith, not wishful thinking, but is a faith based on real promises, fulfilled in the real death and real resurrection  of the real saviour the Lord Jesus Christ, who has conquered the death and is preparing the place for us that we can never prepare for ourselves (John 14:1-6). This same Jesus who is the first fruits of the resurrection, who will then in turn resurrect our bodies when he begins his millennial reign! (1 Corinthians 15:20-24). Of course, like the rest of humanity, I do not know when and how I will die, but I do know that I want to be full of this sort of faith when I do, and it is my prayer that I will.

Full of thanksgiving – There is always something about living in this world that leaves us unsatisfied, it does not matter how much money we have, or have had, how successful we have been in our career, or in our families, or our marriage. There is something about living in this world that leaves us wanting it – it…that something more….that something that will satisfy us perfectly and permanently…that it, is the world that we are made for. We will never be fully at home in this world. Our world is a pale reflection of what is waiting for us.  The author C. S Lewis knew this about the human condition and wrote these words:

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” 

Why do we not feel at home here? It is because Heaven is our ultimate destination. We are made by God and for God, and to abide with God. We have an eternal longing for our eternal home. C.S Lewis also wrote:

 “Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Of if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures?                                                                                                                  

The Church Father Augustine knew well that all of us are made for God and he wrotes these words:

 “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”                                                                                               

So our most profound fulfilment, completion and joy cannot be found on this world. Each day of life is one day closer to that most profound fulfilment, completion and joy and all this because the grace of God found in the Lord Jesus, that he has redeemed us, justified us. This is something that should fill us with thanksgiving! Dying often gives opportunity to reflect back on one’s life. There are many things that the Christian can be thankful to God for, not only our salvation, but for family, for those who brought us to Christ, for opportunities to tell others of Christ, for all the good gifts that God gave us for our enjoyment in this life.

Full of Prayer – Dying is the final time God’s people have to speak with God through the eyes of faith, that is to speak with him before we see him. I like to think that dying well means dying with a prayerful heart. Thanking God, praising God, asking for forgiveness for leaving undone those things in our lives that we out to have done, and for things we have done that ought not to have done. Committing to God those we are leaving behind, praying for unbelievers that we know, perhaps even hospital staff (if that is we are when we are dying).

Full of excitement – Each day of life brings us closer to being with the Lord Jesus where we will no longer battle with temptation, with sin, the world, the flesh and the devil. The act of dying brings this reality home for us. We have nearly arrived. When we die we will be the Lord, and although not in body (that will happen when He returns). But we will be with the Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy beautiful fellowship with him and all of God’s people, including all those great saints of the past and Christians whom we have known and loved who are already there. We will be with Abraham (Luke 16) – we will meet all the people of faith, including the Apostle Paul. For this is the King’s garden party. Angels will also be there. If you die alone, or unwanted or uncared for, or in a tragic accident, God has his angels waiting for you on the other side to care for us! It is wonderful! (Luke 16:22). This is why Paul says, he longs to depart. We will be with Jesus the moment we die. What the Lord Jesus said to the thief on the cross ,“Today you will be with me in paradise”, will be our experience too! And while we are there, we will have that indescribable expectation of knowing that there is even better still to come, when the Lord Jesus will resurrect our bodies at his return and we will meet all God’s people in the air as Christ begins his reign. This is something to be excited about!

So how can we die this way, full of faith, thanksgiving, prayer and excitement – to die well?

Pray – Pray that God by his Holy Spirit will enable us to die well. Contrary to popular belief, dying is not natural. We are not meant to die. The separation of our souls from our bodies is not natural. Physical death is due to sin and no human being is shielded from sin’s physical consequences. So it makes sense I think to conclude that if dying is not natural then dying well is not humanly possible. It is not a human trait. But the good news is that the ability to die well is a divine quality. We can die well, because of the presence, power and enabling of the Holy Spirit, who remember indwells us and is a guarantee of what is coming!

Walk with the Lord – Read God’s Word, really read it, inwardly digest it, cherish it, make it the normal part of your life, so much so that a day without reading God’s Word feels like a very weird and strange and odd day. Pray, (I know I just mentioned this above), but pray daily in your life. I use the BCP daily, and I like to think that if God’ grants me long life, yet I lose my memory, that I will still remember the wonderful prayers of Cranmer and will pray the prayers of Cranmer! Walk with the Lord, praying that your life will be one that is full of faith, thanksgiving, prayer and excitement.

I have heard many people who work with the dying say that people often die the way they have lived. So for the Christian, if one lives well (as the God defines living well), they will most likely die well and I think that is the heart of it.

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What Happens When We Die?

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One of the many strengths of the Anglican Church (which is the denomination in which I belong to) is that it is creedal, or another way of putting it, it is confessional. Each week Anglican churches state what they believe by saying together one of two creeds, The Nicene Creed, and the Apostle’s Creed.

The Apostle’s Creed came to us in the 3rd century, the earliest from 215AD and it contains doctrines which can be traced to statements that were current in the time of the Apostles. Most Christian denominations have come to use the Apostles Creed as a statement of Biblical orthodoxy.

But I wonder if many Christians don’t really know what to make of the line in the creed which states (about Jesus Christ):

‘Was crucified died and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose from the dead;

he ascended into heaven,

At face value, it appears that the intention of this clause in the creed is to say that when Jesus died, he really did die. But since Jesus did die, where did he go? All Christians agree that Jesus went to heaven after he rose from the dead. But where did he go when he died? Where was he in that interval period between his death and resurrection?

To my limited knowledge there appears to be three views regarding what happened to Jesus during this interval period:

View 1 – Jesus descended into Hell after he died – “as it was necessary for Christ to suffer the full extent of human punishment for sin, which he would not have done if he had not gone to the place of eternal punishment”. (Gordan Bray, The Faith We Confess, p.29).

View 2 – Jesus went to Heaven at death but experienced Hell on the cross – as he bore the full brunt of God’s wrath for sin. So he went to Hell at the cross in a sense and at death Jesus went to Heaven. (This is the view of the great Reformer John Calvin – Institutes, II.xvi.10).

View 3 – Jesus did not descend into Hell nor ascend to Heaven after he died – but went to a place of interval, that is the place of departed spirits.

For many years I used to hold to the second view and strongly rejected the first for two reasons:

  • If Christ had to endure eternal punishment beyond death then his words, “It is finished” (which in the Greek is one word), are incorrect and Jesus work on the cross was actually ‘unfinished’ or ‘not quite finished”.
  • If Jesus did upon death immediately enter Hell then his promise to the criminal in Luke 23:43 was not true.

 What about the third view?

Well…to be honest, it was a view that simply did not enter my mind. The only time I can remember having a conversation about this view was when I was invited to a Rotary Dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in Hunters Hill in Sydney in year 12 (back in 1992). I do not remember how the conversation started, all I remember is that I was speaking with an elderly Anglican Christian brother about what happens when we die and he told me that at death Jesus went to some place called Hades (pronounced Hay-deez) and this meant “place of waiting”, or place of interval. Mentally I arrogantly wrote him off as a misguided wannabe Roman Catholic who was trying to teach me that there was a placed called Purgatory and so this view was not one that I visited again for a very very long time.

However this conversation has come back to visit me again in that I have children who like to ask me deep theological questions as I put them to bed:

“DADDY, WHY IN THE APOSTLES CREED DO WE SAY THAT WE BELIEVE THAT JESUS DESCENDED TO THE WORLD OF THE DEAD AND THAT HE WENT TO HEAVEN AFTER HE ROSE FROM THE DEAD?” “

“WHAT IS THE WORLD OF THE DEAD DAD , IS THAT HEAVEN OR HELL, OR IS IT SOMEWHERE DIFFERENT”?

I also had niggling questions of my own, that had a habit of coming back to visit me too. Questions such as:

If Jesus experienced Hell on the cross when he drunk the cup of God’s Wrath…

  • Does this mean Jesus went to Heaven twice; firstly after he died, and then again when he ascended into heaven?
  • How could Jesus have preached to those spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18-20) if he went to heaven when he died?
  • Why does the Apostle Creed say that after Jesus died he descended to Hades? [It is important to note that in its original version the Apostles Creed states that Jesus descended to Hades, not hell and some churches have correctly noted this and have altered the Creed at this point to read “He descended to the world of the dead”]
  • Why does the Apostles Creed say that Jesus only ascended into Heaven after he bodily resurrected?

It seems that the comment from that elderly Anglican Christian dinner twenty-three years ago is a comment that refused to go away. Another question that also refused to go away was a question that is linked to the question, “Where Did Jesus go when he died?” is the question:

WHERE DO WE GO WHEN WE DIE?

In my humble view I think there are three different views:

View 1 – “When we die, we go to heaven”. This is the most common response and most likely because it is the simplest response. It is the response we tell small children in kids talks, and in kids church and to our own children when they were small. And of course it is true. However, there are two things that are very important to consider:

  1. Heaven is ultimate final destination of the Christian; it is the place where Christians will be when they are bodily resurrected, when the body & spirit are reunited again, in the place that Jesus has prepared for us (John 14:1-6) .This is what is understood by the term resurrection and Christians believe this because Jesus is our model.
  2. This resurrection, this coming together of body and spirit again will only occur when the Lord Jesus returns.

The problem with the first view, although it is true, it is only true in a sense. In modern Christian circles today, the term Heaven has become short hand to mean something other than our final destination. It also fails to take into account that when Jesus died there was an interval between his death and resurrection, between the separation of his body & his spirit, and their coming together again (which happened when he rose from the dead on the third day). We know this to be the case because from Friday afternoon to Sunday Morning, Jesus’s body was in the tomb. The amount of time the Lord Jesus spent in this place of interval was short but an interval none the less.

View 2 – “When we die we enter into soul sleep”. This view states that when we die, we are in a sense asleep and ‘wake up’ when Christ returns. This view states that there is no place of interval between death and resurrection. The view can be expressed like this:

Take Bill, he is a 93 year old Christian man who dies sometime in the year 2017. His granddaughter Nina is 23, who is also a Christian. She dies at the age of 93 in the year 2087, 70 years after Bill. For us who are alive on earth, both of them are asleep in Christ and will ‘wake up’ on resurrection day when Christ returns, but from their point of view there is no interval and both of them arrive in Heaven at the same time, (which according to this view is the time when Jesus returns). This is buttressed by comments such as “Well God is outside of linear time, so time is not a factor to consider when we Christians die”.)

Although this view seems more common, it has no Scriptural support and it fails to take into account the Bible’s teaching that says that spirits of those who have died are alert and aware of their surroundings and are not soul sleeping (i.e. Luke 16:19-30; Rev 6:9-11 just to name two references). The transfiguration of our Lord Jesus is also a good case in point (Luke 9:30-31). On the mountain of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Christ regarding his impending death in Jerusalem. These Old Testament figures certainly were not in a state of “soul sleep”. It also arises from the misunderstanding of the NT word that is used to refer to the death of Christians, which is the word for “sleep” (Greek ‘koimao’). The word is found 18 times and while the word does on occasion mean natural normal sleep (see Mt. 28:13; Lk. 22:45), however predominately (15 of the 18 times) this word is used figuratively for death of the righteous (1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thes. 4:13-15) and lies in contrast with the death of the unrighteous in which a different word is used  Historically this is why in the Western world burial grounds are called Cemeteries as the word Cemetery comes from this Greek word and it means ‘place of rest’, but it is the body that is deemed to be at ‘rest’ (figuratively speaking) in the ground awaiting the return of Christ when it will be made imperishable, not the soul.Finally this view fails to take into account the example and model of the Lord Jesus, when he died, his soul did not sleep. (See further down – The Second Clue)

View 3 – “When we die we go the place of interval”.

Although perhaps this view may seem rather novel to 21st Century Evangelical Christians, historically Christians have always known that there is an interval between a Christian’s death and bodily resurrection, that long or short (depending on the time between the Christians’ death and Christ’ return) there will be an interval during which we will be disembodied spirits, just as Jesus was between his death and resurrection (remember he is our model) and when Christ returns, our spirits and bodies will be brought together again, (see 1 Thess.4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:12-49).

The Lord Jesus also used a term to refer to this place of interval and the word that he uses is the word that I mentioned earlier, the word that was in the Apostles Creed, the word ‘Hades’. It is the word that Jesus uses in Luke 16:23 in the account of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Yet most of our translations of the Bible translate the word as ‘Hell’ and have inserted a footnote suggesting that Hell and Hades two words that mean the same thing. However they cannot be the same place for Jesus deliberately uses a different word that we translate as the word Hell and it is the final destination where unbelievers go when they are bodily resurrected, to the place that has been prepared for the Devil and his angels (Matt 25:31-45). Hades should not be confused with Hell.

Also it is important to mention that Hades is not Pergatory. Pergatory is a man made invention, a place where a person is cleansed from their sins in order to make them acceptable to be in God’s presence. Hades is the term that simply means place of departed spirits, the place between death and physical resurrection, the place of interval, the place where our Lord Jesus went during the time between his death and physical resurrection from the grave on the third day.

The First Clue – Luke 23:42-43.

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The first clue comes in what Jesus said to the dying criminal on the cross (Luke 23:42-43). The criminal said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Jesus answered,

“TRULY I SAY TO YOU, TODAY YOU WILL BE IN PARADISE WITH ME.”

In his life Jesus was very deliberate in the use of his words, he used words that had very specific meanings to the people he was talking with. On the cross, Jesus did not promise the criminal who acknowledged him as Lord that he would be with him in heaven. (Remember Heaven refers to the place where the righteous will go after they have been bodily resurrected at the return of the Lord Jesus). I used to think for many years that Jesus’ use of the word paradise was of no significance due to the word paradise being synonymous for Heaven (just as I thought Hades was a synonym for Hell.) However Jesus’ use of the word ‘paradise’ was deliberate and it meant something very specific to Jewish ears.

‘Paradise’ in the Bible days was a term used to refer to the King’s garden. It is used in referring to the Garden of Eden, of the Garden city at the end of the Bible. Paradise in the Bible refers to the garden of the King. This is not the palace of the King, it is not the Father’s house, it is not the place of many rooms that the Lord Jesus talks about in John 14[2]. Jesus is saying to the criminal in a sense, “I am not taking you to the Father’s house today, but I will take you into the king’s garden and I can do that today and we will be there together.

This tells us that the interval is much nearer to Heaven[3] than what we can ever be on earth. Paradise will be far better than anything we have experienced in this life because we are walking in the unimaginably close, intimate personal presence of the King of Kings. But it is not our final state! There is even more to come!

The Second Clue – 1 Peter 3:18-20a

In days gone by and in some places today a palace not only has a garden where the imagesKing walks with his friends but also has a dungeon, a cell that is not in the palace itself, it is a prison. In the NT there are hints, that in the place of interval there is not only a garden of wonderful delight, walking with the master, but also a prison, a place of separation. Perhaps one of the most perplexing statements

 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed  to the spirits in prison, 20 because they did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared,

The Apostle Peter tells us that the Lord Jesus was made alive in the Spirit at his death (so no soul sleep); he tells us which spirits the Lord Jesus preached (or perhaps declared his victory to); those who were drowned in the flood of Noah. Jesus did this between his death and resurrection. And notice the Spirits are in prison, not in the garden.

The Third Clue – Luke 16:19-31

The-Parable-Of-The-Rich-Man-And-LazarusIn this well known parable from Jesus often entitled The Rich Man & Lazarus’,  we see that at death there is a place of segregation, where the unrighteous are shut off and shut out. This segregation and separation from Almighty God (and from God’s people) is the worst kind of segregation. There is also suffer

In this place of interval there will be suffering for those who are in the place of separation. What kind of suffering? We don’t really know, but we do know that there will be mental suffering because the memories of those who have died will be active. And regret will be one of the most awful things unbelievers will have to bear. The regret of knowing that the life they have known on earth is over and that there is no altering of one’s choices and no comfort of any sort. This certainly seems to be the experience of the rich man in Luke 16. So in this place of interval, that Jesus calls Hades, there will be two different environments, a prison and a garden.

The Prison – What we know?

  • One cannot go back from this prison to life on earth.
  • One cannot go from the prison to the garden to walk with the master.
  • One is completely aware of their condition and their surroundings – there is no soul sleep.
  • It is a place of segregation and separation – from God and from God’s people
  • It is a place of suffering for those who are there and they are given no comfort. it will be a place of regret and anguish, with no hope of any kind.
  • It is not a permanent or final stage of existence.

 The Garden – What do we know?

  • We will be very much awake in paradise. There is no soul sleep
  • We will be with the Lord Jesus Christ! And enjoy beautiful fellowship with him and all of God’s people.
  • We will be with Abraham (Luke 16) – we will meet all the people of the Faith. For this is the King’s garden party. Angels will also be there.
  • If you die alone, or unwanted or uncared for, or in a tragic accident, God has his angels waiting for you on the other side to care for us! It is wonderful! No wonder the Apostle Paul says he longs to depart and be with Christ which is better by far. (Philippians 1:23
  • We will be with Jesus in that place of Interval the moment that we die. Just as Jesus promised the man on on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
  • It is not a permanent or final stage of existence.

Summing Up

When Jesus died he went to the world of the dead, the place of departed spirits. In this place there are those are enjoying paradise with the King, but there are also those who are in prison. Both environments exist in this place of waiting, or place of interval where all the dead await their resurrection bodies that are fitting for their ultimate destination. Either God’s mansion (that Jesus promises that he will prepare for us – John 14:1-6), or into the place that is prepared for the Devil and his angels which the Bible calls Hell.

So if you think of the process of death and dying in these Biblical terms, you will realise that for those who are trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, Paradise will be far better than anything we have experienced in this life because we are walking in the unimaginably close, intimate personal presence of the King of Kings. It sounds inexpressibly wonderful doesn’t it? And it only gets better!

Post Script:

I am very thankful to God for my four children and their hard questions. I am very thankful to the work done on this subject by Bishop Julian Dobbs[3], Bishop Derek Eaton[4], and for that twenty three year old conversation that refused to go away.

References:

[1] When Jesus talks about the his Father’s house with many rooms, he is not talking about the interval after death, but to a distant future, because he says that he will come back to take [us] to be with him, “that you may also be where I am”. (See John 14:1-4)

[2] At the risk of being repetitive, Heaven is the place where the righteous will go after they have been bodily resurrected at the return of the Lord Jesus.

[3] The Right Rev Julian Dobbs  who is Reformed Evangelical Anglican Bishop of the Missionary Diocese of CANA East, (which is one of four missionary dioceses in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America) in 2015 presented some online Bible studies  Studies entitled What Happens When you Die, and one of those talks was on Hades. It can be listened to here.

[4] The Rev Derek Eatonis a retired New Zealand Anglican bishop. He was the 9th Anglican Bishop of Nelson, from 1990 to 2006. After 16 years as Bishop of Nelson, Eaton returned to Africa to become assistant bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt. Since returning to New Zealand from Africa in January 2009, Eaton and his wife have been chaplains to Bishopdale Theological College.