Don’t speak ill of the dead. It’s good advice. It’s also advice that’s more theologically accurate than some things that have been written in the days following the death of the great evangelist Billy Graham. The dead are, after all, a real category of people.
The following quote was posted on The Gospel Coalition website with links to some of the reaction to Graham’s death.
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
The quote went viral, for a time being posted every 15-minutes on Twitter (apparently) by all kinds of people. It’s been pointed out that the quote actually originated with 19th-century evanglist DL Moody, and that Billy Graham himself did re-appropriate it, which ought not to be a surprise. The quote seems defiant about death – it’s easy to see why it appeals. But, the quote doesn’t, to my mind at least, actually reflect a biblical view of life, death, and salvation.
I write with great respect for Billy Graham and mindful of some of the ridiculous criticism of him that has appeared over the years. I’m thankful for Graham, for his matchless impact on so many people during his years of ministering the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose materials I’ve used in my own ministry. Even in his later years when his strength was failing, you couldn’t help but be impressed with his passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, to take issue with a single quote is just a small thing – and I don’t want to be speaking ill of anyone. But, the quote going viral has really got me thinking (not for the first time) about how we speak about death – and what we believe about death.
It’s a stark reality that, after so many years of life and service, Billy Graham, like DL Moody (and contra their shared quote), is dead. Those who have died are dead.
Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s not to say that the dead are not existing in some way (that’s why they can be called ‘the dead’). Neither is it to say that they’re not in the presence of God in some sense – I don’t have a problem with that part of the Graham/Moody quote. But it is to say that, according to biblical categories of understanding human existence, they are dead. They are not living, and certainly not ‘more alive’.
[As an aside, whilst writing this I recalled a very powerful sermon almost 20 years ago by evangelist Mike Mellor. He mentioned some of the great Christian preachers of the past, followed by a reminder (in loud and abrupt tones) that they are no longer around… George Whitfield? He’s dead!… John Wesley? He’s dead! Mike Mellor’s point was that for all the talk about these heroes of the faith, we need heroes for our own day. Anyway, I commend Mike on his robust theology of life and death!]
Jesus and the apostles speak consistently about God’s answer to death in the Gospel: ‘resurrection from the dead’ (e.g. Luke 20:35), or the ‘resurrection of the dead’ (e.g. Matt 22:31). Resurrection is either from the dead (the Greek preposition carries the idea of out from among the dead) or it’s of those who are dead (literally, the dead ones, who receive resurrection). Either way, resurrection is God’s action to bring those who have died back to material life. The idea is so familiar in the New Testament that I don’t think I have to list all of the data here.
The resurrection of Jesus is at the centre of the proclamation of the apostles. For them, Jesus has been raised from the dead (e.g. Acts 3:15). Again, a lot of data. God has, according to Peter in his Pentecost sermon, not allowed the Messiah to remain in Hades (the grave, or the realm of the dead – a point made through the recollection of Psalm 16).
At the return of Jesus Christ it is, according to Paul, the dead in Christ that will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). Those who are alive will meet him at his return (1 Thess 4:17). There are clearly two categories of people here: those who are ‘alive’ are physically alive, not people who have died. People who have died are ‘the dead’. It’s obvious really – but, astonishingly, it needs spelling out.
At the return of Christ, it’s the dead who will be ‘made alive’ – that’s clearly Paul’s understanding of resurrection (1 Cor 15:22). Jesus Christ assumes the role, at his return, of life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45) bringing the dead to life (Paul draws here a striking analogy with God breathing into the nostrils of the cold corpse of Adam in the Genesis account). God is the God of the living (Matt 22:32), and that’s why he raises the dead (2 Cor 1:9).
The New Testament data clearly demonstrate that it is people who have died (Paul sometimes uses the metaphor of ‘falling asleep’ or ‘sleeping’) who are categorised as dead, and that these will remain dead (in a state of death, you might say) until the appearing of Jesus Christ.
For those, like me, in the Presbyterian tradition, it’s good to know that the Westminster Confession shows the usual clarity in its own use of categories at this point:
At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever. WCF 32.2
So, given the data (and I’ve only just given the quickest of summaries), why do we persist in explaining away, denying, or remaining silent about the abiding reality of death? Why do we want to convince ourselves that someone who’s died is, in the words of DL Moody, more alive than ever? I’m not sure about the whole answer to that. In part, it’s the influence of Platonism in Greek philosophy, through mediaeval Thomist theology, through to modern Roman Catholic and some baptist theologies – where there is still the idea that this world is a transient state of affairs after which we attain a different level of existence. In part, it reflects present-day folk beliefs in the afterlife, and a refusal to accept our creatureliness. In part, it reflects the totally-understandable desire to avoid the reality of death. In the Reformed tradition it’s a result of the influence of Pietistic dualism. And, I also think that our misunderstandings of death are in some way the mirror image of our misunderstandings of life and what it means to be human.
Anyhow, you can see clearly this kind of view in the Christianity Today article that I’ve already linked to:
When it comes down to it, this quote is a 19th century (and later 20th century) paraphrase of … Paul’s characterization of death in 1 Corinthians 15:54: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
I entirely disagree with this mis-exegesis. Paul is quite clearly referring in this passage to a future event (‘the saying…will come true’). The consistent position in 1 Corinthians 15 is that the dead will be made alive at the return of Jesus Christ. That’s when death will be swallowed up in victory.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:22-26 ESV, my emphasis).
The New Testament is starkly open about the problem of death. It doesn’t describe it as life, or as being more alive. Paul softens things a little with his language of being asleep. But neither Jesus, the apostles, or the other authors flinch from it. It is a problem; it’s a problem answered in the person and work of Jesus Christ; yet, it is a problem that awaits its ultimate and glorious final answer. The dead remain dead until the parousia of Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will the final enemy be defeated, and those in the grave will hear his voice. And the dead will be raised to life.
George Whitfield, DL Moody, Billy Graham and a vast number of women and men will, in that day, be more alive than they’ve ever been. Mortality will then be clothed with immortality. That is the bliblical Christian hope, and it’s much more hopeful, life-affirming and glorious than belief in a ‘spiritual’ afterlife.