Is Billy Graham Dead?


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.

If a few people really believed this…

On Easter Sunday, as on most days at the moment, I finished the day reading something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sometimes, Bonhoeffer is dynamite! Christians often speak about ‘dying well’. They often quote someone (I can’t remember who) who apparently said about Christians: ‘our people die well.’ Or something.
It seems unimportant after reading Bonhoeffer’s critique that Christians wrongly think more about the problem of dying than about the problem of death. He writes, ‘How we deal with dying is more important to us than how we conquer death’ (I Want to Live these Days with You, 111). I’d tend to agree. He points out that we are thinking about the wrong thing: Socrates overcame dying, whereas Christ overcame death. Then come these words, which struck me and quickened my pulse, coming as they did a day after I’d posted my last blog post.

Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means. Ibid.

Bonhoeffer speculates that a time will come when the ‘resolving and liberating’ word of resurrection will be heard in the midst of so much confusion. In this Easter season, my prayer is that the time has arrived for the word of resurrection to be heard afresh in the Church.

More Gates of Hades

styxFurther to my previous post on interpreting Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18b, I’ve come across a Greek inscription which seems to add support my view. Jesus’ words to Peter express the hope of resurrection, that death cannot stand in the way of Jesus’ building of his church:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18

The ‘gates of Hades’ is a mythic image of a barrier between the underworld and the land of the living. The Gates of Hades prevent the dead from returning. The image represents the irreversible power of death. However, Jesus’ words express his confidence that death will not prevent God’s purpose for a redeemed people (the ekklesia of Jesus), living in a redeemed world from being accomplished.

The Greek inscription that adds weight to my interpretation appears to be anti-Christian polemic from the early years of the Church (Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs, 75). It expresses the common ancient view that death is the end – there can be no return to the realm of the living – and paints the Christian hope of resurrection as a fantasy.

This, friends, is it. For what more could come afterward. Not even this remains. For it is the stone and stele that tell you all this, not I. The gates are here, and the trodden ways to Hades by which none can come back to the light. But all pitiful wretches (long) for resurrection.

The important point is that, again, gates are portrayed as preventing a return to life for the dead. Perhaps just as important is that here in this inscription, the imagery is linked specifically with the hope of resurrection. It’s the same imagery that is found in Homer and in the Sibylline Oracles. This is the imagery that Jesus employs: the power of death over the bodies of the deceased will be broken. The grave will not overpower the Church.

A few important points can be briefly made:

  • Matthew has Jesus speaking of Hades, not hell. It’s most likely (despite the word play on Πέτρος/πέτρα) that Jesus speaks in Aramaic here, so the Greek word Hades (ᾅδης) is a translation of Aramaic. Hades therefore represents the Hebrew view of Sheol as the grave, the destination of the dead. Jesus is not referring to a place of eternal punishment here. Translations of Hades as hell often lead to confusion.
  • This emphasis on the necessity of the defeat of death through resurrection reminds us that the Church, the ekklesia of Jesus, is not merely something for this life, an organisational necessity whilst we wait for salvation. The ekklesia is the People of God, an entity destined for a new earth.
  • The ekklesia of Jesus is not merely a spiritual reality, but a physical reality (this dichotomy is not very helpful, but it’s how most Christians tend to think). The human being as human being (body and soul) is the object of God’s redemption.
  • The ekklesia of Jesus is finally an eschatological reality. God’s people are not destined for a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven, but a salvation that involves the redemption of the human body. Membership of the ekklesia is mediated through the sensory experience of the human body. Death interrupts this. Only at resurrection do we take our place finally and fully in the ekklesia of Jesus.
  • All this has implications for ecclesiology and offers a cogent challenge to the Protestant concept of the invisible church (and the related idea of a spiritual, as opposed to visible, unity). Can there be such a thing?

The Gates of Hades


In Homer’s Iliad at 8.13 we find the following, on the lips of Zeus:

Or seizing him I will hurl him into misty Tartarus, very far, where is the deepest gulf below earth; there are iron gates and brazen threshold, as far beneath Hades as sky is from earth.

Zeus speaks of the gates of Tartarus, far below Hades. The idea seems to be that there can be no escape from Tartarus – there is no way back to Hades, let alone the heavens (for it is other gods that Zeus threatens to cast down). Tartarus was part of a specifically Greek conception of the underworld. As an interesting aside, Tartarus is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4, not as the destination for troublesome gods as in the Iliad, but as the destination for fallen angels. However, that must remain an aside.

Homer has Zeus speaking of gates in the underworld. We find the same theme in the words of Jesus, spoken to Peter:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18

Jesus speaks of the ‘gates of Hades’. The expression is found in the Old Testament and in other Jewish literature (e.g. Job 38:17; Ps 9:13; 107:18; Is 38:10; Wis 16:13; 3 Macc 5:51; Ps Sol 16:2). However, in these cases the ‘gates of Hades’ is the threshold of the realm of the dead (associated with crossing that threshold in death, or in almost crossing it in a near-death experience). In the saying of Jesus in Matthew 16:18, we find the idea of gates overpowering or prevailing. Interpreters tend to find this puzzling, since in the ancient Near East city gates were a defensive, rather than an offensive, feature. However, in the Sibylline Oracles we find imagery that seems to reflect both Homer and the words of Jesus. The context is the resurrection of the dead:

But when the immortal God’s eternal angels Arakiel, Ramiel, Uriel, Samiel, and Azael…will from dark gloom then lead to judgment all the souls of men before the judgment-seat of the great God…then the heavenly One give souls and spirit and voice, to them that dwell beneath and also bones fitted with joints unto all kinds of flesh, And both the flesh and sinews, veins and skin about the body, and hair as before; divinely fashioned and with breathing moved will bodies of those on earth one day be raised. Sib Or 2:214-226

The Oracle goes on,

And then will Uriel, mighty angel, break the bolts of stern and lasting adamant which, monstrous, hold the brazen gates of Hades, straight cast them down, and unto judgment lead all forms that have endured much suffering. Sib Or 2:227-230

In the Iliad, the gates of Tartarus prevent escape. In the Sibylline Oracles above, the gates of Hades are broken down in order to release the dead for judgement. The emphasis in the Oracle is clearly on the raising of the bodies of the dead. Those who are raised include Old Testament saints such as Moses, those killed in the flood, as well as Titans and giants (2.231-248)! Although the late date of the Sibylline Oracles places them after Jesus’s words, the emphasis on gates preventing the dead from being raised reflects the much earlier Homeric portrait in the Iliad of gates preventing the cast-down gods from returning to Olympus.

So, it seems to me that Matthew 16:18 is not really about evil powers frustrating the work of the church in the here and now (the most common interpretation of the verse), but about the victory of God’s people over death through resurrection. Jesus is building God’s new humanity, the church, as a people who will live human lives as human beings, body and soul. The church is a people destined for new life in a new earth. The reality of death will not defeat this purpose. Jesus, when he speaks these words to Peter, voices his mission: he has come to defeat death and to raise the dead – to save people body and soul. He rises from the dead to eternal life – and God’s people too will rise from the dead to eternal life. The fact that no-one has returned from Hades when Jesus speaks these words is about to be over-turned on the first Easter Sunday!

Our Over-Realised Eschatology

graveyard3Why don’t so many Christians functionally believe in resurrection? I say functionally, because if you ask these same people if they believe in resurrection, they would answer ‘yes, of course’. But the language they use about death and salvation betrays the fact that the doctrine plays no real part in their conception of salvation.

What language do I mean? When Christians talk about death as ‘going to heaven to be with Jesus for ever’, this is a functional absence of a doctrine of resurrection. When Christians say of a saint who has died that ‘they are now in glory (or crowned with glory)’, this also betrays the same functional absence. When a deceased Christian is described as ‘enjoying the blessings of eternity in heaven’, I see the same problem. There are so many Christian clichés about death that reflect an un-Christian conception of salvation. They are spoken in our churches and sung in our hymns and songs.

The apostle Paul, for one, wouldn’t recognise these clichés. Note his words….

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you…. the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodyRom 8:11,22-23

Glory is not received when we die, but when we are raised. Resurrection life, not heaven, is our great hope. It’s the same with salvation. So much of our talk is about the salvation of the soul, or of our ‘completed sanctification’ upon death. Our salvation (our full adoption) is not completed when we die, but when we are raised. Salvation is not simply of the soul (however you want to understand that), but of the body. Christian salvation is salvation of the whole person. It’s not just Paul who would argue with these common clichés. The author to the Hebrews is clear that those who died before the appearance of Jesus the Messiah did not receive what was promised.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40

No-one who dies will be ‘made perfect’, i.e. receive salvation, before anyone else. Because being ‘made perfect’ happens at the resurrection. The apostle Peter gives the same outlook…

Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ….  1 Peter 1:13

When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory…. 1 Peter 5:4

Focussing on death and ‘heaven’ is the wrong focus. The apostolic focus is on the return of Jesus and the grace to be brought to us in our salvation in resurrection. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the incomplete salvation that is in heaven:

The souls of the righteous…[are] waiting for the full redemption of their bodies…. WCF Chapter 32

If Paul himself had written the WCF (now there’s a thought!!), I think he would have written ‘waiting for full redemption, the redemption of their bodies’, which would be much better. According to the WCF, the souls of the righteous are waiting for something. Their salvation is not complete.

Biblical scholars interpreting the Corinthian letters sometimes propose that the reason why some of the people in the church at Corinth denied the resurrection was that they held an ‘over-realised’ eschatology. That is to say, they thought that the benefits of ‘resurrection’ were enjoyed in this present life, not in the next life. For them, there was no ‘next life’. We read about two guys who held a similar view in 2 Tim 2.17-18. Now, I don’t happen to believe that was among the main problems at Corinth. However, it is a problem in the Church today. So many Christians have an over-realised eschatology. Not over-realised in this life, but in ‘heaven’, by which people expect the full glory of salvation to be realised at death in a bodiless existence of the soul in a spiritual realm. I’m not certain that there will be such an experience, but if there is, it’s definitely not Glory, and it’s definitely not Salvation. ‘Heaven’ is not ‘the next life’. Because it is not ‘life’; it is existing in a state of ‘death’. That’s not salvation – at least it’s not Christian salvation. It’s salvation if you are a follower of some of the Eastern religions, or if you are a Gnostic (a heresy the Church has struggled to shake off), but it’s not Christian. And yet, functionally, it’s what so many Christians believe.

Whatever happened to the doctrine of resurrection? If Christ has been raised, why do some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

φθορα and Creation

phthora1A few days ago, on The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4), there was a discussion on biological ageing. Professor Jim Al-Khalili said this:

Ageing is one of the biggest mysteries in science. We still don’t understand what makes our bodies age.

He was interviewing Linda Partridge who has conducted work on fruit flies and other simple organisms to try to understand the genetic basis for the ageing process. In the course of the programme, she highlighted the fact that ageing is an extraordinarily complicated process and yet, as she explained, it is a process that is seen in all organisms in a surprisingly similar way.

Many mechanisms are extraordinarily similar…You can take a human gene and place it in a yeast cell and it works extraordinarily well.

This fact highlights to me again the connection between humans and the rest of the creation. Often, in interpreting Genesis 1, the emphasis is placed on humans as separate from the rest of creation, due to men and women being made ‘as the image of God’, without any balance provided from the fact that humans are made ‘from the earth’ in the same way as other life. They are also the product of the same creative impetus that gives rise to the rest of the cosmos. Humans belong within the cosmos. Humans belong with other creatures. The incredible connection between humans and other life is seen in the functioning of human genes in yeast cells and in the fact that 80% of genes in mice and humans are like-for-like. When you consider only classes of genes, then humans and mice are 99% similar. The uniqueness of humans doesn’t consist in our being made of a different ‘stuff’ to other life.

When it comes to ageing, we also share this with other life. Ageing is part of the natural processes that are seen in the Genesis narrative even before the Fall of humanity. Plants are created with seed, so that they can reproduce fruit and other plants. The cycle of the seasons, where life ebbs and flows is part of the created cosmos. The cycle of life and death amongst animals is eulogised as part of the glory of God’s works (indeed, of the glory of God himself) in Psalm 104:27-30. And yet, Genesis 1 is clear: death is not God’s intention for humans. The Tree of Life in the garden represents God’s design for human life uninterrupted by death. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the way to that Tree is forbidden.  John Walton points out in his commentary on Genesis that the processes of ageing are fundamental to the human body itself, with skin being a product of the ageing process in cells. But he sees in the Tree of Life the presence of something only available to humans, something which counters the process of ageing and death which is present in all life – something that rejuvenates and restores. The idea to be derived from Genesis 1-3 is that the ageing process is part of the created order, operating in all creatures, including humans, but that in humans God’s design is for an on-going renewal of human life that counters this. But this renewal has been removed because of human sin. Humans are now subject to decline into death in the same way as other creatures.

The Apostle Paul addresses the ageing process, and its inevitable result in death in his letters. The Greek word that comes close to the idea of ageing is φθορα (phthora). Phthora is the corruption of something, whether food that gradually rots, or bodies that decay. In 1 Corinthians 15:42, the present human body is susceptible to phthora, but the resurrection body of humans will be raised aphtharsia, that is, not susceptible to phthora. It is released from phthora as part of inheriting a renewed creation that is itself aphtharsia (1C15:50). This idea of a creation released from phthora is explicit in Romans 8:21. Jesus Christ is the pioneer. In his resurrection, he has been released from death into that aphtharsia existence. As the divine man, he is the forerunner – the first-fruits of those who have died. Paul also describes the aphtharsia human body as pneumatikov (1C15:44). It is a body fundamentally reconnected to the creative, life giving power of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaotic cosmos at the beginning. Our reconciliation to the Creator is redemptive of body as well as soul.

In writing this way of the release of the cosmos from phthora, Paul is responding to Genesis 3, not only in terms of human death and God’s redemptive response to it in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also to the effect of the fall on the environment (G3:17-18). A renewed creation, freed from phthora, will not eliminate the wonderful life-cycles and ecosystems which so delight the psalmist and bring glory to God in Psalm 104. But it will fundamentally alter the relationship of humans with their environment. There will be a removal of the damage and despoiling that has come by our hands, a stop to habitat-loss and extinctions. The balance of the earth will be restored as humans discover what it means to live as the Image of God in Jesus Christ. And when scientists predict the extinction of all life on earth in 5 billion years because of the life-cycle of our sun, they are not accounting for the removal of phthora from the cosmos through the divine, restorative intervention of the creator-Christ, who holds all things together.

(Picture Credit: Erin Davies)

The Dilemma of Death

IMG_6908In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, the apostle Paul struggles with the Dilemma of Death. He describes three states of human existence:
  1. Mortal Life. Paul uses the metaphor of a tent to emphasise the temporary, precarious nature of this life (vv.1-2). This follows hard on the heels of his description of his trials in 4:7-12. Mortal Life is a life of groaning and burden, since it is clear to us that this is not Real Life. We long, not for Death  but to be clothed with a different kind of body (‘not that would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed’ v.4, ESV), not temporary and precarious, but a body as God intended (vv.2-4).
  2. Death. Some refer to this state as Life After Death. This is misleading. A separation of soul and body cannot be properly described as life. The state of Death is not fully human existence. It is best described as the state of Death. Death is the destruction of our mortal body, our ‘tent’ (v.1). This state is likened by Paul to being (in a change of metaphor) naked, unclothed (vv.3-4). To keep the same metaphor as tents and buildings, we might say that Death is being homeless with respect to the possession of a body. Paul does not want to be unclothed, to be homeless. The thought is a burden. It is an unnatural state. And yet, Death is also the state in which we may be present with the Lord. Jesus the Christ is present in the heavenly realm and at death we are, despite being without physical existence ourselves, present with him.
  3. Real Life. This is what we ought to have in mind when we use the term Life After Death (some refer to this as Life After Life After Death). Real Life is resurrected life. This, not Death, is Paul’s great hope in the face of the realities of Mortal Life (4:13-14). It is not an entirely different existence, an existence about which we have no knowledge now. Rather, Paul describes Real Life as an engulfing of mortality by life (v.4b). The image is one of a tsunami of Life sweeping across and through the mortality of our present experience. This wave of renewal transforms Mortal Life into Real Life. The ‘tent’ of our mortal body is replaced with what Paul calls a ‘heavenly building’, a building that is not temporary but eternal. Paul rather poetically here conceives of God holding this building for us (contrast his view in 1 Corinthians 15) – its giving to us is so certain that Paul can describe it as ‘in the heavens’ (v.1). But we do not receive it in heaven. It is kept there for us, for the day of the resurrection. As Tom Wright famously wrote: ‘If I tell my friend I’ve kept a cold beer in the fridge for him, it doesn’t mean he has to get into the fridge to enjoy it!’
Of course, Paul writes from the perspective of a faithful disciple of Jesus. The descriptions of these states apply to Christians, who participate in God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Resurrection is but the final act in God’s work of human salvation. It is for those who he has chosen, called, justified, sanctified and glorified. It applies to those baptised into the Church who believe and follow Jesus in faith, as disciples. For those who do not follow Jesus Christ, there is no hope of being present with Jesus in the state of Death. Nor is there any hope of Real Life.
The Dilemma of Death for the Christian is seen in how Paul uses the language of being ‘home’ and being ‘absent’. He mentions two homes:
  • if we are in our bodies, we are ‘home’ (v.6b); and
  • if we are with Jesus Christ our Lord, we are ‘home’ (v.8b).
And, correspondingly, two absences:
  • when we die, we are ‘absent’ from the home of our body; and
  • when we live Mortal Life, we are ‘absent’ from Jesus our Lord.
The Dilemma of Death is found in the fact that, when we die, we lose one ‘home’ but gain the other. In Mortal Life we are at home in the body, but absent from the Lord. In Death, we are absent from the body, but at home with the Lord. Neither state is ultimately desirable, but to be with the Lord is better than being absent from him and this is the consolation in Death (v.8). Compare this with Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21-24.
This Dilemma is only resolved in Real Life, the life of the resurrection. No-one gains this Real Life ahead of any other (Heb 11:40). Or, in terms of Paul’s poetic view here, no-one receives the heavenly building prepared by God ahead of anyone else. Real Life is given to all (whether dead of alive, 1 Cor 15:51-52) at the Parousia of Christ (1 Thess 4:14). During Death we await the realisation of it. It is our final adoption, the goal of our redemption (Romans 8:23).
So, at a funeral of a Christian brother or sister, ought we to grieve or rejoice? Both. We grieve because Death is an enemy, an imposter in God’s purpose for man. We grieve because our friend is absent from the ‘home’ of their body. To be dead is to be not fully human. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13-14). We rejoice because they are present with the Lord and are free from the groaning and burdens of this Mortal Life. They are with the Lord, which is better. And we rejoice in the hope of the resurrection. Are they finally ‘home’? No, they are not. They await Real Life when they, along with us, will be at ‘home’ in our bodies, and at ‘home’ with the Lord.
The doctrine of human resurrection is neglected in Christianity. If we do not proclaim the resurrection as part of the Gospel, it is not a Christian Gospel. It is no Gospel at all. The Gospel without Resurrection becomes a gnostic shadow of the Christian Gospel. Silence about resurrection in the preaching of the Gospel comes close to a de facto denial of it. We ought to heed the words of Justin Martyr.

Death and Challenge

snowleopardIs death part of the natural world as part of the Divine Intention? To answer that we need the Genesis narratives. Can we see death in Genesis 1 and 2 – death before the Fall? I don’t mean human death – that was a result of the Fall. But, did animals and plants die? The more I meditate on these chapters, the firmer my belief that this is the case.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we meet the world we know – sun, moon and stars, day and night, earth and sea, animals, birds, fish, and plants. It is the familiar world. In Gen 1:24 and 2:20, wild animals are mentioned alongside domesticated (or domesticatable) animals. Wild animals includes carnivores (like snow leopards), which are part of our familiar world. So, death would seem to be implied in this classification of familiar animals. In Genesis 2 we meet familiar humanity: working the ground, sleeping, needing food, having flesh and bones (and ribs). As John Walton points out, the first humans had skin (he translates basar in 2:23 as skin) and skin is a layer of dead cells. So, at the cellular level, death is implied. Certainly, the fact that plants are for food shows that the usual metabolic cycles are present, with cells requiring energy. Perhaps even more fundamentally, in Genesis 1 God creates plants and trees with fruit bearing seed. In the botanical life cycle, seeds are only required because of biological death. In a world without death, why would seeds be required? The plants are given for food (1:29,30), and are consumed. So plants are certainly dying. And if biological death is present in the plant kingdom, where is the objection to a similar situation in the animal kingdom? The sixth day connection between animals and humans might be used as basis for an objection, but the botanical/zoological divide seems an unlikely boundary for the principal of death. A far more likely boundary for death is between animals and humans, who are created in (or perhaps preferably, as) the Image of God. Humans are not created to die because they mirror their Creator in a way that animals do not.

To my mind, theological objections to the principle of biological death in the animal and plant kingdoms falter in the light of the above. In Genesis 3, it is specifically human death that results from the Fall. The Divine Intention for the immortality of humans is part of the distinctiveness of humanity as God’s image on earth.

Animals that survive through the death of other creatures, whether bacteria, spiders, flies, birds, whales, fish, pumas, wolves or seals – these creatures display the glory of the Creator in the brilliance and wonder of their design, in the amazing beauty of their function, and in the complexity of the ecosystems in which they participate. The redemption of creation will reverse the effects of the Fall, and the glory and beauty of these ecosystems will remain. The world as created had to be ruled, or subdued (1:28) and even the Garden in all its beauty had to be worked and cared for (2:15). The work of humanity is in a sense a continuation of God’s work in fashioning the world from its formless and empty watery darkness. The created world was a world containing challenges –  of growing food, keeping livestock and coping with wild creatures. It was a world where there was a Garden, but also wildness. In redemption of the fallen world, there is also challenge; sin has increased the challenge beyond all boundaries. The life and work of Jesus Christ testifies to this. There is challenge in the process of redemption and there is challenge, albeit of a different nature, that remains in its realisation.