I attended the funeral last week of a fellow engineer and longtime member of our state structural engineers association. I had known he was sick, and had meant to visit him, but somehow was always too distracted at the office to ever remember to visit him and follow through on those good intentions. Although I hadn’t known him personally, he had always been friendly at our monthly association meetings, and encouraging to me during my tenure as President. In the course of conversations at the funeral and the visitation the night before, I learned a lot I never knew about him. But something that surprised me was the dramatic contrast in my reaction to two pieces of information in the email that he had passed away over the weekend. There was initial shock at this unexpected reminder of the ever-present specter of death. Though it wasn’t a surprise for him, given his age and his diagnosis, it was like a bolt out of the blue for me amidst my flurry of workday activity. There was also regret as I realized the worthlessness of those good intentions to visit him in his illness. And yet, I suddenly experienced relief, and even joy, upon reading the last line of the email, which described him as “an exemplary Christian.” What difference does that make? Let’s work through that this week.
The apostle Paul wrote to his Christian readers at the church in Thessalonica that he didn’t want them to be uninformed about those who were “asleep” (i.e. had died), so that they “would not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” [1Th 4:13-18]. Of course, there is still grief at the loss of a person’s physical life, and the ensuing separation from the one who died, for those of us who remain here. But for Christians, that separation is only temporary, with an eternal reunion to follow. And that is something to rejoice in!
But what about those “who have no hope”? Paul expands on what he mentioned in the Thessalonian letter in his first letter to the Corinthian church. He notes that “if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'”[1Co 15:32]. If this life is all we have, and it can end with our very next breath, in spite of all our best efforts to prolong it, then why not live to maximize the pleasure we can scrape out of it in the little time we might have? Why bother laboring and working your life away if you might die without ever getting to enjoy the fruits of your labors? And even if death doesn’t come “early”, the longer we live, the more inescapable our impending death becomes. If there is nothing after physical death but the cessation of existence and the permanent extinguishing of the flame that was “me”, then hedonism and nihilism seem the most reasonable result.
However, Paul prefaced his summary of hedonistic reasoning with “if the dead are not raised….” Thankfully, we can know that the dead are, in fact, raised; that this physical life is only a drop in the proverbial bucket of a life that will continue on eternally, and that our soul does continue to exist after our body dies. For, as Paul explains, Jesus’ resurrection was like the first fruits of a harvest – a signal of what what to come 1Co 15:20]. He goes on to describe the triumph of Jesus over death, and what that signifies for us:
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:53-57]
That said, we are also told that this victory is only through Christ [Jn 14:6]. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27], but through His atoning death for us, and our trust in Him alone, we are saved from the perfect justice of God. So you see, when I read that my colleague was a Christian, I could grieve his departure, while still having hope and joy. For I could know that he was with Jesus even now, and that I would see him again someday. What about you, friend? Do you know that, if you died right now, you would be spending eternity in the presence of God?