Matthew 27:32-54, I Corinthians 15:12-22, Ezekiel 37:1-10
The Great Question
Is their life after death? It is a question that has haunted humanity throughout its history. The most primitive people we know took the burial of its dead seriously. The funeral took place with ceremony and solemnity. Artifacts were often interred with the person in the hope that they might prove useful in an afterlife. In this most modern of cultures that question still haunts us. Is there life beyond the grave? And if so, what kind of life?
It was a great conundrum for the nation of Israel. It was a question that the Scriptures of the Old Testament had never attempted to answer. The teachings of Moses and the prophets were silent on the subject. They were more interested in preparing people for life, not death. But as the centuries rolled on the question came to divide the nation.
When we get to the time of the coming of Jesus, the question has risen to fever pitch.
- The Sadducees said, “it’s all wishful thinking. This life is all we get. Make the most of it. There is no life beyond death.”
- The Pharisees on the other hand insisted that there must be life after death, though they could offer no evidence, other than high hopes.
- Meanwhile most of the common people in Palestine lived in hope, but also lived in confusion. No one knew for sure what happens to our dearly departed.
So, when death came, the air was filled with the sounds of uncontrollable weeping and wailing and despair. And that weeping took place on a certain Friday during Passover when Jesus of Nazareth was taken by force and killed on a cross. For his family and friends, it was a disaster. Death had claimed another victim. Life’s most meaningless event had occurred again. Jesus was dead.
Roman soldiers knew their business. Crucifixion will kill a person very efficiently, but it was invented to prolong the suffering of its victim for hours. But there were ways to speed up the process. Break the legs and death will come more quickly. Plunge the spear up into the chest under the 7th rib and that will bring death instantly. On that grim Friday, Jesus died, and his corpse was taken down from the cross at the end of that afternoon, and taken away for burial.
But then something happened that was unbelievable. On the Sunday, the tomb was discovered to be empty. The body had disappeared. Outrage and grief over the desecration was the initial reaction. But then the grief gave way to shock and then to unbelievable joy. For there he was standing before them. Over the following weeks He appeared to a few here and a few there, to the 12 on several occasions, then to over 500 of his friends and followers. And they knew, that he had not only returned from death, but had been transformed in the event. He was the same person they had known, but he was different. There was a new vitality about him that brought the word “glorified” to mind.
Throughout the following six weeks he taught them about the meaning of His death and resurrection. They began to understand His death, and their death, in a whole new light.
- His death was the ransom that had rescued them from slavery and bondage.
- His death was the means of atonement that was intended to reconcile us to God.
But it was more than that. They now understood that his resurrection meant resurrection life for them too.
When he died it brought about a freedom from the power of death and the grave for us all. His death brought about the death of death. Death was de-fanged and de-clawed that day.
In the years that followed the church would sing one of its favourite hymns:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O Death is now your sting?
Where, O Grave, is now your victory?” (I Cor. 15:54-55)
His death defused the terrors of dying and brought clarification to the age-old question,
“Is there life after death?” Oh yes! came the answer. Now we know! There is life after death. Death has become only a comma, not a period that ends the sentence. There is more beyond!
The question, of course, came to the fore, how can his death make a difference in our death? How can we explain this in language that makes sense to us? What analogy can we use that helps us understand how His death could bring life? A few explanations have been offered to explain how his death provides life.
Jesus offers the first clue. Just prior to his death he had said “Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it will bear much fruit.” (John 12:20-33 ) In the botanical world of nature, life comes out of death. The seed falls to the ground and begins to disintegrate. Leaves fall to the ground and begin to decay. But the leaves provide compost, and the decaying seed begins to germinate and life that is even more abundant springs forth. And from the death of Jesus sprang life for the many.
That explanation, though it states the fact, does not explain how his death brings life. The rest of the New Testament, however, does explore the theme and offers us three answers to the question, “How does his dying give us life?”
1 Death is Defeated
Some of the early theologians of the church offered a dramatic answer to the question. In dying, they said, he defeated death once and for all. Something was done to death that day that had never been done before. Something unique happened to death at the moment of his death.
In Israel it was the conviction that all who died existed in a shadowy, comatose subsistence in a place called Hades or Sheol. (Same place different languages.) In the ancient world Hades was perceived to be a superdome of a grave, like an enormous tomb, where the dead were gathered.
But when Jesus died, the Apostles’ Creed says, “He descended into hell” and the gates of Hades were opened to let him in. But instead of simply entering as one more victim, he tore the gates off the place, and death and the grave was opened for all to leave. Hades was emptied. Those who had slept the sleep of death were raised to spend eternity in heaven, experiencing the fullness of life in the presence of God. Jesus Christ was the victor, not only over sin and human bondage, but He was the victor over death itself. And ever since that dramatic day in world history, none of us have needed to go to Hades. In his death and descent, he broke the hold that death had maintained, and everlasting death was exchanged for eternal life!
This may be the understanding of St. Matthew (27:51-52) as he reports that at the very moment of the death of Jesus, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split, and the tombs also were opened and many of the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After His resurrection they came out of the tombs and appeared to many.” Matthew is saying that his death affected not only those who would die in the future, but affected those who had died long before. His death changed the fortunes of death for all humanity.
St. John shares a similar viewpoint. “I tell you the truth, the hour is coming, and in now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice, and will come out – those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
2 The Fear of Death is Defused
But there were those in the church who were not sure that was the answer to the question. Because of the Eternal Goodness of God, death had always been just a transit point, not a destination where we spent the centuries. It was their conviction that when a person died, beginning with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, all the way to the most recent death, they had not had to sleep in the shadowy realm of perpetual death. At the moment of their death, they had been raised to new life in the very moments of their dying. They had been raised by God to live the fuller life of heaven long before Jesus died. Death had only ever been a closure to mortal life and the preface to a life eternal.
But the people of Israel and every other culture had no way of knowing for sure if that were true. Words spoken on the question were never clear enough. Death was therefore the great unknown and remained a threat to human existence. It was an unanswerable question, and so the fear of death has dominated the human race from its very start.
There was a need for an irrefutable demonstration, and so the dramatic death, descent and resurrection and ascension provided proof that at least one man who was absolutely dead, had been raised from the death, and in that resurrection had been glorified. Jesus was the evidence that death was not the final word in life. He was also the evidence that what had happened to Him would happen for us. He died and was raised. We too shall die, but we too shall be raised. And we have God’s assurance on that. The death and resurrection was the clearest announcement that God could give, that death was not a dead end street from which there was no return.
This seems to be the way the writer of the book of Hebrews understood it. He writes, “Jesus came to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
It seems to be St. Paul’s understanding as he writes to Timothy. (II Timothy 1:10.) “Grace was given to us in Jesus Christ before the ages began, but it has been revealed through the appearing of our saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”
Jesus brought to light what had always been true, but which had been undecipherable before. And fear was banished. We still go through death and dying, but there is no need for fear anymore about the other side. We have no reason to think that death concludes life at all. Life is the final word of God to all who follow Christ.
3. The Gift of Eternal Life is Granted
But the New Testament offers us another perspective. In the beginnings of human history God had said “The day that you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die.” The rest of the scriptures repeated that theme: “The soul that sins shall die.”
Adam & Eve sinned. But they didn’t die for a very long time. But we do know that something inside of them died. Innocence died that day. Goodness died that day. Their relationship with each other began to die. Their relationship with God died that day.
Centuries later when Paul writes his letter to the church is Ephesus he says to that infant church,
“You were dead because of your trespasses and sins, but God who is rich in mercy, because of the love with which he loved us, even when we were dead because of our trespasses made us alive together with Christ, and he raised us up to sit with Him”
For the question is not only, “Is there life after death? But also “Is there life after mortal sin has done its damage? Is eternal life possible for those who have died on the inside and in whom despair has taken over? Is there life after tragedy has taken its toll on our lives, and circumstances have caused death to develop at the core of our lives?
And the answer is “Oh, Yes”
Let life do its worst.
Let sin do its damage.
Let life get impaled on a cross.
That is not to be life’s last word. There is life now and life beyond. Do you know the story of Christopher Columbus and how he changed the coins of Spain? Before 1492 the coins of the country had a design, which included the Pillars of Hercules, the Rock of Gibraltar, on its face. On the coin there were printed three Latin words. “Ne plus ultra!” There is No More Beyond! “ Gibraltar was the end of the world, or so they thought. There was nothing beyond but a wide waste of water. Then in 1492 Columbus discovered a new world. He returned to tell the story. The coins now had to be changed. But they didn’t need much of a change. The word “No” was removed. The coins now read “More Beyond!” and Spain sailed into a new future to carve out an empire greater than the world had ever seen before.
And when we are faced with death, this is the word from God, “There is more beyond!”