Thoughts after a cancer ward visit

memorial_tombstone_at_przyszowice_cemetery_2
By myself (User:Piotrus) (Own work (taken by myself)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A hospital chaplain spoke of the comfort provided to Christians by the belief we have eternal souls. As patients’ bodies gradually become weaker and more uncooperative, they rest in the fact that no disease can diminish their soul which would soon go to be with Jesus. While I respect that position, N.T. Wright has correctly noted that the New Testament hope in the face of death is not disembodied existence but the resurrection.(See his excellent book, Surpised by Hope).

Yesterday I visited a cancer ward. There were many who were wasting away, limbs shriveled, eyes sunken, their frail frames a shadow of what they once were. As I prayed with a friend, my prayer was that God would restore his health. Yet whether God chooses to heal, our faith is that this is not the final chapter. Creation is followed by re-creation. Mortality surrenders to immortality; death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eternal life follows resurrection at Christ’s return, God’s gracious gift to the righteous (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

“He fell asleep in Jesus.” So wrote a friend of mine at the passing of a loved one. It’s a good summary of what happens when people die: They fall asleep. When Jesus returns, believers will have a sweet awakening to life eternal, while punishment and destruction is the rude awakening reserved for the wicked (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). Both Jesus and Paul used “sleep” as a snynonym for death (John 11:11-14, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Yet Christians fall asleep in the steadfast hope that the same Jesus whom God raised to life will himself raise us to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). One short sleep later and Jesus (at his return) will receive us (formerly mortal but now immortal) into his strong arms. The old Negro spirituals called this the “great gettin’ up mornin.’ ” What an amazing awakening that will be!

When it comes to how Christians conceptualize death, sleeping in Jesus is a minority position. Most instead believe in an immortal soul that leaves the body at the moment of death. While I see no conclusive biblical evidence for an “immortal soul” – an idea from Greek philosophy – there are a few New Testament passages traditionally interpreted as teaching a conscious existence apart from our bodies (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 5:1-8, 12:1-5). This is called body-soul dualism, the belief that the enduring part of the human being is not the body but an indestructible soul.

Whichever position one takes, one thing is certain: We must be ready for our own demise. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that all human beings are “destined to die” and “after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). There are no post mortem opportunities to make things right with God. Are you ready for that encounter?

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Resting in peace, rising in glory

Grave marker of Hector Pieterson, boy martyr of the Soweto uprising, 16 June 1976“Mommy, what is it like to die? Mommy, will it hurt?”

The 1955 film A Man Called Peter, based on the life of Peter Marshall, contains a story by the late pastor and Senate Chaplain, where this earnest line is on the lips of a terminally ill young boy, Kenneth. His mother does not know what to respond to her sickly son, and runs to the kitchen, supposedly to tend a pan on the stove. Finally, she has an inspiration, and reminds her son of a time when he had come home from playing outside. Exhausted, Kenneth had fallen asleep on the sofa. Later, his dad arrived home from work and gently picked up his sleeping boy in strong arms and carried him upstairs, laying him in his bed, in his own room. “Kenneth,” his mother said, “death is like that. You wake up in your own bed, in your own room, because Jesus loved you and carried you in his strong arms.”

In the same way, the Apostle Paul comforted the Corinthians:

Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. – 1 Cor 15:51-52, NIV

We lost a member of the NazNet.com community this week. In a tribute, the site manager emblazoned a banner on the front page. Part of the message read:

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

That’s a simple and comforting message. One day, I shall close my eyes in death, and one short sleep later, wake up in the presence of Jesus. What a resurrection promise!