Asleep in Christ
A fundamental tenet of the atheistic world–view is that ‘When you are dead, you are done for’—in the sense that all existence for the individual comes to a close. This is an attitude not dissimilar to the Athenian philosophers who mocked the apostle Paul for preaching the "resurrection of the dead" (Acts 17: 32). As far as the atheist is concerned, "man hath no pre–eminence above the beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place: all are of the dust, and all return to dust" (Eccl. 3: 19, 20). Divine revelation, however, asserts that while it is indeed "the portion of men once to die" (Heb. 9: 27), death is not the end. As the verse goes on to say, "and after this" lies "judgment" (my emphasis). The very One who has been given authority to execute judgment elaborates on this truth in John 5: 28, 29: "an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall go forth; those that have practised good, to resurrection of life, and those that have done evil, to resurrection of judgment". It is apparent then that atheism and Christianity are polar opposites in their teaching, and it follows that the atheist and the Christian will have very divergent attitudes to death. These differences can be grouped under three main headings: the sleep of death, the fear of death and the grief of death.
The Sleep of Death is Temporary
The atheist does not believe that man consists of "spirit, and soul, and body" (1 Thess. 5: 23)—he only recognises the body—and so death (in his eyes) is final and permanent. The Bible, however, presents death as a sleep, both for believers and unbelievers alike (see 1 Kings 2: 10; 22: 40 etc.). This is no accident, for sleep is a temporary phenomenon. Sleep in Scripture is spoken of in three ways: the sleep of rest (see John 11: 13), sleep in a spiritual sense (see Rom. 13: 11; Eph. 5: 14 etc.), and the sleep of death (see Ps. 13: 3). However, the sense throughout is a temporary state which is succeeded by an ‘awakening’. Far from being the termination of existence, death is therefore merely a hiatus between the natural body being sown in this world and then raised a spiritual body (see 1 Cor. 15: 44) for the next. The atheist is thus not only at fault in denying soul and spirit, but he is also in error in relation to the body. The body is not just for time, but also eternity. Time is merely the sowing phase of an eternal existence. Even the unbelieving dead will one day be raised in their bodies to stand before the great white throne (see Rev. 20: 12). How much better to behold the face of the Son of God, not as a sinner facing eternal ruin, but "in righteousness", having awoken in resurrection in "thy likeness" (Ps. 17: 15)! Of course the atheist believes none of this, seeing the sum of his "portion" as being "in [this] life" (v14)—hence his hedonistic attitude to living of "eat and drink; for to-morrow we die" (1 Cor. 15: 32). The Christian’s life, however, is coloured by the knowledge that "as we have borne the image of the [one] made of dust, we shall bear also the image of the heavenly [one]" (v49). He thus leads a quite different existence in this world, for having this hope, he "purifies himself, even as he is pure" (1 John 3: 3).
Now two words are used in Scripture for those said to have entered the sleep of death: (used only in relation to Jairus’ daughter—see Matt. 9: 24) and . This latter word is used in relation to the bodies of the saints who arose after the Lord’s resurrection (see Matt. 27: 52); Lazarus (see John 11: 11, 12); Stephen (see Acts 7: 60); David (Acts 13: 36); the Christian husband who has died (see 1 Cor. 7: 39); those at Corinth who partook of the Lord’s Supper unworthily (see 1 Cor. 11: 27, 30); the five hundred witnesses of the resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15: 6); the Lord Jesus Himself (1 Cor. 15: 20) and also those of previous generations (see 2 Pet. 3: 4). Interestingly, is also the word from which our English word cemetery is ultimately derived—literally a sleeping place.
In the OT, both unbelievers and believers alike are merely said to have ‘slept with their fathers’ (see 1 Kings 16: 28; 2 Kings 20: 21), or, in the case of Abraham, to have been "gathered to his peoples" (Gen. 25: 8). In Christianity, however, the deceased believer is "fallen asleep through Jesus" (1 Thess. 4: 14, my emphasis)—which implies it is the Lord’s own act, the name Jesus adding a deeply personal and intimate touch. Furthermore, such are also said to have "fallen asleep in Christ" (1 Cor. 15: 18, my emphasis), bringing out the unique blessedness, privilege and security of their association with God’s chosen Man.
The Sleep of Death not Unconsciousness
In Genesis 15: 12, "a deep sleep" fell upon Abraham, but it was in that very sleep that God spoke to him. Sleep is not therefore unconsciousness and "asleep in Christ" (1 Cor. 15: 18) does not imply that "those who have fallen asleep through Jesus" (1 Thess. 4: 14) are completely lacking in awareness. The Lord Himself teaches very definitely in Luke 16: 19–31 that the spirits of dead persons have awareness, even if that awareness does not extend to what is going on among living men (see vs. 27–31). It is stretching credulity to imagine that Lazarus, Abraham or the rich man are presented as being unconscious in any way. They are clearly dead, however, for the rich man was buried (see v22), and he wished that Lazarus could be risen from the dead to preach to his brothers (see vs 27-31). Now of course there are OT Scriptures that seem to teach that the dead are unconscious. Eccl. 9: 5, for example, asserts that "the dead know not anything" and Ps. 6: 5, in speaking of God, says that "in death there is no remembrance of thee". However, Ecclesiastes should be read with care because it is the inspired record of what a man thought, and not all his thoughts are in accord with the truth. Psalm 6: 5 is more difficult to answer, but the thought of remembrance seems to be connected with the duty of man to give God the praise he is due ("who shall give thanks unto thee?"), and that this is not possible when a man’s body is separate from his spirit (see Is. 38: 19). Whatever the explanation, neither Scripture should be allowed to undermine plain NT revelation. In 1 Thess. 4: 16, the dead in Christ hear the assembling shout, the archangel’s voice and the trump of God, while the Lord’s promise to the dying thief, "To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23: 43) loses all its beautiful force if in death he was unconscious. Again, why does the apostle talk about "present with the Lord" if it means no more than "absent from the body" in unconsciousness (2 Cor. 5: 8)? If that were the case, then the personal touch of saying "with the Lord" has little or no value. The fact is, sleep is only a condition of altered consciousness, and while the sleeper may be unaware of his surroundings, He may be very aware of God (see Matt. 1: 20–24 etc.). Thus "being with Christ" (Phil. 1: 23) implies an awareness of the Lord, while, at the same time, there is no cognisance of what is happening in the world.
Of course, the very idea that awareness of any kind persists beyond death is incredible to the atheist. Even to allow the possibility is vehemently resisted because it reinforces what lies latent in his conscience, namely, that death is not the end, but only the precursor to judgement.
The Fear of Death—Unbelievers
Certainly there are many atheists who, in the prime of life, claim to have no fear of death. Yet bring death to their door, and their confidence very often erodes. The world–system betrays its own unease with the subject by determinedly keeping it on the periphery of public consciousness. We should not be surprised at this nervousness, for Scripture speaks of "those who through fear of death through the whole of their life were subject to bondage" (Heb. 2: 15, my emphasis). The fact that men’s lives are blighted by the knowledge that life here is transitory is not a sufficient explanation. What lies at the root of man’s deep–seated fear of death is the sting of death, and that sting is not the certainty of death, or any suffering or sorrow that may accompany it, but sin (see 1 Cor. 15: 56). It is this which fills men with fear, and provides the basis by which Satan (who "has the might of death"—Heb. 2: 14, my emphasis), can torment the soul. "Each of us" (saint and sinner alike) "shall give an account concerning himself to God" (Rom. 14: 12), and, as Satan delights to remind us, our judgment is just, and our personal incapacity to escape it is certain. To die, and then to be raised out of death to face a holy and righteous God, or, as Paul puts it, to be "clothed" and yet "found naked" (2 Cor. 5: 3) is an appalling prospect. At the beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve "knew that they were naked" (Gen. 3: 7), and hid themselves from the divine presence, while at the end of the Bible, the spiritually naked are brought before a great white throne, "death and hades" having given up "the dead which [were] in in them" (Rev. 20: 13). Death, therefore, has a horror for the thoughtful unbeliever—rather than being the ‘end’ it is merely the door to terrors beyond human comprehension. As the Lord said, "I will shew you whom ye shall fear: Fear him who after he has killed has authority to cast into hell; yea, I say to you, Fear him" (Luke 12: 5). Men might comfort themselves with the foolish thought that "there is no God" (Ps. 14: 1), or that they can somehow earn acceptance before Him by their own works, but in their more sober moments they know that "all things [are] naked and laid bare to his eyes, with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4: 13). It is knowing "the terror of the Lord" (2 Cor. 5: 11), that gives impetus to the Gospel.
The Fear of Death—OT Saints
We may be surprised to find that OT believers, such as David, were also not entirely free of the fear of death either: "My heart is writhing within me, and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fear and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me" (Ps. 55: 4, 5). Such sentiments are in stark contrast with what the Psalmist says elsewhere (see Ps. 16: 9–11), but this volatility of soul is to be expected. Why? Because the OT believer had no real sense of settled peace with God. It is not without significance that the Scripture in Heb. 2: 14, 15 already referred to is written to Jews—those in relationship with God, and yet, (as under Judaism), also vulnerable to the accusations of Satan. Satan is the "accuser of our brethren" (Rev. 12: 10), and as he was once "the anointed covering cherub" (Ezek. 28: 14), questioning the moral fitness of the saints before God is a role he excels in. However, as we shall see, the "might of death" (Heb. 2: 14) has now been annulled through the work of Christ at Calvary, meaning that believers since that day have been released from the "fear of death" (v15). Thus those accused by the Devil in Revelation 12, do not fear death, or the one who (formerly) had its might, but "have overcome him by reason of the blood of the lamb … and have not loved their life even unto death" (v11, my emphasis).
By contrast, the saints who lived before Calvary were very conscious that their sins had not been permanently dealt with for the "gifts and sacrifices" offered were "unable to perfect as to conscience him that worshipped" (Heb. 9: 9, my emphasis). Of course the more enlightened individuals knew that the Mosaic system was only "imposed until [the] time of setting things right" (v10), but the revelation as to how this was to be brought about was given by degrees over many centuries and required searching out (see 1 Pet. 1: 10, 11). At least some of these OT saints were aware "of the sufferings which [belonged] to Christ" (v11), but despite this they could not rest their souls on a finished work (see John 19: 30). All they had was a prospective work—not sins taken away, but God temporarily passing sins by (see Rom. 3: 25). While the Christian knows that through Christ peace has been made (see Col. 1: 20), the OT saint could only anticipate this. Again, the Christian has much more than the hints and suggestions of the OT, for he has the fullness of the NT revelation, and can interpret the old in the light of the new. It is only after the cross that the believer has the complete light of how God has made a way for Himself to save the sinner, for it is the truth of the gospel that "is God’s power to salvation" (Rom. 1: 16, my emphasis).
The Bondage of the Fear of Death Broken
We must now turn to that class of persons who are characterised by having had the fear of death removed. The apostle Paul, for example, could say, "For for me to live [is] Christ, and to die gain; but if to live in flesh [is my lot], this is for me worth the while: and what I shall choose I cannot tell. But I am pressed by both, having the desire for departure and being with Christ, [for] [it is] very much better, but remaining in the flesh [is] more necessary for your sakes" (Phil. 1: 21–24). Let us not persuade ourselves that the apostle was devoted beyond what was expected. On more than one occasion he presents himself as a model to be followed (see 1 Cor. 4: 16; 11: 1), and if there is any abnormality, it is not in him, but in the lukewarm saint of today. For Paul, departure from this scene held no fear, and nor was it clothed in darkness and obscurity. Why? Because death meant he was going to be "with Christ" (Phil. 1: 23) and it was therefore, not a matter of loss, but of "gain" (v21). Of course no one actively seeks any of the pain or suffering that may be associated with dying but that is not the point at issue. The issue is facing death itself with absolute peace. One cannot help but be enthralled by the absolute serenity of Stephen’s bloody and violent exit from this scene: "And kneeling down, he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And having said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7: 60).
For the Christian, the sting of death has been removed at the cross for his sin was dealt with there, but complete victory awaits the resurrection. Salvation relates, not just to the soul (see 1 Pet. 1: 9) but also to the body. Thus "we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory" (Phil. 3: 20, 21) and "we also ourselves groan in ourselves, awaiting adoption, [that is] the redemption of our body" (Rom. 8: 23). It is "when this corruptible shall have put on incorruptibility, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the word written: Death has been swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15: 54, my emphasis). The "wages of sin [is] death" (Rom. 6: 23), but resurrection out of death is proof that the debt has been paid. Indeed, there will be some believers who, like Enoch, will not have to face death at all. In John 11 the Lord declared: "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live; and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die" (v 25, 26). The force of the last clause of this statement is not always appreciated. Were the words lives and believes transposed, then the word lives might reasonably be held to refer to spiritual life through believing on the Lord. However, the word lives being placed first, it speaks of natural life, and refers to those who will be found alive in this world, whether at the rapture or the appearing. There are two conditions in which Christ’s saints will be found at the resurrection. Those who have died before the Lord comes to reign will be raised from among the dead. Those alive when He comes into the air for His saints, as well as those living on earth when He comes to reign, will never die. No wonder the apostle can exclaim "Where, O death, [is] thy sting? where, O death, thy victory?" (1 Cor. 15: 55)!
The Grief of Death
We must now briefly consider the grief associated with death. In connection with this, it is a pity that the English translation of the Bible renders two different Greek words as weep. When Mary stood at the tomb of her Lord "weeping" (John 20: 11), the word used is which means a loud expression of grief. This is quite different from the word used at the grave of Lazarus when "Jesus wept" (John 11: 35). There the word is and simply means to shed tears without any audible grief being implied. Indeed Christ is never said to have wept aloud except in Luke 19: 41 when He lamented over Jerusalem. All this is very instructive for the Christian. Scripture tells us that when He saw Mary "weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping" ( in both instances) that He was "deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled" (John 11: 33, my emphasis), but He did not join in the general wailing and lamentation. He simply shed tears in measured grief. In the eyes of the Jews, the situation was hopeless (see v37), but not the Lord, for, as He had said earlier, "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live" (v25, my emphasis). Thus death, for a believer like Lazarus, while moving and accompanied by sorrow, is also infused with hope. Luke 19: 41, however, is a scene of unbelief, and hence hopelessness. There it was entirely appropriate that the Lord uttered a loud expression of grief ()over a city that had missed its season of opportunity, and was now heading to inevitable judgment (see vs. 42–44).
As believers, it is right to grieve over the death of a fellow–believer but we are not to grieve "even as also the rest who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4: 13, my emphasis). A parallel can be drawn with Acts 20: 25, where the Ephesian elders wept, specially pained by the word of Paul that they shall see my face no more". But we are not overcome with grief because we know that the dead in Christ will one day rise from the dead, and "we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in [the] clouds, to meet the Lord in [the] air; and thus we shall always be with [the] Lord" (1 Thess. 4: 17, my emphasis). As the apostle goes on to say, we can "encourage one another with these words" (v18).
That "pious men" made "great lamentation" (Acts 8: 2, my emphasis) over Stephen is not denied, but this was a Jewish burial (compare Acts 2: 5) not a Christian one, the Christians having being scattered by the persecution that arose the same day. Paul was "pleased" to be "absent from the body" because it involved being "present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5: 8, my emphasis), but Judaism could never view death as "very much better" (Phil. 1: 23) than living here, for the earth was the sphere in which God had said He would bless him (see Gen. 13: 14–17 etc.). Death to a Jew was not "gain" (Phil. 1: 21) but loss, and his grief in bereavement therefore so much the greater. By contrast, the Christian is looking for the "calling on high of God in Christ Jesus" for "our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory" (Phil. 3: 14, 20, 21). Wonderful prospect!
It only remains for the writer to ask the reader, Are you ready to go? One is reminded of a believer long ago (a Jew no less) who having received Christ could say "Lord, now thou lettest thy bondman go, according to thy word, in peace; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation" (Luke 2: 29, 30). Why was he ready? Because his soul had been filled with Christ. The atheist may talk of the ‘circle of life’ but there is no comfort in such banalities for the bereaved. Hope lies in Christ (see 1 Cor. 15: 19), and without Him, there is "no hope" (Eph. 2: 12).