Most of us wonder at times, what happens to us when we die.
Often the answer is that we just don’t know.
So we make something up that would make us feel a bit better if it were true. Many a parent has told their children that granddad has just become one of the stars in the sky, and if you look up you can see him looking down on us. We know it isn’t true, but we just don’t know what else to say.
Many Christians look forward to going to heaven when they die. But they’ve given little thought to where heaven is, or what it would be like to spend a week there, never mind eternity. It’s just a nebulous thought we go to a “better place”. No matter how wonderful to begin with, there’s only so long anyone could stand harp music and angel choirs, and eventually you’d get cold and wet using a cloud as a sofa.
Bernard Cornwell’s novel, The Last Kingdom, is set in the time of Alfred the Great. He tells the story of a fictitious man, Uhtred, who was born a Saxon, but raised by the Vikings, the Danes. At one point, he looks back on his early upbringing by the Christian priest, Beocca, and compares it to what he’s since learnt of Viking beliefs:
“In heaven, they say, the saints occupy a privileged place, living on the high platform of God’s great hall where they spend their time singing God’s praises. Forever. Just singing. Beocca always told me that it would be an ecstatic existence, but to me it seems very dull. The Danes reckon their dead warriors are carried to Valhalla, the corpse hall of Odin, where they spend their days fighting and their nights feasting and swiving, and I dare not tell the priests that this seems a far better way to endure the afterlife than singing to the sound of golden harps. I once asked a bishop whether there were any women in heaven. ‘Of course there are, my lord,’ he answered, happy that I was taking an interest in doctrine. ‘Many of the most blessed saints are women.’” That wasn’t what he meant.
In fact, life after death is neither. Neither the insipid existence he’d heard of from Beocca, nor the opportunity to abuse and hurt others that the Vikings looked forward to.
Lack of understanding leads to fear. Lots of people are afraid of death. Lots of Christians are afraid of death. Not just afraid of the process of dying, which has the potential to be painful. But afraid of death itself. Afraid of what lies beyond.
Hebrews chapter 2 verse 15 specifically says that Jesus came to free us from the fear of death. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 he also wants to free us from the fear of death. Rather than being frightened by what comes next, we’re meant to look forward to it, until it colours everything we do in this life
He conquers that fear with knowledge. We can know what happens to us when we die. And because we can know, we don’t need to be afraid.
Some teachers in Corinth were teaching falsely about this. The atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, famously said: “When I die, I rot”. It seems that these teachers in Corinth would agree. Verse 12: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Paul explains that this teaching is self-evidently wrong. It makes no sense
At the beginning of our passage, he says that it makes no sense to say that nobody rises from the dead because Jesus rose from the dead. We looked at that last time. Paul and the Corinthians all agreed Jesus rose. If he didn’t rise, the whole Christian faith unravels. Verse 18: We are of all people most to be pitied. So you can’t say that nobody rises from the dead. Jesus did.
Then at the end of our passage, he says that it makes no sense, because we clearly believe otherwise. He mentions a mysterious practice, and nobody quite knows what it is, of being baptised for the dead. He mentions the suffering he faces as he spreads the good news, facing danger every hour, death every day, wild animals in the arena. Why would anyone do that if death is the end? It makes no sense.
So as Christians, we already know that death is not the big full stop. It can’t be. Jesus rose. The sacrifices we make would make no sense at all.
So the question is: What is the hope we have? What waits for us the other side of the grave? What is the future for the Christian?
And let’s just pause at this point to say that Paul is talking about the future of Christians when they die. There are a whole load of questions Paul does not answer: about the judgement day at the end of time, and what happens to those who do not know the Lord Jesus. We’ll stick to the ground Paul covers, which is what happens to Christians. We’re looking at verses 20 to 28.
And the message he’s got is simply wonderful. Once you’ve glimpsed the future, your life in this world is never the same again. And it all flows from the wonderful fact that Jesus rose from the dead.
I’ll use two headings to give this a bit of structure.
Number 1: Because he rose, we will rise. We will rise.
That’s to say, when Jesus returns, every Christian who has died will be raised to life.
That begs a couple of questions we’ll get to next time. What about Christians who are still alive when Jesus comes back? What kind of body will we get? Like I say: Come back in two weeks. But because he rose, we will rise. Bodily. Truly. A proper resurrection. We will rise.
Paul explains this in two ways.
The first is with the language of firstfruits. Verse 20: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
And again in verse 23: “But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”
It’s a very simple agricultural picture. You watch the tomatoes grow and ripen in a growbag, in a greenhouse. Finally, you go out, leave the mass of green ones, and pick 4 bright red ones. In Old Testament times, that first little crop was given to God to say thank you. The point is very simple. Now you’ve had the firstfruits, you’re confident that the full harvest will come in.
Jesus is the firstfruits. He was raised from the dead. Really. Truly. Bodily. And so he’s the guarantee that the full harvest will come in. And that full harvest is us. We will rise.
The second picture is of Jesus as the new Adam.
Look at verses 21 and 22. “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
Genesis 2 tells the story of the first pair of humans, Adam and Eve. They weren’t content to live in a beautiful world under God’s rule. They wanted to make the rules up for themselves. So they ate one fruit they had been told not to eat.
Adam and Eve had to leave the garden. Suffering and pain entered the world, and so did death. One day, they died. And the same is true of every human being born since. We are all born outside the Garden of Eden. We all inherit the deadly disease called sin. And one day, we will die.
That’s what Paul means when he says that death came through a man. Adam did not just bring about his own death. He brought death into the world for his whole extended family tree.
And God will solve the problem the same way we created the problem. What happens to one man will affect the destiny of his whole extended family tree. “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
Jesus’ resurrection did not just bring him back to life. It made him the head of a new race. A race of people from every nation on earth. The whole race will be raised to life. The disease of death spread from Adam and infected all of his offspring. So the wonder of resurrection life will spread from Jesus and infuse all of his offspring.
Because Jesus rose, we will rise.
He’s the firstfruits that guarantees the full harvest.
He’s the head of a new human race that will all rise as surely as he did, undoing the spread of death.
Which means we will rise. Death is not the end.
Maybe you want to know what life will be like when we rise. More next time, because that’s where Paul goes next. But for today, we can already say that the pattern is Jesus himself. He’s the firstfruits. He’s the new Adam.
And when he rose from the dead, he was not a ghost. It wasn’t just his corpse walking around, still looking pretty sickly. He wasn’t only half back, half alive, half dead.
No, it really was him. He ate and drank. We read of him touching his friends, of them giving him a massive hug when they realised he was back, of them hearing his voice, walking along the road with him, eating bread, catching fish, sharing breakfast. He joked, he laughed. But he never cried. Some things were different. He was able to walk through locked doors and travel about 8 miles in just a short time.
But there was no doubt it was him. Jesus really was back. He was more alive than he had ever been before. Life the other side of death was life in 4D. Vibrant. Real. Physical.
He’s the one Paul uses as an example, the trailblazer. So if we want to know what it will be like for us, we start by looking at him.
Because Jesus rose, we will rise.
That’s the first heading to look at this passage.
Number 2: Because he rose, he reigns. He reigns.
Paul gives the order of things in verse 23. Christ is raised. Then he returns and we are raised. Then verse 24: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.”
That’s the destination: But we don’t have to wait until the end to have Jesus in charge.
He reigns now. Because he’s risen now. Verse 25 says this: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”
He reigns now. Little by little he’s subduing his enemies. People hear the good news about Jesus. They decide to accept his offer of forgiveness, and to follow him. That’s one less person fighting Jesus, and one more person in his kingdom.
Then comes the grand finale, the day when he returns. Not everyone will have chosen to follow him by that time, but there’s one enemy we know will still be holding out. That last enemy is death. Death gets destroyed.
The book of Revelation pictures this as having a lake of fire. And into that lake of fire gets thrown death itself. Death dies. Death is gone. And at that point, there is no longer any power or authority withstanding Jesus’ claim to rule heaven and earth.
As verse 24 says, “he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” There will no longer be a nation, a government, a prison officer, a school teacher, anyone, to pick on Jesus or his followers.
Neither will there be any sickness, or suffering, or pain. Remember: Death itself will be gone.
And then there’s one final act, a finale that maybe we weren’t expecting. Paul quotes Psalm 8 to show that Jesus doesn’t establish his own throne. He has everything put under his feet. It’s passive. God the Father did this. God the Father raised Jesus, then God the Father will put everything under Jesus feet.
So it’s clear that the one person who won’t be under Jesus’ feet will be God the Father. He’s the one who’s overall in charge. So when every last enemy is destroyed, Jesus will hand the kingdom over. He’ll make himself and his kingdom subject to his Father, and the result will be that God is undisputedly in charge, whichever direction you look.
Verse 24: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” And verses 27 and 28: “Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”
Because Jesus rose, he reigns. Because Jesus rose, every last enemy will be destroyed. Because Jesus reigns, death itself will be no more. Because Jesus rose, God will be in charge in every direction you look.
God’s plan is not just to solve our personal problems. If we’re Christians, he’s going to raise you and me to new life, which is wonderful. But he’s not going to stop there. He’s going to fix this broken world, get rid of the disease, remove suffering and death forever. Dare I say it, he’s going to make this world great again.
It’s so easy to be depressed about the direction things are heading in. Our bodies get old and die, those we love die, and the world seems to be heading towards destruction.
But we don’t need to despair.
Jesus rose from the dead. So it’s a lie that when we die, we rot.
Jesus rose. So there’s an answer to the decay and death we see around us.
There’s an answer to our own death, because Jesus will raise every follower of his when he returns. He’s the firstfruits, the second Adam.
There’s also an answer to the whole broken world. Because Jesus is now on the throne, and one day every pocket of resistance will be eliminated. One day death will die.
If you’ve never turned to Jesus and given your life to him, this is the single most pressing thing for you to do. Because then this future can be your future.
And for all of us, this certain future is one worth holding onto. The Corinthians weren’t holding on, but we must not be moved.
Everything we do in this life for the Lord Jesus becomes worth doing. It counts for something. So many people today just want to be popular. It’s hard to find anything that people think is worth suffering for, never mind dying for. If Jesus will return, raise us, and then destroy even death, then he is more precious to us than even life itself.
God does not answer every question we may have about death, and life after death. But he does give us enough to give us a sure and certain hope, to free us from the fear of death. And there’s more to come next week.
Let me end by reading the last verse of this chapter. Verse 58: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”