Death is one of the subjects we don’t speak about today. I suspect this is because many of us have a deep fear of death.
And so we joke about it. Woody Allen famously said: I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. And Mark Twain said: I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
But the fact is that we joke to dodge it. The jokes are an anaesthetic for our fears.
The author Alan Woods is more on the mark, when he wrote: In my opinion, anyone who says they have no anxiety at all over experiencing their own physical death is not in touch with their humanity. It may not be universally the case, but he is saying that people who aren’t afraid of dying aren’t living in the real world. They’re not in touch with the fact that part of being human is to die.
I think the main reason we are afraid is because we are ignorant. We don’t know what it will be like to die. It’s why we’re so intrigued by those who have been in a coma, only to wake up and claim that they experienced the early stages of death. “What was it like?” we want to know.
Socrates said that we have no reason to fear death. For all we know, it may be a good thing. But to fear something without good reason is foolish. But what did he know He hadn’t died when he said that. It might be a good thing. But he can’t reassure us that it is. So we are in the dark. And so we are afraid of death.
Many of us are. As Christians, we know the story will end well. We know that all will be light when Jesus returns. We know roughly what this life is like. But in between is a murky, dark place called death. And that’s what scares us.
What I want to show us this morning is that death is not something Christians need to fear at all.
There’s one main thing I want to say this morning, which we’ll then unpack in three parts. I’ll then show us how this is different from a number of popular misunderstandings.
So here’s the point: When Christians die, we go immediately to be with Jesus in heaven, which is paradise. When Christians die, we go immediately to be with Jesus in heaven, which is paradise.
Please note that we are talking about those who believe and trust in Jesus, Christians.
Let’s unpack this a little.
Jesus is in heaven
First, Jesus is in Heaven. Jesus is in Heaven.
Let me read a couple of Bible verses for you. Hebrews chapter 8, verse 1. He’s talking about Jesus. Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven.
Or Hebrews chapter 12, verse 2: Looking to Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Or we could add Acts chapter 1, that we looked at last week. After Jesus ascended, two angels appeared. They said to the disciples: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven. This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.
Jesus is in Heaven.
Which sounds easy, what we’d expect, until we think about what we’ve just said.
We said last time that Jesus was raised with a real, physical body. The thing about being physical is that you can’t be in two places at once. So if Jesus has a physical body, and he is in Heaven, that must mean that Heaven is a real, physical place. It exists.
Where is it, you wonder? There’s a problem answering that, as I’ll show in a moment.
The Bible consistently portrays Heaven as where God lives. Now we need to be a bit careful here. When you say that God inhabits a particular place, we aren’t saying that you can box him in. God is everywhere. But in the Bible, we do find particular places where God showed his presence in a particularly intense way. An example would be the Old Testament temple and the tabernacle.
After the temple was built, King Solomon prayed a prayer of thanks and praise to God. In that prayer, Solomon said exactly what we’ve been saying. This is where God reveals his presence in a focussed way. It doesn’t box him in. Here’s 1 Kings chapter 8, verse 27: But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
God has chosen to call this temple his home, but he’s not limited by it. And, says Solomon, the same thing is true of Heaven. Heaven is a physical place. It can’t contain God either. But heaven is a place, out of this world, where God has chosen to give the most glorious, the most intense, the most powerful manifestation of his presence. In that sense, it’s God’s home.
The Bible speaks of Heaven as God’s throne room. There are references on the sheet.
And it’s where Jesus is now.
If this is all still slightly hard to get your head round, I don’t blame you. It’s literally out of this world.
If I say to you that I’m off to Wales for a week, that’s fine. There’s a place called Wales. Many of us have been there. You can find it on the atlas. You could get on a train from Paddington tonight if you wanted to.
The trouble is you can’t do that with Heaven. You can’t go there on a train, or even in a rocket. Which makes it much harder to believe that it exists.
But we believe in God don’t we? So whatever makes us think that the only physical places to exist are ones we could travel to? By definition, you can’t just stroll into Heaven, however many light years you travel. But why shouldn’t there be parts of God’s physical creation that are beyond our exploring? And more to the point, the God-man Jesus told us that he came from Heaven and he was going back to Heaven. So who are we not to believe what Jesus tells us?
Jesus is in heaven.
When we die, we go to be with Jesus.
But second, when we die, we go to be with Jesus.
This is much more straightforward to explain.
In Luke chapter 23, Jesus talks with the two criminals crucified with him. To one of them, the one who trusts him, he says: Today, you will be with me in paradise. It’s simple, isn’t it? Today. With me.
Or take Philippians 1, which we had read. Paul is mulling over: Does he want to be released from prison? Or does he want to be given a death sentence? And what he says is extraordinary. I desire to depart. If it’s about what’s best for me, death would be the preferred option. Why? I desire to depart and be with Christ.
And 2 Corinthians 5 verse 8 says something similar.
When we die, we go to be with Jesus. Straight away.
To be with Jesus is paradise.
And third, to be with Jesus is paradise. This is paradise.
It’s those same 3 references I’ve just mentioned. Jesus doesn’t just promise the criminal that he’ll be with him today. No, he’s more specific. He’ll be with him in paradise.
Paul doesn’t just want to depart and be with Christ for the sake of it. No. He says he desires to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Paul, in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5, and Jesus in Luke 23, are both saying the same thing. Leaving this world, this life, to go and be with Jesus in heaven, is far, far better than anything we’d experience here and now.
It invites us to let our imagination wonder a bit. What is your best ever memory? Your best experience in your whole life? Getting married? Standing on top of Mont Blanc? Rushing down a ski slope at 21 miles per hour? Holding a newborn son, daughter, nephew or niece for the first time. Tucking into a family dinner with your whole extended family able to be there. Even if your memory was a long time ago, we’ll have moments we look back on and cannot help smiling.
This is saying that to be with Jesus in heaven will be more wonderful than all of those memories combined.
Or you could think about hopes. What are your hopes? Dreams? Ambitions? These days, people compile bucket lists – things they hope to do before they die. People go for all kinds of things: Climb Ayres Rock. Visit the White House. Bungee jump. Eat kangaroo meat. More on bucket lists next week, but for today, we are just noticing one thing. Being with Jesus in heaven will be more wonderful than anything you’ve ever dreamed of doing.
It’s paradise. It’s better by far. To be with Jesus is paradise.
So that’s the one thing I wanted to say this morning. When Christians die, we go immediately to be with Jesus in heaven, which is paradise.
Now let’s see how this differs from a number of very popular ideas that do the rounds.
I want to look at 3 popular misconceptions.
We go to heaven and stay there
The first one is that when we die, we go to heaven and stay there.
We’re talking about today what theologians call the “intermediate state”. What happens to us between dying and Jesus coming back. It’s temporary.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s very, very good. It’s far better than anything life on earth has to offer. But it’s temporary, and something even better comes afterwards. More on that next week.
But all the same, we need to mention it now, because it’s such a common misunderstanding. Far too many people have vague mental pictures of floating on clouds holding a harp.
That’s not a great picture because it plays down heaven. That kind of floaty picture of heaven sounds really boring. It’s not something that leaves your best experience on earth far behind. But the other problem is that it leaves us in heaven. As good as heaven is, it’s not where we stay.
So there’s the first misconception to kick into touch. We go to heaven and stay there.
We go to purgatory
The second misconception is that when we die, we go to purgatory.
You may know that some Christians have taught that only a few of us are good enough to go straight to heaven. The rest of us need to go through a period of purging. We go to a place of suffering called purgatory first.
This view has absolutely no biblical warrant at all. It also goes directly against what we’ve seen the Bible does say. Jesus and Paul were both quite clear that when a Christian dies, he or she goes directly to be with Jesus in heaven.
There’s a really simple reason why we don’t need purging and cleansing first. It’s already been done for us. God makes us good enough. God makes us clean. And it’s a pure gift.
1 John chapter 1 verse 7 says that when we sin, the blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses us from all sin. That’s it. We’re clean. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid in full for our sins. So we don’t have to. We’re forgiven. The slate is wiped lean, and so are we.
Therefore we have no need to contribute towards our own forgiveness. We couldn’t chip in if we wanted to. Our good works can’t help us. Our suffering can’t help us. Jesus did all we need. We cannot add to his work at all.
Imagine you find yourself in debt. A kindly relative offers to pay off all your debts in full. It would be grossly unfair if a judge then ordered you to be sent to a labour camp to pay off your debts a second time.
So there’s no need for our good works or our suffering to make us clean enough for heaven. Instead, you’ll remember the verse from the hymn There is a Green Hill: There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.
Jesus has done all we need and it cost him his life. No need to scrub up ourselves.
Misconception number 2: We go to purgatory.
We go to sleep
And then the third misconception is that when we die, we go to sleep. We go to sleep.
This is the official teaching of the Seventh Day Adventists. It’s close to what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. Some Christians think this too. When we die, we go to sleep. We’re unconscious, unaware of time passing. Until Jesus comes back and wakes us up.
Now the reason why this misconception has spread is that some passages in the Bible speak of death as sleep. 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 would be one example.
But what those passages are doing is speaking of death from the perspective of those we leave behind. When someone dies, it’s seems to those of us who are left that they’ve gone to sleep. They can’t talk to us. They can’t hear us. They can’t join in with our worship. They’re asleep. And one day they’ll wake up again.
But that says nothing about what it’s like to be them. We’ve looked at other Bible passages that do tell us that. If they’re Christians, they are with Jesus, in heaven. And they’re very much conscious of that. It’s such a pleasure for them that it beats anything they enjoyed during their life on earth.
So there’s the other misconception to avoid: When we die, we go to sleep.
Before we close, let’s draw out the implications for us today. I want to give us 3.
The first is that we must trust Jesus. The future we’ve been talking about is specifically what’s promised for everyone who trusts Jesus. It’s a great future. And as I’ve hinted, it gets even better with what we’re talking about next week.
We haven’t talked about the future for those who didn’t trust and follow Jesus. And we shouldn’t speculate about those we know either.
What we can do is get our own house in order. If the future is this good for those who know Jesus, and if it’s only this good for these people, then let’s make sure we don’t miss out on it. Let’s make sure we are each trusting him with our life and our death.
A second implication is that we shouldn’t pray for the dead. This is a hard one, because when we lose people we love, we want the very best for them. But I want to encourage us to trust what the Bible says when it comes to them.
The Ancient Greeks used to place a coin either in or on the mouth of the dead. They believed that the departed would need to take a ferry across one of two rivers to get to the land of the dead. And they’d need to pay Charon, the ferryman, to take them across. The future was still uncertain for them. Would they have their fare?
The Bible assures us that those who die in Christ go straight to be with Jesus. This is paradise. There’s no scope to improve things for them. Apart from one thing: Jesus coming back.
So we don’t pray for those who have died. There’s no need. But we are encouraged to pray for the return of Jesus.
And then the third implication brings us back to where we began. We don’t need to fear death. Truly we don’t.
When we die, we live on. In fact, life gets better when we die. With Christians, it’s not a platitude to say that we go to a better place. It’s true. We go to be with Jesus in heaven.
The period between dying and Jesus coming back is not some dark, unknown phase. We don’t journey into the unknown. It’s a journey Jesus has travelled before us and come back to tell us about. It’s a journey directly to the presence of God in heaven. Jesus is already there, and there’s nothing better than joining him. There’s nothing to fear.