What Happens When We Die?
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, May 1, 2022
Reading: Luke 24:13-16; 28-43
“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:1-3
Heaven and the afterlife is an intensely hot topic. A shelf or two of books are published every year about it, with accounts from people being resuscitated after being clinically dead, there are stories that lead to questions that point to mystery all wrapped in the unknown.
What happens after we die? Is there a heaven? Personally, I’m a complete believer. No doubt whatsoever about the resurrection of Jesus, and what it shows to us about a life beyond this world. But I know there are skeptics. I encourage them to do a re-think. It’s been said, “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” I believe the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is compelling, and that means there is an afterlife.
What will it be like? Who will be there? Most of us have ideas of what it will be like, and opinions as to who’ll be there and who won’t be let in. Most people vote against Hitler, and all but the grumps vote in Mother Teresa. But can we reasonably believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Because all our hopes and opinions are founded on his resurrection.
YES, for four convincing reasons:
First, the tomb was empty. No one produced a body and said, “Here he is! Now knock it off with this resurrection nonsense!” An empty tomb leaves us with only two reasonable options: either someone removed the body – which means that the women and disciples lied or were mistaken – or God raised Jesus.
Secondly, some people claimed that they encountered Jesus after his death. Often people will report having had an encounter with a dead loved one. But no one who has reported such an encounter then goes to the grave to discover the body is missing. The Christian claim is that the tomb was empty, and he appeared to many witnesses.
Third, there is no evidence that the post-resurrection witness had any opportunity to fabricate false testimony. The New Testament does not record a pristine, ordered sequential story. Instead, it is a series of snapshots, a scrapbook of undated stories that, taken together, give a full picture of the Resurrection.
This strongly suggests that those who testified to Jesus’ resurrection did not confer with each other to get their stories straight. If the Resurrection claim is fabricated, and the disciples and women colluded to cover up the truth, then the stories about the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus would be cunningly woven together to present a coherent story. Instead, it is a breathless account from a series of eyewitness, each with their experience.
Finally, the first people to witness the empty tomb and the risen Jesus were women. Jewish courts in the first century rarely permitted women to testify. But believers did not alter their story to make it more convincing. Rather they told the story as it happened. Women were the first people to see the tomb empty and the first to see the resurrected Jesus. If Jesus’ followers had been fabricating the resurrection of Jesus, they would never have included a woman, especially not Mary Magdalene, in their cast of witnesses.
So, I am a complete believer. To me, the historical evidence is too compelling to come up with any other explanation. God raised Jesus from the dead, in some bodily form, and his relationship with his followers continued at a new transformed level of existence.
That leads to more dreams and possibilities, which leads to more questions. If Jesus is alive, after being dead and buried, then that means that the promise of another life is true for us too. “I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am… Because I live, you shall live also.” John 14:3, 19
So, we make the case.
I would clarify that the case we construct is not of resuscitation of a dead body – it is transformation to a new form of existence. “Jesus’ resurrection body was not of this world; it belonged to the age to come. Jesus’ resurrection body was no longer subject to the laws of time and space. He had entered the world of God….
Before he was known as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote “…after his resurrection Christ did not go back to his previous earthly life, as we are told Lazarus did. Jesus rose again to definitive life, which is no longer governed by the chemical and biological laws and therefore stands outside the possibility of death, in the eternity conferred by love.”
So, Easter is about a whole new dimension of reality. What can we know about this?
It is fundamentally mystery, and surprise. Henri Nouwen, who taught at Yale and Notre Dame, once shared a beautiful explanation of what resurrected/eternal life will be like. He said that every time he traveled anywhere in the world and landed at some strange airport he had a little hope, a fantasy, that someone would be there who would say, “Hi Henri, welcome.” It would be somebody who knew him well, and who would welcome him with an embrace and a smile.
He always dreamed of this happening, but it never did. He would say to himself, “It’s all right. When I get home my friends or family will be there.” Nevertheless, the wish persisted. He would land, and hope, and each time he was disappointed. Then he remembered that when he arrived back home, his friends and family would be there.
Henri said: “The resurrected life, in heaven, is going to be like that. God will be there, along with my family and friends who have gone ahead, and they will say, “Hey Henri, glad to see you. How was it? Let’s see your pictures.” Easter is about beautiful surprise, and hopeful mystery. I’m understanding this more and more.
When I was young, I wanted all the proofs and explanations, and I studied and researched and made the case. I’m past that now. What has happened to me in the last 35 years is the confident wonder of seeing God as bigger, more compassionate, more available, and close. God is more relevant, more dynamic than I had ever expected or experienced. And God is in charge. We often think and act as if we are in charge of the universe, but God is – absolutely. I accept and take comfort in the certain hope that some unexplainable events bring.
A minister I know was in conversation with a woman whose husband had died six months before at the age of sixty.
He was in perfect health, she said, and in our neighbourhood, he was known as the healthiest one. He went into the hospital for a minor operation on his foot, and something went wrong, and his heart stopped. By the time his heart started beating again eight minutes had passed and he was brain damaged.
After his death a friend and I went back to our ocean-front house and stood looking out the picture window. We saw an extraordinary rainbow that arched from one part of the ocean all the way to the other side. We had the feeling that God was telling me my husband was okay, that there was something beyond, that he was continuing, and he was in good shape.
Later that afternoon, she went on, the doorbell rang. But when I went to answer, nobody was there. Several times over the next three days the doorbell would ring, I’d run to the door and there was nobody. Finally, I called out my husband’s name, and said, ‘okay, I know you’re all right. You can leave me alone. This is beginning to bother me,’ and he stopped.
Friends, God does some things in strange and wonderful ways.
That same minister who talked with that widow, lost a son named Chuck. The last years of Chuck’s life were difficult. He was disappointed and troubled. His life was not working out. He had started going to a church and he befriended the minister there. Chuck would sit in the back row, seemingly wanting to, and waiting to connect with God.
Then unexpectedly and still young, he died. After his death, his father felt that his son was not at peace – as if his spirit was unhappy and stuck. So, the father started praying for his son every single day. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on Chuck. Make haste to help him. Rescue him and save him.” Over and over and over again. He prayed this for more than a year, still feeling his son was not free to pass over to the other side.
Then one day he got a call from a friend who was very spiritually mature, and attuned. She said, “I had a dream about your Chuck the other night. He said, “Would you call my dad and tell him I’m all right.”
A few nights later the father had a remarkable dream. Chuck had been a ferry boat captain, and all his life he loved and worked around boats. In the dream his father saw him sitting in a small rowboat, he was looking straight ahead, very serious, with no expression on his face. The boat was stuck on a mud flat. Then after a while, the boat gradually began to rise and pull loose and move ahead, faster and faster, then it disappeared into the distance.
When The father woke up and felt Chuck had a last passed over to the other side.
Friends, God does things in strange and wonderful ways sometimes.
So, we’ll have questions? And that’s okay.
C.S. Lewis was asked what he thought heaven and the afterlife would be like. He answered with cheerful confidence, “Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.”
And so, I live with anticipation toward God’s future, and a sense of purpose. To live the resurrected life now, not waiting for something beyond, but join Jesus now, in living within God’s presence and reign. That affects who I am and who I become.
“The most important thing in your life, is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity. You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” Prof. Dallas Willard
You see Easter has implications for this wounded planet, this broken humanity – how much pain and suffering do we see. The wounds are there, if we’re looking, around the world, in war zones, disaster zones, and close by, on friends and family. The sad reality is, we have some work to do. Easter resurrection hope is not just about life after death, it’s about healing and resurrection here and now.
Philip Yancey says: “One detail in the Easter stories has always intrigued me: why did Jesus keep the scars from his crucifixion? Presumably he could have had any resurrected body he wanted, and yet he chose one identifiable by scars that could be seen and touched. Remember?
“…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”0 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced…” John 20:19-20
I believe the story of Easter would be incomplete without those scars on the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus. The scars are, to Jesus, an emblem of life on our planet; a permanent reminder of what he was about. I take hope in Jesus’ scars. Because of Easter, I can hope that the tears we shed, the blows we endure, the emotional pain, the heartache over the brokenness, all these will become memories. Scars never completely go away, but neither do they hurt any longer.
Jesus sacrificial death on the cross on Good Friday demonstrates that God has not abandoned us to our pain. Jesus took our wounds onto himself. And the Resurrection shows that in the end, suffering will not triumph. God is at work mending the world. And the scars on Jesus resurrected body call all of us to join with him.
We are Easter people. And that has eternal implication and inspiring opportunities.
Go in peace and may the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road,
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, stretch out your hands to serve.
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your hearts to love.
May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you.
This both now and forevermore.