“Because Jesus has conquered death He is also the source of life.”
Pastor James Granger
After physical death the believer goes immediately into the presence of the Lord, and waits for his of her body to be resurrected to eternal blessing and glory with God. The unbeliever waits for his or her body to be resurrected to eternal suffering, judgement, and condemnation.
What happens when we die?
No, seriously. What really happens when we die? For as long as I can remember people around me have been fascinated with this question. When you consider the sheer volume of movies (It’s a Wonderful Life, Field of Dreams), books (The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven, Heaven is for Real), and TV Series (The Walking Dead) that explore the afterlife, it is clear that this is an ongoing conversation that is happening in our culture. How do we respond? Well, it’s not enough to simply “make our best guess” on this one. The Bible has a lot to say about life after death. Let’s dig into God’s wisdom on this topic, so we can engage our friends with Gospel truth when we encounter situations or conversations around this whole idea of living and dying. After all, the Gospel itself is all we need when it comes to matters of “life and death!”
The word “resurrection” simply means to “rise again.” Throughout the New Testament the idea of resurrection is commonly associated with a transition from death back to life. Resurrection in the Bible describes a person who has literally, physically died and then risen again to supernaturally become once again literally, physically alive. Naturally, there were many people in the first century world who had doubts about whether resurrection was even possible, just as there are many people today with similar hesitations. Yet, resurrection was (and is) a belief that is central to the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul addresses the resurrection questions this way:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:12-19
Many people in Paul’s day were openly questioning the reality of resurrection. You can sense the concern in Paul’s voice when he asks, “how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” This doubt represents a threat to the Gospel itself, and Paul’s response is decisive. He asserts that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead and that His resurrection is central to our Gospel hope and proclamation. In this passage Paul talks about three key realities about resurrection that are going to be helpful for us to remember:
Jesus is our example, because He rose from the dead.
All who have died will rise again.
Resurrection is central to the Gospel.
Let’s look at each of these truths one by one, as together they will help us develop a more complete Biblical understanding of resurrection.
Jesus Went First
On the Monday following Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene went to visit the gravesite of her dear friend and instead found an empty tomb. Over the next few hours and days Mary and the disciples went through a whole range of emotions. They experienced shock, fear, confusion, and grief. It wasn’t until Jesus Himself appeared alive that His friends began to grasp the powerful reality that He had overcome death. John remembered it like this:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.
Jesus had died. Really died. It wasn’t that He was just sick, it wasn’t that they were uneducated and couldn’t tell if a person was dead, and it wasn’t a figure of speech. They had seen Jesus die, they had buried Him in a tomb, and now here He was talking with them as they were touching the wounds on His physical body! Resurrection. The miraculous transition from death back to life. It says the disciples were “glad,” from the word “chairos,” which means “rejoice” and is also is the Greek word for “grace.” In that moment I think the disciples rejoiced in part because they experienced God’s saving grace. Not only was their friend and teacher alive, but because of His resurrection their eternal future was secured. Paul’s words later in 1 Corinthians 15 confirm this reality:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
1 Corinthians 15:19-20
This is not a fairy tale! You do not need to commit intellectual suicide to believe in the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. In his excellent book The Case For Christ, Lee Strobel dedicates an entire section to the mountain of evidence that shows that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead. Strobel divides his findings into four categories, applying both tangible evidence and critical thinking to the resurrection question. It’s fascinating to read about the medical, historical, and circumstantial evidence that exists to support the biblical claim that Jesus rose from the dead.
For me the most compelling proof comes from eyewitness testimony. In 1 Corinthians 15:6 Paul says Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive.” That’s a lot of eyewitnesses! In fact, many of the New Testament writers saw the resurrection first hand, while others spoke with witnesses who talked about what they saw. Even more convincing is the change that occurred in people who encountered the resurrected Jesus. Men and women who were at one time fearful and hesitant suddenly became bold and courageous, often to the point that they would rather die than stop proclaiming Jesus. Why the change? Simple. The risen Christ!
Everyone Will Rise
Theologians refer to Jesus’ rising as the resurrection, because of its significance to all of humankind. By rising from the dead Jesus gives everyone hope that we too can (and will) do the same. Like John, Peter was one of first to see the empty tomb and encounter the risen Jesus. Here’s his take on the resurrection:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.
1 Peter 1:3-4
Peter’s letter was written to encourage a group of people who were being persecuted for following Jesus. That’s why His words are so filled with hope. But that’s not all! Not only is Jesus our example of hope, showing us that the dead can be raised, He is the doorway to salvation, providing the “means” through which God has chosen to save us. It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we are able to experience eternal life in Christ even after our physical death. This is simply the best news we could ever hear!
Can you picture the “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” that is being kept in heaven for you? Remember, Peter was writing to believers, so he is describing the eternal future for that audience. Most of us are familiar with the idea that “Christian” people, those who have trusted in Jesus to save, will be “born again” as Peter describes. But the reality is that all people, whether they believe in Jesus or not, will indeed experience resurrection. Take a look at Luke’s statement in Acts 24:
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.
Acts 24:15-16 (emphasis added)
We’ve already learned from Peter that the “just” have the hope of heaven. Upon dying a believer goes immediately into the presence of the Lord, and waits for his body to be resurrected to eternal blessing and glory with God. But what about the “unjust,” those who don’t choose Jesus? Luke says there will be a resurrection for them as well. What will that be like? This is described in chilling detail in Revelation 20:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Whereas upon death a believer waits in hope for eternal life, the unbeliever waits for his body to be resurrected to eternal suffering, judgment, and condemnation. This tragic reality serves as motivation to all believers to live and proclaim the Gospel, because we do not know when death is coming for us or for those who might not yet know Jesus.
This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Essentially what Paul is saying is without the resurrection of Jesus the Gospel loses its teeth. It’s pointless to put your trust in a man who is still dead, and certainly then pointless to preach about Him. In fact, Paul says, apart from the resurrection our faith would be “futile” and we would be “misrepresenting God” if we preached a Gospel that didn’t include the resurrection. Wow! Strong words from Paul. It’s almost as though Paul is saying that without the resurrection there would be no Gospel.
Which is why I’m so thankful that Jesus did rise from the dead!
I recently officiated a funeral on a Tuesday, and then attended a different funeral on a Saturday. It was a sobering week, with lots of dialogue and questions about the meaning of life and the reality of death. My 15 year old son, Luke, was particularly shaken by the second funeral. It was the first time he had seen an open casket, and he was filled with a deep sadness for the person who had passed away. Words are rarely adequate in moments like those. What do you say?
Jesus was faced with a similar situation in John 11. His friend Lazarus had died, and Jesus was at the funeral along with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha:
So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met Him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Mart
ha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Death is tough stuff. Martha is wrestling with the loss of her brother, and at the same time she has confidence in Jesus. We all face the same tension.
I love Jesus’ response to His friend Martha:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
This is the Gospel. Jesus is the resurrection, and because He has conquered death He is also the source of life. Those who believe in Jesus will pass away, as Lazarus did, but will also rise again and live for eternity. How comforting it must have been to Mary and Martha to know that, as painful as it was to see Lazarus die, there was tremendous hope for their brother because of Jesus! Oh, and by the way, later in the story Jesus backed up His words by raising Lazarus from the dead. I’m sure that brought comfort beyond words to Mary and Martha as well!
What happens when we die? Perhaps you’re unsure. Maybe you’ve had doubts about God or about Christianity, or maybe you’ve never thought much about it at all. Consider the resurrected Christ! Jesus didn’t merely claim to be our Savior, He backed up His words by miraculously rising from the dead. Through Him, we have the hope of an eternal future. That’s the Gospel that is worthy of our faith, worthy of our lives, and worthy to be proclaimed to all who don’t yet know Jesus.