Dying and Death Is a Transition

January 18, 2014

In my contemplation of death, my own and yours—both happening some time in the future, today or decades from now—I have been grappling with the question of why it is hard to die, and we will come back to this in a day or two. We struggle through a process of grief, starting with denial of death itself. Today, I’d like to examine what we have been trying to avoid our whole lives, what is going on when we die. The topic is huge, so I start today with biblical input and some interpretation from N. T. Wright. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about implications.

So first, starting first with what the Word brings to Life and Death and developing a theological framework: I think many of us Christians tend to jump ahead into the story, by going straight to the Apostle Paul, but we cannot do this without acknowledging an Old Testament view of death.

Starting with the curse in the Garden, God says to Adam and Eve:

            By the sweat of your face
                        you shall eat bread
            until you return to the ground,
                        for out of it you were taken;
            you are dust,
                        and to dust you shall return.”

The Psalmist writes about “descending to Sheol.” In Psalm 88:3-7, for instance, Sheol refers to the grave or the condition of being dead. The Pit is dark and deep, out of touch with any help that might have been available prior to death. This place is not heaven or hell, but a state of “life after death,” and there is no reversal.

King Hezekiah, contemplating the danger and imminent death he faces, is quoted by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 38. He refers to Sheol as a destination separated from this life, a discarding of this bodily dwelling.  Whatever efforts he had made at weaving a beautiful life will be torn from the loom (38:12b). It is truly finished at death.

However, in Isaiah 26:19, we see a glimmer of “resurrection hope,” though that term is still not part of the Hebrew vocabulary. Isaiah writes:

But your dead will live;
                        their bodies will rise.
            You who dwell in the dust,
                        wake up and shout for joy.
            Your dew is like the dew of the morning;
                        the earth will give birth to her dead.

So then, as Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of God, we see a new reality demonstrated. The sick are healed! The dead are raised! There is more to the story than physical death, though that is still acknowledged as part of the human experience. Jesus understood his own impending death to accomplish something that would have a great impact on our dying and the expectation of what is to come. Consistent with the Old Testament teaching that a trip to Sheol was irreversible, we get this sense even from Jesus (well-developed in Paul) that it is a stop along the Way, and that there is something more that will happen that moves a soul from Sheol to a new reality.

In N. T. Wright’s reflection on 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, he distinguishes between “life after death and “life after life after death.” The key thought is that that the last and greatest enemy Jesus defeats is death itself, a war fought in stages. Yes, he defeated death by rising after his own crucifixion, but a great drama is still playing out in the lives of every single person who has died before and since.

20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.  24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.  25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

To make a long story short, but to pull together the OT and NT threads here, this is what N. T. Wright thinks is happening in the grand scheme (spelled out in Surprised by Hope):

Transition #1:
This physical life –> FIRST DEATH (the death of our earthly bodies) –> LIFE AFTER DEATH (a place of rest in the presence of God, where our souls are tended while waiting for what is to come, in one of those “rooms” Jesus has prepared for each of us, John 14:2f. This isn’t unconscious sleep, nor heaven, but “paradise,” the garden for our refreshment.)

Transition #2:
[FINAL JUDGMENT] –> THE RESURRECTION –> LIFE AFTER LIFE AFTER DEATH, when we receive a new immortal physicality and reign with Christ forever (cf. Rev. 5:10). One way of looking at this is that we acquire new hardware (imperishable body) that is able to run the “immortal software” (eternal life).

Chew on that overnight, and we will pick up where we left off tomorrow.





4 Responses to “Dying and Death Is a Transition”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Can’t quite grasp your use of “immanent” or do you mean “imminent”? I love NT Wright and have more than several of his books on a shelf, including The Case for the Psalms which is a grabber.

  2. revmary Says:

    Ooh, good catch, Eleanor! I’ve corrected to “imminent”—that’s what I get for writing at 4 a.m. when no editor is available 😉

    • emd5542 Says:

      Oh Pastor/Preacher/Teacher Mary, your words are stellar, God-given to your faithful mind, heart and soul, and on target for our minds, hearts and souls no matter the hour or even a minor flub. God speaks and you listen. We’d all do well to follow and do likewise. Press on, dear lady.

  3. L. Lee Says:

    I think you have another book to add to your list. These
    Writings on facing the “death” is profound. You go beyond the clinical, capture the Scriptural, and then add the personal.
    I am praying for you to have a full recovery and healing.
    Can you add a chapter on how to pray in the face of
    Critical illness as you are facing. How does this affect your
    approach to prayer? I want to read your books one day.

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