One of the simplest descriptions of death given in all of Scripture comes from Jesus as he explains his plans to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus. He tells his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11).
Sleep is the most widely used metaphor for death in the Bible.
Some Christians talk about death using language that the Bible never uses, and Jesus never endorsed. Here are some examples.
the travel metaphor
Some talk about death as if the dead person (or his soul or spirit) has travelled to a far-away place. It is very comforting to think that a loved one has “gone to a better place.” But is it Christian? The Bible says that the better place is coming to us. When Jesus returns, he will set up his eternal kingdom on this earth, redeemed, restored, and glorified. The Christian hope is not going some place. The Christ hope is a coming someone: Jesus himself.
joined the angels
Usually, the person has traveled to heaven, and has joined the angels. The Bible says that when Jesus returns, his angels will accompany him to earth, where they will assist in gathering the righteous dead for the resurrection harvest. Paul calls this time “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). He does not mention humans making that return trip.
Some people actually talk about the deceased as if they have actually become angels. This is absurd. Angels are actually sent by God to minister to us (Hebrews 1:14). God has greater things in store for us than simply becoming angels.
joined the heavenly choir/ playing a harp
Some people think that dying makes a person become musical. That would be nice. I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, and I can hardly play the radio. It would really be nice to think that I was going to join some great worship jam session in heaven when I died.
Alas, the Bible shoots down that proposition as well. David said “For no one mentions your name in the realm of death, In Sheol who gives you thanks?” (Psalm 6:5 NET). He was asking a rhetorical question that called for a negative answer. No one gives God thanks in the realm of death (Hebrew Sheol). David’s plea was for God to keep him alive so that he could continue to send up songs of praise. The psalm would make no sense if David anticipated going to join a heavenly orchestra when he died.
Peter said of David “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day” (Acts 2:29 KJV). He knew where David was, and there was no music there.
The music will come when the Bridegroom returns for his wedding feast. But we do not have to wait to start sharing the music that is in our hearts. Believers are to be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20). Death does not make us musical. Life does.
Some view death as a release from the prison of the body to enjoy freedom forever. Nothing captures this hope better than the famous epitaph of Solomon Pease:
“Under the sod and under the trees
Here Lies the body of Solomon Pease
The Pease are not here
There’s only the pod
The Pease shelled out and went to God.”1
Who would not want to believe that death brings release from the pain and sufferings of this life? Yet, once again, the Bible places the terminus of rescue and escape not at death, but at the coming of Christ. As tempting as it is to believe that death will bring rescue, the most that we can say biblically is that at death the suffering will end. The rescue comes when the rescuer comes. No one shells out of his body at death.
Even Jesus – when he died on the cross – went to the grave and stayed there until his resurrection. He told Mary “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). Death did not bring escape for him. It was his resurrection which enabled him to escape from death. His resurrection guarantees ours. His return will be our means of escape. Jesus promised that when he comes the dead will be in their tombs and will hear his voice and be raised to life again (John 5:28-29).
gone to their reward
Some people think that death is the gateway to the reward that Jesus promised those who are faithful to him.
Martha would disagree. She stood next to the tomb of her brother, and refused to believe that he had been rewarded. She did not believe that he was anywhere but in that tomb. Her theology was biblical. She told Jesus that she knew that her brother would rise again, and that it would happen on the last day (John 11:24).
Martha’s eschatology (doctrine of the last things) was spot-on. Her Christology needed a little help. She had said to Jesus “even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22).
Jesus told 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” (John 11:25-26). Jesus was talking about that resurrection day that Martha had mentioned. He said that on that day if any of his followers will have died, like Lazarus had, he will raise them back to life again. Then (he said) on that day any of his followers who are still living will never die at all. That is a great reward. It is so much better than shelling out and leaving the pod!
Jesus does speak of believers being repaid for their acts of righteousness toward the poor. He says that those who do acts of kindness toward those who cannot repay them will be “repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). That does not happen at death. It will happen when Jesus comes back to raise people from the dead.
Jesus came to the tomb of his friend that day to give us all a visual demonstration of the resurrection at the last day. His friend had fallen asleep and he purposely waited until that happened.
Jesus shouted his friend’s name. “Lazarus, come out.” He didn’t say “come down” because his friend had not gone anywhere. He had simply fallen asleep. The shout from Jesus is all it took to wake him.
Someday, you and I will fall asleep. Do not fear. All it will take is a shout from our friend, Jesus, to wake us up again.
1Sandra L. Bertman, Facing Death (London: Taylor & Francis, 1991), 29.