After Death

"Do not worry"

We live in a troubled world. None of us is immune from the stresses of life. Jesus himself experienced stress. At times he was extremely distressed. People weeping when his friend Lazarus died was more than he could bear (John 11.33). Thoughts of his own death troubled him (John 12.27). There was nothing unnatural about Jesus' own response to death. And he was troubled at the knowledge that one of his own group of disciples would betray him (John 13.21). John says he was "troubled in spirit".

But Jesus does not want us to be troubled. In his last supper talk with his disciples he said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled" (John 14.1). He didn't want and he doesn't want his followers to be unnecessarily worried. He was reported as saying in the Sermon on the Mount, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself" (Matt. 6.34).

However, we need to note that Jesus doesn't promise that the future will be trouble free. The world of "tomorrow" is not seen as an easier world. "Tomorrow" will not necessarily bring release from troubles. But these troubles do not have to invade our hearts. But how do you stop them doing so? Norman Vincent Peale tells people to "put all their cares in the waste-paper basket at the end of the day, just like a man cleaning out all his pockets and throwing into the basket all the unnecessary bits and pieces." But unless you believe that someone is going to dispose of all the rubbish, it will stay there to haunt you. It is all very well saying, "Don't worry" or "Don't be troubled". But how do you stop?

Immediately after Jesus had told his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, he said, "Believe in God." They were to have their eyes fixed on their loving heavenly Father. They needed to know that God was their creator. In the Sermon on the Mount when he was talking about worry, he had argued that, if God has already put us on this earth, he can look after us. If God watches over the birds and the flowers, of course, he will watch over us (Matt. 6.25-34). So Jesus said: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God."

"I am going to prepare a place"

But Jesus says something more is needed. A general belief in the sovereignty of God is good but not enough, if we are to overcome worry and anxiety. Jesus said, according to John, that we need quite specifically to believe in him. "Trust in God, trust also in me." Why?

The problem for the disciples at the time was that Christ had indicated he would soon die. Their worries had to do with his death. Perhaps some of them thought they might die too. They clearly did not understand all Jesus was saying. But talk of death was in the air. Peter had just said that he would be willing to "lay down" his life for Jesus (John 13.37). So Jesus proceeds to give some teaching on how to face death without the wrong sort of worry.

A consultant surgeon once said to me, "I don't know what to say to people about to die." How sad! Today many people don't know how to face death. It wasn't no different in the ancient world. Aristotle had said: "Now death is the most terrible of all things, for it is the end." The world was a world without hope. But when the Christian gospel of the resurrection from the dead was preached, a new hope came into the ancient world. It was so often "hope" that marked off the Christians. When someone from the pagan world wanted to quiz a Christian on what they believed, it was their "hope" that they wanted to know about. So the early Christians were told to "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet. 3.15).

Part of this hope, which meant that death could now be faced, came from Jesus telling his disciples where he was going. This teaching enabled them to face death without worry. So he says: "I am going ... to prepare a place for you" (John 14.2). What exactly does that mean?

Well, it certainly speaks of the separation of Jesus from his disciples in the immediate future. But the word "prepare" suggests that their parting will not be for ever. It will only be temporary. Some of his disciples had gone on to "prepare" the room where Jesus now was having his last supper. Then the rest had joined them when all was ready. In the same way Jesus has gone on, he seems to say, to prepare a place for his followers. In time they will join him. This separation implies a reunion. John Stott writes:

"So Jesus bids us think of death not as a leap into the dark unknown, but as a journey to a prepared place. It will not be like arriving in a strange town in a foreign land, where you know nobody, nobody is expecting you and you haven't even made a hotel reservation. No! Just as Jesus had sent two of his disciples ahead into the city to prepare for him to eat the Passover (Mark 14.12-15), so now he would go ahead to prepare for them."

Did Jesus say anything more about where he was going? Yes! He was specific. He spoke of the "place" as being "in my Father's house" where there "are many rooms" (John 14.2). What were these "many rooms"? Probably the reference is to "lodging places" where travellers in New Testament times could find rest and security at night. So Jesus is suggesting that he is going to a place of rest and security, and such a place awaits us the other side of death. And there is a lot of space. There are "many rooms". The Bible, far from suggesting that heaven is only to be peopled by a tiny remnant, says that it will be peopled by "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev. 7.9).

And Jesus did not only say he was going "to prepare a place". He then said, "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" (John 14.3). He has gone on but promised to come back. And he will come back, in person, and then take us with him. We won't have to go it alone. He will be by our side. This is what he seems to be saying. When will that be? The first answer is, "at his second coming." But surely this promise can also be seen to apply to our own deaths. It can be said that at that time Christ comes to take us to himself. And where exactly will we go? To be with Christ. "I will ... take you to be with me." "Christ is our destination as well as our escort."

Life after death

Who wants to know what is the essential New Testament teaching about the future life? Here it is! If you are a Christian and you want to know about your final state after the resurrection at the last day, the answer is here. If you are a Christian and want to know about the intermediate state, the state between death and the resurrection, the answer is here. Both states are spoken of as being "with Christ" or "with the Lord", for Jesus takes us to himself.

This was Paul's teaching. When he was speaking of the intermediate state as he saw it, he said that he had a "desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (Phil. 1.23). But then he spoke of the final state in these words, "so we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4.17). That is the main thing we kneed to know.

There is a story told of a doctor visiting a patient's home. He used to take his dog around with him. He left the dog downstairs on this visit. Upstairs was a man who was dying. "What is heaven like?" asked the man. "I don't know," replied the doctor who happened to be a convinced Christian. But at that moment he heard his dog scratching at the door of the patient's room. It gave him an idea. "Can you hear my dog?" "Yes." "He has no idea what is in this room. He has simply heard my voice and come up the stairs to find me. He knows I am here and wants to find me." He went on, "Heaven perhaps is like that. Jesus is there but we don't know what is inside the room! My dog wants to come in here because I am here. Similarly we can look forward to going to heaven, because Jesus is there."

We can know something of heaven. There will be full personal existence. The empty tomb is a denial of some shadowy "soul survival". There will be a true resurrection of which Christ is the "firstfruits". And we know enough about heaven. We no longer have to live with doubts and uncertainties like the believers in Old Testament times, for Christ not only "destroyed death", he has "brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1.10). As Murray Harris writes: "only with the death and resurrection of Christ did the ideas of resurrection and immortality emerge from Old Testament shadows into the full light of New Testament day."

That is why meditating on the resurrection of Jesus and all that goes with it is a comfort in death. When Paul himself was in prison and facing the prospect of death, it was the resurrection of Jesus that was one of the things uppermost in his mind. In the Pastoral epistles to Timothy we have what looks like Paul's last thoughts; and in the second epistle Timothy is told to "remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead" (2 Tim. 2.8). Paul was aware that, as he said, "the time has come for my departure" (2 Tim. 4.6). He knew he was soon to die. But Christ's resurrection gave him hope.

[Extracted from Where Did Jesus Go? by David Holloway (1983) pp 121-128]

Back to top