If you're here through being invited, can I say thanks for coming – especially if it's your first time. I heard the story of a young boy's first time in church. There was a war memorial on the wall and half way through, this boy whispered, 'Dad, what are those names up there?' And Dad whispered back, 'They're the people who died in the services.' And wide-eyed the boy said, 'What, the morning services or the evening services?' Well, don't worry. We have a 100% record of people coming out alive! But we need to face the fact that none of us will stay that way. So the 'Big Question' we're tackling today is: 'What happens when you die?'
And I know that's a sensitive question. But it's such an important question – and yet many people have either no answer, or just wishful thoughts about what might happen, whereas the Christian message says: there is an answer, and it's not just wishful thinking. But before we look at that, let me tell you the two most common answers I hear today. And the first is that…
'Death is the end of you'
That's what Stephen Hawking believes. He's the world-famous scientist they made that film about – 'The Theory of Everything'. And he said in an interview with The Guardian:
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. And there is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that's a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
Now he certainly knows more than us about black holes in space. But who is he to say there's nothing beyond death? Has he been and come back? Or does he have a telescope that can see the other side? And who is he to say we're nothing but computers? In fact, you hear a lot of people saying, 'We're nothing but…': 'We're nothing but biological machines'; 'We're nothing but a bunch of chemicals'. For example, one philosopher said:
"What is a human being? The answer is: fat enough to make 7 bars of soap, iron enough to make one nail, sugar enough for 7 cups of tea, lime enough to whitewash one garden shed, magnesium enough for one dose of salts, phosphorus enough to tip 2,000 matches, and sulphur enough to treat one dog for fleas."
The implication being: that's all that will be left of you when you die: you have no soul, there is no you that will last beyond death. But is that all we are?
So one answer you hear is that death is the end of you. But the answer I hear most is...
'I hope death isn't the end'
So, for example, one of the top poems used in non-religious funerals goes like this:
"Perhaps if we could see
The splendour of the land
To which our loved are called from
You and me
Perhaps if we could hear
The welcome they receive
From old familiar voices –
all so dear –
We would not grieve."
And so it goes on. And I guess most people would wish that was true – the big, happy reunion in the end (even if you have slight reservations about Aunt Matilda being there, too). But we can't just believe things because we want them to be true. We need good reason, don't we? So, for example, I was talking to a woman at a funeral I did recently. And she said, 'I'd like to believe there's something beyond death. But no-one has come back to tell us, have they?' And the Christian answer is, 'Yes, they have.' The Christian answer is that Jesus Christ died and then rose to life-beyond-death, to show us that's real.' So let me show you some of the evidence for that.
The Christian answer… about what happened to Jesus when he died
We're going to look first at a bit of John's Gospel. John was one of the eyewitnesses who followed Jesus, and this (John chapter 20) is some of his evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. The background to it is that Jesus claimed to be God's Son come into this world as a man. But the leaders of the time didn't believe him. So they got him put to death for blasphemy – saying what only God should say. So Jesus was crucified on Good Friday. His body was then taken down from the cross, wrapped in burial cloths, and put in a tomb cut out of rock, with a stone over the entrance. And the leaders who'd got him crucified were very keen to show that he was dead and disproved. So they got a guard put on the tomb, so that no-one could move the body and start any rumour to the contrary.
And the bit of John's Gospel we're going to look at is about what happened 36 hours later. So it was first thing Sunday, and some of the women who'd followed Jesus went to the tomb to finish off the burial. So look down at John 20.1-2 and you'll see that it says:
"Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved [that's John, who wrote this], and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
Now people often ask, 'Can you really trust this stuff? I mean, these people never did science. So weren't they a bit gullible and likely to believe in miracles when there was actually a rational explanation?' But that's not how Mary comes across, is it? She doesn't instantly think, 'Oh, Jesus has risen from the dead.' She thinks exactly what you would have thought: 'Someone has moved the body.' Let's read on, verses 3-7:
"So Peter went out with the other disciple [that's John], and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself."
So on the run the two of them would have been thinking, 'Who could have moved the body?' And there was really only one answer because, like I said, the leaders who got Jesus crucified also got the tomb guarded. So they were the only ones who could have moved the body. But there's no way they would have done, because they wanted to make absolutely sure it stayed put, to show that Jesus was dead and disproved. So Peter and John knew that the only people who could have moved the body wouldn't have done. And then they went inside the tomb, and saw the burial cloths left looking as if the body had just passed through them. And in verse 8, John says that's when he began to believe the body had actually been moved supernaturally:
"Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed"
So fact number 1: Jesus really died. Fact number 2: Jesus' body was gone. And then fact number 3 is that: Jesus appeared alive again, bodily risen from the dead. Look down to verses 10-13:
"Then the disciples went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.""
And you may be thinking, 'Now you're asking me to believe in angels – and I'm not sure I can really swallow them.' To which I'd say: just stick to the main issue of making up your mind about whether Jesus really rose from the dead. Because if he did, then he really is God's Son, and there really is a God, and there really is life beyond this life, and so angels aren't so hard to swallow after all. Let's read on, verses 14-17:
"Having said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. [In other words, she didn't realise it was Jesus – because, after all, last time she'd seen him, he'd been dead]. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary." [And whether it was that he knew her name, or that she suddenly recognised his voice the penny dropped and...] She turned and said to him in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'""
So Mary has obviously grabbed him, thinking, 'He's back!' But Jesus says to her, 'No, let go of me. Because I haven't come back into this life, again. I've gone through death into life-beyond-death. And that's where I now belong – back in heaven, with my Father. And I'm just appearing to you temporarily to show you that is real.'
So Stephen Hawking says: life beyond death is a fairy story. Whereas John says: Jesus rose from the dead to show us that it's real. So who are you going to believe?
Now if you're just giving the Christian message a look, I wouldn't expect you just to believe what I've said straight away – because someone rising from the dead isn't that easy to believe. As a teenager, a friend of mine called Paul once looked after the neighbours' pets while they were away. And the first day he went round, Paul took his dog. He'd fed the indoor animals and was just coming out to do the rabbits, only to find his dog with one of them dead in its mouth. So Paul thought 'Do I confess... or cover up?' And he decided to cover up – because, thankfully, it was an all-black rabbit with no distinct markings, so he bought a good match in a pet shop, and popped it in the hutch. Well, the day after the neighbours got back, they phoned him. And Paul said, 'I hope the animals are all OK.' And the neighbours said, 'They are. We're just a bit surprised about the black rabbit. We forget to tell you, but the day before we left, it died. So we buried it in the garden… and we're just trying to explain to the kids how come Sootie's alive again.' And you can see their point – because dead rabbits stay dead (although dogs will be dogs and dig them up again).
And likewise, all our experience says that dead people stay dead, which is why I wouldn't expect you just to believe what I've said straight away. But I would want to say, 'Those of us here who are Christians are convinced it's true. And we hope you'll come back again, and look into it some more.'
But so far I've only really half answered today's 'Big Question'. Because I've said what happened to Jesus when he died. But the queston is, 'What happens to us, when we die?' So to see what Jesus said about that, we'll look at one more bit of John's Gospel – John chaper 14.
The Christian answer… about what happens to us when we die
So, Jesus died on Good Friday. And John chapter 14 records what he said to his disciples the night before. So look down at John 14.2 and you'll see that Jesus said:
"In my Father's house [in other words, heaven] are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?"
So Jesus said that heaven is like a family home and that, for someone trusting in him, death is nothing to fear – it's a wonderful homecoming. A Christian friend of mine died of cancer recently and in his last two days, in and out of consciousness, he just kept saying under his breath, 'Soon home.'
So Jesus said,
"In my Father's house are many rooms… I am going to prepare a place for you"
And he didn't mean that he was going next stop back to heaven, to prepare the rooms – you know, to check they'd been cleaned and had fresh flowers, and so on. He meant that he was going next stop to the cross, to pay for the forgiveness we need, if we're to get right with God and be with him in heaven, because no-one gets to heaven unless they're forgiven and changed by Jesus.
Many people have told me they have some kind of belief in heaven. And they always seem to think that everyone they know will get there. So, for example, just the other day, we had a workman round and I got chatting with him. He said that his Mum had died just a few weeks earlier. 'But,' he said, 'She was a good person and I'm sure she's up there looking down on us right now.' But the Bible says that's not the way it is. The Bible says that we haven't lived the good lives we think we have (and sometimes say we have – you know, 'I've never done anyone any harm', 'I've always tried my best' and so on). Instead, the Bible says we've each said to God, 'I don't want you running my life. I'm going to run it myself, my own way.' So what we actually deserve is for God to judge us and turn us away from heaven.
I heard a tragic story on the radio the other day. It was an interview with a Dad whose oldest son had got into hard drugs. To feed his habit this son had stolen from everyone else in the family. He'd become violent and destructive in the home. And he'd refused all help. So finally, they changed all the locks on the doors and put security on the windows so that he couldn't get in. And they made him live in the garage. And this Dad said, 'It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But he needed to know that if he wouldn't treat us properly, then he couldn't be part of our family home.' And Jesus said if we don't treat God properly, if we keep saying, 'No, I don't want you running my life,' then in the end, God will have to say 'No' to us – 'No, I can't have you in my kingdom of heaven.' Because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King.
I know that sounds hard. But Jesus said there is a hell as well as a heaven. And if there wasn't, it would mean that everyone, in the end, would be swept into heaven – whether they wanted God to be King or not. That would mean that heaven was no different from here: it would be the same unresolved mixture of good and evil that runs through every one of us, whereas what makes heaven heaven is that everyone there has been forgiven, and changed into people who want God to be King, and who are finally, perfectly, living the way he made us to. And that's why I said a moment ago that no-one gets to heaven unless they're forgiven and changed by Jesus. Because that's what Jesus himself said in that first bit of John's Gospel we read. If you've still got it in front of you, look at John 14.6.
"Jesus said… "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.""
In other words, Jesus is saying to us, 'I am the only way by which you can get right with God my Father and be with him in the end, in heaven. That doesn't happen to anyone except through me.'
So, the question was, 'What happens when you die?' And Jesus says three things to that:
- Firstly, he says that death will not be the end of you – because he rose from the dead to show it's not.
- Secondly he says that where we spend that life-beyond-death, whether in heaven or hell, depends entirely on how we respond to him – whether or not we ask him to forgive us and change us.
- And thirdly, he says: that's what he wants to do for us. The whole reason he came into this world, and died on the cross, and rose again is that God wants to restore the relationship between him and us.
That's the relationship we've found. And the reason we're doing these Big Question events is just to say, 'Please will you come back, and make use of what goes on here, to find out more about that relationship for yourself?'