It's odd how little we think of death, since it is a reality that we all must face. Benjamin Franklin wrote about the relentlessness of death in the following poem:
Death is a fisherman, the world we see
His fish-pond is, and we the fishes be;
His net some general sickness, howe'er he
Is not so kind as other fishers be;
For if they take one of the smaller fry,
They throw him in again, he shall not die;
But death is sure to kill all he can get,
And all is fish with him that comes to net
~ Benjamin Franklin
Several years after he wrote this poem, his own four-year-old child died to smallpox.
One never forgets his first encounter with the death of a loved one. Some children are spared the education until their youth. Others learn tragedy early in life, even losing both father and mother to the inevitable. Though each one of us starts our lives without a thought of life's end, the first loss of a loved one teaches us a stark lesson of human frailty.
My grandfather died when I was 19. Never before had I faced such finality. I would never see him again in this life. Unspoken questions echoed in my mind with no answers. Where was he now? What happens after this life? What do I believe?
As I have grown older, thoughts about death are not so rare. The frailty of life is more evident. A truck could strike my child today and it could all be over. My body doesn't jump as high or run as fast as it did 15 years ago, and it's not hard to see what's happening. Most people have a normal fear of dying.
But it is not just dying that causes fear, but what lies beyond. Most of us have experienced pain, and although it is not pleasant, it is known to us. We do not fear what we know and understand. We fear the unknown. What happens to our soul when we die? When our body is put in the cold earth, is that the end?
Through the centuries, most cultures and religions have held a common thread of belief in a life after this one. And there are other similarities, such as a sense of justice being done. How a person lived this life determines how he will fare in the next life. Is this just primal superstition? Ancient myths? Or is there something in the heart of man, something beyond the capabilities of modern science to explain?
Hinduism says that a person is reincarnated after death, beginning another earthly life in the physical realm. The events of this life are consequences of choices and actions made in a previous life. Buddhism is similar, though without any gods involved. Good actions and bad actions produce "seeds" in the mind which come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth. Like the cycles of springtime and harvest, what a man sows he will reap.
Many people have claimed to have had a near-death experience. Even across different cultures, researchers have found similar features to these stories. Many have a sense of peace and unconditional love and a sense of being outside their body. Those who live to tell of their experience often describe seeing a tunnel with a light ahead or above. They feel drawn toward the light, often communicating with the light. Many experience a review of the events of their life. Some have a distressing experience, with a foreboding sense of dread. Those who have returned to life go on to live differently: with a greater appreciation for life, greater compassion for others, and a heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding. Some people are sure these things are real; others say they are just chemicals in the brain.
If we are to know anything about what happens after a person dies, science cannot help us. Scientific experiments must be repeatable and controllable. Cell phones and video cameras don't work on the other side. No, science cannot tell us anything. But there are other ways to know about what lies beyond this life.
Consider the ancient verse: "The wages of sin is death." During our life, all of our wrongdoings and hurtful ways earn us a punishment - our just rewards, you could say. Whatever justice was not satisfied in this life will be paid out then, just like wages paid at the end of the week.
This death is not the physical event of dying. If it were so, then we would always expect a horrible death for the wicked, and painless deaths for the kindhearted. But reality does not line up with this, often dispensing great suffering to the most compassionate, and a humane death to the worst murderers. No, the wages are not paid in the process of dying, but in what lies beyond -- Death.
The story of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 tells us some about this place of death. Lazarus was a poor man who trusted God, did good deeds, and begged for money by the gate of a rich man. The rich man hardened his heart against the poor and enjoyed the comforts of his life with annoyed indifference to the needy. Both died and went to a place of waiting -- one to a place of comfort and the other to a place of suffering.
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."
But Abraham replied, "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony."
Death is a place of torment. It is a region where departed souls go when the body dies. Its residents suffer "torment" and are "in agony in this fire." Although death lasts long, it is not eternal.
When a person dies, the physical body, the material part of him, is buried in the ground and decays. But the immaterial part goes to death. This is the soul -- the unseen part of a person. The soul is the mind and thoughts, the emotions and habits, and the will and determination. It forms our character, and it is eternal. In death, our soul receives the wages of our life's work.
Many people just assume that when a person dies, he either goes to heaven or hell immediately, but this belief is simply neither possible nor true. He goes to a place of waiting, receiving either comfort or torment based on his life's deeds. This thought might be disturbing, especially if you have recently lost a loved one and expected him or her to be somewhere else. But we can be comforted that everyone will receive exactly what he or she deserves. It helps us to know this, so that we can live our lives now accordingly.
It is appointed for a man to die once, and afterward the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
The truth is that we are all destined to go to death. Every one of us will go there when we die. We will receive the wages due to us while we wait for the final judgment.
There is only one way that a person can escape death.
The way out of death was made by a man named Yahshua. By hearing and understanding what He did, you can escape the death sentence that awaits every man. There was a man who lived in such a way that He merited no punishment in death. His life was one of selfless concern for others and overcoming every enticement to do wrong.
This man was put to death in a most painful and torturous way for a crime He did not commit. But He voluntarily received the execution because of what it would accomplish. It put Him in a place where He could take our place in death.
Yahshua went and experienced death for us. During the three days and three nights that He was there, He experienced great agony. This agony was not what He Himself deserved as wages for His life, but they were the sum-total of wages of the sins of the whole world. He felt the damage of vented rage left unmended, the broken promises, the lustful fantasies, the proud thoughts, and the uncaring laziness -- everything necessary to balance the scales of justice. Over six billion people now live on this planet, and maybe another six billion have lived here before. When He had received the full amount to be paid in the first death, there was still more to pay.
Yahshua also went and experienced the second death. He paid for the sins of the whole world. Since there were some people who deserved the second death in the lake of fire, Yahshua's soul went there to pay the full amount. The combined penalties of society's murderers, greedy bankers, unfaithful husbands, rebellious wives, pedophiles, thieves, dishonest salesmen, charlatan preachers, manipulative politicians, and every other kind of evil, both the high-class and the base, were placed upon Yahshua in rapid-fire, unrelenting succession.
Finally, it was over. The full penalty had been paid. Yahshua had taken the place of every person; He was a substitute of full value. His resurrection from the dead proved that the full amount had been paid. Unlike the other souls waiting there, nothing could hold Him in death. He was set free from death.
But God raised Him from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:24)
Because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. (Acts 2:27, quoting Psalm 16:10)
Seeing what was ahead [David, writing Psalms], spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. (Acts 2:31)
Yahshua was successful in paying the debt that we all owed. He paid it by taking our place in death. If you can understand this, you can be saved from death. For if you understand it, you will find out what it means to live for Him, since He died for you.
Since He gave everything for us, even His own life, how could we hold back anything from Him -- our possessions, our family, even our own lives? The proper response to this good news is to give up everything to follow Him. This is what it means to be His disciple.