What Happens After We Die?
Easter, Life, Death, Heaven, Hell, Eternal Life
The question of “What happens after we die?” is a question that every one of us needs to address. The question is intensely relevant when we stand in a cemetery by the casket of someone who is precious to us; or when we are facing the stark reality of our own death.
There are basically two groups of people in the world. The first group is made up of those who believe this life is all there is. We live, we die, and that is all there is. Most major religions have some notion of life beyond the grave. Jesus taught that there will be a time of judgment and reward followed by eternal life commensurate with the results of that judgment.
This morning we are going to see these two viewpoints faceoff in another confrontation between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of the day. This conversation takes place in the last week leading up to the cross. The religious leaders have been peppering Jesus with questions looking for some justification to discredit and arrest Jesus. It is likely that this conversation is also in the temple area.
27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.
The Sadducees were a smaller group than the Pharisees and had a close association with the temple and the priesthood. Consequently, they would have been most directly offended when Jesus overturned the tables of the merchants in the Temple court.
Sadducees accepted only the Scriptures as authoritative (the Pharisees also embraced oral tradition or manmade rules). They gave greatest weight to the first five books of the Old Testament (the Law) than they did the rest of Scripture. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, eternal life in Heaven, or angels and spirits. You have probably heard the little ditty that I have always found helpful. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body and that is why they are Sad-you-see?
The Sadducees believed that man determines his own destiny. (The Pharisees believed God is guiding the universe). The Pharisees looked for the promised Messiah. The Sadducees were not really eager for a Messiah because he would disrupt the status quo because they were generally wealthy and had great power. The Sadducees did not believe in a Day of Judgment.
Making Fun of Eternal Life
The Sadducees came to Jesus with a hypothetical situation,
28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
The question is anchored to a teaching in the first five books of the Law. In Deuteronomy 25:5-6 we read,
5 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
The practice was not new to Deuteronomy. Back in Genesis 38 we read the story of Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar. She married Judah’s son Er. We are told he was wicked and the Lord put him to death. Judah told Er’s brother Onan to father a child with Tamar in the name of his brother. Onan didn’t mind being intimate with Tamar but he refused to father a child by her. Tamar was then promised that the next son would “fulfill his obligation” when he was old enough. (That never happened). The purpose of the practice was to keep a family from dying out and to keep the family inheritance intact.
Another example of this is the story of Ruth. Boaz (the man who married Ruth) said to another near relative,
Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.” (Ruth 4:5)
The Sadducees affirmed this law. In this case they used that law to ridicule (they thought) the notion of a resurrection. If a woman’s husband died and she followed the law by marrying the brother and he also died without providing a child she married the next brother and this continued through seven brothers (they are taking the issue to the absurd). The question is: in the resurrection which brother will she be married to?
The contemporary counterpart to this would be a woman who had a husband (or two) who died. She remarries again and then she died. Suppose she was very happy in every marriage. The question is: “In the resurrection who will she be married to?”
The men believed they had Jesus in a no-win situation. They figured he had to either make some kind of arbitrary choice or He had to declare the resurrection was not true (to their delight and the consternation of many who were listening.)
There will always be those who ridicule the notion of eternal life. These people consider themselves to be hard-core realists. They say, “I believe we live and then we die . . . that’s it.” I always wonder what motivates them to get up in the morning. If they are right, life is really meaningless; a mad dash nowhere. I wonder where they would get any motivation to do what is good and right. You would think they would just live for themselves for as long as they have (and some do exactly that).
Unfortunately, this is not only a cry that comes from the secular world. I heard a Pastor one Easter Sunday say something like this: “This is the day that we celebrate the fact that the words and message of Jesus live on in the hearts and lives of His followers. We too know that even after we die we live on in the hearts of our loved ones forever.” I responded as I hope you respond hearing those words. I whispered to the person next to me, “Did that Pastor just deny the real resurrection of Christ and those who follow Him?
It is possible that I misunderstood what the Pastor was saying. But I don’t think so. I know that people say these things all the time. “You loved one will live forever in your memories.” That’s not a true statement! Memories diminish over time. At best you and I will be remembered for a couple of generations . . . perhaps into a third or in rare cases a fourth generation. Only if you did something incredible in history will your life and deeds be recalled in history books.
The Bible teaches that there is real life following death. Let’s be clear: anyone (whether they sit in front of a pulpit or stand behind it) who denies the resurrection of the dead is not a Christian!
Jesus’ Teaching on Heaven
Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees was unexpected. Jesus says: “You are asking an invalid question”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection
Jesus pointed out that these men were viewing Heaven as if it were a continuation of earth. He said there is no marriage in Heaven because people no longer die (we don’t need to perpetuate the race). Jesus said we will be like the angels. This does not necessarily mean that we will have wings; it simply means that we will live forever in the presence of the Lord and will spend our lives serving Him. We will no longer sin. We will know the will of God, and we will do it perfectly and joyfully.
Obviously this teaching runs contrary to that of the Muslims (who look forward to getting many virgins in Heaven), and the Mormons who say marriage is “celestial” to enable us to populate various worlds as we ascend to divinity.
This idea that there is no marriage in Heaven is a great disappointment to some (and a great relief to others, I suppose). Many of us look forward to being with our spouse and family in Heaven. Will that relationship be different in Heaven? Yes it will. But it will not be worse!
Marriage is a unique relationship of intimacy in this world. I believe Jesus is saying every relationship in Heaven will surpass the marital relationship in Heaven! We will know each other fully. We will love each other intelligently. We will know an intimacy that is greater than that which can be achieved by sexual union. This is not a bad thing . . . it is a good thing!
Understanding the Bible’s Teaching
37 But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Jesus not only made this declaration of what Heaven will be like, He went back to the Old Testament (and in this case He went back to the book of Exodus and the very Law the Sadducees revered) to show that the teaching about the resurrection is found throughout the Old Testament.
Jesus referred to the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3. (Jesus does not give the reference because references were added much later for our benefit). Jesus referred to verse 6 and pointed out that God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He said “I am (present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who had died a long time before this).”
If someone comes to you and says, “I was your father’s (or your mother’s) friend,” it may be because your parent is dead or there has been a change in their relationship. But if someone said, “I am your father’s (or mother’s) friend,” two things are implied: the existence of your parent and the ongoing relationship they have with your parent. So when God said, not “I am the God of Abraham”,” he declares not only Abraham’s existence, but his ongoing relationship with him. You can’t have an ongoing relationship with one who is gone.
The Old Testament is filled with other references to life beyond the grave let me give you a few examples,
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2, 3)
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. (Isaiah 26:19; cf. 25:8)
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. (Psalm 73:24; cf. vv. 25–28)
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25–27)
The point Jesus is making is solid. The Sadducees who said they revered the Scriptures alone did not understanding this plain teaching of Scripture. The Bible affirms life beyond the grave from its very earliest chapters.
There have been some very popular books out about life after death. Two of them, “30 minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is for Real” are books widely embraced in the Christian community. The first was written by a Pastor who was in a serious car accident. Rescuers left him for dead. The Pastor revived and tells of hearing wonderful music and meeting relatives and friends who had died.
The second book is a captivating story about a four year old little boy who tells of sitting on the lap of Jesus, of meeting a miscarried sister of whom he had no knowledge, and a meeting with a young version of a Grandfather he had never met. His story is a great encouragement that there is indeed a life beyond the grave for those who believe.
As captivating as these stories are, our real confidence in life beyond the grave comes from the Bible and from the lips of Jesus. Jesus talked about being the Resurrection and the life, He told the story of the Rich man and Lazarus giving us a vivid description of the eternal states before the door of Heaven was opened by the resurrection of Christ. And Jesus gave us teaching such as this passage before us to affirm that not only is there life beyond the grave; it is a life that is wonderful and different.
The exclamation point for life beyond the grave is the resurrection and post death appearances of Jesus Himself. As Bill Gaither has written, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow”. I am persuaded that we can confidently live this life knowing we shall live again.
We should look forward to seeing loved ones who have gone before us. The threat of our impending death should be tempered by the reality of a future reunion. But the real glory of Heaven is being in the presence of Jesus.
Todd Burpo (author of Heaven is for Real) tells about a time he took his four-year old with him to visit a man who was dying in the hospital. Todd prayed for the man and then turned to talk to the family. As they talked, his son Colton moved toward the man.
As we watched, Colton reached up and grabbed Harold’s hand. It was an E. F. Hutton moment. Everyone watched intently, listening. Colton peered earnestly up into Harold’s face and said, “It’s going to be okay. The first person you’re going to see is Jesus.” (Todd Burpo Heaven is for Real- p. 119)
If we embrace the Bible’s teaching of life beyond the grave and embrace the truth of what Jesus says to us then we need to ask ourselves a question: How would we live if we believed what the Bible affirms about life beyond the grave?
- We would spend less time fretting about the temporary things of this world and more time dreaming about the glories of the next world.
- We would stop frantically trying to lengthen our days and spend more time trying to make our days count for eternity.
- We would make preparing for Heaven the top priority of our lives (since Heaven lasts forever). In other words we would stop pushing aside developing a relationship with God and pursue Him with energy and anticipation.
- We would make choices based on their eternal consequences rather than on the immediate consequences (the popular notion that “I have to do what makes me happy”)
- We would grieve differently. As Paul said, we would not grieve “like the rest of men who have no hope.”
- We would stop neglecting talking to friends and relatives about what it means to be a follower of Christ because our greatest desire would be to make sure that such people share eternity with us.
A belief in eternal life, heaven and hell is not just a theological issue. It is intensely practical. If we believe the words of Jesus it will impact everything we do from this day forward. Despair will be replaced by hope; drudgery will give way to anticipation; indifference will be replaced by living with focus. Believing in a real eternity will quite frankly change everything!
The Sadducees were trying to trip up Jesus and show to the world He was not worth following. Instead, I hope they have encouraged you, like they have encouraged me, to follow Him more fervently, joyfully, and expectantly.