Approaching Death

                       

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  • The second date on your gravestone (and mine) is already fixed and known to God. And the world, including our own little world, will go on without us. Death is the one certain thing about our future. We Christians should take the lead in facing up to our own death and sensitively encouraging others to do the same. This study of the End Times is not meant to be theoretically. We need to ask how we should live in the light of the Bible’s teaching about the End Times, and that includes the subject of death.
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  • The Bible takes a healthy, realistic approach to death. James writes: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). David said: “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure. Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be” (Psa 39:4-6). The Psalmist prays: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psa 90:12).
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  • However the Bible also refers to the “terrors of death” (Psa 55:4) and “the anguish of the grave” (Psa 116:3) and many of us do indeed have a fear of death. That is natural and we should face up to the fact that we have that fear without feeling ashamed, seeking help and advice if necessary.
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  • An organisation called the Dying Matters Coalition (http://dyingmatters.org/) was set up in the UK in 2009 and has produced a wide range of resources to help people start conversations about dying, death and bereavement. It points out that 81% of people have not written down any preferences around their own death, and only a quarter of men (25%) and just over one in three women (35%) across England have told anyone about the funeral arrangements they would like to have after they die. Nearly two thirds (63%) of us would prefer to die at home, yet of the 500,000 people who die each year in England, 53% die in hospital. They also point out that families commonly report that it comes as a relief to everyone once the subject is brought out into the open.
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  • Although not a Christian organisation, Dying Matters speaks of the importance of dealing with spiritual questions:
  • “These questions might relate to meaning, hope, identity, acceptance, loss, forgiveness or reconciliation. They might involve difficult emotions; people who are seriously ill can feel guilt, shame, fear, sadness, worry or anger, a combination of these emotions and many more. Often spiritual worries do not present themselves in clear and philosophical terms. There might just be a feeling of overwhelming pain, which sometimes manifests in physical form, leading to what is termed ‘total pain’.”
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  • Dying Matters is doing good work with their Dying Matters Awareness Weeks. Since 2009 they “have distributed more than 750,000 different items, from DVDs, posters and leaflets through to pens, postcards and balloons! A host of different organisations including hospices, hospitals, care homes, community centres, financial advisers and funeral directors have all used them to successfully raise awareness in their area.” It might seem slightly surreal to have balloons about death but facing up to death is very healthy.
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  • Promotion to Glory

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  • However, we Christians can go way beyond this. We know that death for the believer is, to use that wonderful phrase from the Salvation Army, “Promotion to Glory.”  What a prospect! Matthew said the coming of Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matt 4:16). He came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:14-15).
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  • Another great fact is that the believer can be certain that whenever and however death comes glorious eternal life will follow. In fact, eternal life has already begun. Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:24-25). Paul writes: “Offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:13). John adds: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). Jesus puts it even more strongly: Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death” (John 8:51, cf. John 11:25-26). Here death means spiritual death or “death of the soul” (C K Barrett). [1] Death here is “separation from the love of God, and experiencing the crushing weight of his wrath and condemnation” (Hendricksen).[2] 
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  • “Death … will [not] be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39); it has been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). There is a death sentence on death and ultimately even physical death will be totally destroyed (1 Cor 15:26).
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  • So the believer can be absolutely confident that death will be a transition from an incomplete to a complete experience of eternal life. We “die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13) and our “life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom 14:8) and in death we are “together with him” (1 Thess 5:10). Death is a partnership with Christ. He, and he alone, goes through death with us.
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  • We know that ultimately we shall experience the resurrection of our bodies, but what happens between death and resurrection, i.e. in what is called the Intermediate State?
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  • The Intermediate State

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  • Here we enter another area of controversy. There are different ways of understanding what the Bible teaches about the Intermediate State. The majority view is that immediately after death we consciously live in paradise. Another view is that of “soul sleep” which believes we lose consciousness between death and resurrection, so the Intermediate State is an unconscious state. Some people go further than that and hold that we (body and soul) pass completely out of existence between death and resurrection so the resurrection is a complete re-creation. Still others believe there is no Intermediate State.
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  • View1: The Intermediate State is conscious

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  • Arguments for this view include the following:
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  • Believers who die are with the Lord. Paul says: “As long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6-8).  I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Php 1:23). It is difficult to imagine that Paul would so much want to be with the Lord and to see him, rather than live by faith, if he was referring to an unconscious state. Prof. N T Wright asks: “Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as ‘far better’ than what he had in the present?”[3]  Critics have said of 2 Cor 5:6-8 and Php 1:23 that Paul was being persecuted so it is not unthinkable he would have preferred to be unconscious. That sounds like special pleading to me.
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  • Professor M J Harris, commenting on 2 Cor 5:1-10 said:
  • “If death terminates the believer's life of faith, it also inaugurates his face-to-face vision of Christ.  [At home with the Lord v 8] accordingly, depicts the location and state of the Christian immediately after his death. The phrase clearly implies 'spatial' proximity to Christ, and since Paul believed that Christ, after his resurrection, ascended to heaven and the right hand of God, the 'dead in Christ' must be 'located' in heaven prior to the Advent of Christ … it seems inadequate to conclude that the believer's dwelling with the Lord implies no more than his incorporation in Christ, or his impassive ‘spatial’ juxtaposition to Christ, or a state of semi-conscious subsistence or suspended animation. When Paul describes the future state of the believer as one of dwelling in the company of .. the Lord, he must be referring to some heightened form of inter-personal communion, particularly since the Christian's eternal destiny would scarcely be depicted as qualitatively inferior to his experience of fellowship with Christ upon earth while walking [by faith]. [It] suggests a settled permanent mutual fellowship ….”[4]
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  • “It can scarcely be denied that after 2 Corinthians 5 Paul continued to believe that the post-mortem condition of Christians was one of conscious fellowship with Christ in heaven … Paul] now anticipates his and therefore their enjoyment of the bliss of conscious personal communion with Christ in heaven immediately after death.”[5]
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  • Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus. Matthew describes: “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matt 17:3). There is no reason not to take this as a literal event.
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  • Jesus speaks of the rich man and Lazarus being conscious (Luke 16:19-31). This is not a literal story but would Jesus have made such a clear statement about the consciousness of the departed if it were not true in principle? (One might ask the same question of his clear teaching about the reality of Hell).
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  • The martyrs are conscious. In Revelation John says: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been” (Rev 6:9-11). Obviously, this is a symbolical passage but, as we have stated before, a symbolical passage can refer to literal events. So this passage refers to the literal event of the early church martyrs. It seems likely that the idea that they were conscious in the intermediate state is also literal. Prof Wright sees this passage as confirming that the idea of believers in the intermediate state ‘sleeping’ is metaphorical, not literal. He says: “There we find the souls of the martyrs waiting, under the altar, for the final redemption to take place. They are at rest; they are conscious; they are able to ask how long it will be before justice is done (6.9-11); but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem.”[6] Critics say that this whole passage is symbolical and so doesn’t prove that martyrs are conscious. But I have already argued against that criticism.
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  • Jesus told the thief on the cross he would be with him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43). One could argue this doesn’t prove the thief would be conscious. But it doesn’t seem very convincing to say that what Jesus really was saying is: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise … but you won’t know anything about it because you’ll be unconscious!”
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  • View 2: The Intermediate State is unconscious

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  • Those who support the idea that the intermediate state is unconscious – soul-sleep – refer to the Old Testament views that no-one praises God from the grave (Psa 6:5; 88:10-12; 115:17; Isa 38:18). Dead humans are said to be no different from animals (Eccl 3:19-21). However, there is such a thing as progressive revelation: God reveals more as time goes on. The New Testament teaches far more about many subjects than the Old Testament and life after death is one such.
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  • The word “sleep” is used of death in the New Testament. Jesus spoke of Lazarus having “fallen asleep” (John 11:11-13). Acts describes Stephen the martyr and David falling asleep (Acts 7:60; 13:36) and Paul describes some of the witnesses of the resurrection as having fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:6). Paul frequently uses “sleep” to describe dead believers. They have “fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:14-15) and “sleep in death” (1 Thess 4:13 cf. 1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thess 5:10). However, this can be just a figure of speech. When someone dies it appears that they have fallen asleep.
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  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia comments: “Because the dead are asleep to our earthly life, which is mediated through the body, it does not follow that they are asleep in every other relation, asleep to the life of the other world, that their spirits are unconscious.”[7]
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  • View 3: The Intermediate State is complete annihilation

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  • Some Christians believe that when a believer dies, the whole person – body and soul – ceases to exist. So our deceased loved ones no longer exist. But at the resurrection they will be re-created. Professor Samuele Bacchiocchi quotes various scholars to support this view.[8]  John A. T. Robinson states: “The soul does not survive a man—it simply goes out, draining away with the blood.”[9]  Oscar Cullman writes: “Death is the destruction of all life created by God. Therefore it is death and not the body which must be conquered by the resurrection.”[10] The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia states that the “Platonic idea, that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal … is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Old Testament. The whole man dies, when in death the spirit (Ps 146:4; Eccl 12:7), or soul (Gen 35:18; 2 Sam 1:9; 1 Kings 17:21; Jonah 4:3), goes out of a man. Not only his body, but his soul also returns to a state of death and belongs to the nether-world; therefore the Old Testament can speak of a death of one’s soul (Gen 37:21; Num 23:10; Deut 22:21; Jud 16:30; Job 36:14; Ps 78:50).”[11]
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  • Those holding this view point out that Lazarus did not report any wonderful after-death experiences. They also say that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does not refer to a reunification of body and soul but simply that “the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor 15:53). They claim this means there is no natural immortality of the soul.
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  • If deceased believers have simply passed out of existence I cannot see how Paul would have written that he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8) orI desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Php 1:23). And how could Moses and Elijah have met with Jesus (Matt 17:3) at the Transfiguration if they no longer existed? Nor can I see how Jesus would have said to the dying thief “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” if the man was just going to pass out of existence.
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  • There is, however, another more acceptable view about the Intermediate State which includes the idea that soul and body cannot be separated and so the soul cannot survive the death of the body, namely:
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  • View 4: There is no Intermediate State

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  • Prof Brian Edgar strongly defends this view, which he calls the “immediate resurrectionist” view.[12] He examines NT passages which seem to teach a ‘dualism’ (separation) between body and soul. He notes that Jesus says: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). But he believes this to be a theoretical, not literal, separation between body and soul and points out that “it is useful to be able to distinguish a person’s ‘will’ from their ‘mind’ and their ‘imagination’, but one can do so without implying that their imagination can exist separately from mind or will (or body or brain for that matter).” He asks how, if we believe there is a literal separation between body and soul at death, can the body be in hell? However a response could be that God has raised the body before judgment.
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  • Edgar also refers to 2 Cor 5:1-5 and says it teaches that the believer will never be ‘naked’ (without a body) but will either be in the present body (‘earthly tent’) or the resurrection body (‘a building from God … and eternal house … a heavenly dwelling’). Paul writes: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (vv 1-4). Professor Edgar also writes that the martyrs seen under the altar in Rev 6:9-11 are not presented as without bodies because “they are clothed and speak.”  
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  • Edgar raises a more fundamental point and asks whether those who have died live in the same historical time frame as we who are alive. If they do then this, he says, “this would imply some form of disembodied intermediate state.” However, if the dead are outside time, as we experience it, he says that an intermediate state would not be necessary. So, from our perspective, we can say believers who have died are ‘sleeping’ but from their point of view they have already experienced the resurrection. From our point of view their resurrection is future but, because they have passed out of time, from their point of view they have already risen. So when Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” he is talking from the point of view of dead believers about an immediate resurrection.
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  • Professor Edgar refers to an objection to the idea that believers experience resurrection at death when they move out of our time frame. Critics of his view say that this contradicts the NT teaching on a general resurrection at the Return of Christ.  He responds that this criticism implies that eternity includes the continuation of time so that eschatological time is historical time. He argues that those who participate in the divine nature and who have received eternal
  • life dwell in an eternity which is not simply an extended historical time form of existence. So the idea of a gap between death and final resurrection is apparent to our historical time-frame view. But it is not relevant in the eternal sphere beyond death which is not governed by time.
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  • Edgar also says that the idea of an intermediate state means “death is not seen as the radical event which it is presented as in scripture. Instead it becomes a transition from one form of existence to the next. Death is seen simply as the separation of body and soul involving the dissolution or death of the body, but not of the soul which moves to a new phase of existence. No soul ever actually dies, and as the soul is the real person, therefore at death no person ever actually dies. While it is not impossible to see death simply as a point of separation it would seem from the biblical [view] that death is (at least potentially) a far more radical and far-reaching event than the intermediate state allows, involving the whole person.”
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  • In addition, he argues that resurrection is not just of the physical body (as the intermediate state view holds) but of the whole person. He writes: “The resurrection of the body is the resurrection of the whole person in their complete, unified state, involving personality and character as well as body. The resurrected life must involve a continuity
  • of both body and soul. If the resurrection is of the body alone then the ultimate transformation of the person, which involves the whole person, is separated, theologically if not temporally, from the resurrection. But the person is resurrected as a spiritual body (1 Cor.15:44) and its spirituality is not a reference to the material of the body but to a body which is controlled by the spirit it thus is a reference to the whole of life and involves transformation which ought not, therefore, be separated from the resurrection. Transformation takes place in the resurrection (Phil.1:6, 3:21; 2 Cor.5:4).”
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  • Conclusion

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  • As I have pointed out, this is one of those areas where Christians differ and Scripture is not completely clear on the matter (because its main interest is resurrection not an Intermediate State). I find the idea that believers cease to exist for a lengthy period when they die very difficult to accept and it doesn’t seem to square with the biblical material. I also find it difficult to square the soul sleep view with the biblical material. The idea of a conscious Intermediate State has much more going for it but I think, on balance, that I am most convinced by the last view above, that there is no Intermediate State but that believers experience resurrection immediately because they pass out of the historical time of this world into eternity. However, I think we should avoid dogmatism, not least because, in the end, what matters is that all the views agree that when a believer dies the next thing s/he experiences is joy in the glorious presence of Christ.
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  • How can I have a positive attitude to death?

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  • Many people fear death and even many of those who think they don’t, probably have some concerns or anxieties. Part of this reaction is, of course, fear of the unknown and fear of the actual dying process. Then there is fear of going through a huge transition alone. Another fear is for loved ones who will be left behind. One more fear is fear of being rejected by God. Let’s look at these fears in the light of what we have been learning.
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  • Fear of the Unknown

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  • It is true that we don’t know a lot about life after death. But we do know where we’re going and we know who is waiting to greet us and care for us. If Jesus said to the thief on the cross “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) he surely will say that to us on the day of our death. We can meditate on that now – and as we approach the time of our death. A sudden, unexpected death or death after unconsciousness makes no difference to this sure hope. Whether we’re able to think about it at the time or not the Lord will be saying it to us. So we “die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13) and “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom 14:8)
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  • Fear of the dying process

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  • Obviously, there can be a natural fear of sickness, pain or injury becoming the cause of death. That is part of normal living which is subject to “the changes and chances of this mortal life.” We can trust God for peace and pain relief, even in fatal illness. The latter normally comes through medical skill. But we can also claim by faith the wonderful promise in Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7). So we can reject anxiety by:
  • ·         turning to our ever-present Lord
  • ·         turning our fears into prayer topics
  • ·         thanking God for his goodness and love
  • ·         claiming by faith God’s promise of the peace which transcends all understanding.
  • On a different level I have at times, half seriously, said: “So many people have died - it can’t be that difficult.” There is a serious side to this which I find helpful. When we die we’re not experiencing anything which millions of others (including friends and relatives) haven’t gone through. I find that encouraging.
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  • Fear of going through this huge transition alone

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  • There is a gulp factor in going into the uncertainty of death and eternity alone. No-one will be there to support us – except one – the only one who can accompany us through death: Jesus. The Lord has said: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb 13:5). Death will not be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In the helplessness of death we can bask in the love of Christ, knowing that “underneath are the everlasting arms.”
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  • Fear for loved ones left behind

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  • This is a very natural concern – linked with the sadness of separation. There is no way of avoiding that separation and the grief of those who will be left behind. But God will be good to them and bring them healing through the trauma of grief. There is no way of avoiding the pain but, again, it is some comfort to know that millions have gone through it and come out the other end. But, more significant, is the long-term perspective. If our loved ones are believers we can look forward to an eternity together even if we are separated for years.
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  • (Obviously, it is also good to discuss matters with loved ones. You need to make a will and you may wish to let them know your wishes about how and where you should be cared for if you become incapacitated or about aspects of your funeral. It is also important to sort out practical matters to do with dependents, business, paperwork, etc.).
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  • Fear of being rejected by God

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  • I am writing all this for believers – those who trust in Jesus. If you are not yet a believer it is very important to put your trust in him, asking for whatever help you need from a local Minister or mature Christian. You might find my booklet “What is a Christian anyway?” helpful. You can download it from my website at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/WhatIsAChristianAnyway.pdf
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  • If you are a believer then remember what I wrote in the section on “End Time Judgment” on “How will believers be judged?” Here is a brief summary: Paul wrote “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Rom 14:12). He also wrote about the judgment of believers and says that the “quality of each [believer’s] work” will be tested and if it is not worthy that believer “will suffer loss” (1 Cor 3:10-15).
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  • Later he writes: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:9-10).  He adds: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph 6:7-8). So we ought to take it very seriously if we are not living in a way which pleases the Lord.
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  • However the wonderful, and very important, truth is that believers will not be condemned, rejected or lose their salvation. They will be saved and enjoy eternal life in heaven. The Bible teaches that this is certain.
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  • Listen to these scholars: Professor William Hendriksen commented on John 3:18: “The one who abides in Christ by faith is not judged; i.e. no sentence of condemnation will ever be read against him. Even now he is in the eyes of God without guilt.”  Prof. C K Barrett commented: “The believer (though a sinner) does not come under condemnation.”
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  • We need to be clear: anyone who trusts in Christ is saved, has eternal life and will not come into condemnation. But that believer’s character and behaviour will be judged and this will lead to reward or loss. However that believer will not lose his/her salvation. Salvation (justification) is by faith.
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  • Neverthless it is a solemn prospect that we shall each stand alone before our Lord as judge and he will judge how we have lived our lives. So one important way in which we prepare for death is by repenting of our sins and seeking God’s grace to ensure our lives please him. This will include forgiving those who have hurt us and being reconciled where necessary. Then we can look forward to the Lord saying to us “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
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  • Conclusion

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  • We Christians, of all people, should be able to take a positive approach to the prospect of our death. We may not know the details of life after death but we do know that when we die the next thing we experience is joy in the glorious presence of Christ. We should be at the forefront of preparing positively and practically for death (without becoming morbid). But the most important thing is that we know that death is “Promotion to Glory!”
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[1] C K Barrett, The Gospel according to John, an Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, SPCK London 1965, p. 290

[2] William Hendricksen, A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Banner of Truth London 1961 vol 2, p. 62

[3] N T Wright, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed, SPCK London 2003, p. 24.

[4] M J Harris, “2 Corinthians 5:1-10: watershed in Paul's eschatology?”  The Tyndale New Testament Lecture, 1970, Tyndale Bulletin 22, Tyndale House, Cambridge (1971) p 46f.

[5] Ibid., p. 56f

[6] N T Wright, Op. cit., p. 24.

[7] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eschatology of the NT, X. Intermediate State.

[8] http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/endtimeissues/eti_18.pdf

[9] John A. T. Robinson, The Body, A study in Pauline Theology (London, 1957), p. 14.

[10] Oscar Cullmann, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?" in Immortality and Resurrection. Death in the Western World: Two Conflicting Current of Thought, Krister Stendahl, ed., (New York, 1965), p. 19.

[11] Herman Bavink, "Death," The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Grand Rapids, 1960), Vol. 2, p. 812.

[12] “Biblical Anthropology and the Intermediate State” Evangelical Quarterly: an international review of bible and theology Vol LXXIV No1 and No 2 (January and April 2002).



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