What does death mean to a Christian?
If anyone ever hangs around the Christian faith for long enough, they will get to realise that death has a special importance in the Christian faith (as it admittedly does in most faiths). However in Christianity not only is physical death very significant, but Christians can also mean something different when we talk about death itself.
Christianity is in many ways all about what happens after our lives on earth are finished. For many of us, our lives on earth will finish when our bodies die. This is physical death. However, according to the Bible some people will not actually experience their bodies dying. In the Bible, this was recorded twice before Jesus came to earth. The first time was with one of the earliest inhabitants of planet Earth, called Enoch. Unlike all his predecessors, who are recorded as dying by the Bible, with Enoch it is stated that he simply ceased to exist, because God took him: Genesis 5v24.
The second time this is recorded is with the prophet Elijah. Once again with him, the Bible does not record that his body actually died. Rather he was caught up into heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind, and that is how his life on earth ended: 2Kings 2v11
However, Enoch and Elijah are the only two people for whom this is recorded in the whole Bible -even Jesus died – although He is of course a very special case. The expectation for most of us Christians is that we too will die – unless the Rapture of the Saints takes place first, in which case we all hope that we will be raptured, rather than being left behind! The Rapture refers to a one off event where all those who truly belong to Christ will be taken up from Earth into Heaven alive (although those who are dead in Christ will also be taken into Heaven).
Taken up into Heaven?
I believe that Heaven is the term for part of the spiritual realm, which is outside the physical, or natural domain of Earth. So I don’t personally believe that Heaven is geographically above Earth, or at the top of the physical universe or anything like that. I believe that where the Bible talks about being taken up into Heaven the word “up” there just indicates that Heaven is greater or more important than Earth, especially because it is where God resides. So to go to Heaven represents a promotion in your status, like going up in life, or going up in the world.
The Bible teaches that as human beings we are spiritual entities inhabiting physical bodies here on Earth. So in a sense physical death is when our bodies die, and remain to decay away here on earth or to be cremated etc etc, but our spirits are released from Earth into the spiritual realm. We all tend to assume that we will “go to Heaven” when we die, but the Bible teaches that Heaven will only be for those who belong to God, and for everyone else there will be a very unattractive alternative called hell, which also exists within the spiritual realm. In the Bible this is represented as going down to hell, because it represents a demotion in your status, things getting much worse.
Obsessed with death?
Sometimes, people who don’t believe in God suggest that as Christians we are obsessed with death. As Christians we are called to focus more on what happens beyond earth than on what happens on earth. That is because life on earth is transient for everyone, whether or not they believe in God or “life after death”, but as Christians we believe everyone’s spiritual lives beyond earth will go on forever. That is why for us as Christians it makes sense to focus on what will be eternally true, rather than what will only be true for the short duration of our lives “down here” on earth. This does not mean that life on earth is irrelevant. One important part of life down here on earth is for all of us to each choose where we will spend eternity. If we choose God, then we will spend eternity with Him in Heaven. However if we fail to choose God here on Earth, then He will also reject us for eternity and we will instead go to hell.
For a Christian, “eternal life” means when our spirits are living in communion with the Spirit of God, so it starts right here on earth, when we surrender our lives and hearts to God. For this reason God expects us to live out the values of His Kingdom – love, peace, integrity – in our dealings with other people. Other people are made in the image of God, which is why they need to be treated with respect, and as Christians God calls us to make a difference right here on earth concerning poverty, injustice, people who are sick etc.
Christians often talk about spiritual death. This is when our spirits are not living in communion with the Spirit of God. This is the default state under which all humans beings after Adam and Eve have been born (except Jesus). If we remain in this state all our lives, then when we die, or when our lives on earth end, then we will go to hell to be with the devil and the demons, and that is where we will spend eternity.
Interestingly, from the Bible it seems that no-one (including the devil) actually dies in the sense that no-one’s spirit actually gets totally annihilated, no-one’s spirit gets totally erased. We only get moved between the realm of Earth and the spiritual realm, and then we will ALL exist forever – either in Heaven with God, or in hell with the devil.
The Bible teaches that God is the creator of all good things, like laughter, joy, beauty, peace, friendship. A kinder but not strictly biblical way of thinking about hell is that instead of the burning lake of fire that the Bible actually does talk about, hell will be the eternal absence of God and the eternal absence of all the good things that He created. (People who subscribe to this viewpoint will then possibly understand the “burning flames” metaphorically, rather than literally, possibly as the burning flames of regret). So you might think “I would not mind going to hell, if that is where all my friends will be”. However, all the people that you were friends with on earth might indeed be there in hell but there will be no friendship in hell, no joy, no laughter as these are all good things created by God.
Or sometimes people will say “the devil has all the best tunes”. Well I am a Christian and I can assure you that that is definitely not true, even here on earth. However in hell there will not actually be any tunes, because there will be no music at all, as music is one of God’s good creations. If there is any sound, it will be a dreadful din.
So either way, whether you subscribe to the literal “burning lake” interpretation of hell, or the metaphorical understanding, I know where I’d much rather be. Remember that the choice is fully yours, and by not making a positive choice for God or by not making any choice at all, then you are simply choosing against God.
Photo of wilted rose from Pixabay
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