July 9, 2017

Big Questions: Where do we go when we die (and how do we know)?

St. John’s Lutheran Church

Melrose Park, PA


Today we are jumping back into our sermon series on big questions submitted by the congregation. Today’s question asks where we go when we die, and how we can be sure of that answer.

As some of you might remember from the sermons in this series last year, my goal is not to give you a definitive answer or to tell you what you should think. Instead, I aim to offer some new information, provide a Lutheran theological perspective, and leave the rest up to you. By asking these big questions, you are already thinking like theologians do; by “trying on” the information in these sermons and wearing it in the context of your daily life, you are doing the same work that theologians do — trying to figure out what is true when our faith meets our daily lives.

So here is the short answer to the question about where we go when we die: we don’t know.

It’s certainly worthwhile to ask the question. Popular American Christian culture often seems quite certain about the answer. When I lived in Delaware, I occasionally had to drive past a large billboard in downtown Wilmington on I-95. In capital letters, it shouted, “HEAVEN OR HELL? YOU DECIDE!”

Around the time I was living in Delaware, the book Heaven is for Real became popular. The book told the story of a young child’s vision of heaven during a serious illness. It was a prime example of the human fascination with what lies beyond death. Religious and non-religious people alike gravitate toward these stories of near-death experiences, the visions sometimes experienced by people who lie on death’s doorstep.

Meanwhile, our culture gets better and better at avoiding death. Medical interventions keep our hearts beating, our lungs inflating, and our blood flowing when whole organ systems fail. Sometimes, they save lives, and it seems miraculous; sometimes, they simply prolong suffering and forestall the inevitable. We also avoid death when it has already happened. We use funeral homes to prepare the bodies of our loved ones instead of tending to them in our homes. We use euphemisms for dying like “passed away” and “moved on” and “transitioned.” We avoid talking to our families about our end-of-life wishes, and we dodge the subject when loved ones want to talk about their own plans. We have no idea what to say to grieving people, so we often say nothing at all. And we figure that a week off from work should be long enough for someone to “get over” a loss, even though we know from our own experiences that the work of grieving is never completed — it only changes.

Death avoidance is ironic for us, because we Christians have a religion that hinges upon resurrection. In order for there to be resurrection, death has to come first. Our whole faith is about dying and rising — and trusting that God is still at work even through the dying.

So where do we go when we die? Honestly, we don’t know. But we know that death is real, and we also know that resurrection has the final word.

The Bible gives us some perspective on life after death, but it does not provide us with a nice, neat explanation. In the Hebrew Bible — the Old Testament — ideas of the afterlife vary. Some parts talk about Sheol, the morality-neutral realm of the dead where everyone goes when they die. Other parts of the Hebrew Bible assume that we simply blink out of existence upon dying. The writer of Ecclesiastes is so convinced that there is no existence after death that he enjoys as many of life’s pleasures as possible… and still concludes that everything is meaningless vapor.

By the time of Jesus, Jewish thought was organized in two main sects: Pharisees and Sadducees. Sadducees believed that the soul blinked out of existence when life ended. Pharisees believed that the soul survived death, which opened the door to divine reward or punishment after dying. Pharisees also believed that all the dead would eventually be resurrected and judged by God. The ideas of the Pharisees should sound familiar; they influenced the development of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

Across the gospels, we can see the fingerprints of Pharisaic thought in Jesus’ teachings. Most of the time, though, Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign of justice and peace breaking into the world, rather than heaven the afterlife. The gospels are not checklists for getting ready for life after death. Instead, they offer plentiful instruction on righteous, just, and merciful living. The gospels call human beings to join in God’s great work of redeeming all creation. However, they do contain a few hints of heaven. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the criminal crucified with him, “today, you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus also speaks about eternal life throughout the gospel of John. Finally, all of the gospels lead toward a message of resurrection.

To rise, to enter into the mystery of eternal life, we all have to die first. But death does not separate us from God’s creation. Biologically, our “eternal life” begins at the moment of our death. Our cells begin to break down almost immediately. Whether we are embalmed, buried directly in the ground, or cremated, our bodies reduce to their component molecules and elements. Sooner or later, the elements that once were us are recycled into the soil, the rainwater, even the air around us. Our atoms will forever enrich our corner of the universe.

To Christians, death is like the law of conservation of matter. Neither matter nor energy can be destroyed — they merely change form. Death has no power over us; it only transforms us. At death, the promises made at our baptisms are fulfilled. When we are baptized, God promises us that we die and rise with Jesus. Sin and death might cause suffering in our lives, but God’s love will always reach us wherever we are, no matter how repentant — or not — we might be.

Baptismal imagery and theology are rich at Lutheran funerals. The casket or the urn of ashes is covered with a white pall to evoke the white clothes often worn at baptisms. We light the tall paschal candle for funerals too, reminding ourselves of how it burns beside the font for every baptism as a visual symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. We give thanks for the gift of baptism and we recite the Apostles’ Creed, the affirmation of faith made by our baptismal sponsors.

The promises of baptism are relational. They speak of forgiving sin and eternal life, of course, but they are also symbols of permanent adoption, of being incorporated into God’s family forever. “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” says Jesus in the gospel of John, speaking of what eternal life feels like more than what it looks like: eternal belonging, room at the table for everyone, inclusion for the hurting and broken, belovedness in the heart of God.

Whenever I saw that Wilmington billboard threatening HEAVEN OR HELL — YOU DECIDE!, I was able to drive right past with a smile. Because I don’t decide. None of us gets to decide. In our scripture and our understanding of baptism, eternal life is adoption into God’s family. It is a space of endless closeness to God, of welcome, love, and hospitality. We do not choose our salvation. With unending grace, God chooses for us, and Jesus gives us the gift of his own life.

There is so much we do not know about dying and about what waits for us after death. The mystery is deep and rich, and it can be hard to live with that. We want to know if, for example, we will be reunited with the people we love. If life in the resurrection is about closeness with the God who is Love, I find it hard to believe that God would separate us from the people and the creatures who showed us aspects of God’s loving kindness in our lifetimes. Call it a strong theological hunch. Just like you, I will be waiting for the answer when my life comes to an end.

This week, I walked through the woods of the Berkshire hills where I grew up. Whenever I walk the same trail, I notice the fallen trees. Some are freshly fallen, the wood raw and splintered, sunlight spilling through the gap they left. Some are older, their outlines softened by moss, fresh saplings already take their place and reaching for the light. In the woods, death and resurrection are always taking place, hand in hand. So it is with our faith.

I invite you to lean into the mystery of death and resurrection that is at the heart of our Christian belief and practice. Pay attention to what we sing at the center of the prayer before communion: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Be mindful of death and resurrection in your life, too: what needs to die so that something new can arise? What new life has appeared in the hard and broken corners of your heart? Practice noticing death and resurrection. They help us prepare for the final mystery, the ultimate death and resurrection at the end of our lives.

Meanwhile, trust God. Trust that divine Love is present at times of death and brokenness just as it is present at times of rejoicing. Trust that God is with us as we lean into uncertainty and mystery. Trust that Love is beside us even when death is at hand, for Love will never abandon us.