Part 1 of 3 in the message series by Pastor Steve Babbitt entitled “I’ll Take You There: Death, Resurrection, and the Kingdom Come”
Luke 16:19–31 (NIV): 19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’
25 “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. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
I know a place. Ain’t nobody crying. Ain't nobody worried. Ain't no smiling faces – politicians, newscasters, influencers – lying to us all.
In the Bible, that place is called heaven. Paradise. The New Jerusalem. The Kingdom Come.
But how do we get there, and what does that look like? And who do we trust to take us there – celebrities? Talk show hosts? Or Jesus?
In this three part-series we are going to look at what the Bible teaches about Death, Resurrection and the Kingdom Come. Some of the things we explore together will be no surprise to anyone. Some of it will be vaguely familiar. And some of it will have us questioning misconceptions we’ve clung to our whole lives. But that’s the purpose of a good Bible study – not necessarily to validate us, but always to transform us. Sometimes an encounter with the living word of God will challenge everything we thought we knew, and that, it seems, is especially true when it comes to the Biblical view of the afterlife – what happens to us when we die?
We will get to the book of Revelation and the Kingdom come next week and the week after, Lord willing.
But I want to start today specifically on the subject of dying, because, short of Jesus coming back, we will each face that deadline (forgive the pun) sooner than we expect. Even the youngest among us might only have a hundred years to go, but some in here may not be with us a year from now. After all, there are no guarantees that any of us will even make it home today. And so God wants us to be prepared even if this very night our lives should be taken from us.
When I was a kid, I watched the cartoon adventures of Tom and Jerry. Anybody else? Tom was a diabolical cat, and Jerry was a squeaky clean mouse. Tom was always trying to catch Jerry, and Jerry always escaped. But quite often, Tom would die in his attempts to catch Jerry, and his spirit would separate from his little car body float up to the clouds as an angel, complete with wings and a harp.
Thanks to Tom and Jerry, plus a childhood where the family Bible mainly gathered dust on a shelf, I basically thought everyone who died did the same thing: their spirits floated up to the clouds with a harp and angel wings. It wasn’t until I studied the Bible as a young man that I discovered the shocking truth: my understanding of what happens when we die had been more influenced by a cabal of cartoonists in Burbank than it was by Jesus of Nazareth!
And Jesus has some pretty counterculture things to say about the afterlife. There has been a flap recently from a handful of rich celebrity pastors who no longer believe in hell. They say it doesn’t jive with their understanding of Jesus. Personally, I suspect Rob Bell is just trying to peddle more books, because unless you’re reading the Bible with a pair of scissors, even though Jesus emphasizes eternal life, in the entire Bible, nobody talks about hell fire and judgment as much as Jesus.
Take the story of the Rich man and Lazarus, for example.
Now, the point of the story is that we should care for those in need. That those who have been blessed with much have a responsibility to bless those who are less fortunate. But it is impossible to miss the picture Jesus paints of the afterlife. Lazarus, the poor man, is taken to Abraham’s side, and the greedy rich man is stricken in the fires of hell. I’m sorry Rob Bell, but your Bible seems to be missing this page.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because before we talk about what happens to us when we die, we need to frame all of this in the context of the ultimate revelation, the resurrection, and the final judgment. Spoiler alert for next week: the Bible teaches that there will one day be a final resurrection of all the dead to a final judgment, and that this world will end and a new heaven and a new earth will be ushered in. That bookend is final.
But what happens AFTER we die, and BEFORE the resurrection? Do we just fast forward from our deathbeds, instantly to the final resurrection? Or is there some sort of in-between while we wait? Theologians call this concept of a waiting-room between death and the resurrection the intermediate state, and there is a lot of speculation (some reasonable and some wild) about what the intermediate state looks like.
I am going to share three key distinctions between what pop culture says and what the scriptures say. These distinctions are not exhaustive. There is much we get wrong. But I am taking aim at three specific errors that endemic in our culture, yet relatively easy to refute with scripture. I am doing this so that we can be ready for the afterlife. Here we go.
Distinction #1: Tom and Jerry teach that we become angels. The Bible says that we wait in the grave.
First off, let’s go after a simple mistake in Tom and Jerry's theology. In the Bible, angels are a completely different species from humans, a totally different class of being. Just as no mouse will ever become a cat, no human will ever become an angel. Are we good on that?
Now, in the Bible, the grave is portrayed more or less as a waiting room where all who have died wait for the final resurrection. Biblically speaking, there are two sides to the waiting room, a good side and a bad side, kind of like when you go to the doctor and there is a sick entrance and a well entrance. We saw a glimpse of that in the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was waiting on the sick side, and Lazarus on the well side, and there was an uncrossable chasm between them.
The waiting room itself has a Biblical name. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the waiting room is called “Sheol” or “the grave.” By the time of the New Testament, the scripture writers had borrowed a Greek word, “Hades” – the realm of all the dead – which was similar in concept to Sheol. It is important to note that the concept of "Hades" is not the same concept as hell. Scripturally spreading, Hades encompasses the entire waiting room, where both good and bad await the resurrection.
Taking it even further, the Bible has names for the two sides of the waiting room.
The good side is called “heaven” or “paradise” – recall what Jesus said to the thief on the cross who believed in Him in Luke 23:43, “today you will be with me in paradise.” The world paradise itself is a borrow-word from Persian, and refers to the king’s walled garden, a beautiful place where there is plentiful food, water, and joy. Paradise is analogous to the perfect garden of Eden. This place that Jesus calls Paradise is where the poor man Lazarus went, and also the thief who believed, along with all the righteous. It is important to note that the concept of paradise involves a wall surrounding the garden to protect it from evildoers. This fits what JEsus revealed about there being a chasm fixed between the good and the bad side of the waiting room which cannot be crossed.
The bad side, also, has names in Scripture. Jesus called the place where the unrighteous go “Gehenna,” which was the name for the burning garbage heap outside Jerusalem. Animal carcasses and waste were constantly burning there. If you have ever visited a place where sanitation systems are different from ours, you know the putrid smell of burning trash that constantly hangs in the air. That smell is gehenna. In addition to the word gehenna, Peter names the waiting area for the wicked “Tartarus”, which again borrows from other mediterranean cultures that envisioned a place of torment for the wicked.
2 Peter 2:4 says: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell (Tartarus), putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment…” and in verses 9-10: “…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.”
There is hazy speculation about the possibility of other sections of the waiting room, and whether those in the waiting room had a chance to repent after Jesus died. In a very unclear Bible passage, Peter seems to teach that Jesus went into Hades and proclaimed the gospel to those who were waiting there.
1 Peter 4:6: “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”
But suffice it to say that according to the Bible, Tom and Jerry were wrong: we don’t become angels. Our spirits wait for the final resurrection, either in the good walled garden called paradise or the flame heap called gehenna.
The second distinction we need to make between the pop-culture concept of the afterlife versus the portrait given to us in the scriptures is that whatever happens to us in the intermediate state is not the end of the story. There is more to come after we die. If we are in a waiting room, we are waiting for something. And that something is way bigger and better than paradise.
I’ve already covered this briefly, but it is an important distinction. Pop culture teaches that we die and go to heaven forever. The Biblical perspective is that eternity really kicks off, not at death, but at the resurrection of the dead and the final establishment of the new heaven and the new earth after the final judgment. Biblically speaking, paradise is great, but the New Jerusalem is going to be utterly fantastic beyond our wildest dreams.
Finally, the third and most important distinction between pop visions of what happens when we die and the Biblical narrative is that the Bible says that not everyone is going to the good place.
Again, Jesus is the most important voice to listen to here:
In Matthew 7:13–14 Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
How many enter through the narrow gate? “Only a few.”
That is sobering. Not an easy lesson. In fact, it is such a hard teaching that our culture would rather reinvent heaven than hear what Jesus has to say about it.
But before we get discouraged and give up on paradise, let’s re-orient ourselves to what Jesus was all about. Jesus came into the world to seek and save the lost. And if the requirement of heaven is that we live righteous lives, we are all in deep trouble. Romans 3:10-12 says:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
If that’s true, that no one is righteous, then no one meets the minimum entry requirements of paradise. I think it’s true. I don’t need Paul to tell me that no one is righteous, I can examine my life and see it for myself. Even the best people I know aren’t perfect all the time. We all break the same. And our unrighteousness would corrupt the perfect garden.
As simple as that story sounds, the same is true of us and paradise. Our feet are dirty. God has every right to preserve the sanctity of His home. But because He loves us so much, when we ask, seek, and knock on His door, He washes us clean – not with soapy water, but with the blood of His son.
This is the heart of the gospel message. While we were still sinners and our hands and feet were dirty, Christ died for us. Christ washed us clean in order to welcome us into paradise with Him. Again, the Bible promises that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
But it must not end with cleansing alone. We also need to live new lives marked by the fruit of righteousness. The Bible calls this new way of living after we’ve been washed clean “putting on the robe of righteousness.” It makes sense, right, you get cleaned up, then you get dressed!
I have a friend whose daughter is getting married soon. On the day of the wedding, I am pretty sure he will take a shower. That will make him clean. But I hope he doesn’t stop there! In addition to washing, he also needs to put on some clothes. And hopefully clothes worthy of the occasion!
The way we live our lives after we have been washed clean says a lot about us. It is not enough to talk the talk; we must also strive to walk the walk. It isn’t enough just to call on Jesus to forgive us. We need to make every effort to do the will of the father.
Jesus said, in Matthew 7:21–23, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Jesus says we will be known by our fruit. The good place, paradise, is reserved for those who have not only been washed clean, but who have also donned the robe of righteousness; who walk in the Spirit, bearing the fruit of His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, et cetera. It is not enough to talk the talk; we must also strive to walk the walk. And yes, we will all fall down, drop the ball, trip up along the way. But the same grace that washes us clean the first time is there to sustain us along the way.
I would like to invite Melody and the choir to lead us in a closing hymn that reminds us of the hope of the resurrection for those who call upon the name of Jesus, It is Well With My Soul.
A little background: Horatio Spafford, who wrote the hymn we are about to sing, lost everything in the great Chicago fire of 1871. His four-year-old son also died that year. Then, in 1873, his wife and four daughters were on a steamship that went down in the Atlantic, and only his wife was saved. On a ship to meet his grieving wife after the disaster, as they were near the spot where his daughters had succumbed to the sorrowful rolling sea billows, Spafford wrote the words that would become the famous hymn.
Let’s sing together.
What happens to us after we die? Horatio Spafford knew. For all those who have called upon the name of Jesus Christ – who have been washed clean by the abundant grace of God – paradise awaits.
We long for the day when the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend. Until then we have a purpose to fulfill: to live for God. To share the good news of his cleansing love. To care for those who are less fortunate than we are, the Lazarus at our gates. To do right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
Those who fear the Lord and live for Him need have no fear of death. May this be true for each of us as we go from here today.
Let us pray:
Lord, we are grateful for your endless love. You pick us up and wash our feet time and time again. Thank you for giving us the grace of your forgiveness for the times we’ve made a mess of things. And thank you for giving us the strength to walk closer to you all along the way.
Father, we are also grateful that you desire to be with us in Paradise. May we never fear death, but always remember that to be absent from the body is to be present with you.
Lord, please be with those who are coming face to face with the reality of dying. Use us to share with them the good news that death does not need to be feared, but that you have overcome the power of death and the grave. Grant us the right words to say to bring hope in Jesus name.