Is There Hope After Death?
Death. It is not a pleasant topic but it is something that unites us all. We hate when we hear about a terminal diagnosis but in another way, we all have a terminal diagnosis the day we are born. We just don’t know the date. This past week, two people I knew died. One had many different illnesses, all of them serious, and it was truly remarkable that she lasted as long as she did. We had been expecting it for a long time. The other was sudden. I went to his Facebook page and saw posts from just a few hours before, cheering on the Raptors, making plans, and acting like he had decades left. It comes differently for us, but death comes for us all.
What happens after death? Many people believe in life after death. But an afterlife by itself is not enough. An afterlife could simply be a miserable existence as a ghost, haunting dreary old houses. Christians believe in more than life after death, we believe in hope after death.
Many critics argue that the Bible is for people who are afraid of death. The ironic thing is that the Old Testament has very little to say about what happens after death. It could be argued that Daniel 12 is the only clear description of the hope of the believer after death. Interestingly, the image given is not of a disembodied spirit in heaven but of a bodily resurrection. I’m going to argue that this hope is consistent with the rest of the Old Testament and is made clearer with what we find in the New Testament.
To understand what Daniel is saying, it is helpful to understand the context. Daniel was one of the Jews who was exiled by the Babylonians. There was a cost to being faithful to God in Babylonian captivity. Submission to Babylonian ways is expected and resistance is punished. In the midst of Daniel’s book, we see a number of prophecies. One points to the time after the death of Alexander the Great. His empire broke up into smaller pieces, each warring with the other. One of those took over Judea and attempted to stamp out Judaism, forcing people to give up their faith. Like the time of Daniel, standing up for the faith came with cost. Often that cost was death. You can find these stories in the books of the Maccabees.
Both the time of Daniel and the time he was prophesying about were dark and evil times. The faithful died and the wicked prospered. It would be normal to ask where God was in all of this.
Daniel reminds us that God has not abandoned us, even though evil is present in the moment. He points to a future time, something we may call the end-times. People get all weird when they start talking about the end-times but the basic message is that of hope. That hope includes the resurrection of the body. Only the barest of details are given here but the rest of the Bible fills in the gaps. Many Christians believe our hope is to be spirits in heaven, free from bodies. The Bible actually says that our ultimate hope is the resurrection of the body, bodies rebuilt for eternity. Daniel describes these bodies in a beautiful way to remind us that we experience right now is not the final word. Something better is coming.
Daniel tells us that not only will the righteous be raised, but the wicked as well. They will be raised for punishment. Now our enlightened minds might not like this. But the point of all this is to right all the wrongs and that includes judgment of the wicked. Is it justice if Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler receive the same reward. What we need to remember is that it is not our job to decide who gets what. That is a trap that Christians have often got caught up in. All of that is God’s job and he is welcome to have it.
This is pretty radical, so why is it only mentioned in Daniel. It is alluded to elsewhere. The Old Testament often talks about the Day of the Lord. We might call that Judgment Day. The Hebrews looked to a time when God would bring final justice to the righteous and the wicked. Things are not the way they are supposed to now but God would eventually fix that and that would be the Day of the Lord.
The New Testament identifies the Day of the Lord with the return of Jesus and explicitly states that the resurrection of the dead will take place when Jesus returns. We even get a sense of what that resurrection will look like because Jesus is the first of the resurrection. What happened to his body is what will happen to our bodies. This is the hope we have as Christians.
Hope in Death?
So what does this mean for us? One thing is that because of Jesus, none of this is merely theoretical. The process has begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Easter message includes Jesus’ full embrace of both suffering and victory over suffering.
But what does this look like in practical terms? We need to be careful. Don’t go up to a person and glibly claim that their suffering doesn’t matter because the resurrection is coming. If the Bible says anything, it is that our suffering does matter. Even Jesus cried at a funeral, even though he was about to bring that person back to life.
Suffering that we see in our world, in our community and in our family matters. It shouldn’t be dismissed. It should break our hearts and make us call out to God for comfort. But the resurrection should give us hope.
Have you ever watched a television show or read a novel where there are numerous plot-lines going on at the same time. As you are watching or reading, you are wondering how the writer is going to bring all of this together. Things might be getting to dark, you might be tempted to not finish the story. But then as you approach the conclusion, you see everything come together. The conflicts are resolved and you are left satisfied (hopefully) with how the writer had a plan for everything that was going on, even if it didn’t make sense to us at the time.
While we are more than characters in a story, there is something similar going on with us. God is the Author of all Life. Things look like chaos to us but God has a plan. God has a plan for that evil dictator that is murdering thousands or millions of innocents. God has a plan for that good person who can never seem to catch a break. Broken bodies will be repaired and the dead will rise to new life. None of it makes sense when you are in the middle of the story, but as we approach the conclusion, we can see the plot-lines converging and the final resolution taking place. That is what Daniel points to and that is what Jesus, through his own resurrection, guarantees.
I believe that one of the deepest needs of humanity is that of hope. Hope is a conviction that what we see now is not the end and something better is coming. The resurrection of the dead is that for us. This is not about satisfying our curiosity about what happens after we die. Most of the details are left out. All we can say for certainty is that God has this. He is in control and he will make things right. God will sort through the mess of this life and this world and bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. The best human author cannot compare to what God has planned for his creation.