"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Is that all there is?
On one occasion Jesus faced off against the Sadducees, who were very much unlike the Pharisees in their theology about life after death - they didn't believe in it. Luke 20:27-40 tells us what happened when they came to him with an absurd question about a woman with seven husbands. From Jesus' answer we learn a great deal about life after death.
III. Two Contemporary Applications
As we survey this monumental encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees, we are left with two great certainties.
1. If God has cared for us in this life, we may sure he will care for us in the next life.
Because we have his word on it, we have nothing to fear. I do not mean to suggest that death will necessarily be an easy experience for us. We don't know how we will die, or when, or where. It may be that death comes so suddenly that we have no time to react. Or we may simply die in our sleep. But we may die of a wasting disease. The passage from this life to the next may be easy or difficult, brief or prolonged, and it may come when we are young or middle-aged or perhaps we will live to be 90.
But when death comes to us, we can know this much for certain. The Lord who has been with us throughout our earthly journey will not abandon us when we need him most.
What will our experience of heaven be like? I think we can only answer that question by analogy because on this side of the veil, we know so little. Consider a child in his mother's womb in the last stages of pregnancy. Even before birth, he learns to recognize the voice of his father and mother. Marlene has told me that when she was pregnant and sitting in church, when I started to preach, each one of our three boys would recognize my muffled voice from inside the womb and begin to move around as soon as I started my sermon. This happened so regularly that it could not have been by chance. They knew my voice even though they did not know me. But my voice-that they recognized!
If you could ask an unborn child how much he understands, he could discourse on all he knows. But let him be born-come sliding through the birth canal, surely a terrifying experience, and then be caught by some stranger who slaps him on his behind until he cries, and all those lights and sounds and that sudden movement. What's going on? What does it mean? Where am I? What are they doing to me? After a few seconds that must seem like an eternity, he is placed in his mother's arms. That voice-he knows that voice. Nothing makes sense, but her voice he knows. And soon he stops crying and goes to sleep. He has begun a life beyond anything he knew before, but he knows the voice of those who love him. That, I think, is a picture of what heaven will be like to us. We think we know so much about heaven, but soon we will be born into a brand-new life with God where we will discover how little we understood.
About ten years ago Marlene and I made a hospital visit together. We went to visit Eugenie Longinow who was not long for this world. She was then in her eighties, her husband having died sometime earlier. Eugenie was ready to go home to heaven. I don't remember much about the visit except that when we read Psalm 23, Eugenie lifted her hands, feeble and trembling, and tried to recite the words with us. When we got home, I called John Sergey, one of our elders, and told him I thought Eugenie was going to die that night. I'll never forget his prayer at the end of our conversation. "We thank thee, Lord, for the death of the saints of God. Some go before and some after, but one by one your children pass from this life directly into your presence." I don't think I had ever heard anyone give thanks for the death of God's saints, but it is entirely biblical and John's prayer lifted my heart.
Several weeks ago John died at the age of 91. When I heard the news, I remembered his prayer. My only response was to say, "Thank God." And then, "The battle is over, the victory won." "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15). So the Bible says and so we believe. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Sometimes when people die, we say, "I lost so-and-so." But a thing is not lost if you know where it is. Jesus said to the repentant thief, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). We like to debate the meaning of certain words, and we want to know what "paradise" is like. We could speculate but our guesses would be only that. Just guesses. The most important part of that phrase is in the two little words-"with me." Today you will be "with me," Jesus said. Going to heaven is not simply going to a place, like going to Chicago or St. Louis. Going to heaven is going to a person. Heaven is where Jesus is. Everything else is just details.
2. Those who refuse the words of Jesus have nowhere else to go.
This is the end of the story. "And no one dared to ask him any more questions" (v. 40). If you want to know the truth about life after death, there are only two ways to be sure.
1) See for yourself. All of us will do that eventually.
2) Take the testimony of someone who knows.
This is where the words of Jesus take on life-changing power. He's been there, he entered the realm of death, he experienced it fully, he was as dead as anyone has ever been. On the third day he came back from the dead, never to die again. We have the authoritative word of the Son of God who emerged from the grave with the keys of death and Hades in his hand. Because of Jesus, we are not left in the dark to wonder what happens when we die. Death cannot change our relationship with God because he is not the God of the dead but of the living.
All that we believe about life after death rests on the faithfulness of God. We do not trust in what our eyes can see because all that we see testifies to the overwhelming power of death. But thanks be to God, a day is coming-and is not far off-when death will be no more. Those who know Jesus have entered into a relationship that even death cannot sever. Our hope for the future is as secure as the promises of God. For the Christian, death is not the end but the beginning of life forever with the Lord. Amen.