Three Key Texts on What Christians Say About Death
St. Paul says that we do not grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our Lord lives. Death and grave, our old enemies that used to devour everything, have been put under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25). The nature of our hope and what we can say about our Christian friends and family who have died in the faith is the subject of this brief article. There are three passages that I want you to know and with which I want you to become familiar. Knowing them will help you think and speak about death as a Christian. You won’t have to utter the same empty platitudes about “going to a better place.” You’ll be able to speak an articulate hope founded on the Scriptures and made real by Jesus’ victory over the grave.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Jesus tells this parable to teach that at the moment of death, your soul lives on. You have been created to have a human body and soul. You’re more than just your immaterial soul and you’re more than just an animated hunk of flesh like one of the beasts. The Scriptures teach both the body/soul distinction and that they’re integrated in a living human being (Matt. 10:28; 1 Thess. 5:23). As such, an idiom for death is giving up one’s soul or spirit (Acts 7:59; John 19:30). At death, the soul is separated from the body. As Christians we recognize that this isn’t normal. It’s not good for that which God joined together for human life to be torn apart. This is why we believe and confess a bodily resurrection. Without it, we would be less than what God created us to be; living, breathing, feeling, creatures who are at the same time rational and spiritual. Without this reuniting of soul and body, we would still be dead and unable to taste the fruits of Christ’s redemption of creation. Nevertheless, we don’t have to be scared about the conditions of our souls when we die. Having finally been set free from the weakness and corruption that infects our bodies through death (Rom. 6:7), our souls are comforted with Jesus (Luke 23:43) and the rest of the saints.
See what happens to Lazarus. Though he suffered terrible bodily afflictions and the hatred of others in this life, in death his soul is “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” Since we share in Lazarus’ faith, since we also hear and believe Moses, the prophets, and Jesus’ apostles, then we take comfort from the fact that our souls will not be in anguish, nor will they wink out into nonexistence, as they wait to be reunited with our bodies. So, as a summary, at the time of death, our souls are separated from our bodies, attended by the angels into heaven, comforted, and wait for the resurrection. Your soul can’t get lost and end up in hell. Neither will the souls who are not forgiven and justified by faith find their way into heaven. While there’s still time in this life, let’s listen to Moses and the prophets as they warn us against sin. Let’s listen to Jesus’ voice of mercy and forgiveness because this is our spiritual life and comfort after death.
49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler's house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.”50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” 51 And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. 52 And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.
Death isn’t the oblivion of destruction and decay that it is to the world. For the Christian, it is like sleep. In the same way as you go to bed at night and anticipate waking up in the morning, so also do you lay yourself down in death. You confess to the world that you will open your eyes again. Just like Jairus’ young daughter, Jesus voice will wake you up from death. You’ll get up and walk. This Resurrection hope was confessed by Job when he says that he’ll behold his Redeemer’s face, “whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me” (Job 19:27). And for this reason, St. Paul repeats Jesus and says that the saints who have died have “fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thess. 4:14, 15).
The next time you’re at a Christian funeral, don’t be modest or shy about our resurrection hope. Say it as Jesus and St. Paul said it. “You’re loved one is sleeping. She’ll open her eyes and see her Redeemer’s face. Just like with Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, she’ll get up and walk.” Memorize this verse and speak it. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:14).
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
The book of Revelation isn’t as scary or cryptic as the millenialists have led many to believe. It’s not about secret messages and codes to decipher that will tell us when the end will come. Jesus said that only the Father knows the day and hour (Matt. 24:36). The book tells us about the spiritual struggles and victory of the church in this time as we wait for Jesus to return in glory.
“Those who had been slain for the word” are the martyrs. They died because of their Christian confession. Though they, like Lazarus in Jesus’ above parable, are not in torment, they are eager for Jesus to bring to completion the work he began and secured on the cross and through his own resurrection. They cry out with a loud voice imploring him to put his enemies under his feet and avenge their good deaths. Their cries are answered. The Lord gives them white robes symbolizing their purity which came from faith and tells them to rest in peace. They must wait “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete.” They’re waiting for the gospel to run its full course. Their waiting for your baptism. Their waiting for the forgiveness of sins to reach across the continents and centuries until that moment when Jesus’ brings this era of mercy to an end.
Notice that the holy martyrs aren’t depicted as hearing our prayers or being able to see our struggles. Instead, what’s shown is that they know that their blood has yet to be avenged. Jesus has yet to return in glory. Until that time, Jesus comforts them and assures them that everything will happen in its appointed time. This is the worship and state of souls before the resurrection. They desire to be reunited with their bodies. They desire Jesus’ to reveal his glory to everyone’s eyes, just as we’ve perceived his glory now by faith in the Word. They pray for the fulfillment of hope. Jesus comforts them. The text, ending as it does on a note of reassurance, gives us the joy of knowing that their hope and comfort will not abandon the martyr’s souls until the Last Day.
The next time you’re at graveside. Don’t be tempted to say things like, ‘I’m sure that she sees us.’ Say instead, ‘I’m sure that she sees Jesus and is at peace. I’m sure that she’s eager for the resurrection to come quickly.’ Dear saints, let’s join our voices and prayers to the dearly departed who have preceded us in death.
Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:12-14).
Your robes are washed and made white in Baptism. The gates are Jesus’ Word and Sacrament. The tree of life is his cross from which he gives forgiveness, righteousness, and peace. Dying in this justifying faith, you are saved. Death is but sleep that gives way to resurrection.
Let’s learn to pray with all the saints in heaven and on earth, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20)
Jesus says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
-Pr. A. Brian Flamme
 Though there is some debate as to whether biblical anthropology teaches a tripartite distinction between soul, spirit, and body verses a soul, body distinction, we’ll leave that out of this discussion and acknowledge the soul or spirit as that immaterial part of ourselves that survives death and is reunited with out bodies on the day of resurrection.