What happens after we die?
This is a question that every person must ponder at some point, whether they admit it or not. Religions are built on answering it, although no evidence exists that any person has raised himself from the dead except the Son of God, Jesus. In His case, there is ample evidence and eyewitness accounts in the historic records of the first century.
Everyone would like to believe that once these bodies wear out and are either consumed by cremation, buried in the ground, or embalmed in a tomb, we have something to look forward to that is better and greater. God has set eternity in the human heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). For the unbeliever, the one who rejects the hope and truth found in scripture, there is only a vague supposition, a wish, or a desire that there might be life after the grave, but for those who have entrusted their eternity into the hands of Jesus, we don’t just hope, we anticipate with confidence what awaits us. We don’t see death as an end, but simply as a door opening into the life God intended us to have all along.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks at length about the resurrection, both of Jesus, who is the first fruits of it, and the hope we have that we, too, will be raised because Jesus was raised. He begins by explaining the gospel (that Christ died, was buried, and raised on the third day according to the scriptures). He then lists multiple witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus during the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension. In one case, more than 500 people saw Jesus at the same time, confirming it could not have been a hoax or a hallucination. There was no possibility of a digital hologram in those days!
Paul stresses that a belief in the resurrection is central to salvation; otherwise we have believed in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:13-19 – But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
Thankfully, we have not hoped in Christ in this life only…we are not to be pitied. Death has lost its sting, and our testimony and attitude toward death is a powerful witness to those who do not believe. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, when our loved ones who knew Jesus die, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). We are sad; we miss them; we wish we’d had more time with them. But as believers, the message we proclaim to the world is a message of joy and hope because we know we will spend eternity with them in heaven. How we respond to death reveals our core beliefs about the resurrection.
How powerful is this testimony about death and eternity? There’s a difficult little passage in Paul’s teaching in this chapter that has led to a lot of erroneous doctrine. I confess, I’ve always been confused by it, so this morning I took the time to read more about it from John MacArthur’s commentary, a trustworthy resource that stands firm in biblical truth. In this verse we find good reason to consider our attitudes toward death and our response as believers when loved ones die.
1 Corinthians 15:29 – Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?
We know from other scriptures that salvation comes from personal faith in Jesus and a personal repentance of our sins. Being baptized in someone’s place after they die has no effect on their eternal destination. This cannot be what Paul meant. MacArthur makes two significant points as he helps us interpret this verse.
In the New Testament baptism is closely associated with salvation, of which it is an outward testimony. In the early church a person who was saved was assumed to have been baptized; and a person was not baptized unless the church was satisfied he was saved. To ask, then, if a person was baptized, was equivalent to asking if he was saved. If we assume that Paul was using the term baptized in that sense, then those…who are baptized could refer to those who were giving testimony that they were Christians. In other words, he was simply referring to believers under the title of those who are baptized, not to some special act of baptism.”
MacArthur concludes that when Paul refers to “the dead,” he is talking about deceased believers whose lives were a pervasive testimony leading to the salvation of the “baptized.”
The second point MacArthur makes is that the Greek word huper which is translated “for” (baptized for the dead) has more than a dozen meanings, including “because of.” The interpretation depends on grammatical structure and context. In that light, we could read this verse as “what will those do who are baptized because of the dead?” MacArthur concludes, If there is no resurrection, no hope of a future life, Paul asked, why are people coming to Christ because of the testimony of believers who have died? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they [many present Christians] baptized for [become believers because of the testimony of] them [deceased faithful believers]?
That’s the question. Why would people get saved based on the strong testimony of someone who has already died with a powerful, life-changing, anticipation and hope in heaven, if the resurrection is not true? There are multiple stories of people coming to faith after watching a loved one die with an unshakeable peace and faith in the resurrection. Our attitude towards death while we are living has an impact beyond the grave.
How do you look at death? How do you respond when a loved one dies? Do you give testimony that there is a resurrection? If an unbeliever makes a decision based on your attitude toward death, would he come to faith, or go on in doubt?
I know that grief is a process, and that we all grieve differently, for different periods of time, and in different ways. The loss of our loved ones alters our lives, but not forever. Let us not grieve as those without hope but give strong and powerful testimony to our coming resurrection and the hope of eternity with Jesus. Your unshakeable, confident, hope-filled, visible faith may be just the thing that brings someone to salvation, even after you die.