Last December I retired from the pastorate of Trinity Baptist Church, the church I served for twenty years. Since my retirement, I have been called back to perform three funerals.
The funeral of Christians can be a time of sadness and a time of celebration. It is a time of sadness because Christians have to say farewell to family and friends, people who they loved and who had meant so much to them.
It is when people attend a funeral that they come face to face with the reality of their own mortality: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). The death of relatives, friends, and fellow believers diminishes all of us, because we are part of the whole.
However, the death of a believer is also a time of celebration. When a believer dies, other believers know that death is not the end of everything, but it is the beginning of a new life for that believer.
At the time of death, believers enter into a wonderful new relationship with the Lord. This is the reason the Bible says that “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). What makes the death of a believer a time of celebration is the resurrection of Christ.
The Bible says that when God became a man and was born in Bethlehem, he became as human as we are human. And just as people will die and be buried someday, Jesus Christ died and was buried. The writer of Hebrews wrote: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14).
Jesus was buried, but the grave had no power over him. Three days after he died and was buried, he rose again. The death of Christ was the death of death. Death is the end of earthly life and the beginning of eternal life, a life that the believer has already experienced by faith in Christ.
The resurrection of the believer to life is the Christian answer to the problem of death. And the grounds for this hope is found in the work of Christ. We see a glimpse of this hope in the death of Lazarus.
When Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, died, Jesus came to where Lazarus was buried to comfort Lazarus’ family. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, Martha, Lazarus’s sister, said to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Jesus told Martha: “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23).
Jesus tried to comfort Martha and assure her that death was not the end of her brother’s life. Jesus told Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
This is precisely what Christians believe. They believe they will rise again after they die because they have been redeemed. They believe they will rise again because the enemy called death has been defeated in the resurrection of Christ: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).
Non-believers do not have the hope of life after death. How can they believe in life after death when they do not believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who rose from the grave? And yet, even those who deny the existence of God and the possibility of life after death, whenever confronted with the reality of death, they hope for something beyond the grave.
Take the case of Robert Ingersol, a man who died in 1899. In his days, Ingersoll was called “The Great Agnostic,” and “The Great Atheist.” Ingersoll was a great orator and his speeches mesmerized many people. He was a prolific writer who specialized in proving that the Bible was wrong and that the church and religion were evil.
Ingersoll ridiculed the notion that there was a God or that there was life after death. He rejected the supernatural, the reality of faith, the possibility of prayer, and denied that the Bible was a record of God’s revelation to human beings.
One of his memorable speeches was the eulogy spoken at the time of the death of his brother, E. C. Ingersoll. It is here that we can see Robert Ingersoll’s wish for the existence of a God. His words are a request for someone who could answer prayer and provide hope after death. Speaking about the death of his brother, Ingersoll wrote:
Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing. He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his latest breath, “I am better now.” Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas and tears and fears, that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.
It is in those words, “in the night of death hope sees a star” that we see a crack in the wall of atheism, the faint light that begins to shine in the dark heart of an atheist, the evidence that an unspoken hope is present. The expression, “the peaks of two eternities” may reflect the awareness that there is life here and life beyond. The expression “We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry” may reflect the struggle atheists encounter when confronted with the reality of death and the end of existence. But Ingersoll’s words, “Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas” may be the loophole he was looking for to give him a ray of hope that his brother would rise again.
The contrast between the fear and despair that grips an individual in the presence of death and the vibrancy of faith that comes out of the resurrection of Christ, is vividly portrayed in the words of the prophet. Speaking of the wicked, the prophet wrote:
“They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them” (Isaiah 26:14).
Of the righteous, the prophet wrote:
“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isaiah 26:19).
As the Scriptures say: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary