A death in the family, or the death of a close friend, can be a source of much grief. Suddenly, or perhaps after an illness, one is confronted by the reality that the person is no longer here. Sometimes we read of how people in the world grieve for years and just cannot get used to the absence of a loved one. For Christians, however, grief is tempered by an inexpressively great comfort in the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. For He has turned death into the gate to Paradise.
Recently my sister was receiving palliative care. When her neighbour asked me how she was going, and I replied that she would soon be in heaven, the neighbour replied, “Well, if anyone deserves it, she does.” I then tried to explain to her how entrance to heaven comes not through what we deserve but through forgiveness of our sins by Christ alone. Her comment illustrates how the unscriptural idea that we can somehow contribute something towards our salvation continues to prevail. The pharisees held to it. So did the Arminians. And for many people who believe in God, it is still there. But like an old man once told Rev Hendrik DeCock, “If I had to add one sigh to my salvation, I would be eternally lost.” The criminal on the cross had nothing to commend him to heaven. Yet God gave him faith at the 11th hour and then Christ said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” [i] Only through Christ is paradise regained for us.
Paradise: the realm where there is no sin, no suffering, no sickness, no troubles, no fear, no anxiety, no persecution, but perfect bliss. The Apostle Paul had received a glimpse of it when “he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible things” (2 Cor. 12:4). So marvellous was it that he was not allowed to speak of it lest he be exalted above the other apostles in the eyes of the believers. Those believers had to rely on God’s Word alone; not on someone’s experiences. It would have meant speaking of what he had seen and thus committing the sin of preaching “beyond what was written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
And “what is written” about the life everlasting is already immeasurably great. It offers such wonderful comfort. As we confess in LD 22: At the moment of death my soul, I myself, will immediately go to Christ. There I shall “possess perfect blessedness, such as no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived – a blessedness in which to praise God forever”. How amazing is God’s love and grace toward us undeserving sinners!
Yet this comforting confession has, over the years, been rejected and has come under attack from various sides.
Needless to say, the theory of evolution has deprived many westerners and communists of the comfort of the gospel. They depend on the ‘evidence’ of their senses and not the evidence of God’s Word in order to develop theories that leave God the creator and our Saviour out of the picture. Death, say the unbelievers, is the stone end of life. Hence, at funerals, many friends and relatives try to ‘celebrate’ what the deceased person did in his or her life. But no amount of such celebration can smother the fact there’s no true comfort in believing that death is an entrance into the eternal void of blackness. The shocking realisation that they were wrong will come too late for those who die without faith; they’ll be confronted by the judgement of Him who offered them life eternal in Jesus Christ, but which they rejected while on earth.
Nor is there much comfort in the many Asian religions which say that upon death a person’s spirit will live on in a plant or animal (as with aborigines) or, as in the case of Hindus, another person.
Yet even amongst ‘believers’ there have been attacks on this Scriptural comfort. The late Rev J Francke says:
“Rome inserts purgatory between the hour of death and the heavenly glory. Others teach a soul-sleep between death and resurrection. Again others believe that at death the whole person ceases to exist, only to continue living in God’s memory until the last day, when body and soul suddenly come to life.” [ii]
Such twisting of the gospel robs us of the truth of God’s holy Word. It robs us of Christ’s comfort. The Lord Jesus clearly said to the repentant murderer on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
“Not tomorrow, not on the last day; no, immediately in the hour of death. This is our comfort about our loved ones who died in the faith. This is our only comfort.” [iii]
Just consider what Paul said. He stated that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). He saw the necessity of continuing his work on earth for the sake of the church but knew where he’d prefer to be. After all, the Lord had given him that glimpse into heaven, to encourage him in his struggles. And lest Paul become too exuberant and speak of what he’d seen, and thereby be a step ahead of the other apostles, he’d been given a thorn in the flesh, a constant reminder to stick to what was written in the Gospel and not on what he’d experienced.
Believers who see the end of this earthly existence drawing near through a breaking down of the body because of long-term illness or old age may truly look forward to being in the paradisial presence of the Lord. And it’s no less a comfort for all God’s people. Matthew Henry says:
“The happiness of the future state is what God has prepared for those that love him: everlasting habitations, not like the earthly tabernacles, the poor cottages of clay, in which our souls now dwell; that are mouldering and decaying, whose foundations are in the dust. The body of flesh is a heavy burden, the calamities of life are a heavy load. But believers groan, being burdened with a body of sin, and because of the many corruptions remaining and raging within them. Death will strip us of the clothing of flesh, and all the comforts of life, as well as end all our troubles here below. But believing souls shall be clothed with garments of praise, with robes of righteousness and glory.” [iv]
To be sure, we have a foretaste of this future state now on earth already as we, through faith, experience God’s grace and the blessedness of belonging to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. We know that for His sake our Father turns all things to the salvation of those who belong to Christ. This we believe, for today we live by faith – a faith worked in us by the Word and Spirit of God. But when we leave this life, we will live by sight. Today we are still in the body, away from where the Lord is; but then we shall be with Him. How incomparably comforting is the knowledge of the life everlasting!
There is sorrow and grief at the departure of a loved one. And life on this side of the grave will still have its challenges, afflictions, pain and suffering. But it’s tempered by a deep inner peace of mind. It is, to quote Rev A Veldman, “the joy mentioned by the apostle Paul in Philippians 4 – a joy not depending on circumstances, but a feeling of deep contentment in the LORD, knowing that He will also provide in times of affliction”. For we know that whatever befalls us comes from God’s fatherly hand, even when we don’t understand why the hardship or calamity occurs, and this comforts and strengthens us.
As Rev Veldman adds:
“I realise that this does not suddenly make life easier to cope with, like an injection from a doctor to ease the pain. It is not like that. Yet, when we live close to the LORD in obedience to His Word, the LORD will give us the strength we need to also carry hardship and affliction, to carry it even with a cheerful heart, since God is near and His love goes out in particular to His afflicted children. In Him we may confide, in the LORD who is the Defender of the needy. That is how joy can prevail even when the days are evil. For God is at my side – in Him I may rejoice.” [v]
Meanwhile, our ultimate desire is for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ when we shall love and serve Him in perfection, unhindered by sin, Satan or sickness. And therefore, “Our soul awaits the great Redeemer.” [vi] We look forward to when He will create a new heaven and a new earth, and all who belong to Christ will receive a renewed and glorified body. It’s a day we may anticipate with great longing. That anticipation will continue to apply also to the souls that have been taken up out of this life to Christ, their Lord, before He comes on the clouds. Those souls, too, whilst already experiencing perfect bliss, await the resurrection of the body.
Then there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. Instead, there will be perfect joy and delight in the presence of our great and glorious God. So marvellous will this be, so wonderful beyond our present comprehension, that Paul exclaims:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Praise be to God who, through our Saviour Jesus Christ, comforts us with the ineffable gift of fellowship with Him now and forever!
[i] Luke 23:43
[ii] Joh. Francke, Your Only Comfort: A Bible Daybook, Pro Ecclesia Publishers, Armadale, p. 160.
[iv] Matthew Henry Commentary, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8
[v] A Veldman, Homeward Bound: Sustained by Grace, 2021, p.27.
[vi] Psalm 33:6, Book of Praise, Premier, Winnipeg, 1984.