This is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of human questions. Every culture, every society that has walked the earth has sought the answer to this question.
Every person ever born has, at some point, felt the tug of the Holy Spirit drawing them toward the questions of eternity. Every person has looked at the frailty of life, the loss of loved ones, the declining health of a parent, or the tragedy of a life cut short and, as we were created to do, we all look up and say “there must be more than this”.
What happens when we die?
That is the age-old question that unites all people; a question – a longing – that itself is a part of God’s revelation to us, as he created us for relationship with himself and has revealed his plan for our future through his covenant with Israel, through the prophets, and ultimately in the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Word made Flesh, our Lord.
There is much that has been said about what awaits us after death.
We live in an age where, as the world grows ever smaller, we come into contact more and more with ideas from other times and places. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of giving us greater understanding, we find ourselves with a jumbled mess, where in the well-intentioned name of peaceful coexistence, our modern culture finds itself not more at peace, but caught up in whatever crisis finds itself trending on Twitter this week. And the only framework we have left to decipher our fears and concerns is an inconsistent mixture of popular and positive ideas from here and there, ideas that sound good, but in their inconsistency, ultimately fail to answer our deepest questions as this jumble only succeeds in disrespecting and misrepresenting the very cultures and viewpoints they claim to include.
One friend of mine put it this way: replace the hard questions like “what happens when we die”, with what should be an easier question: “what kind of cookies should we make”. In the past, we knew with confidence where we could find our recipe book, with the answers to the “cookie question”, tried and tested recipes that have been handed down in the family for generations.
Today, though, it’s as though our eyes have been opened to the vast varieties of cookies possible, but instead of actually committing to any single recipe to try it out, our culture invites us to throw the parts that appeal to us from of all the recipes together into one.
The obvious problem for anyone who has ever baked is that recipes exist for a reason: baking is a science as much as it is an art. Recipes exist precisely because, no matter how nice the ideas might be on their own, you cannot simply throw shortbread, chocolate chips, oatmeal, ginger, molasses, peanut butter, dates, marshmallows, raisins, and lemon juice together in a bowl and hope for the best.
To make a cookie, we need the recipe – a consistent recipe with all its parts, a tested recipe, where the ingredients work together to produce what was intended.
We wouldn’t bake cookies haphazardly. Yet, for so many, that’s exactly how we attempt to answer the hard questions that life throws at us.
What happens when we die?
The Church, the Body of Christ and his messengers in the world, have been entrusted with a recipe – a tried and true recipe, handed down from one generation to the next.
If we were to read and study our scriptures faithfully, we would find that God has been revealing his plan for us from the beginning.
Unfortunately, and disgracefully, some leaders, claiming to work in the name of Christ and his Church, have hidden the answers to these questions for selfish purposes; it’s no secret that, at various times in human history, the Church has relied on fear of the flames of hell and the unbiblical image of an angry judge to scare people into submission instead of truly addressing that God-given longing for eternity.
What happens when we die? I’m inviting us today to “stick to the recipe” handed down to us, and appreciate what it actually says as the answer to that question.
No cartoon pitchforks or wings and harps to be found.
The parable we heard today is the most extended teaching of Jesus specifically about what takes place after death.
It’s a parable, meaning that it is an illustration specifically used for teaching those ideas that would be hard to grasp on their own.
In Luke 16, beginning at verse 19, we hear of two men.
One is rich – well fed, very well dressed, lived for lavish parties and opportunities to enjoy and display his wealth. He’s also safe and secure: we’re told his house has a gate, and we can imply from the context that also means he has gatekeepers among his several servants, the poorly paid workers who grow and process his food, who sew and mend his clothes, and who build the things in his house.
The other man is poor; not just living from paycheque to paycheque, but poor. His name is Lazarus. He’s suffering from an illness that cripples him and prevents him from working, and he’s now living on the street with the stray dogs as his only companions, but even they betray him as they gather the scraps from the rich man’s trash before Lazarus can get there himself.
Both die – but neither ceases to exist.
As Christians, we believe that God created humankind for immortality. That’s what we mean when we say that we were created in God’s Image, that his Likeness is imprinted on our souls. We believe God created everything that is – and modern science shows us each day just how much more wonderful that creation is, with space extending beyond our wildest imagination, made up of particles so small that we only know they exist by their effects on the world around them.
And, we believe that, out of that vast creation, God created us to be different – to exist in relationship with him, to have free will rather than raw instinct, so that we could experience the free giving and receiving of Love, which is God’s Nature.
Both the rich man and Lazarus die – their bodies wear out – but that’s far from the end of the story.
As Christians, we confess every time we gather that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe, as taught by the scriptures, that our bodies, and all creation, matters.
This is one of those places where, especially in the modern era, some have been mixing ‘recipes’. The resurrection of the body was counter cultural in Jesus’ time, and runs counter to the many Greek, Roman, or Eastern philosophies that reject the body and the earth as bad and of no worth.
As Christians, we don’t believe that. The Church doesn’t teach that.
We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and that he called them “good”.
We certainly don’t believe that good and evil are equal and opposite powers fighting for control – that’s anything but Christian! No, rather, God is good. The problem is not some equal force of “evil”; it’s disobedience and rebellion.
It was in using our free will to serve ourselves rather than return the love shown to us by God that the world became not ‘evil’, but fallen. God made it and called it good, but disobedience caused it to be stained, corrupted.
Our hope – our eternal hope – is not that God would free us from our bodies and the world. There are religions that teach that, but not Christianity. Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is found in God’s promise to restore our bodies: that’s precisely why it’s essential that Jesus was raised from the dead with a renewed body.
Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is in God’s promise not that we will end up in some disembodied spiritual realm, but that we will be made citizens of a renewed earth, one where those who have accepted Jesus’ offer as the remedy for our corruption, and who share in that resurrected body will live in relationship and communion with him and with each other.
And, until that time, we are told that our flesh rests in hope, and that for the faithful, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
Punishments or Justice?
The experience in the grave is very different for the rich man than for Lazarus.
Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson provides an image, and it’s one worth our attention.
There’s no little red devils with horns and hooves wielding pitchforks – in fact, you can search the scriptures all day long, and you won’t find them anywhere: that’s not what the Church teaches, and it’s not what the Bible says.
What we do see is this: the rich man in the grave (Hades, the place of the dead) is separated from Lazarus who rests in “paradise”, awaiting the last day and the resurrection. And, the scriptural image is, at least for me, much more powerful than the cartoon devils given to us by false preachers.
The chasm – the walls of the cell, if you prefer – separating the two men are of the rich man’s own devising.
The wall, the gap separating the rich man from the peace of paradise is the very wall that he himself constructed.
In his life, he did all in his power to separate himself from the plight of the poor. He paraded around in his new clothes; he was so well fed that the food that he wasted or threw away would have been enough to feed those in need; he built a wall, in the name of safety and security, which also served to guard his eyes from having to face those in need around him.
But, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
The great divide that the rich man experiences after death is the reversal of the great divide that he inflicted on others in his life.
It’s not as though this is a punishment unfairly imposed by an angry god who keeps a tally of wrong deeds.
No. It’s simply justice. We reap what we sow.
We lock away and hoard our treasure now, we find ourselves locked away grasping to what has become worthless in the age to come.
We celebrate and rejoice, or save and spend at the expense of our brother or sister, and as we hear in scripture, that love of money and the eagerness to become rich result only in wandering from the faith and piercing ourselves with many pains.
Those who take great comfort now, be warned. “For blessed are those who mourn” now for injustice and wrong; because those who are comfortable, like the rich man, will watch as those who mourned shall be comforted.
Those who take great pride now, be warned: for you shall see the meek inherit the earth.
The Answer to the Question
What happens when we die?
We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.
And as our bodies rest, our eyes are opened and we see the justice of God.
But, it’s for us to decide, in this life, if we will be those who strive for God’s truth and justice now, who take up their cross and follow Jesus in spite of the persecutions we might face, and who will rest in peace. Or, if we are those who build, inherit, or benefit from walls that have been built, then justice demands that we experience life outside those walls in the age to come.
The rich man said “I beg you to send someone… I have a family, and they need to be warned so they won’t come into this place of torment”.
No, came the answer. “They have been warned. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if one rises from the dead”.
None of us can earn paradise; we’ve all, every one of us, benefited from building chasms between rich and poor, friend and foe, between races and languages and nations.
Our only hope, then, is to believe the message of the one who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This sermon is consistent with how Christians from the Early Church interpreted this parable before the politics and polemics that led to and stemmed from the Reformation. It draws largely on St. John Chrysostom’s Four Discourses on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, particularly discourses 2 and 4.
The idea of “digging one’s own abyss” in interpreting this passage comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, CUA Press, vol. 58, pp. 232-234); St. Augustine emphasizes the idea of reaping what one sows, or the concept of the equal balance of the scales (“the measure you give is the measure you get”) in this passage in his Sermon on this parable (#367 in his collected works).
Numerous fathers of the Early Church (Justin Martyr, Clement/Pseudo-Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others) are sources on the topic of the state of the righteous and unrighteous dead before the return of Christ and the general resurrection.
Anglican bishop and professor N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic in recent years. His chapter “Purgatory, Paradise, and Hell” in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008) is a fascinating and accessible study.