There was a phone call for you while you were gone,” he said. “I’m sorry to tell you, your father died this afternoon.”
I wasn’t surprised. My father had been bedridden for months. A little more than a year earlier, not long before my twenty-third birthday, he’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor. A month later they operated and removed it, and, as was usual for him, he came through with flying colors. They said he’d lost less than a pint of blood. He was a skilled carpenter, and within a matter of weeks he was up and working again. I was teaching at the time of his diagnosis, so when the school year ended, my wife and I went and stayed with my parents, and I worked with him that summer.
On the last day I was scheduled to work with him, my father fell off a ladder and broke both of his wrists. He went to the hospital so that they could care for him, and he was never well again. Apparently the cancer had spread. He underwent radiation and chemo. It was hard to tell whether they helped. Since my parents lived close to my older sister but some distance from my wife and me, I rarely saw him during his final illness. Many mornings, as I prepared to go teach school, I would receive a call from my mother telling me that my father was improving, that he would soon be well. That was often followed by a call from my sister telling me Dad was dying. I didn’t know what to think. Indeed, being only 24 years old myself, and my father always having been so strong, his dying seemed unthinkable. But now it had happened. I felt devastated.
My father was the nurturing presence in my life. To this day, all my memories of him are surrounded with a warm glow. He’d been so strong—and for so long. The year before his illness he’d played in a city league softball team with men half his age. It was impossible to imagine that such a strong man could be gone so quickly. My mind simply couldn’t accept the idea that he was gone. But gone he was. This physically imposing, strong man had slowly wasted away. That phone call brought some of the worst news I’ve ever received.
If you’ve lived any time at all on this old planet, you, too, have suffered such a loss. Death may come suddenly, without warning, or as it did with my father, it may be the end of a long, drawn-out process. Whether it’s surprising or not, death is always shocking—shocking because that chair at the table is now empty, that voice is now silenced, that gentle presence is missing.
The grief we feel can be overwhelming. And when it happens, it can be difficult to remember that the loss we feel is because of the great blessing, the great joy, that that someone brought into our lives. As author John Steinbeck wrote, “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
But even in my grief, I discovered that there is some good news about death. Very good news. Good news that helped me to cope with the terrible sense of loss.
No more suffering
First, I realized that my father’s suffering was over. The depredations of the cancer had turned my father into a shadow of himself, a frail hulk of a man. For someone so active, so strong, simply being bedridden had to have been a great trial. He was aware of the slow deterioration of his powers, of death overtaking him. But all that had now come to an end. He was at rest.
We know this from the words of Jesus Himself. John 11 tells us about the death of one of Jesus’ friends. Jesus and His disciples had moved their ministry from Judea and Jerusalem to Galilee, in the far north, because the last time He’d been in Jerusalem the priests and the Pharisees had taken up stones to stone Him. But now came news about the death of Jesus’ friend, who lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had taken ill. After several days, Jesus said to His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (verse 11).
Jesus’ disciples, taking Him literally, replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better” (verse 12). And what they said makes sense. The body often uses a fever to fight disease, and when the fever breaks, the patient can sleep. This is a sure sign of improvement. But Jesus was not speaking of ordinary sleep. He was using slumber as a metaphor for death. Jesus’ disciples misunderstood Him to mean natural sleep, so He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead” (verse 14).
The idea of death as sleep is comforting good news. For example, my father isn’t conscious today. He isn’t “looking down on me” from some heavenly position. He didn’t have to witness all his family members in deep pain at their loss of his presence. He didn’t have to stand by helplessly and watch as we suffered setbacks, experienced fear, and endured suffering.
In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare also spoke of death as sleep, but he feared that it might be filled with terribly frightening dreams. “To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come.”
But we don’t have to fear. Once again, the Bible has good news about death, for it tells us that the sleep of death is a dreamless sleep, a peaceful rest. The psalmist describes the grave as a “land of oblivion” (Psalm 88:12). And the wise man Solomon tells us, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
So, is death the end?
Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes death as “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
But praise God, that isn’t true! There’s more good news about death: it isn’t the last word!
Christ entered that “undiscovered country,” explored its depths, and returned gloriously! And Paul tells us that because Jesus returned from the grave, we will too: “What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word” (Romans 6:8, 9, The Message).*
Never again will death have the last word! This gives me hope that I can see my father again. Today I can visit his grave, look at his tombstone, read his name engraved on the stone, see the date of his birth and his death, and realize that the second number is not the end of his life’s story! It is not the last word!
In that same story about Lazarus that I mentioned a moment ago, Jesus told Lazarus’s sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25, 26).
The apostles were so excited about Jesus’ resurrection that they preached it constantly. Speaking to the multitudes at Pentecost, Peter declared, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32). It’s no wonder that some people thought Peter was drunk! It was astonishing news!
Paul placed such an emphasis on the Resurrection that some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill thought he was preaching about two gods, Jesus—and the Resurrection. They said, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods” (Acts 17:18)—notice it says “gods,” in the plural. This is understandable when we realize that the Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, from which we get the female name Anastasia.
Importance of the Resurrection
The Resurrection is the very heart of the gospel. Jesus became a man and came to earth, died for our sins, and rose again! Without the Resurrection, His life and death come to naught. Once again, Paul explained it succinctly: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 19).
And there’s more good news about death. This resurrection and the eternal life that follows it are available to all of us. If you want to be part of this great resurrection, if you want this good news about death to apply to you, all you need to do is accept Jesus as your Savior. How do you do this? As Peter told the multitudes at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Repent means to turn away from the evil that we’re doing—that we desire to do. And when we’re baptized, we reenact Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3–5).
The Bible tells us that the resurrection Paul speaks about will take place at Jesus’ second coming. All those who who’ve died in the hope of the resurrection—and those who remain alive till Christ’s return—will all be reunited with Him and with each other.
The picture Paul paints is breathtaking: “Regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.
“And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master’s word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise—they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we’ll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, The Message).
That’s the good news about death!