When Henriette Juliane Caroline von Rüling died in 1782 at the relatively young age of 26, her husband, Georg Ernst von Rüling, was inconsolable. She had given birth to three sons for him, all of whom had died at birth—and now Henriette herself was gone. Georg buried Henriette in Gartenfriedhof in Hanover, Germany, beneath a massive rectangular stone, carved in intricate, flowing drapery. On the tomb, Georg, a poet and musician, wrote “Separation is the lot of humanity, but leaving early is life’s greatest bitterness.”
But it’s a line that Georg added to the base of the monument that’s best remembered: “May this tomb bought for eternity never be opened.”
It turns out that even the best human expectations fail—even those intended for eternity. The tiny seed of a birch tree fell on Henriette’s tomb and was washed by the rain into a crevice between the massive stones. No one noticed that first tender, green shoot. Undetected, it shot upward toward the light. The roots expanded, a cell at a time. With the passing of the years, the growing plant began to push apart the massive blocks of stone. It lifted the entire monument, and the iron fasteners that bound it to its foundation snapped.
The tomb that was never to be opened, cracked. Today, the site is known as the Open Grave—a destination for all who want to see how enforceable even the most stubborn human intentions are.
An undiscovered country?
Some say that death is the end, a plunge into oblivion. William Shakespeare places in the mouth of Hamlet a bitter soliloquy: death is, he says, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Because we can’t see what lies beyond, and because we don’t know how to reanimate dead bodies and erased memories ourselves, some believe it’s impossible for us to be alive beyond death.
Yet everything in the human psyche opposes the finality of the grave. If we were made to die, to disappear into oblivion, why is the experience so alien to us? Why do we have such a clear sense of our own existence, and why do we yearn for life to continue? Given the trials and troubles of life, asks Hamlet, shouldn’t we be as happy to end life as to live it? Death “puzzles the will,” he answers himself, “and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”
The reason we resist death, says the Bible, is that we were never meant to die. That Book opens the human story with the creation of a world in which death is not only unknown but inconceivable. One imagines that when God told Adam and Eve, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17), our first parents may have scratched their heads in puzzlement. What does it mean to die, they might have wondered, in a world where every bit of life—every plant, every bird, animal, and butterfly—is designed to be young and alive forever?
They found out when they disobeyed God. They learned that under the influence of sin, living things could cease to live. Perhaps they first saw wilted flowers or the yellowing leaves on a plant. Then they saw animals and birds lifeless on the ground. Worse, creatures killed one another in a hungry rage. The denouement of this sad story came when one of their own sons killed his brother out of bitter jealousy.
Adam and Eve learned what death was. And we still struggle with it today.
The impossible possibility
By no human effort have we ever been able to cheat death. As advanced as we have become in the biological and medical sciences, death still thwarts us. A handful of especially hardy people live past the century mark, but as the psalmist observes of those last years of life, “The best of them are but trouble and sorrow” (Psalm 90:10).
From whence, then, comes the power to overcme death and live again? Only from God! Hannah, the godly mother of Samuel, was one of the first to see it. “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up,” she proclaimed (1 Samuel 2:6). Job was confident that “my redeemer lives!” Even “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes” ( Job 19:25–27).
But while they had the hope in their hearts, the reality had yet to be seen. For that, we can thank Jesus Christ.
The first chapter of Revelation describes Jesus as “the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” (verse 18). Here is life after death told, not as a doctrine, not as a dry fact, but as a true story. Jesus Himself, the Bible says, was dead. His heart had stopped beating. His stomach wasn’t digesting. His liver no longer filtered His blood. The electrochemical synapses in His brain had gone silent. He was, the Bible is careful to say, completely lifeless.
Yet God made Him alive again— and in a way that could leave no doubt among observers. For after “he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” testifies Paul, “he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5).
But how can there be more to life than the life we have now? What can possibly conquer death? The seed that fell into Henriette’s tomb may provide a metaphor.
Jesus compared death to a seed that “falls to the ground and dies” ( John 12:24). What appears to be death is just a prelude to life, for it grows and “produces many seeds” (verse 24). Like a seed on the ground, death could be the beginning of a new, more energetic life.
This miracle happens through “the Living One” I mentioned a moment ago, for Jesus declared that He holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). Because He experienced resurrection, He can bring us forth from death too. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake,” the prophet Daniel declared (Daniel 12:2) as he looked prophetically forward to the end of time.
There are two things to be noted in Daniel’s promise. The first is that we “sleep in the dust of the earth” until God awakes us at the resurrection (verse 2). There is no biblical evidence for human beings existing as spirits in heaven. We sleep, unconscious (Ecclesiastes 9:5), until the final resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:51–54).
The second thing to note, which should give us pause, is what happens after we are resurrected. Some awaken, says Daniel, to “everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). That is to say, not everyone’s resurrection story will have a happy ending. There will be a judgment, and only those who are judged worthy will enjoy everlasting life.
preparing for death
Unlike Adam and Eve, who came fresh from God’s creative hand, we today are acquainted with death. “For the living know that they will die,” said the wise man (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Death is not a surprise. Wise people prepare for it: they buy life insurance and write wills to care for the loved ones left behind.
But the preparation for death should be about more than property, estates, and survivors. If the dead will live again, you and I want to be among those who awaken to everlasting life, not “to shame and everlasting contempt.”
I’m glad that the Bible is a book of hope! There’s a reason why so many of us love the promise in John 3:16 that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (emphasis added).
Pikeville, Kentucky, was for decades plagued by floods that wiped out the town because the Big Sandy River snaked, slow and flat, directly through the city center. After years of destruction, one of the largest civil engineering projects in the Western Hemisphere literally divided a mountain in order to relocate the riverbed. The Pikeville Cut-Through is a man-made canyon where there once was a mountain.
Jesus said that “faith as small as a mustard seed” would be enough to move mountains (Matthew 17:20). But at the end of time, faith will do something much greater. Faith will rip open the earth in search of the dead. A birch tree cracked Henriette Juliane Caroline von Rüling’s tomb. Jesus, who holds the keys to death, will open the crust of the earth to find every believer—from the bottom of the sea, from collapsed mines deep underground, from the ashes of flames, and from billions upon billions of entombed remains. God will reassemble the elements of the earth to give us human beings back the life that death has robbed us of.
We—you, I, and those we have loved and lost—will be reunited. And Henriette, too, will come forth from her cracked tomb, from death to life, to be reunited with her loving husband.
Loren Seibold is the pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ohio, USA, and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.