To many people, life after death remains an unsolvable mystery. It is far too awesome for them to comprehend. I like to think, however, that it is best understood as something very simple.
Some years ago I conducted funeral services for Neil Collum, a good friend and a good man. I looked at Neil’s casket and I told the people gathered there that Neil Collum was not in that casket; that it was only the body that Neil had used on earth, and that he himself was not there. And then I shared with them these thoughts that have always been meaningful to me, thoughts about God’s love for us.
Before Neil was born, when he was in the prenatal state tucked up under his mother’s heart, he was already sensitive to love, as even unborn babies are. This baby was happy there. But suppose somebody had been able to tell this child, “Look, you can’t stay here. You’re going to be born.” That to him would have been death, because it would have meant a change from a security to an insecurity. We can imagine the baby thinking, “I don’t want to be born! I want to stay here. I like it here. I’m comfortable. I’m fed. I am loved.”
But there came a day when that baby was, as we call it, born. He left where he was and came into a new world. And here in this new world he felt loving arms around him, and the first thing he saw was a beautiful face looking down at him. Everybody ran at his slightest wish to do just what he wanted.
Then he began to grow up and he had some troubles, and some hard knocks. But he loved life and he loved the world. Time passed and he became a middle-aged man, and then an old man. And the thought came to him, “I’m going to die.” He said to himself, “I don’t want to die. I like it here. I love the stars at night. I love to feel the sun on my face. I love the tangy smells of autumn and to sit in front of fire on winter evenings. I love my family and my friends. I don’t want to die.”
But then he did die. Now, do you think that God, who provided all that protection and love for his coming into this world and getting started in it, was going to abandon him to gloom and terror when he left it?
“When Nell Collum comes to himself after death,” I told Neil’s mourners, “what will he see? I believe he will see the kindest face he can imagine looking at him and feel loving arms around him.”
Why do I believe in this picture of a life beyond? Because I believe in Jesus Christ. Why was Jesus raised from the dead? To show that nothing can overcome the power of God; not even death.
–By Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993)
From A Sermon on Preparing to Die, by Martin Luther (1483-1546), Luther’s Works, volume 42, pages 99-100:
Since everyone must depart from this earth, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life (Matthew 7:14). All must venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of those who believe in Jesus is called a new birth, and their death day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a women is in travail she has sorrow; but when the child is delivered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” (John 16:21). So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and much joy will follow (John 14:2).
Isaiah 26:19 — Your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise— let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy— your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.
Matthew 7:13-14 — (Jesus said), “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
John 16:21 — (Jesus said), “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”
Lord Jesus, by your death you took away the sting of death. Grant to us, your servants, so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake in your likeness; to you the author and giver of life, be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
–Book of Common Prayer