It was a beautiful spring day in New England, the kind that demands that you get outside after a long cold winter. Baseball season had recently begun, and the Boston Red Sox were playing one of those mid-week day games the teams will often play in the spring. I had driven to Boston for an appointment, and when that was finished, I was unable to resist the call of Fenway Park, which was just a few blocks from the Boston Temple, where a colleague was pastor and where I parked my car, free of course.
Walking to the ballpark, I stopped at a small stand outside the park and bought a submarine sandwich and a can of soda. Going to the pass gate, I proudly showed my Red Sox clergy pass, which one of the veteran pastors had told me how to request from the team, and was given entrance free!
What could be better—beautiful spring day, baseball, and a free seat to watch the game!
I walked along the third-base line until I found an area where no one was sitting. The closest person to me was a man in a gray suit, several feet to my right. He was stretched across a couple of seats, leaning back, enjoying the sun, which I did also as soon as I finished eating my sandwich.
He remarked about my wisdom in bringing in my own food, not only better but cheaper, and we began a conversation that covered several topics, but mostly about baseball. How the Red Sox looked and what their prospects were for the year. The 1968 season was just beginning, and all of New England had such great hopes for the team after the great season the year before.
Our conversation was interrupted by a young boy perhaps ten or twelve years of age. He was asking the man in the gray suit with whom I had been talking for his autograph, but neither of them had anything to write with. The man in the gray suit turned to me and asked if he could borrow my pen. I loaned him my chrome Cross pen, a gift for my college graduation, and it was then that I realized who he was—Joe DiMaggio, the famous New York Yankee baseball player, retired but still looking like he could play.
For the best part of half an hour, I had been talking to one of baseball’s all-time greats who, one year later in 1969, during baseball’s centennial celebration, was honored as the greatest living ballplayer, but I had not even recognized who he was. It was then that I realized that he liked it that way, talking to someone who didn’t know or seem to care who he was. I asked him what he was doing in Boston; he told me that he was working for the Oakland A’s as an advance man, scouting the team they were about to play, which would be the Red Sox in a day or so, and checking on other arrangements for the team, including dealing with the press.
After the first kid left, others soon followed. DiMaggio borrowed the pen again. Then a security man arrived with an invitation: The baseball writers were inviting him to come up to the press box to escape the autograph hounds. He turned to me, thanked me for letting him use my pen, and then said, “I really enjoyed talking with you,” as if he really meant it. “I hate to leave, but they’ve found me now, and it will only get worse.” He seemed to enjoy and resent his fame all at the same time.
According to one biographer, when DiMaggio heard the line “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” from Paul Simon’s famous song “Mrs. Robinson,” he was upset and said, “I haven’t gone anywhere.” He reportedly said to others, “What, do they think I’ve died? Don’t they see the Mr. Coffee commercials?” I thought about that a few years ago when word came that the famous ballplayer, who was for a time married to Marilyn Monroe, did die. His last words, according to Morris Engelberg, his friend and attorney, and others who were present, were “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn again.”
What happens when we die?
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” Heaven, hell, purgatory, the grave? What happens to all of us when we die? There are many teachings on the subject, but what does the Bible say? Simply looking at the Bible and resisting the temptation to superimpose our preconceived beliefs reveals a very interesting truth.
The Bible says, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.”1 That doesn’t sound like what we are often told, that the “dead know everything,” does it? The psalmist tells us, “The dead praise not the LORD.”2 Certainly the saved dead, if they were with Him, would praise the Lord. So what is their condition?
Jesus called death a “sleep”
Jesus described death as a sleep. He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly. He said to them “Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping.” When Jesus described the dead girl as sleeping, they laughed at Him—she was obviously dead. But Jesus nearly always referred to death as sleep. Jesus then spoke to the child. “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And she did.3
When word came to Jesus and the disciples that His friend Lazarus was dying, Jesus continued ministering where He was for two more days. The Bible records that Jesus then said to the disciples, “ ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’ ”4
Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus went to Mary and Martha. They were sorrowful and disappointed that He had not come as soon as they had summoned Him. Martha said, “ ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’ ”5
The saved awakened at the resurrection
You see, Martha truly understood the biblical truth about death; she knew her brother would sleep the sleep of death until the resurrection. But Jesus was showing her, and the world, that He is the Resurrection, that He is the One that will call us forth on that great morning. At Lazarus’s tomb, He cried out, “ ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ”6 This resurrection, the one of the little girl in Mark 5, and others—including His own, after His crucifixion, which was coming soon—are our assurance that those who trust in Him for salvation, after the sleep of death come forward in the resurrection to eternal life.
The apostle Paul said that Christ’s resurrection proves that we will also rise! “If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”7 He goes on to say, “Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”8 So Paul says we, too, will be resurrected!
Paul outlines the entire process: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep [in other words, many will be alive at Christ’s return and will not have to sleep the sleep of death], but we shall all be changed.” When are we to receive this change and receive immortality? “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Paul is telling us that we receive immortality at the resurrection, the dead will come forward in resurrection and join those living saints, and we will all receive immortality at the same time. He concludes: “ ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ”9
Jesus gives this same assurance about people already in the graves. “ ‘Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.’ ”10
So according to Jesus, when we die, we sleep the sleep of death, knowing nothing until the resurrection. At which time, we come forward either to eternal life or eternal death. When we die, we do not immediately enter heaven, hell, purgatory, or any state other than the one likened by Jesus to sleep, but wait there for the resurrection morning. So that, my friend, is true of Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, and all others who have died.
Joe’s last words before sleeping the sleep of death, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn again,” may well be fulfilled in the resurrection, but according to the Bible, not until then.
Jim Gilley writes from Dallas, Texas.