I waited pensively just outside the door, biting my lip. A stilted atmosphere of lonely formality and finality seemed to overshadow the people moving quietly about. Their voices were muted, their dress somber. Loud, hoarse sobs, clearly those of a man, carried through from the other room. And now it was my turn. I walked through the door—and there she was.
Ashleigh lay in an overly elaborate box that seemed far too small, eyes closed, hands clasped. My first glimpse of death lay before me in the shape of a teenage girl. She looked like a china doll, her face pale, with skin so waxy it seemed surreal. Someone had dressed her in the latest winter fashion, complete with a warm, trendy coat. What’s the point of that? I thought. She won’t feel the cold now. As I looked down at the still, small figure before me, I could feel the loss, confusion, and sorrow that seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the room.
“She was too beautiful for this world,” the funeral director said solemnly, waving his arms. “I’m sure Ashleigh will be watching over her family with her father. She’ll always live on in our hearts.”
His words seemed to underscore the despair I felt. As Ashleigh’s favorite song played, the teary faces around me offered quiet assurance to the mother and comforted a sobbing, bewildered child. What a waste! was all I could think. What a shocking waste of life!
Losing someone is never easy. Trying to peer past the trite platitudes without looking through rose-colored glasses can be hard to do without tears. The squabbles, pranks, jokes, experiences, and funny little idiosyncrasies that made up that person are simply gone. Everyone who knew him or her is affected by the loss. And, as so often happens when someone is gone, those left behind think, Is death the end? What happens now? These are questions that priests, preachers, and philosophers throughout history have tried to answer.
What does the Bible say?
What Are We Like?
In answering the question about death, the first issue we have to deal with is our human nature when we’re alive. Do we have both a body and a soul, or are we a single unit? To put it in terms of death, do we have a soul that lives on after our body dies, or does death bring all that we are to an end?
The Bible tells us that “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV). God combined two elements to make the first human being: the dust of the ground and the breath of life. These two came together to form a “living soul.” God didn’t put a “living soul” into Adam. He placed within him His own living breath. Adam became a living soul as a result of this combination of a body from the dust and the breath of life from God. The “soul” cannot exist without both of these elements.
Death is simply the reverse of the process God used to give us life. Solomon wrote, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [breath] shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, KJV). The “spirit” or “breath of life” is the spark that animates us and gives us life. It is not a conscious soul, for Solomon also said that “the living know that they will die, ⁄ but the dead know nothing . . . never again will they have a part ⁄ in anything that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6).
So at death, the body goes back to dust, while the spirit—God’s life-giving power—returns to the One who gave it. Just as the light from a lightbulb goes out when the electricity is removed, so our human consciousness ceases when God removes His life-giving breath from our bodies. At that point, we no longer exist as intelligent beings. The psalmist said, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:3, 4, KJV; emphasis added).
Jesus called death a sleep, thus emphasizing the unconsciousness we humans experience when we die. When His friend Lazarus died, Jesus told His disciples, “ ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ . . . Then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’ ” (John 11:11–14).
And speaking of Christians who had died, Paul said that they had “fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30).
So the dead don’t know what’s going on in the world, because they’re unconscious. They’re asleep.
Why the Confusion?
If the Bible is so clear that death is a sleep, a state of unconsciousness, why do so many people think that dead people are still alive? The answer appears to be tradition: this is what their ancestors thought, so this is what they think as well.
Songs are often used to reflect current trends, beliefs, and ways of thinking. In her 1997 release, Ghosts, Australian singer Wendy Matthews devoted an entire track to one of the more popular beliefs concerning what happens after death. In her song “Beloved,” a lonely phantom watches over her former lover. She describes him lurking in the house, floating through walls, and lying down to sleep beside her at night, though she knows he cannot see or feel her touch. “All I am now ⁄ is this love I have for you,” she sighs. She reflects on all the things she wishes she’d said when he was alive, longing to be able to touch and speak to her loved one again.
Like Wendy Matthews, many people say of the dead, “They’ll never really leave me,” or, “They’ll always be a part of my life.” In this understanding of death, the dead are still among us, locked in another realm of our world. We cannot see them, and they cannot speak to us.
However, there’s another popular idea about death. Pearl Jam’s song, “Last Kiss,” describes a car accident, where the driver laments the loss of his girlfriend. “The Lord took her away from me,” he says. “She’s gone to heaven so I’ve got to be good, ⁄ So I can see my baby when I leave this world.” According to this belief, our loved ones are up in heaven, watching over us from a safe place.
While both views have comforting sentiments, what are they based on? How can a loved one be eternally bound to a house while at the same time be watching from heaven? The thought of watching the shattered lives left behind, unable to do anything to offer comfort or affection, seems like a nightmare. Or, worse, imagine looking down and seeing wars, tragedies, and misfortunes that befall your family—while you live in peaceful luxury.
Does this mean that the sleep of death is permanent? When we die, are we doomed to unconsciousness for eternity? Fortunately, the idea of being asleep suggests the idea of waking. Christ changed death into a sleep by His sacrifice on our behalf. How astonishing to think that the Son of God died in order to conquer death forever and change what would have been eternal nothingness into a temporary, dreamless sleep!
Jesus has power to awaken every human from the sleep of death when He returns at the end of the age: “ ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand’ ” (John 10:28, 29).
For those who believe in Him and accept this gift, the next thing they’ll know after they die will be the coming of Jesus. It will be as though they blink, go to sleep, and then wake up when Jesus raises them back to life. Jesus Himself promised, “ ‘Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out’ ” (John 5:28). And the apostle Paul wrote that “we will not all sleep,” meaning that those who trust in Jesus will not always remain unconscious in their graves. Rather, he says, “The dead will be raised imperishable. . . . For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51–53).
We humans aren't now immortal, but God will make us so when Jesus comes back to this world and raises the dead to life.
When I think back on Ashleigh's lifeless form in that coffin, I feel a deep sense of loss and profound hope. The loss is for this life. I will miss her as long as I’m in this body. I wish I’d spent more time with her, gone for a walk with her, and done more to show I cared.
But the glorious hope is that I will see Ashleigh again. We’ll be reunited when Jesus returns His breath of life back into her body, and the bodies of all those who claimed His gift of eternal life! Praise God, death is not the end!