Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
What happens to a Christian when they die? Chances are, you’ve asked some form of this question some time in your life, either about yourself or about someone you loved. What’s going to happen to me when I die? What happened when my grandpa or my mom or my brother or my daughter or my grandson died? What happens to a Christian when they die?
Depending on who you ask, you’re going to get different answers. An Atheist will tell you, “nothing.” Nothing happens to Christians at death. They just cease to exist. Aside from the quickly-fading-legacy they have on this earth, nothing matters. Nothing lasts. Nothing lives on. Some Muslims and Jews will probably tell you that you’ll suffer undying torment in the fires of Hell. You didn’t follow their rules, or their god’s version of the rules, so down you go. Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu and they’ll say that Christians will be reincarnated, just like almost everyone else. Death is just a part of life. It resets the playing field and gives you another opportunity to get it right. Maybe next time you’ll drop that whole “Christian” thing and be able to become one with the divine. The problem we have turning to non-Christian religions is that they don’t have Jesus. They soundly reject what He has taught and revealed to us, so they’re missing out on a big piece of the puzzle.
If you were to ask fellow Christians about this, chances are, you’ll get just as many various answers. For some reason, the Christian church has really dropped the ball on this, allowing and even promoting a number of nonsensical beliefs. Some say that when a Christian dies they turn into an angel. For them, angels are not their own kind, their own created beings, but simply dead people. Not in the Bible. Some will tell you that when you die, you enter what they call “soul-sleep.” While your body rots away in the ground, your soul falls asleep until Jesus comes again, unconscious, and waiting for the resurrection. The problem is, it’s not in the Bible. Even others will respond that when a Christian dies, their body rots and stays rotten. Only your soul matters and it will spend eternity in heaven with God in an entirely spiritual, non-physical state. This, too, the Bible speaks against.
So what happens to a Christian when they die? In all of Scripture, we get lots of hints and little details here and there, but we never get a full-on description of the afterlife. Even the longer passages tell us less that we’d like to know. That being said, today’s reading from Revelation gives is one of the most extended and clearest pictures of what happens to a Christian when they die. John has been exiled to the island of Patmos, between what is today Greece and Turkey, where he receives a vision. It’s a rather odd vision and as you read it, you get the sense that he’s somewhat struggling to put into words exactly what he’s seeing. But thankfully, he’s not left on his own. Throughout his vision, different characters are helping him to understand what he’s seeing. In today’s reading, it’s an elder guiding him around and getting him to notice the important things.
Here’s what happens. John writes, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” Alright, so John sees a bunch of people from all over the earth and from all across time gathered around the throne of God, singing His praises, all while dressed in white and waving palm branches around. Make sense? No, it’s a little strange. But apparently, everything he’s seeing is a little strange and John gets distracted by another scene of worship, so the elder guiding him around draw his attention back to what he’s supposed to be focusing on.
“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ” Did you catch that? Who are these people? They are coming out of “the great tribulation.” What is the world is “the great tribulation”? Based on how the rest of the book of Revelation speaks and how Jesus talks about what’s to come, “the great tribulation” is the time between Jesus ascension into heaven and His second coming. It’s now. You and I are living in the great tribulation. So the people John sees coming out of the great tribulation are those who have died, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They are baptized Christians who have died. Do you want to know what happens when a Christian dies? John’s filling you in on the details right here:
“They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Wow. It doesn’t get much better than that. Christians who die in the faith are now before the throne of God, serving and worshiping Him. They are where He is, in His temple, around His throne, in His presence, no longer separated from Him because of their sin. And He shelters them with His presence. The fact that God is in that place is enough to cover, support, and protect His people from anything harmful or damaging. In the midst of their work, their moving about, they won’t need a lunch break. They won’t need a water break. They won’t need to stop and put on sunscreen. They won’t overheat. They will fully and wholeheartedly be able to serve and worship God with all that they are, not needing to interrupt their worship for anything at all. For the sacrificed Lamb, the crucified Savior, the resurrected Jesus will be their shepherd. He will lead them. He will guide them. He will protect them. They won’t be hungry because He will feed them. They won’t be thirsty because He will give them springs of living water. And if anything in this life caused them pain or suffering or torment or anguish, God Himself will comfort them, soothe them, wipe away every tear from their eyes.
If you’re wondering where your loved one is this morning, I’ll tell you. If they were a Christian, they are in God’s loving arms right this very moment. Are you wondering what’s going to happen when you die? Don’t be afraid. You have nothing but love and hope and comfort ahead of you.
Today, we’re remembering all the saints. While we do use the word saint to refer to a specific group of people, people who played a significant role in Christian history, we also use it to describe each and every believer. Because you and I have been baptized and brought into the body of Christ, you and I are saints. And as St. John looked at the vision before him, he saw all the saints gathered around God’s throne. He saw the believers from all over the world and all throughout time. He saw you and me, right where we’re going to be, worshiping the Lamb on His throne.
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast, Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell