Myths about Death: Why Easter Matters

by Rev. Jared Melius

The fathers decorated sepulchers magnificently. They did not throw away the dead like bodies of beasts, but they set up memorials of them for a perpetual reminder so that they might be testimonies of the future resurrection, which they believed and expected. Martin Luther

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The world is full of mythologies concerning dying and death. Hollywood, atheists, eastern religions and occultists have their own ideas about death. These beliefs are obviously unbiblical, if not plain silly, but there are some other unbiblical myths that many Christians, and maybe even some Lutherans, believe.

Myth 1: Death is natural.

A recent PBS publication aimed at helping little children cope with death and dying included this statement: Death happens to all living things, from blades of grass to frogs, dogs, and people. Whether its unexpected or a long time coming . . . death is part of what it means to live. The message? Death is natural, and anything that is natural cannot be evil.

If PBS is right, then why is death so terrifying? Because we know that death is not natural.

What humans may not know is the reason that we die. The Bible says that death is our enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), and it has been brought on by human sin (Rom. 6:23) and defeated by Jesus on the cross. Death is not natural. It is not good. It is impossible to die with dignity. In Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: Eschatology, John Stephenson remarks, The cosmetic accomplishments of contemporary funeral parlors are powerless to remove the sting of death, which is sin.

Rather, Easter tells us that death has been disarmed and defeated by the Lord Jesus. His resurrection, not the well-meaning myths of our culture, is our comfort in death.

Myth 2: A christian will have to answer for his sins when he dies.

This misconception arises from popular ideas and misinterpretations of some biblical texts. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that every person in the
world will immediately undergo a judgment upon death to determine if his or her life merits entrance into heaven, hell or purgatory.

Certainly, the Bible teaches that everyone will die and immediately be judged (Heb. 9:27; Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:9, 10). However, for Christians, this judgment is nothing like the heavenly interrogation room of popular lore. (Think St. Peter, old and bearded, sitting at the pearly gates acting as the heavenly doorman or bouncer.) After all, those incorporated into Christ escape judgment according to the Law (Rom. 8:1, 3134; John 5:24). Christians will not have to answer for their sins, because Jesus has already answered for them on the cross. And Easter proves it.

The resurrection of Jesus is the Fathers declaration that the sins of the whole world are paid in full by Jesus. If we still had to answer for our sins and convince God to let us into heaven, that would mean Jesus failed. But He has not failed. Easter proves it. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Ps. 103:12).
Myth 3: When you die, you become an angel.

You’ve heard this sentiment before, haven’t you? God needed one more angel in His choir. She has her wings now. Grandma is watching over us. This is simply not Lutheran.

Jesus was incarnate as a man, not an angel. He died in His body and His soul as a man, not an angel. He rose on Easter and showed Thomas His human hands and side. Jesus did not save us to be glorified as angels; He saved us to give us glorified bodies like unto His own (Phil. 3:21; Rom. 6:5, 8). The same distinction between men and angels now will continue in heaven.

Myth 4: When you die, you’ll finally be through with the body.

The older we get, the more our bodies hurt and fail. In time, even Christians long for the day they wont have painful knees, ailing lungs or failing hearts.
We are tempted to be free of the body. Popular myth postulates that, in heaven, we will be free of it.

Despite its regular repetition in the Creed, the resurrection of the body is taught infrequently, even in the Church. Many well-meaning pastors preach their funeral sermons and give the impression that the deceased in Christ already enjoys his or her full resurrection reward.

No, not yet. When a Christian dies, the soul ascends to paradise, while the body sleeps and awaits the final day of Christs coming.

One time, I was called to a parishioners bedside. When I arrived, I asked the family to see Jane, and they responded, Oh Pastor, didn’t you hear? She died. Shes not here any longer.

I responded, What about her body? They showed me Janes body. I put my hands on her head and spoke the blessing I would later speak over the casket at the committal. May God the Father, who has created this body, and may God the Son, who by His death and resurrection has redeemed this body, and may God the Holy Spirit, who has sanctified this body in Holy Baptism, keep it safe until the resurrection of the dead. Amen. Quite unexpectedly, Janes family seemed to realize that though Janes soul was in heaven, her precious body was still under our care. We had to gently lay Jane in the ground a few days later, but someday, well embrace that same body in heaven.

Myth 5: funerals are for the living, not the dead.

This is only partially true. The chief function of a funeral is to care properly for the body of a Christian after death. Caring for the body of a beloved Christian proclaims the resurrection of the dead, even as it proclaims the resurrection of Christ Jesus on Easter.

As a pastor, I consider the care of the body my chief responsibility. If you attend a funeral at Mt. Zion, you’ll often find me standing aside the casket, keeping watch. At the cemetery, I am rarely far from the casket, usually walking right beside or in front of it. Often, I am the last to leave the casket at graveside. I am caring for the body. This is what funerals are about.

Of course, the funeral is also a comfort for the hurting family and friends of the loved ones. The readings, prayers and sermon are a reminder of Jesus Christs work and salvation. The family is important, but caring for the dead and confessing Christ is more important still. Oftentimes, families who think that the funeral is only for the living demand to include secular songs or secular ceremonies or a eulogy apart from the sermon. Whatever helps them come to terms with their loss or honor their loved one is, in their opinion, fair game. But the funeral is not chiefly the occasion to serve the living, but, rather, the dead in Christ.

Myth 6: the soul sleeps.

When Jesus hung on the cross, one of His seven precious words was spoken right before He died: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Jesus body was laid into a tomb to await Easter morning, but His spirit was not in that tomb. After all, the Bibles definition of death is the separation of the body from ones soul or spirit (Eccl. 12:7; 2 Cor. 5:8; Acts 7:59). On Easter morning, Jesus showed Himself alive, proof that His soul had been re-united with His body. So, where was the soul of Jesus on the Saturday that His body was in the tomb? It was in precisely the same place that the Bible teaches all the souls of Christians are when they die: committed to the Fathers hands.

We know for certain that there is an intermediate state between the death of the Christian and the final resurrection of the dead. Some in the history of the Church have contended that the soul merely sleeps unconsciously-peaceful but unconscious until the resurrection of the body. This view is commonly called soul sleep, a view maintaining that the Christian does not enjoy a reward when he or she dies but must wait until the resurrection. This is a myth, but a myth that mistakenly borrows from biblical language. Frequently, the Bible refers to the death of Christians as sleeping (Matt. 9:24; John 11:11; Acts 7:60). This, how-ever, is only a reference to the state of the body, not the soul. The soul is in paradise with Jesus (Luke 23:43).

Myth 7: the funeral of a christian is a celebration.

Have you heard this recently? It started amongst pagans and unbelievers. Instead of mourning the loss of their loved ones, they threw parties in their honor instead. They didn’t want a funeral; they wanted a celebration of life! Away with the flowers and cards. Bring in the balloons and beer!

This language has even come in to the Church. Funeral folders are entitled Celebration of Life. But of all the times a person ought to be allowed to be sad, a funeral should be it.

Our Lord gives permission to mourn when someone dies. He said to His disciples on the night of His betrayal, I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy (John 16:20). We do not grieve like the world, which has no hope in the resurrection. If we are sad, we are not crying for the Christian safe in paradise. We are sad and we cry because the one we loved is no longer with us.

Many Christians feel that if they are overwhelmingly sad at the loss of a loved one, their faith must be weak. No! Our Lord Jesus Himself cried at the loss of His dear friend Lazarus. Do not be ashamed. The Lord will wipe away all your tears in heaven, but that does not mean that He has wiped them away now. For now, we walk in a vale of tears. The Lord is risen, and that gives great and permanent joy, even in the midst of sadness, but it does not remove sadness. And let us remember this much: If death is the occasion for a celebration, why has our Lord gone to such lengths to destroy it? Why would Easter give such comfort if death were nothing more than an occasion for a party?

Death is hard. It should be. But thanks be to God, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Him, though he die, yet shall he live (John 11:25).

Did you know? Among those who rarely or never attend church, 46% believe Jesus rose from the dead (Rasmussen Reports).

> On the web To read more on what the LCMS teaches about death, go to www.lcms.org/?14393

> Our life with Christ continues, even after death, even before the resurrection (TLSB, p. 1750).

> On the Last Day He will . . . give eternal life to me and to all believers in Christ (Third Article of the Creed).

> The angels in heaven pray for us, as does Christ himself [Romans 8:34] (SA II 26).


On Death and Dying

Final Victory:
Contemplating the Death and Funeral of a Christian The death of a Christian is an important event as we receive all that God has promised. However, grief and sorrow often hinder this thinking. This book (1) gives the pastor or Christian counselor a theologically sound, organized way to briefly present the hope and comfort of Scripture; (2) provides resources to help the pastor and mourner make and record the decisions of what will constitute the details of the funeral service; and (3) provides a source of comfort in the days after the funeral for loved ones.

Hymns of Comfort and Peace (CD)
Churches, pastors and laymen will benefit from this treasury of comforting Lutheran hymnody. Lasting over an hour, this CD includes such hymns as Beautiful Savior, Behold a Host, Arrayed in White, Lord, Let at Last Thine Angels Come, For All the Saints and I Know That My Redeemer Lives. Find these and more at www.cph.org.


What about non-Christian Funerals?

Well-meaning pastors, in their zeal to proclaim the gospel to everyone they can, are sometimes willing to conduct a christian burial for just about anyone, even a known non-Christian. It makes no difference, the faith of the deceased, they reason, because the funeral is only for the living, not the dead.

But how can the funeral be an honest proclamation of the resurrection of the body when the very body under consideration will not be raised to everlasting life? how does the pastor avoid giving the impression to the mourners that this man or woman, despite an ungodly and unbelieving life, is now safely in heaven? the risk of sending the wrong message is nearly insurmountable. christian burial is a privilege only for those who have fallen asleep in the lord.

About the Author: Rev. Jared Melius is pastor of Mount Zion lutheran Church, Denver, Colo.

April 2011

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