In addition to a healthy theology of grief (last week), a healthy theology of death is also essential to being able to say “goodbye” well when the time comes. Having a “theology of death” may seem odd, morbid, and even wrong. Ours is such a life-affirming and life-focused culture that we rarely think of death. Therefore, it is not surprising that most of us don’t have a theology of death, much less a well-developed one. But this is exactly what we need in order to be able to say goodbye well.
We Are More Than Our Bodies
First in developing a healthy theology of death is acknowledging that death is not the end of a person’s life. We continue on past the death of our bodies. Yes, we are deeply related to our bodies (see here for more I’ve written about this). But we are not identical to our bodies (see here for my defense of this view). When our bodies die, we do not die. We simply live somewhere else.
This is because we were created as everlasting beings. Note this is different from us being “eternal” beings. Eternal means existing forever. We are not eternal—we came to be at a specific point in time (on my view at the moment of conception—see here for more on this). Yet we are everlasting beings—once we begin, we will never end. We will continue to live on after the death of our bodies. All that will changes is where we find ourselves.
For the believer, we find ourselves “absent from the body and …present with the Lord.” (2 Cor 5:8) As Billy Graham said not long before his passing, “Some day you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address.” My father also now resides at this new address.
Death Is Not The Ultimate Enemy
A second, related aspect of a healthy theology of death in understanding that death has been conquered. It is no longer the ultimate enemy to be feared. As the Apostle Paul faced death due to his proclamation of Christ he put it this way: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) He, and countless martyrs after him, understood there are worse things than death, and therefore there are things worth dying for. Jim Elliot, before his martyrdom, said it beautifully: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
This should be the attitude of all who have trusted in Christ for their redemption (see here for more on this). Death is simply the passing from “the land of the dying to the land of the living.” My father had placed his faith in Christ, and so even though we grieve the loss of his presence, we do not grieve his passing into this new season of life.
There Is Still Much Mystery
The new season of life for those who do not know Christ is much less desirable. However, we must be careful not to claim we know more than we actually do about their destiny after death. We do know that a person must trust Christ’s death in their place to be in God’s presence. But we also must admit we never really know where a person’s heart is when they die. Many are known to come to faith in Christ on their deathbeds. Some realize their need of Christ as they reflect on the reality of their own mortality. Perhaps others have a direct encounter with Jesus, similar to what is occurring today in Muslim nations around the world where there are daily reports of Jesus appearing to people in dreams or visions and inviting them to come to him (and many are coming—the numbers of new believers in these countries are astonishing).
What we do know is that God wants all to know him and therefore does everything in his power to invite all into his presence:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Perhaps this involves Jesus appearing to some in their final hours and them responding, as he does to Muslims who otherwise may never come to faith in Christ. Therefore we must be careful in what we claim to know concerning their relationship to Christ. We certainly must do all we can to see the Gospel proclaimed to the ends of the earth, and trust He may use our efforts to bring more into the Kingdom. Yet we must also humbly admit that we do not know other ways He may work in a person’s life, and ultimately trust His love, wisdom, and sovereignty in this.
What About Hell?
Finally, as C.S. Lewis aptly observed in The Problem of Pain, “The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” In other words, if a person repeatedly rejects God’s invitation to be in His presence, after much effort God will ultimately respect that person’s wishes and grant his or her desire, saying “thy will be done.” (The Scriptures refer to this as a person being “reprobate”—see Romans 1, 2 Tim 3:8, and Titus 1:16). 
In fact, after a life of avoiding God’s presence, to then be forced to be with Him forevermore would not only be an egregious violation of the person’s will, but would be everlasting torment for the person committed to avoiding God. It would be like being locked in a room with your worst enemy and having no way of escape. Heaven would be its own Hell for such a person.
As a result, upon death one who has run from Jesus throughout life passes completely out of His presence upon death. This means they no longer enjoy anything that is good, true, or beautiful, which only come from God. During their earthly life they enjoy God’s presence in the created order: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45) This is known as God’s common grace. God’s presence in this world allows everyone to experience many good things in this life, regardless of their response to God as the source.
However, once completely out of God’s presence there is no longer anything good, true, or beautiful to be experienced. This is the essence of Hell. Hell is illustrated in various ways, such as fire and complete darkness. These can’t both be true (fire produces light, the opposite of darkness). This leads me to believe they are various ways the biblical authors illustrated how one experiences the complete lack of God’s presence and thus anything that is good, true, and beautiful, if one so chooses. I am so grateful my father responded to God’s grace and invitation, and now enjoys an even greater intimacy with God in his new home.
A healthy theology of death helps us understand and embrace all these realities in new and important ways. This understanding also has important implications for end-of-life decisions we and our loved ones must often make, and increasingly so due to the rapid advances in medical technology. I’ll discuss this aspect of saying goodbye well next week.
Until then, grace and peace.
This biblical theme—Hell being the result of one’s own choice to reject God—is one of several reasons I am Wesleyan in my soteriology (my theology of salvation), rather than subscribing to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination due to “unconditional election.”