Questions and Answers

By / May 6

First Presbyterian Church
Jackson, MS


First Forum: Questions and Answers

May 16, 2007

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Questions from Congregation Presented by Mr. Nate Shurden

Q: Will the “nice” non-Christian be beside a notorious person like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Ivan the Terrible–folks like that? Will there be, in other words, a quality of punishment for those who will be in hell?

A: Dr. Duncan: I’ll start off, and then Derek can correct my answer. The question is essentially, “Is there going to be a distinction between the kinds of judgment that are meted out against those who are unbelievers in the Day of the Lord, and is there going to be a greater or more stringent, more harsh, if you will, judgment for those who have been the great villains of history as opposed to those who have not?” And of course we don’t have a lot of biblical data to go to on a lot of questions like this, so I want to try and be as close as we can to the Scripture; and we want to acknowledge that we cannot answer every question as fully as we might long for an answer to be given to it.

But one thing that I can say, over and over in the Psalms and again in the judgment passages in the New Testament, it is emphasized that God’s judgment, in distinction from the often unjust judgment that is meted out in the world, will be a judgment that fits the crime. That is, that everybody in the world will be compelled to acknowledge when God hands out His judgment that that judgment is in fact just, and that His sentence fits the crime. I think that actually helps us in this particular area because it suggests to us that God will take into account the deeds of every life lived, and that His judgment on those who do not trust in Christ will take into account the specific crimes of those who have committed those crimes, in distinction from others who have not committed the same crimes. So, just as we would expect a good judge in our society to mete out a lesser penalty for running a red light than for the genocide of twenty million people, so also we can expect our heavenly Father, who is the greatest and most just Judge of all, to mete out appropriate punishment.

Now again, the Bible doesn’t get as explicit as we might like to have answer to this question. There’s no addendum where you have Dante’s “nine circles of hell,” and the worst ones down in the ninth circle (Judas and Brutus, and Satan himself), and then others in the first circle, and the second circle, and so on. We don’t have an addendum like that, but we do have an assurance that God’s justice will be impeccable and will fit the crime. And I think that that’s the important thing for us to recognize — that at the end everyone will have to say (even though the unbelievers will not like it and their hearts will not melt with appreciation before the Lord when His judgment is meted out)…everyone will have to say the Judge of the earth has done right. And that’s a question from the Bible itself: “Shall not the Judge of the earth do right?” And the biblical answer to that is, “Yes, He will do right.” And everyone in the world will have to acknowledge that on the last day. I think that’s very important in regard to this question. Derek?

Dr. Thomas: A couple of passages come to mind on this issue, and thinking about these two passages I think is helpful to give us a perspective on (a) the nature of the character of God in His justice, in His righteousness, in His integrity; but also, I think, to help us think through what is true in nature in this world isn’t going to be undone in the world to come. In the sense that the question recognizes “nice unbelievers”…and we all recognize them…they may be members of our family, or they may be friends with whom we work, and they’re good, moral, upright, dependable, loyal friends, but they’re not Christians. And we don’t put them in the same category and capacity as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin.

Paul, in a very important passage–a definitive passage, really–on the whole issue of judgment, in Romans 2 says in verses 12 and following:

“For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.”

And he goes on to develop that thought, but it’s clearly saying that there is a Judgment that is according to the light that has been received. And it’s not quite so much the category of “nice unbelievers” and Hitler, it’s how much light has this person received, and how much light has this person sinned against? And it’s certainly giving us at least an indication that there is a gradation of punishment in the world to come, just as there would be a gradation of punishment in jurisprudence, a law court, in this world; and we would all expect that. And therefore, in the world to come, there will be a gradation of punishment. And I think Jesus is saying something like that when He says, “Woe to you, Corizin and Bethsaida,” and He contrasts Corizin and Bethsaida (which are cities within, as it were, the covenant land) and Tyre and Sidon (which are cities outside the covenant land). Corizin and Bethsaida had heard Jesus preach and seen His miracles, but they had spurned Him. Tyre and Sidon had not, and it would be “more favorable for Tyre and Sidon” on the Day of Judgment than Corizin and Bethsaida, again just giving us, I think, an indication of gradation of punishment according to the light that has been received.

Q: The same gradation that we are speaking about in terms of Judgment, can we expect in terms of heaven, with regards to righteousness?

A: Dr. Thomas: Yes. I actually do a little naughty test in one of my classes with my students, and I ask them (pretty much every year I ask them) this question about just as there will be gradation of punishment in hell, so will there be gradation of rewards in heaven. And at that point, pretty much ninety percent of my students balk at that idea, and largely because I think their view of heaven is egalitarian–that it is unfair for one to receive more than another.

Now the origins of that view are decidedly not biblical, and they’re more in line I think with a Communist egalitarianism–not that Communism has ever been egalitarian! The concern for the proletariat in Communism never extended to those who ruled in Communism, and they always wanted more than the proletariat, to be sure!

Yes, I think…I often think of the words of George Whitefield and Wesley, when Wesley was saying the most atrociously bad things about Whitefield because of his doctrine of predestination, and he was saying some really, really bad things about George Whitefield. When Whitefield was asked about it, his reply was that Wesley would be closer to the throne in the kingdom to come than he would be — simply giving vent to the idea at least that there are gradations of blessing and gradations of glory in the world to come; that there is a judgment according to works, even for the believer.

Now I think that statement raises a host of other questions, but I’ll pass that over now to Ligon!

Dr. Duncan: That’s good!

Q: To pick up on the Dante theme, in terms of the forms of reality after death which are proposed…we see this in church history, we see it in our world today…what are we to make of ideas like soul sleep, purgatory, annihilation, universalism?

A: Dr. Duncan: Are you all familiar with the terms soul sleep, annihilation, purgatory? Purgatory I know you’ll know of… universalism you’ll know of. Annihilationism is the teaching that at some point after Judgment the bodies and souls of resurrected unbelievers cease to exist. It is a view that has often been offered as a more palatable alternative to the doctrine of eternal punishment. The doctrine of soul sleep, which was a doctrine popular amongst some Anabaptists (not to be confused with Baptists, but Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation) posited the eternal sleep of a soul in response to the waiting through the intermediate state until the time of Judgment and thereafter.

The doctrine of purgatory of course is the Roman Catholic doctrine that after death, unless you are a beatified saint and have lived such a perfect life that you have not only perfect merit for yourself to enter into heaven, but have enough left over to help other people out, and thus you’re acknowledged as a saint by the Roman Catholic church and people can pray to you and get some of your benefits applied to their accounts…unless you’re in that category, then after death you go to purgatory, where (though you’re a believer, you believe in Christ, you’ve been through the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic church, you’re in fellowship with the church) your sins are purged away in that time of purgatory. The more sins you have to purge away, the longer that you’re in purgatory. And finally, when your sins are cleansed you are then able to be ushered into glory above.

Universalism is of course the teaching that everyone goes to heaven, and some forms of universalism would even include the devil in that particular assertion. And so the question, I suppose is, compare that to a biblical view, the historic Christian view of life after death.

Well, one is universalism flatly contradicts the assertion of Jesus, of the Apostle Paul, and in fact all the teachers of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, which steadfastly assert that there are two types of human beings: those who are in fellowship with God, and those who are not; and that those who are in fellowship with God will remain in fellowship with God forever, and those who are not in fellowship with God will not. And that truth is spread from the very…the second page of the Bible all the way to the last page of the Bible. That truth is just pounded home everywhere and you have to reject that to embrace the view that everyone goes to heaven.

With regard to annihilationism, I would just say very briefly–and Derek may want to direct you to specific texts– but with regard to annihilationism, Jesus speaks as much or more about eternal punishment as He does about eternal life, everlasting life. And so if you argue for a cessation or a termination of punishment, you’ve got a problem on the other side of that as well.

With regard to soul sleep, it has been uniformly rejected by orthodox interpreters of the Scripture. And have I covered those four now? Derek?

Dr. Thomas: Let me add a couple of things about soul sleep. It’s very interesting. John Calvin, before he became the great Reformer that we all know him to be now, after writing what was basically his doctoral dissertation on the Roman jurist, Seneca, wrote his first book on soul sleep. It was called Psychopannychia. It wouldn’t be a best-seller today, but it was on this issue. It was a very dominant, prevalent, worrying issue in the sixteenth century–that after death there is unconsciousness, there is lack of consciousness between death and the resurrection of Christ (the bodily resurrection at the time of the Second Coming of Christ). Now the answer to that of course would be Scriptures like Jesus’ words to the dying thief: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

Now how do the soul sleep folk treat that text? Well, of course it’s to do with grammar. They insert a comma. “Jesus said, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise’” and they read that to be “Jesus said to him today [comma] you will be with Me in paradise.” And the insertion of a comma at a certain point changes the meaning entirely. Now there are lots of good, sound exegetical reasons for placing the comma in the grammar as we have it in our English Bibles so that Jesus is saying that very day the dying thief would have a consciousness of being with Christ in heaven.

Paul can say (and Ligon’s about to come to it in Philippians), “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” He wrestles, you remember, in Philippians 1–“I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better…” and he has a longing also to stay because it will be good for the Philippians if he does so. So those would be passages, biblical passages denying soul sleep.

On annihilationism, a view largely that comes, I think, in the tidal wave of philosophical objections to the idea of eternal punishment…. Annihilation says that all those who are unbelievers will be annihilated at the point of death, perhaps, or maybe at the point of the Day of Judgment, but there is no eternal punishment. And there are a whole slew of reasons why annihilationism is favored. Some of it is philosophical. They will sometimes say things like it’s based on the view that the soul is immortal, and that that is a Hellenistic (or Greek) idea, not a biblical idea. You read a lot of that in some current literature. And another view that is sometimes put forth is that the idea of conscious eternal punishment is somehow sub-Christian. Well, the fact of the matter is that there are exegetical reasons for supporting eternal punishment, and it’s as simple as the use of the term eternal. It’s the same word (ionos in Greek) that is used of eternal life, as is used of eternal punishment. And if you tamper with it on one side, you’ll tamper with it on the other.

It seems to me that the very closing verses of the Bible seem to want to make the point that there is an “outside.” There are those who are outside in Revelation 22, as he is describing the eternal city. There is an “outside” to this city, and it is not empty. It is not vacant. It is actually populated, and it seems to me that the closing verses of the Bible seem to anticipate the very storm that we are facing in almost the eclipse in certain quarters of a biblical doctrine of hell and eternal punishment that has been a motivating factor for evangelism and missions and a whole host of other things.

Q: When Dr. Duncan talked about Judgment and talked about at Judgment all of our idle thoughts, our words, and our actions are being known–and we all had a little concern about that, a little worry about that! If we are all judged at the same time, does everyone hear about our sins? And how do we reconcile that with a verse like Hebrews 8:12 — “For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more”?

A: Dr. Duncan: Obviously, I don’t know the specific form in which God’s Judgment is going to be carried out. In fact, many of these questions are questions that pertain to that very issue — what is the nature of the setting and of the circumstances surrounding the way Judgment is going to be conducted? How long is it going to take? What is its spatial location going to be? What are going to be the arrangements of announcing the sentences, and things of this nature? And the Bible doesn’t give us, again, answers to all the specific questions that we could ask in that regard.

Again, though, the Scriptures make it clear that–and Jesus is one of the ones who says this most emphatically–for every idle word there will be an account. That’s not the speculation of someone; that’s just Bible. How that happens, I don’t know. But it will happen in a way such that God is glorified, so that believers are vindicated, and so that we rejoice in God’s just judgment and revel in His grace. And I think it’s very important for believers to recognize that. It will be a great and terrible Day of the Lord, but fundamentally for believers the Day of Judgment is a day of vindication, of acceptance.

And I think that part of the answer to this is the theological transformation that will have occurred in us. Just like in our present state it is very, very difficult to admit that one has committed a serious sin, and the more embarrassing that sin is the more difficult it is to admit even to our dearest friends–especially to our dearest friends!–and one of the reasons that sometimes Satan is able to get us to hold on longer to the acknowledgement of a sin, rather than confessing it and repenting of it more quickly, is because of our fear of embarrassment. We do not want to be humiliated! And how often that has been used to ruin friendships and marriages — the fear of humiliation in the confession of a particular sin.

And what is it that keeps us from being able to do this? Pride. We don’t want to lose the esteem of another. We don’t want to lose face. When we are glorified–understand, my friends, that pride will no longer exist in you, because of the enormous security that you will have in knowing for the first time ever, perfectly, what it means to be justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, having been glorified and made like Him. And all we will want to see in that context is God exalted, because we will have absolutely not the slightest tinge of fear that something less than glorious is in store for us. And so it is the very reality of glorification that will change the way we view the great and awesome Judgment Day. We will be perfectly secure, because actually we are perfectly secure now…which ought to motivate us now to be more willing to confess our sins to one another, because as hard as that is, we are secure in the Savior. And ultimately He will allow nothing to happen to us that is not for our everlasting good. So I think that’s as far as I want to go with that. Derek?

Dr. Thomas: A couple of verses come to mind. Again, Romans 2:6 — “He will render to each one according to his works.” And again in II Corinthians 5, where Paul says,

“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

And part of the problem related to this question, I think, is that the idea of judgment according to works (or judgment where sin is exposed in heaven, if our sins are already forgiven)…part of the problem I think is that we tend to think that grace ought to imply equality of some kind; and the fact of the matter is that we’re not equal in grace in terms of gifting in this world. There are Christians who are far more gifted than I am. There are Christians who display far more fruits of the Spirit in this world than I do. And I think that is perfectly compatible with the idea that we’re justified by grace, but that produces states of inequality in terms of gifting. And similarly, when it comes to heaven and when it comes to judgment – the exposure of our sins – I don’t see that as negating the principle of justification by grace.

Q: Dr. Thomas, you mentioned a well-known verse a little bit ago with the thief on the cross and Christ as they were talking to one another, and Christ says to the thief, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” How do we understand Jesus’ words there with the words of The Apostles’ Creed, with Jesus being sent into hell? How do we understand what’s going on there?

A: Dr. Thomas: Ligon and I agree on almost everything…except I Peter 3, so I’m glad you asked me first! It’s actually a very interesting and difficult question in some respects–the descendit ad inferna clause…the “He descended into hell” clause of The Apostles’ Creed. Whenever The Apostles’ Creed was written in its final form, and in its form as we know it (probably seventh or eighth century, but it has some origins that go way back beyond that) there’s no doubt in my mind that in its original intent the “descent into hell” clause meant something that you and I would find objectionable, and that is the idea of the ravaging of hell…some capacity or other, Jesus actually went into hell, whether to pronounce His judgment on Satan and his minions, or else to announce His triumph. I think all of us would find that objectionable.

I personally have to support something that I said in a sermon a long time ago now, when I went through I Peter, and I Peter 3 (and it’s a notoriously difficult passage…a passage about Noah preaching to the spirits in prison, in I Peter 3–and what does that mean). And I argued then, and still hold out to some extent that there is a chronology in the passage itself–that something happens: Jesus dies; He’s buried; this preaching to the spirits in prison takes place; and then, there is a resurrection. And if that is implying some kind of temporal chronological sequence of thought, then Jesus does something after He is buried and before He is resurrected.

And on my better days, according to Ligon, I just adopt Calvin’s view of this passage, who basically just reinterprets the passage and says, you know, “Live with it!” And that is, “He descended into hell” means what Jesus experienced on the cross: that when He cried, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” quoting from Psalm 22, that He was in effect experiencing hell, the total and utter withdrawal of God’s presence; the abandonment of Christ, as it were, from any assurance of His native Sonship, and the anathema of the covenant because of our imputed sin laid upon Him; and at that moment, He descends into hell in the sense that He experienced what hell is, of being away totally and utterly from the presence of God.

Now Ligon’s going to correct me now, so….

Dr. Duncan: No…no. All I’m going to say is this: I don’t think that any Christian should allow your certainty of the immediacy of your communion with the Savior upon the first millionth of a nanosecond of your death to be compromised by any fear of reading some chronology from

I Peter 3 back into Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” As Derek has indicated, the best interpreters on the planet in the history of the Christian church have wrestled with what exactly to do with Peter, whereas Jesus and Paul and numerous other New Testament writers affirm to us repeatedly that, in Paul’s words, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” And so I would not let that worry your pretty head one second on that particular issue, because you’ve got multiple passages confirming the immediate conscious experience of the believer of Christ upon the moment of death. And that’s just one of those things that you can get in line with me that you want to ask the Savior when you get to heaven.

Q: What happens to young children of unbelievers who die before accepting Christ?

A: Dr. Duncan: You’re right. There’s no question that the issue of the status, especially of the very young, is one of the most emotionally fraught and experientially intense questions relating to death that we can possibly encounter; and so, obviously, when we speak about it, we need to speak about it with great pastoral and personal sensitivity, especially when we’re talking to somebody who is in their own experience wrestling with that.

Let me say a couple of things. Over the course of time, there have been those that have tried to address this question by arguing that there was an age of accountability before which you reach you are considered innocent, and therefore a candidate for heaven. Now the idea that there would be some particular age in the course of normal childhood before which all children would be saved because they are not yet accountable for their sin…that idea is absolutely unbiblical. The age of accountability is conception. David says, “I was conceived in sin.” In Adam we all fell, and so when I was born into this world I was born a sinner. That didn’t happen when I got to be six or seven or eight. So the going of the route of trying to find an age before which you are not accountable and after which you are accountable is not a helpful or biblical way of going about addressing this question.

Secondly, let me say that most Christians have had, over the course of history, two views of this issue. They have either believed, with theologians like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, two outstanding Presbyterian theologians, that in fact all infants are elect–the infants of believers and unbelievers–and that therefore all in infancy who die go to heaven. C.H. Spurgeon held to that view…B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, and others. I can show you through the course of history a variety…and their arguments obviously are complex, because there is again not a lot of biblical data to help you in this area.

The other view which has been articulated, and it’s been articulated by theologians like Palmer Robertson, who grew up in this congregation, is that the only positive assurance that we can give is that the children of believers who die in their infancy are saved and go to heaven, because of the covenant promises of God given to believers and their children. And both of these groups of Christians would appeal to passages like the story of the death of David’s illegitimate child by Bathsheba. You remember when he had his adulterous affair with Bathsheba a child was conceived and born, but the child was very sickly. And while the child was alive, David covered himself with sackcloth and ashes, and he fasted and he prayed day and night that the child would live. The minute that the child died, he stopped fasting; he cleaned himself up, he adorned himself with his best clothes and anointed himself with oil and went about his business. And his friends were baffled by this. They were expecting the other way around–you know, now that your child is dead, now’s the time for fasting and sackcloth and ashes. And David said in response, as you all know, “He will not come again to me, but I will go to him.” Now some have said all David was saying is he’s not going to come back from the dead, but I’m going to die one day, too.

However, that does not sound very comforting to me. I can’t imagine that would account for David anointing himself and garbing himself as he did. I think what David is saying (and most Christians have believed that what David was saying) was that he anticipated a reunion with that infant child who died in the earliest hours of his life, in the life hereafter, and that this was what enabled David to move on, as it were, upon the death of his child. And so again Presbyterians, among most Christians, have held one of those two views. Derek, you may want to comment on the biblical rationale, or add to that, or improve it in some way.

Dr. Thomas: Thank you, Ligon. Obviously this is a very, very sensitive issue. First of all, The Westminster Confession says elect infants who die in infancy are saved. Now when you think through that statement, of course it’s not saying anything! Of course elect infants are saved. But what that shows you is that the men, these phenomenal minds who put together The Westminster Confession, were not in fact agreed among themselves as to what they could say from the point of view of biblical exegesis. Now all of them can agree — and every one of us can agree — that all elect infants who die are saved. That goes without saying. But I think it shows that even some of the best minds in history and some of our own history have been divided on this issue.

Now to put it in even more of a context, the majority of children in the seventeenth century (when The Confession was written, in the 1640’s)…the majority of children died in infancy. John Owen had eleven children, and ten of them died in infancy and the eleventh died when she was in her mid-twenties. It was just a reality of life. And it’s only in our generation in this room that can expect infant mortality to be at the level that it is, so it is an enormously important issue throughout the history of the church.

Secondly, if I may just tell a little story here–because this is a question I don’t want to answer! When I was ordained back in 1978, I had been a minister for less than a year, and one of my dearest friends who had just been ordained the year after me…I had in fact married him to his wife, a daughter of one of the elders in my own church…and they had announced that they were pregnant, and she was expecting a baby. And then I was called one day to their home. I knew as soon as I walked in there was bad news. And she had had a scan (remember, this is back in 1979, when this would have happened) and the baby was – basically, it had no head…or at least, no brain. An enormous amount of pressure was put on her to have an abortion, and she refused that. In the socialized medicine world of Britain, the pressures were enormous. She carried the baby to full term knowing the baby would die within a couple of minutes of being born, but they felt that it was important to do that. I was asked to be there when the baby was born. I was behind a curtain, and then when the baby was delivered, I came out. They just wanted me to pray with them and for the baby, and they wanted to give the baby a name. They did not want the baby baptized. They thought that was just too superstitious an act, which I fully approved of. The baby lived–I don’t know, thirty seconds, a minute, something like that–and all the doctors and nurses, anesthetists, were in the room, and I prayed with them.

I’ll never forget the funeral. We had a funeral for this little baby. I remember Stephen, the father, carrying what was basically a shoe box…it was just a white wooden box the size of this…and it was a very, very telling moment. But the question that I was asked many, many times was, “Is this little baby in heaven?” And it was important for me to be able to give them a pastoral answer that was also within my conscience of what I understood the Bible to say.

I really do believe that there are good exegetical reasons in the story that Ligon has said to us this evening from David and Bathsheba…an illegitimate child born of an adulterous affair, no less…I think there are good exegetical reasons for saying that David is saying more than ‘I’m going to be buried alongside him in the ground, and that’s giving me a great deal of contentment and peace.’ I think he’s saying more than that, and exegetically I would defend that. So at least in the place of the children of believers I have personally absolutely no doubt that children of believers, covenant children who die in infancy go to heaven. That’s my belief of what the Scripture leads us to believe. Beyond that, I do not know.

Q: What about near-death experiences? People who say that they’ve had them claim that they’ve visited heaven, seen a great light…been in a tragic accident or injury, and have come back on this side and reported. What they have told, what are we to make of that?

A: Dr. Duncan: I’ll start off on that just saying that I think it’s very, very important that we make sure that we draw our conception of heaven, of the afterlife, and of what it is going to be like to be with Christ from the Bible and not from any claimed experiences of heaven in a near-death experience, because that’s not authoritative for us. The Bible is. And there are all sorts of fantastic stories that circulate.

There’s a book that has been on The New York Times best-seller list for a number of months that some of you have read, and interestingly it’s a very long book with a very, very short period of description of what life was like for that person in the thirty minutes or nine minutes or whatever it was that he was supposedly dead. And I would just say that it’s important for us to say, “Lord, I want to know about heaven from You in Your word.” It’s interesting to me that the only person in the Bible said to have gone to heaven and come back said that he “saw things that it was not permissible for a man to speak.” It’s the Apostle Paul, and he never ever spoke or wrote about it. I think that’s interesting.

Dr. Thomas: Yes. I’ve not read Don Piper’s book, Ninety Minutes in Heaven. I’ve seen it at the Atlanta airport many a time, but I’ve just never read it…and would be, I think, inherently suspicious of the popularity of a book like that. I think we live in an age — and we have to recognize it, you and I — where experience is a very powerful tool and weapon. There is no counterargument to somebody who says, “But this is what I feel” or “This is what I’ve seen.” And unless we build all of our life and all of our theology and all of our thinking on the solid platform of what does the Bible say…. I think we need to be a Billy Graham at that point. You know, “The Bible says….” Remember Billy Graham in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s? He’s holding a Bible in his hand…you know, “What does the Bible say?” And that’s all that was important to him, and I think that picture of Billy Graham is a phenomenally important picture, regardless of whatever other things we might have differences of opinion about with Dr. Graham, but that picture of him saying, “What does the Bible say?”

I’ve had some pretty weird dreams in my life; and I’ve shared a couple of them with Rosemary, but I doubt she would share them with you! And they are bizarre, and usually it’s because Rosemary’s been experimenting with curry or something the night before…food…and while they’re interesting and I’ve pondered a couple of them on occasion, I certainly don’t want to talk to anybody else about them, and certainly not in any formal capacity. And I most certainly don’t want to write a book about it. So you know, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and there are some outstanding physicians here in this room tonight who know far more than I do about the state of the brain when certain chemicals and oxygen and whatever else is deprived of those brain cells, and I doubt that we know a miniscule amount of what we are capable of seeing and experiencing. And yes, they may reflect certain things that are true of the life to come. I have no way whatsoever of proving it or disproving it, and they’re of interest…but that’s all.

Q: How do we prepare ourselves for the death of an unbeliever?

A: Dr. Duncan: I think this is one of the hardest questions that believers who take seriously the Bible’s teaching about God’s judgment, and yet who have a heart of love for someone who is not in Christ, can ever face.

The first sermon I ever heard at Reformed Theological Seminary was preached in chapel by a man who has been Professor of Missions at RTS. His name is Dr. Sam Rowen. He had grown up as an unbeliever in an unbelieving home in West Philadelphia. He had been converted to Christ in his twenties–gloriously converted and called into the ministry. He had been a Christian educator here and around the world, had been involved in ministry and missions. And over the course of the last twenty years of his life he had cultivated a friendship with his Dad that he had never had growing up. And he loved his Dad deeply, but his Dad did not love Christ and did not trust in Him. And really, during the first many years that Sam tried to talk to his Dad, his Dad wasn’t interested in hearing. But over the last few years and months of his Dad’s life, he really got interested in what Sam had to say about Jesus and about the gospel. But Sam never ever saw his Dad make a profession of faith in Christ, or hear him express his trust in Jesus Christ, though they had talked about what that meant many times. I think it was something like a week or two between the last time that Sam saw his Dad and the time that Sam’s Dad died. And Sam, in that chapel, message, was talking to us about trusting in God’s character and goodness even when we don’t understand our circumstances; and he ended that sermon by saying, “I don’t know where my Dad is today; but what I do know is that God is good and just, and wherever my Dad is, my God will have done the right thing, and I trust Him.”

I was pinned against the pew. I couldn’t move. I was immobilized. And that was…I think that is as powerful a Christian sentiment as I can imagine, because our God is infinitely more loving than we are, and yet sometimes when we love an unbeliever, we begin to think that we’re more loving than God…and if God would just do things the way that we think they ought to be done, well, you know…God would just take that person right to heaven. And the believing, the biblical way, however, of thinking about that is to say, “’What e’er my God ordains is right,’ and I trust Him.” And I think that’s the first thing that we have to say.

If we look for comfort in the answer to that specific question, then in most cases we’ll have to make up an answer because we ourselves haven’t plumbed the depths of Sheol or climbed the heights of heaven to ascertain the empirical verification of where that person is, so we’ve got to make up an answer for that. It’s far better to find our place of comfort in the character of God than in the specific answer that we so long in our hearts to have regarding the person. And I think that’s part of what Moses meant in Deuteronomy 29, when he talked about the secret things belonging to the Lord, but the revealed things to us and to our children. I think there is no horror for a believer that has been deepened in love and grace to realize that …not just friends and loved ones, but anyone…eternally separated from God. And yet Jesus talks about that more than anybody else in the Bible, and we know that He’s the most loving human being that ever lived. And so we need to take Him seriously, and we need to figure out how to grapple with that. But that’s how I would start. That’s a great question, and I will come back to that.

But there are other questions. Yes, sir?

Q: You were saying that if there was no sin and no death, and people lived forever…well, where would all the people go?

A: Dr. Duncan. Well, the Bible never addresses that question directly. It addresses it indirectly by speaking of what God is going to do when Jesus comes again. In Romans 4:11 or 13 (I can’t remember right off the top of my head, it’s one of the two…I think it may be 13), God says that His promise to Abraham was for Abraham to be an heir of the cosmos; so, not just to Palestine, and not just to this whole earth, but to the whole world. And the picture that John paints of heaven as it comes down (interestingly, in the book of Revelation we don’t go up, but heaven comes down to us in the book of Revelation), is one of expansion of all reality in terms of what we have experienced. And he does that with a couple of different pictures. There’s an Old Testament picture and a New Testament picture.

The Old Testament picture comes out of Ezekiel. If you remember the picture of Ezekiel’s temple that is painted in chapters 40-48, if you work out the measurements for Ezekiel’s temple described and given in Ezekiel 40-48, the dimensions of that temple would have actually taken it outside the walls of Jerusalem in its day. So that the point of describing a temple in detail that was bigger than the city of Jerusalem was to say that God was going to do something beyond anything that you had currently experienced.

John does that by speaking of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation 21 and 22. You remember he talks about how wide it was and how long it was, and how high it was. And if you work out the square miles of the description that he gives of the new heavens and the new earth, it was larger than the square miles in Israel. And so again John is saying what God is going to do here is bigger, it’s beyond what you have presently experienced.

So does the Bible then give us warrant to say that if Adam had never fallen into sin that He would have done a like expansion of the known universe as it is, that we would continue to inhabit and dwell in it? Maybe so. But I know for certain that the way that a multitude that no man can number of God’s children from every tribe, tongue, and people and nation throughout the whole world in the new heavens and the new earth is going to be greater than anything that we’ve ever experienced in this world. And so the whole of the cosmos will be renovated and will be ours. Does that mean that each of us can get a planet to take care of? I don’t know! But I do think that we will…whatever we’re doing and wherever we are, we will experience the abundance that only God can create and provide.

Q: What happens when we die, believer? How does our personhood change after death? Our gifts, our callings, our vocations, our character, our personality?

A: Dr. Duncan: One word: More. One word: Bigger. One word: We grow.

Q: Does our life on earth affect what our life in heaven will be like?

A: Dr. Duncan: Yes, yes. This is the place of preparation for a life of joy and service there. Yes, it matters.

Q: What happens after death for Old Testament believers before Christ came? For New Testament believers after Christ has come?

A: Dr. Duncan: The answer is the same: To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

Q: What about grieving? What does it mean to grieve Christian-ly?

A: Dr. Duncan: It means to grieve, but not without hope. In a sentence, it means to grieve, but not without hope. It would be a travesty not to treasure those whom we love best and who have loved us best in the hour of their loss to us. Yes, it is the hour of their gain, but it is also the hour of their loss to us. It would be a travesty for us not to grieve those that we love the best and those who love us the best. God did not make us emotionless automatons. We’re not robots. We’re men and women of flesh, with hearts that break. Jesus gives us this permission as He stands at the tomb of His friend, Lazarus, and He weeps–though He knows that He’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead–because he knows the pain and the heartache of Mary and Martha, whom He loves. And He knows the pain in His own heart at the thought of the death of His godly ones. So Your Lord and Savior gives you permission to weep, but He also gives you the power not to weep without hope, because you remember He turns to Mary and He says, “Mary, I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes on Me will never die, and whoever lives and believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

So we grieve, but not without hope.

Q: How do we conquer the innate fear of death that remains even when we’ve accepted Christ, His atoning work, and are anticipating His resurrection?

A: By meditating upon the greatness of our sin and what it deserves; by meditating on the greatness of our Savior and His salvation; by meditating upon the world of love that He is creating for us and which awaits us in the hour of death. That is why Jonathan Edwards said it was his endeavor to meditate upon heaven twenty minutes a day, every day of his life. That’s why Richard Baxter, on what he thought was his deathbed, wrote 600 pages on what happens to believers after they die. You know, you’ve gotten — what – forty minutes today? There are 600 pages waiting for you in The Saint’s Everlasting Rest. Think of it, friends! A page a day for two years! The Saint’s Everlasting Rest.

Q: How do we prepare to die?

A: Dr. Duncan: Friends, let me say this. Very often money and wills divide families in the hour of death. Make that a part of your preparation before you die, so that what you leave behind doesn’t rip asunder the thing that you care most about — your family.

Q: What about dying wishes?

A: Dr. Duncan: Think about and tell your family now the Scriptures and the hymns that have been so encouraging to you, so that those things can be used to celebrate the Lord’s faithfulness to you in grace in the hour of your death.

Q: What about the infants of believers who die in infancy? They’ve never trusted in Jesus Christ. They were too young to profess faith. Perhaps in the womb; perhaps just weeks old; perhaps only a year or two old?

A: Dr. Duncan: Bible-believing Christians since the Reformation have been confident because of the goodness of God and because of what God says in His word that every believer can take comfort that he or she will see his or her child, having died in infancy, in glory.

On what basis?

Turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Samuel…right before Kings…II Samuel 12. You know the story. David has sinned with Bathsheba, and they’ve had a child. And the child is clinging to life.

II Samuel 12:15:

“Then the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s widow bore to David so that he was very sick. David therefore inquired of God for the child, and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling. He wouldn’t even eat food with them. Now it happened on the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, because they said, ‘Behold, when the child was still alive we spoke to him and he didn’t listen to our voice. How can we tell him that the child is dead, for he might do himself harm?’”

[You know, they’ve seen this man on his face before God, begging God to spare this child, and they think ‘How can we tell David he’s died? He’ll take his own life.’]

“But when David saw his servants whispering, he perceived that the child was dead; so David said to his servants, ‘Is the child dead?’ And they said, ‘He is dead.’ So David arose from the ground, washed himself, anointed himself, changed his clothes, came into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, ‘What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food?’ And he said, ‘While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child should live.’ Now that he has died, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’”

Now, it seems to me that the transforming reality, the transforming truth for David, is not this: ‘He died; I’m going to die, too.’ It is a confident belief that he will see that child because of the grace of God to him. That’s why we do not hesitate to give comfort to every believer that he or she will see his or her child again.

Q: What about appearing before the Tribunal?

A: By that I simply mean that their consciences will never ever have relief from the sense of just judgment that is given on the Judgment Day. In other words, let’s think in this world. In this world sometimes we do things that deeply hurt the people that we love the most, and sometimes it takes a long, long time to sort that out. And until we do, how do we feel inside? Miserable. Think of that never ever going away. That’s a picture of hell: never ever resolved with God or anyone else; never ever forgiven; never ever reconciled; never ever at peace; never ever at rest. That’s why it is not the physical pictures of hell in the Scriptures that strike most terror into my heart; it is the picture of the total absence of God’s blessing and the presence of an awakened conscience with no hope for resolution, ever.

Do you remember how Dante, in The Inferno, has written over the gates of hell the words–what? “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In a sense that is a profoundly biblical view of the hard place.


Q: This question came from a member in the church who comes from a long line of sickly family members, and in death has decided to give over their body to UMC for research. What does the Bible, if anything, have to say about the body after death and our treatment of it?

A: Dr. Duncan: Can I–given the time–can I use this as an opportunity to address, or to begin to address the question that I got more than any other that is somewhat related to that? And that’s the question about cremation. I’ve been asked about cremation 174 times in the last six weeks! So it’s related to this question, and let me just say a couple of things about it.

I’ve got some articles up here, if anybody’s interested. I’ve been reading this, but let me address it this way. I want to read to you a very brief article from Christian History and Biography. It’s a magazine published by Christianity Today, and it will give you a quick historical overview of this question. The author is a woman named Elesha Coffman, and she said:

“I was recently intrigued by a comment on NPR (National Public Radio) that cremation has become more popular in America — requested in about 25% of deaths nationwide, with much higher percentages in Florida and California, as Americans shift from a Judeo-Christian emphasis on the body to a more Greek or Hindu emphasis on the soul.”

[Now that’s the statement that she heard from the NPR radio commentator, who obviously had no personal opinion about that but was just reporting this in a matter of fact way. It got her thinking, and she says this.]

“It had never occurred to me that there was anything un-Judeo-Christian about cremation. None of the evangelical churches I attended made a big deal about it. Historically though, the NPR commentator has a point. Acceptance of cremation among Christians is very recent and hardly universal.

“While surrounding cultures practiced a variety of death rites from mummification to incineration on elaborate funeral pyres, the Old Testament Jews clearly preferred burial, often in a cave, and usually near other family members. Old Testament law, however, said nothing definitive about burial regulations. Death by burning was prescribed as a punishment for particularly heinous offenders, and denial of a proper burial was viewed as a disgrace. New Testament Jews and Christians favored burial as well, though the New Testament also lacks specific regulations for handling the dead. Its sparse texts on the topic seem to be descriptive. As Christianity spread and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire and elsewhere, culturally Christian burial practices spread as well.

“The growing importance of relics added more weight to a tradition of bodily preservation, and when Christian missionaries encountered cultures with different funerary practices, the adoption of Christian customs became a sign of changed allegiance. For example, the body of King Olaf Haraldson of Norway, who is credited with the conversion of his people to Christianity in the eleventh century, was hidden in sand, dug up and re-buried by the new members of his culture who had embraced Christianity, because in the past they had used funeral pyres and burned people.

“Cremation did not emerge as a major concern in traditionally Christian lands until 1870, when an Italian professor named Brunetti developed the first modern cremation apparatus. The Catholic church responded in 1886 with an official ban on cremations. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 says: “The church has opposed from the beginning this practice which ahs been used chiefly by the enemies of the Christian faith…”

But I might also add that since Vatican II in 1963, and in 1969, the Roman Catholic church has dropped that ban on cremation, although Roman Catholics require that if you do cremation, you must have a burial of the ashes. The Eastern Orthodox churches still forbid all forms of cremation. Evangelical Protestants have been more mixed in their attitudes toward cremation.

Why is there such a condemnation over the course of Christian history for the practice of something that is not addressed more clearly biblically? This article, I think, gives the four answers to that question. One is simply that interment is a rite…the burial of Christians is a rite which has a tradition of almost 2,000 years amongst Christians universally–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. And it’s bound up with the Christian view of the body.

Secondly is that specific Christian view of the body, which is that our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit are the creation of God, and thus to be treated with dignity even after death, in view of the resurrection of the body.

Thirdly, that the very interment of the body has a teaching value to the Christian church, as the minister says, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but in the hope of the resurrection of the body to everlasting life.

And then, fourth, the chief reason for the Christian reaction to cremation rites was the expressly anti-Christian philosophy that was often part of the first advocates of cremation. Interestingly, The Encyclopedia Britannica of the early 1900’s says that the first cremation in Britain was done in 1870 by a Welsh physician who was a radical free-thinker, and he named his child Jesus Christ…and the child died in infancy, and he took him out into the middle of the street in his town and attempted to burn him. And the whole town came out and prevented the doctor from doing this. This forced British jurisprudence to come up with laws relating to cremation.

So here’s what I do. I never encourage someone to do cremation. If somebody comes to me and says ‘I want you to do my funeral and we’re going to do a cremation,’ I’m not going to say, no, I’m not going to do that. But if somebody comes and asks me ‘What do you recommend?’ I’m not going to recommend cremation. And in that regard, our Session’s policy on funerals just very lightly and pastorally makes this remark:

“Over the years the people of God have generally avoided the practice of cremation. The Scriptures teach that the human body is good and holy, and to be treated with the greatest respect, in anticipation of the resurrection. Indeed, our Shorter Catechism reminds us that our bodies, even as they are resting in the grave, are still united to Christ.”

And it just makes that comment pastorally by way of information and instruction to our congregation, and we move on.

And so I think for me the issue that I want to ask is what’s motivating that desire to do that? I want to make sure that all Christians approaching burial or whatever are approaching it with distinctly Christian hopes for the resurrection of the body.

The issue has never been ‘Is it easier for God to resurrect an urn of ashes or a decomposed body?’ That’s a no-brainer, you know! It’s going to be an amazing thing to see what Jesus does to all those burial urns when He speaks that word on the Last Day, and those people are recomposed. The question is ‘What does our treatment of the body after death say about our view of the body as good, and about our hope of the bodily resurrection?’ These are the issues that I’m most concerned that Christians wrestle with as they’re working through those kinds of issues.

So we don’t have a position that prohibits one practice or another, but we want to encourage amongst all believers in the family of Christians called First Presbyterian Church to have distinctly Christian views of what is entailed in death and burial.

Dr. Duncan:

Heavenly Father, thank You for this extraordinary opportunity in the last few weeks to think about death, and to try and think about it biblically. Lord, thank You for Donna Dobbs, who just in her talking with believers in our congregation who have deep pastoral and Christian concerns in these areas had a burden on her heart for us to talk about this as a congregation, and thus who set about the work of pulling this series together. I thank You for the way that she ministers to us in a thousand ways every year, and sometimes ways that we don’t even know.

Thank You for all the people who’ve come out week after week because they’re concerned about Your word, and they’re concerned about the life hereafter. How refreshing that is, in a world full of people increasingly who don’t even believe in a life hereafter, and certainly who do not spend much time thinking about it.

Lord, grant us biblical hope, so that we will not grieve as those who do not have that hope; especially, Lord God, for those here tonight who have been in all of our fellowships, who have themselves experienced personally the deep grief of the sundering of fellowship with loved ones who have been called up now into the grave. We ask, O God, that they would take deep gospel comfort in the truths of Scripture that we have spent time studying in the last weeks. We ask that together we would all magnify the name of the Lord in our thinking and in our living, in accordance with the truth that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.


By / Apr 25


“There Is Hope”

Luncheon Series

April 25, 2007

What is Heaven?

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to John, the Gospel of John. I think it’s appropriate for us to begin our thinking about heaven from Jesus’ own words as He speaks on the night of His betrayal, the night before His kangaroo-court trial and crucifixion. He speaks words of comfort to His disciples, and in the course of those words He speaks to them about heaven, and the way He speaks about heaven to them is important and instructive. We’re going to give it some attention. John, chapter fourteen, and we’re going to look at the first few verses.

Before we read God’s word, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the privilege of coming together over the last weeks and considering the last things. We ask that by Your Spirit You would prepare us for that great Day, and that by Your grace we would rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, that we might dwell in Your presence with joy forevermore. Now open our eyes to behold wonderful things from this Your word. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 14, beginning in verse 1:

“Let not your heart be troubled…”

(I cannot resist, but to remark that Jesus Christ is on the verge of the most troubling event in all of human history, and He is the focal point, and what is He thinking about? He’s thinking about your heart not being troubled. I think that tells you something about your Lord. And so when you face troubles and you wonder where God is, where Christ is, in the midst of your anguished cries in the middle of the night, I just want you to remember that our Lord Jesus Christ, when He was facing the single most troubled event in the history of the universe, in the history of humanity, in the history of His own life and ministry, is thinking about His disciples’ comfort and peace.)

“ ‘Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.’ Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going; how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, when He Himself is facing the prospect of receiving in Himself all of the penalty of all His people’s sin for all time, that He’s thinking about heaven and that He wants His disciples to be thinking about heaven?

You know, Jonathan Edwards made it a practice to meditate on heaven at least twenty minutes every day, and he often said that it was that meditation upon heaven that gave him strength to live the Christian life. I wonder how many more of us would live more hopeful and fruitful lives if our thoughts, if our meditations were more often on heaven.

We often say ‘This person is too heavenly minded to be any earthly good,’ and someone was saying to me the last time that we spoke on this particular subject…he was saying to me this wonderful statement of John Stott, that God enables us to do spiritually what we could not do physically: that is, to live with one eye on the past, remembering what God has already done for us, and with one eye on the future. We literally couldn’t do that physically. We can’t look backwards and forwards physically at the same time. But what Stott says is that God enables us to do spiritually what we could not do physically — to have one eye on the past and one eye on the future; one eye on what God has already done for us, and one eye on what God is doing for us in the future.

And it’s so interesting, isn’t it, that as the disciples are themselves about to face a tremendous faith crisis–their whole world is going to collapse in the next 24 hours, and Jesus knows it–they don’t have a clue, but Jesus knows, and so He’s trying to prepare them for it. And what does He tell them that He wants them to do? He wants them to know what He is going to do.

You see, they’re going to look at the cross, and they’re going to think — what? Something’s gone wrong! This shouldn’t be happening! Jesus should be being crowned King. He should be running the Romans out of Israel and re-reestablishing the kingdom of David! Something’s gone wrong. And the whole message of the upper room to the disciples from Jesus is ‘Understand that what happens to Me tomorrow is not an accident. It is My Father’s design, and it is My choice what happens to Me tomorrow.’

It’s so important for you to understand that Jesus, though He was killed unlawfully, was not murdered in the way that we normally use the word murder. Usually when we speak about murder, we speak about a victim who was at the mercy of an evil perpetrator who did a wicked deed which that innocent victim was unprepared for, incapable of stopping, totally out of control in that circumstance. You understand that what Jesus is saying to His disciples is that ‘Nothing that happens to Me tomorrow has happened apart from My choice of it; and nothing that happens to Me tomorrow has happened apart from the Father’s own appointment of it. And furthermore,’ He says to them, ‘while the world may see Me defeated on that cross, you need to understand that the place that I’m going from that cross is to the Father’s house, and I’m going to the Father’s house to get things ready for you’–so that everything that Jesus is doing is filled with purpose for the disciples.

Think how comforted they could have been if they had only understood what Jesus was saying to them. Think how comforted you can be if you will only understand what Jesus is saying to all who rest and trust in Him. Where is Jesus right now? He is preparing your home, if you trust in Him. That’s what He’s doing right now. Don’t think of Jesus indolently lazing around, eating grapes on some cloud in the sky. Jesus is at work right now. He is leading the greatest task force ever assembled in the history of the world, preparing your home. That’s what He tells you. That’s what He tells the disciples: “I am going to prepare a place for You.”

And then He says, ‘Disciples, understand that if this were not the truth, I wouldn’t have told you.’ In other words, Jesus is saying, ‘This is not some “pie in the sky by and by” scheme; this is not some “wish fulfillment” scheme; I am capable of looking into your eyes and telling you the truth, and I’m telling you the truth: that where I’m going, I’m going to prepare for you.’ And of course, in light of the fact that everything else that Jesus told His disciples turned out to be true, that adds a significant amount of credibility to this particular claim, doesn’t it? Jesus had told His disciples, ‘You tear this temple down, I’ll raise it up in three days.’ And He was crucified, dead, and buried. But on the third day He did, in fact, come alive. He was raised again from the dead. And so over and over Jesus demonstrated His words to the disciples, and these words, “I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and receive you to Myself,” have all the more credibility because everything else that He said to the disciples came true.

And then He says, ‘And you know the way where I’m going.’ And Thomas, on behalf of the other disciples, blurts out, ‘Lord, no, we don’t. We don’t have a clue! We don’t know where You’re going, we don’t know what You’re talking about, and so of course we don’t know how to get there!’ And Jesus’ response is, ‘Sure you do. I am the way.’ How similar that is to what He had just said three chapters earlier to Martha: ‘Martha, I am the resurrection and the life.’ He’s focusing all their faith on what? On Him. ‘Your hope for going to that place that I am preparing in the Father’s house for you is Me, and Me alone.’ And then He says those words: ‘No man comes to the Father except by the Son. But all who come by the Son come to the Father.’ And so He gives these tremendously encouraging words to the disciples. That’s where we need to start when we think about heaven–Jesus’ own words.

I. Where is Heaven?

Now, the word heaven, both in Greek and Hebrew, is a word that can be used different ways. Sometimes in the Bible it means the sky, and so you will hear phrases like this: “The birds of the heavens…” It’s just speaking of the birds that are in the sky. Sometimes in the Bible heaven or heavens refers to the starry hosts, and so sometimes the Bible will speak of “the stars of heaven.” Then, the Hebrews and the early Christians spoke of a third heaven. That third heaven, or the heaven of heavens, is the place of God’s abode, and the Apostle Paul talks about that. If you have Bibles, let me ask you to turn with me to II Corinthians 12. The Corinthians think pretty highly of themselves spiritually. They have seen some things and understood some things, and done some things that they think nobody else has seen and done and heard, and the Apostle Paul says, ‘OK, you’re going to do some boasting, I’m going to do some boasting. Try this on for size.’ [II Corinthians 12.]

“Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago–whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows–such a man was caught up into the third heaven.”

[Now, again, that phrase third heaven means not the sky, not outer space where the stars are, but the place where God is. He was caught up into the third heaven.]

“He was caught up into Paradise,” [the Apostle Paul says in verse 4] “and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.”

Well, there’s the Apostle Paul speaking of the third heaven, that heaven of heavens where God dwells.

Now, the Bible uses a lot of pictures and words to describe that third heaven, the place where God dwells. Let me just rifle through some of the examples. We’ve already seen, for instance, in John 14:2, the heaven of heavensё or the third heaven, or the place where God dwells, described as what? The Father’s house. Jesus says to His disciples, ‘You need to think of the third heaven, of the place where I am going, as your Father’s house.’ Now, my friends, there is so much in that we could spend the rest of our time just thinking about that, but I’m reminded of one of my favorite paraphrases of the twenty-third Psalm. It’s Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of the twenty-third Psalm, and when he gets down to the final stanza of a very short Psalm that we all know and love so well, this is how he paraphrases it:

“There would I find a settled rest,

While others go and come;

Not as a stranger, or a guest,

But like a child at home.”

Then see how he paraphrases:

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Your house forever.”

[“There would I find a settled rest,

While others go and come;

Not as a stranger, or a guest,

But like a child at home.”]

And so heaven, the heaven of heavens, the place of God’s dwelling is called for the believer the Father’s house.

It’s also called Paradise. You’ve heard the Apostle Paul use that language for it in

II Corinthians 12, but you could also find that in Luke 23:43, and in Revelation 2:7. It is called the heavenly Jerusalem in Galatians 4:26 and in Revelation 3:12, and in Hebrews 12:22. The heaven of heavens, the place of God’s abode, is called the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s called the eternal kingdom by Peter, in II Peter 1:11. It’s called the eternal inheritance in I Peter 1:4, and in Hebrews 9:15. It’s called a better country in Hebrews 11:14 and 16.

We are said to ‘sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’; ‘to be in Abraham’s bosom’; and ‘to reign with Christ’ and to ‘rest in heaven’ in Luke 16:22, and Matthew 8:11, and II Timothy 2:12, and in Hebrews 4:10-11.

In heaven the blessedness that we enjoy will consist of the righteous possessing life everlasting, says Paul in II Corinthians 4:17, and in an exemption from all evils forever. We will never again be in the society of the wicked, Paul tells us in II Timothy 4:18, and there will be bliss without end, fullness of joy forever. And as we’ve already indicated, this heaven is not only a state of blessedness, it is a place which Christ has prepared for blessedness. And so to think of heaven as a place, though it could mislead us, is in fact a biblical way of thinking of heaven.

Heaven appears in the Bible as a spatial reality. It is a place. It can be located. You ask me ‘Where is heaven?’ and my answer is “It is where Christ is at the right hand of the Father.” And you say, ‘Where is that?’ And I say, “That’s where heaven is!”

Now, that obviously means that there are questions that I can’t answer, but the Big Question, I can. Heaven is where my Savior is. Heaven is where the One who has saved me and the One in whom I delight above everyone else is, and so I really don’t care where it is, as long as I’m there with Him and with all those who love Him.

II. What is Heaven like?

Now, Scripture teaches us to think about heaven in the following three ways.

First of all, the Bible asks us to extrapolate from our less than perfect relationship that we now have in this world with God our Father, and Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and with other Christians, and with this beautiful created world, and it asks us to extrapolate from that experience to a perfect relationship free from all limitations, frustrations, and failure.

For instance, let’s go back to the image that I was just talking about, the picture of the Father’s house. Now for many of you that very image will bring back some of the most precious treasured remembrances of your entire life–of being home with your father. My father died in 1992, and the world has never been the same for me. In some ways, I feel lost in this world, and the thought of being back in his house is one of the most delightful thoughts that I can conceive, and the Bible asks us to extrapolate from that less than perfect experience to the perfect experience of being in our Father’s house. But for some of you, your memories of your father’s house are not good. Well, I’ve got some good news for you. All you have to do is extrapolate in reverse. For in every way, your dwelling in your father’s house fell short of blessedness, your Father’s house in heaven will not. It will be everything that you always longed for, but never experienced. And so the Bible asks us to think about our earthly experience of fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with believers in Christ, and with our experience in this beautiful created but fallen world, and extrapolate from that to our experience of God in heaven.

Secondly, the Bible asks us to think about our life, and eliminate from it all forms of pain, evil, conflict, and distress like we experience on earth, and then think ‘That’s what heaven is going to be like.’ Now, John does this explicitly, doesn’t he, in the Book of Revelation. He says things like “…There will be no more tears, or sorrow, or death, or pain, or night.” What’s John asking you to do? Think of a world with no sin, no tears, no sorrow, no betrayal, no disappointment, no failure, no rebellion, no death. That’s what heaven is going to be like. And you’ll find as you begin to meditate on these that as much light as you have, you will continually come back and say to the Lord, ‘Lord, I can’t imagine me without sin, because I’ve never known me without sin.’ And the Scripture simply comes back to us and says, ‘Believe it, because you’re going to know a world where there is no sin in you or anyone else. You’re going to know a world where there is no suffering in you or anyone else. You’re going to know a world where there is no sorrow in you or anyone else. You’re going to know a world in which there is no death in you or anyone else.’ And so the Bible asks us to think about our life now lived for God, but with all forms of pain and evil and conflict and distress as we experience here on earth removed.

Thirdly, the Bible asks us to enrich our thoughts of heaven by adding every conception of excellence and God-given enjoyment that we know. And think of how John does this in Revelation. Turn with me there. Turn with me to Revelation, chapter seven, and take a look at verse thirteen:

“One of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and from where have they come?’ And I said to him, ‘My lord, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne shall spread His tabernacle over them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to springs of the water of life; and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Those verses appear on the bottom of a monument in a graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland. They are at the bottom of a monument that was erected to honor 18,000 Presbyterians who were killed by the government in Scotland from 1660 to 1688, because of their quest for religious freedom. Eighteen thousand…many of them, their bodies were dumped into this common grave over which this monument was erected…and think of it…for each of them, this reality…the monument is affirming this hope and promise for all who rest and trust in Jesus Christ.

Another example of this, if you’ll turn back with me to the Gospel of Luke and the twelfth chapter, as we think about the excellencies and the greatest God-given enjoyments that we know, let me zero in on four aspects of the constant joy of heaven’s life for the redeemed.

III. In Heaven the redeemed will have no pain…only joy.

First of all, in heaven our greatest joy will be that we have a vision of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Peter talks about the fact that though we have not seen Him, yet we love Him. Though you and I have not seen the Lord Jesus Christ, yet we love Him, and we will see Him face to face. One day we will behold what He is like. We will see Him. And this is the greatest joy of heaven. John speaks of this in Revelation 22:4.

Second, there there is also this great joy that we will have in heaven when we benefit from the on-going experience of Christ’s love as He ministers to His people.

One of my professors was reading the Gospel of Luke, and he came to Luke 12:37, and as he was reading it, he couldn’t believe what he was reading. And so he went to his dear friend, Wilbur Wallace, the father of Grace Marsh, who was a professor of New Testament there at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, and he said, “Wilbur, does this verse mean that at the marriage supper of the Lamb in heaven that Jesus Christ is going to serve me at that marriage feast?”

Luke 12:37:

“Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at table, and will come up and wait on them.”

Now when was the last time that happened? It was in the upper room, and Jesus took off His outer garments and He girded Himself as a slave, and He washed His disciples’ feet. And Luke is saying that at the marriage supper of the Lamb, your Lord and Savior is going to gird Himself and have you recline at His table and He is going to serve you.]

And my professor said to Dr. Wallace, “Dr. Wallace! Does this mean that Jesus is going to serve you and me?” And Dr. Wallace simply said, “Bob, did you ever think that there would be a time when you didn’t need Jesus to serve you?”

So for all of you who have known the ministry of Christ in this world in your deepest hour of need, you need only to think beyond that excellency to the greatness of the excellency of your Savior in perfection serving you again at His wedding feast. It’s not my word; it’s His word to you that assures you of that. This is not me speculating; these are the words of Jesus Christ to you, His disciples: ‘Trust in Me, and I will serve you. You will recline at My table, and I will give you everything that you need.’

Thirdly, the Bible makes it clear that our fellowship with loved ones and the whole body of the redeemed will be without reservation. So many of you have asked over the course of the last five weeks, “Will I know my loved ones?” Emphatically, yes! Is there any way I can say it any stronger than that? Emphatically, yes! You understand that it’s you who is being redeemed. Yes, you will be given a glorified body, but we are given every indication by God in the Scripture that whatever the shape of that glorified body–I mean, you know we ask the questions, ‘Will I be 30? Will I still have my double chin? And be about eight suit sizes too large? You know, am I finally going to be svelte, like I always wanted to be?’ Well, I have no idea as to the answer to those questions! You know, little children that go to be with the Lord…how old are they going to be in heaven? Aged saints, who go to be with the Lord, what’s their glorified body going to be like? All I know is this: it’s going to be better than you could possibly imagine. It’s the only thing that I can assure you. It’s going to be better than anything that you imagine.


Question: But will you recognize one another?

Answer: Yes. Think of this picture. Jesus, on the Mount of Transfiguration…Peter, the other disciples…and who shows up? Moses and Elijah. Now let me ask you a question. How many people there on the Mountain of Transfiguration had ever seen Moses and Elijah before? One! Jesus! OK. But Peter and the rest of them immediately know who’s there. That will be how it is for all the saints. You will know saints that you’ve never known before, in heaven. You’ll have never laid eyes on them, and you’ll love them like brothers and sisters in Christ. You’ll delight in the things that they’ve done for the Lord. You’ll spend eternity finding out the things that they have done for the glory of the kingdom of God, and you will be proud like they are your own kin, because you know what? They are. All your brothers and sisters that you’ve never met before.

Mothers, you’re going to get to heaven and you’re going to find out about children that you never met. Never met…your womb was their earthly grave, but in heaven you will know them in all their potentiality, in all their God-glorifying uniqueness. You’ll know them. You’ve never known them here, but you’ll be able to call them by name, and they’ll be able to call you by name.

Our fellowship with our loved ones in the whole body of the redeemed will be part of that incomparable excellency of heaven.

Finally, there is the continued growth and maturing and learning, and enrichment of abilities, and enlargement of powers that God has in store for you. Heaven will not be a place of indolence, but of industry.

You know, work was not one of the curses of the fall, but the toil and frustration of work was. Now you will work and you will never be frustrated. Now you will work in a perfect setting and condition. Now every ounce of effort that you expend in your labor will come to fruition. It will not be a place where we’re floating around on clouds eating grapes. Will we be taking over the cosmos as it’s regenerated by God’s refining fire? I don’t know, but we will be at work, loving it! And our work will be to us as rest, it will be so blessed.

There will be no unfulfilled desires in heaven.


Question: Will there be degrees of blessedness and reward in heaven?

Answer: Yes. Yes. Paul assures us of this, but two things need to be understood about these rewards.

First of all, when God rewards us, He is rewarding us for His gifts to us, in us. In that sense you understand that not only heaven but the rewards of heaven are unfair. Hell–that’s fair. But heaven–that’s unfair. So I’ll take it! Don’t give me fair; give me grace. And here’s the blessing: Those rewards are God’s crowning of His own gifts in us and to us. Nothing that we do for God in this world can we really ultimately take credit for, but He’s going to reward us anyway. Pretty good deal!

Secondly, the essence of every reward that every Christian receives will be more of what we desire. And what is that? The glorifying and enjoying of God. The result of every gift will be more of what we desire above everything else, and what is that? The glorifying and enjoying of God in Christ Jesus.

So the life of heavenly glory is a compound of seeing God in and through Christ; of being loved by the Father and the Son, through the Spirit; of rest and work of praise and worship; of fellowship with the Lamb and with all His people; and it will never end. John stresses this. Jesus stresses this. John, in Revelation 22:5 — It will never, ever end.

Are there a handful of things and times in your experience when you can remember saying to yourself, “I wish this would never end”? Maybe it was a Sunday afternoon, watching your little children play in the back yard…just being with them. And all the heartaches of life to come were a distant, distant thought, and you’re just relishing that moment, and you thought to yourself, “I wish that this would never end.” Well, in heaven, it won’t. You know, the one thing about those moments in this life is when we think “I wish that this would never end” it invariably does.

But in heaven the heart of the redeemed will say “I wish that this could go on forever” and it will.

IV. In Heaven there is a Mediator…In Hell there is no Mediator.

Now there’s one last thing. We’ve already spoken of the horrors of the alternative to heaven, but there is perhaps one more thing we need to say about hell. And it’s surprising, because so often we speak of hell as a place where God is not. But let me say something provocative. Hell is eternity in the presence of God. Heaven is eternity in the presence of God, with a Mediator. Hell is eternity in the presence of God, being fully conscious of the just and holy and righteous and good and kind and loving heavenly Father’s disapproval of your rebellion and your wickedness and your sin. Heaven is dwelling in the conscious awareness of the holy and righteous and just and good heavenly Father, but doing so through a Mediator who died in your place, Who absorbed the fullness of the penalty of your sin, Who totally eradicated sin from your life and stood you before God with great glory, and knowing that you are fully accepted by that God and that He fully delights in you because of Jesus Christ.

Hell is eternity in the presence of God. Heaven is eternity in the presence of God with a Mediator. As Paul would say, “The Man, Christ Jesus…Jesus the Messiah.”

V. Questions
Now we have time for a few questions.

Question: I wonder, I want to know if as a Christian you go to heaven, and people will be recognized, you say; and you have someone that you had in Sunday School…you tried to help become a Christian, and you know, never did accept Christ…will you feel that void…?

Answer: Oh, that’s so good! Let me repeat that question, because, oh! is this on our minds! You know, we go to heaven, and there’s someone that we so deeply loved in this world, and we faithfully bore witness to Christ to this person. It was our great desire that they would come to

know Jesus Christ savingly. What happens if we go to heaven and we don’t find them there?

I’ve got to tell you two stories in answer to this great question. One is a story of one of my great heroes, Douglas MacMillan. Douglas grew up in a Christian home in Scotland. He grew up in Ardnamurchan in the west of Scotland, near Mull, and he rejected Christ as a teenager. He had a communist teacher in his secondary school, a Marxist that convinced him to reject Christianity, and he did so. And his mother and his father faithfully prayed for him And finally, his mother was diagnosed with cancer; and during her last weeks of life, Douglas tells the story of how he would be out late drinking and dancing and carousing, and would come in at one or two or three in the morning. And the pain of her cancer was so great that for the last few months of her life, she really couldn’t sleep, and so she would stay up at night downstairs in their home, and she would sing to herself, or read, or do something to take her mind off of the pain. And he would often come in late at night and hear his mother singing Psalms downstairs, so that it didn’t disturb her husband and the rest of the household. And every once in a while she would ask Douglas to read the Bible to her. Now, she liked to hear the Bible read to her, but she had an agenda! She would pick the passages: “Douglas, I want you to read such and such to me.” And a week before she died, she said, “Douglas, I want you to come read John 14:1-6 for me.” And he read. He got down to verse 6, and she said, “That’s enough, Douglas.” And he said, “Well, Mom, I could read more.” And she said, “No, that’s enough, Douglas.” And she said, “Douglas, I just have one thing I want to tell you. Very soon I am going to be in that place that Jesus has prepared for me. And I just have one question for you, son. Will you meet me there?”

Now, Douglas…let me tell you, Douglas said he hardened his heart against that call, that tender call from his mother. It was not until several years later, after she died, that the Lord got a hold of him, so she never knew in this life that the Lord had done a work in his heart. Now, they’re together now, because Douglas died of a heart attack just a few years ago.

But he, through …well, it’s a really interesting story how he became a Christian. A pastor came to his village who looked like Douglas’ hero, a man named Freddie Patterson, who was the boxing champion of Britain. Douglas was a big strapping man. He was a shepherd. He could probably have picked up about four sheep, you know, just in his arms! So this pastor came to town and looked just like his boxing hero, and Douglas wanted to fight him. And the pastor took no guff off of Douglas, and just stayed after him. One day he was driving down the street and Douglas was walking back to his cottage at the farm land, and the pastor stopped and offered him a ride. Douglas got in the car, and the pastor said, “Haven’t seen you at church lately, Douglas.” And Douglas made up some story. And the pastor just said, “You’re a liar.” And that really got through to Douglas! He needed somebody to just be blunt! And the Lord used this guy to bring him to faith in Christ.

But I was so struck by the fact that Douglas could say that even with his mother giving as tender and an importunate call to faith in Christ, he hardened his heart to that. We face this in life all the time.

Here’s the second story. I’ve told you, I think, before…maybe even in this group…the story of Sam Rowan, Professor of Missions at Reformed Theological Seminary, whose father… Sam had grown up in an unbelieving home, and his father was a nominal Roman Catholic, never cared about going to church, didn’t take the family to church. Sam grew up “nothing,” but grew up on the streets in Philadelphia, and he was a tough kid, and came to faith in college or shortly thereafter, and eventually entered into the ministry and spent much of his life witnessing to his dad. And finally, in the last six months of his dad’s life, his dad started showing some interest in the gospel but died before ever giving any indication to Sam of whether he had embraced Christ or not. And Sam, in the very first sermon that he preached at Reformed Theological Seminary…[I did tell you this story, and I’m going to tell you the rest of the story.] The very first sermon that he preached, he said, “I don’t know where my father is, but I do know that wherever he is, whatever God has done is right.”

Now that will in fact be the heart of everyone in heaven, because God’s judgment will result (and we talked a little bit about this last time)…God’s judgment will result in everybody in the world, in heaven and in hell, having to assent to the fact that God has done everything justly and rightly. There’s been nothing unjust, unfair, unkind, unworthy, or immoral. Everything in God’s judgment will be confessed by everyone to be perfect.

And so for those of us in heaven, even the things that break our heart now to think of–a loved one not being there with us–we will recognize in the words of the song for the first time fully, that “Whatever My God Ordains is Right.”

For one thing, we will be able to look back on the grand sweep of everything that God has done, and we will, from a vantage point that we’ve never had before, be able to say, “Oh! That’s what God was doing! Oh! Now I understand.” That’s not to say that we’ll understand everything, but we’ll understand more. [I mean, nobody understands everything but God, so we’ll spend eternity in heaven and we won’t know everything that God knows. You understand that. You’ll get smarter and smarter and you’ll know more and more every day in heaven, and you’ll still never be even remotely close to being as smart or knowing as much as God, OK? But you’ll know more than you’ve ever known before.] And so many of these things, we’ll look, and we’ll go, “Oh! That’s what God was doing. Now I understand that.”

Question: I’ve always thought of hell as totally being apart from God.

Answer: Paige is responding to my provocative remark that hell is eternity in the presence of God, and that heaven is eternity in the presence of God with a Mediator.

The key is the term presence. And there are two ways that the Bible uses the term presence. One is the idea of God being everywhere. That’s what we call His omnipresence. That’s because God is a spirit, He is everywhere. There is no place where He is not. Theologians sometimes call that the immensity of God. The other sense of presence, which the Bible especially uses to talk about in relation to God’s own people, is to refer to His nearness to us in our time of need.

Now, that second presence will not be enjoyed in hell. There will be no nearness in the sense of blessedness and comfort, and watch care and provision, and pouring out of grace. That will be wholly absent from hell. But there will be fires of awakened consciousness in those in hell forever, that they have been justly rejected by an almighty and perfect and loving and good and holy and righteous God. And in that sense, they will be before the Tribunal forever. OK?


This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

The Final Judgement

By / Apr 18


“There Is Hope”

Luncheon Series

April 18, 2007

The Final Judgment

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Today our subject is the Judgment–the final Judgment in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you do have Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapters 24 and 25. I’m going to read three verses out of Matthew 24, and then I’m going to read the final verses of Matthew 25, because in that great passage Jesus Himself is speaking directly to the subject of what is going to happen at the final Judgment.

Now I need to warn you: When I was working through the Gospel of Matthew here–those of you at First Presbyterian Church will remember this–when we were working through the Gospel of Matthew here at First Presbyterian a few years ago, we spent ten weeks on Matthew 24 and 25–and I have about 40 minutes this morning, and this is only one portion of what I want to try and do. Now you can get the entire transcripts of those messages on the First Presbyterian Church Jackson website. You can get them in audio format or you can get them in a written transcript, and I encourage you to do so. There’s so much here to learn.

Let me start today, however, by reading to you just three short sections from The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the theological standard of the Presbyterian Church in America, in what it affirms about the final Judgment. It is affirming a truth which is accepted broadly amongst all Protestant Christians, and in its chapter on “The Last Judgment” it simply says this:

“God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate [or fallen] angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.

“The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive the fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord [that’s what Dr. Hough’s statement is about, that Nate just read to you]; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.

“As Christ would have us be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity; so will he have that day unknown to men, that we may shake off our carnal security, and always be watchful, because we do not know at what hour the Lord will come; and so we may ever be prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.”

Basic Bible teaching on the Final Judgment

This is one of those doctrines that is often maligned. How could someone possibly believe something like that–hard, harsh? Well, friends, in light of the incident that has just occurred in the last 48 hours at Virginia Tech, in light of what happen on September 11, 2001, in light of what happened at Columbine, in light of what happened at Nanjing, China, in light of what happened under Mao, and under Stalin, and under Lenin, and under Hitler, it’s not a question of whether it is right for there to be a Judgment Day. The question is this: If there were no Judgment Day, God could not be right, because there is undeniable evil in this world that has not met a final accounting in this world. And this is our Father’s world, and it is His determination that His justice and righteousness and judgment will be vindicated, and the whole world will be put to rights. This doctrine of judgment is not some peripheral harsh addendum that can be happily expunged from the Christian Scriptures; it is something at the very heart of everything that God is doing, because it is God’s purpose to see evil totally expunged from the moral universe of His joyful habitation, so that for eternity He and His righteous angels and His redeemed people, and our Lord Jesus Christ who bore the brunt of His wrath against evil for us, will live forever and ever and will never encounter evil again.

The Judgment Day is absolutely necessary. It is not some peripheral thing; it is not something drudged up from the medieval memories stored deep in the recesses of our hearts. No, it’s something that’s right on the very face of the pages of Scripture, and as with the doctrine of hell, there is no doctrine that Jesus talked about more than this doctrine of final judgment.

Let’s hear what He has to say in Matthew 24 about His returning.

Matthew 24:29-31; and then, Matthew 25:31-46. This is God’s word:

“But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the POWERS OF THE HEAVENS WILL BE SHAKEN, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels WITH A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER HIS ELECT FROM THE FOUR WINDS, FROM ONE END OF THE SKY TO THE OTHER.”

I. All men will see Jesus when He returns.

Now I just want to say one thing about that passage. What Jesus is making unmistakably clear in that passage is it will not be possible for any human being to miss the Second Coming.

For many hundreds of years, but especially for the last 175 years, from time to time there have been various prophets and cults and sects who have claimed that Jesus has come again, but that somehow most of us missed it. You understand what Jesus is saying here. If the sun is darkened and the moon is darkened, and the stars are falling from the sky, and He is coming on clouds with glory, and the whole world sees Him, what’s He saying? Nobody’s going to miss this! So if somebody has to come up to you and give an argument as to why he’s the messiah and he’s come again, you know he’s lying, because Jesus isn’t going to have to sit down and give an argument to anyone: “I’m back.” What He’s saying is, “Everybody is going to know that I’m back. Everybody in the world. Believer and unbeliever. There is going to be no secret return of Christ. It’s going to be the most public event in the history of the world.

Now what does He say happens when He comes?

Turn over to Matthew 25:31-46:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit down on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; and I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Amen. This is God’s word. May He add His blessing to it.

II. Jesus will return to establish the justice of God.

The final Judgment will demonstrate unmistakably the justice of God. Throughout Scripture the words that are used of God’s final Judgment are words like wrath; indignation; anger; fury. These are not words describing an out of control deity, they are words describing the appropriate response of a righteous God to injustice, evil, and wickedness.

Were you not inwardly repulsed by the images that you saw coming out of Blacksburg in the last couple of days? Thinking of one deranged human being and the havoc that he wreaked across that whole campus, and the fear that he struck into the hearts of millions and millions of children? My children were asking questions: “Dad, is it safe for us to go to school tomorrow?” The default setting of our hearts is to have a reaction, a visceral reaction of indignation and anger, and this is the language that the Scripture uses of God’s wrath on the final day. It’s judicial language. It’s forensic language. It’s legal language. It’s courtroom language. It’s the anger of the righteous Judge against wickedness and evil, that which deserves to be judged. And so Judgment will demonstrate and finally vindicate the perfect justice of God.

Believers often come to me asking about what the Judgment Day will be like for them, and very honestly I often meet believers that tremble a little bit to think about the Judgment Day. It will indeed be a day of trembling, but understand that even for the believer it will be primarily a day of vindication: vindication of the believer; vindication of Christ; vindication of God.

Let’s outline very quickly some of the aspects of the Judgment Day as it’s taught in the Scriptures, and then let’s look specifically at this passage that I’ve just read and see two or three things that Jesus teaches about that Judgment.

III. Who will be the Judge?

Who will be the Judge? Well, interestingly, in all Jewish literature leading up to the Gospels, who is pictured as the Judge on Judgment Day? You don’t have to be Einstein to figure this out. It’s God, the King. It’s the Jehovah God of Israel. It’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is going to be the Judge, and that is why it is so striking that Jesus here identifies Himself as the Judge. If you look at Matthew 25:31, it says, “When the Son of Man comes…He will sit on the glorious throne…and He will separate them from one another.” What’s Jesus saying? Jesus is saying ‘I’m the Judge. I’m going to judge the nations. I am the Judge.’ You could not find a clearer testimony to the claims of Jesus to His own deity than that. He is saying, ‘Disciples, understand this. I will judge the world. I am God the King. And I will judge the world.’

IV. The redeemed will also sit with Jesus in judgment.

But who will be associated with Him in the Judgment? Well, in this very passage you see the Son of Man comes in His glory with whom? With the angels. And it’s repeated over and over again in the New Testament (in Matthew 13; in Matthew 24; in Matthew 25; in I Thessalonians 1; in Revelation 14) that the angels will be associated with Jesus Christ in His Judgment.

But the Bible also makes it clear that believers will share with Christ in His Judgment. Now I mentioned this last time, and a couple of you said to me afterwards, “Oh, come on!” Well, let’s just turn to your Bibles and you hear it for yourself. This is the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 6, and he’s talking about believers not getting involved with lawsuits with one another where they have to go to a pagan, secular, civil judge. And he’s giving arguments as to why they ought not do that, and here’s one of his arguments. Look at I Corinthians 6:2:

“Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law court? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, matters of this life?”

He’s saying ‘Believers, you can get together and sort this out amongst yourselves in your little congregation, because after all, at the end of time you’re going to be judging kings, nations, and angels with Jesus Christ.’ That’s Paul! That’s not Ligon! It’s not even Charles Hodge or John Calvin or B.B. Warfield, or C.H. Spurgeon; that’s Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saying that you will judge with Christ in the final Judgment.

V. Who will be judged?

Who will be judged? Well, it’s repeated in the New Testament that the fallen angels, those angels that fell with Satan in the beginning, will be judged. Matthew 8:29; I Peter 2:4; Jude 6 — all indicate that Satan and his assistants, the fallen angels, the demons, will be judged. But Scripture also makes it clear that all human beings who have ever lived will together appear before the great white throne of Judgment. We read in the Bible the dead, the great, and the small will all appear, and no one is excluded. The wicked and the righteous, the great and the small, the quick and the dead will all appear before the judgment throne of God. Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 25:32–“All the nations will be gathered before Him…”–and Paul confirms this in Romans 14:10 and in II Corinthians 5:10.

VI. Where does judgment take place?

And where will the Judgment take place? At the great white Judgment throne. Where will that be? I don’t know. I don’t know. But it will be there, and the Lord Jesus Christ will be sitting on that throne.

VII. What happens at the judgment?

What will be the elements of that Judgment? Well, let me list several elements of that Judgment.

Separation. The first element of that Judgment will be separation. Here in the passage we’ve just read we’re told that Jesus will divide or separate the world into two groups: the righteous and the wicked. Have you ever heard Adrian Rogers talk about the list that was made for the passengers on board the Titanic in New York Harbor as they began to take account of who had made it back? There were only two groups: the saved and the lost.[You can hear that resonant voice of his saying it.] That’s exactly what Jesus says here. When it all boils down, we’re not going to be red, yellow, black , and white; we’re not going to be lower, lower-middle, middle, upper-middle, or upper class; we’re not going to be anything but either the righteous or the wicked. Two groups. Two groups only. There will be a separation and Jesus will make that division, make that separation.

Sentencing. Secondly, there will be adjudication. There will be sentencing, if we can put it this way. Not only separation, but sentencing, or adjudication. In other words, this final Judgment in the separation of the world into two groups–those on the right hand and those on the left, the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the wicked–this is not going to be an arbitrary separation. In the end everybody in the world is going to have to say, ‘This judgment was fair and right.’ Even though those judged as the wicked will still hate God, they will have to acknowledge that the judgment is fair. And so it’s not arbitrary. It’s appropriate. It’s co-ordinate with our choices and with our lives. The separation is not based upon whim, it’s based upon actual lives as they have been lived. The entire life of each person, including the inmost thoughts and motives, will be brought into judgment. And so the basic decision, saved or damned, forgiven or condemned, will have its basis in justice.

Revelation. Thirdly, in addition to separation and sentencing, there will be revelation in the final Judgment. We’re told over and over in Scripture that every deed which a man has performed, every word he has spoken, every thought that he has conceived, every ambition that he has cherished, every motive that has prompted him to action or to inaction, will be laid bare.

Now before you run too far with this–because this is one of the things that scares believers on the Last Day–let me say two things. Don’t miss Jesus’ point of emphasizing that. Jesus’ point of emphasizing that is, don’t think that in God’s courtroom there will ever be one of those tragic miscarriages of justice that from time to time in the best of legal systems happens on earth. You know, since we’ve uncovered these amazing capacities of DNA evidence, we have found upon occasion people who have gone through the whole process of the legal system, and it has been discovered that they were in fact not the guilty party in the case of their trial. It’s not that there was some malice on the part or the prosecutors or on the part of the judge, but on the best of human justice we are fallible. And Jesus is saying to you ‘Understand that the thoughts, the motives, the intentions, and desires of the hearts of every human being will be opened up. There will be no possibility of a mistake occurring in the final Judgment.’

You know, those of you who work in prison ministry find very often that 99.9% of the people in prisons are innocent! At least they say so. You know, they’re that one case where justice was miscarried, but it’s 99.9% of them. After this Judgment is over, when the heart has been opened before the world, no one–absolutely no one–will be able to make that claim. That’s the first thing you need to understand. Jesus is saying this so that you will understand that God’s justice is going to be openly seen to be absolutely scrupulously fair, just, right, righteous; so that even those who hate the judgment that He delivers will have to say yes, the Judge was right.

But believers, however our own hearts are uncovered on that last Day, it will all be to the praise of His glorious grace. Even should your sin be shown to the world, it will redound to the praise of His glorious grace, and you will revel in the greatness of His grace to you, despite your sin. So there will be revelation on that Last Day. Luke 12:3 speaks of this. I Corinthians 4:5 speaks of this. Revelation 20:12, when John uses that image that the books will be opened, he’s just talking about the books of our lives being opened and read before the world. So, there will be separating and sentencing, and there will be revelation.

Explanation for the sentencing. But there will also be a pronounced reason for the sentencing, and we’re going to see this when we come back to look at verses 34 and 36 of Matthew 25. There will be a sentence pronounced, and a reason given.In other words, God will not simply say, “Guilty!” and then move on to the next party. He’ll say, “Guilty, because…guilty of….” Everyone in the world will see the reason for the sentence pronounced.

Execution of the sentence. There will also be an execution of the sentence on the Judgment Day. Jesus emphasizes this in Matthew 13. I’ll just read the passage briefly…Matthew 13:30:

“ ‘Allow them both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; and gather the wheat into my barn.’’”

In other words, there will be a carrying out, an execution of the sentences that have been pronounced.

Vindication of the redeemed. Now, sixthly, there will be vindication. There will be vindication. In fact, this is the fundamental point of the Judgment Day. God’s justice will be vindicated. There will be nobody that will be able to stand up and say, ‘You are not just in my case. You have been unfair to me.’ God’s justice will be universally vindicated. Secondly, Christ will be vindicated. All those who heaped aspersions on Him, all those who denied and mocked Him, will see Him vindicated before the whole world. Even the damned will be obliged to admit in their inmost being that Jesus is who He said He was, and that God is just.

But, my friends, finally, God’s people will be vindicated in that Day. All those who rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone will be vindicated in that Last Day.

So this very quickly is an outline of what the Bible says in general about the Judgment Day.

The return of the Son of Man according to Jesus.

Now let’s go to Matthew 25 and look in more detail, and I want to see three things with you very briefly.

Matthew 24 and 25 is a prophetic passage that deals with the end times, or to use the technical term that theologians use, eschatology. Don’t be impressed when somebody throws the word eschatology around. It just means the study of the end times, or the study of the last things. It’s not a big deal. But Jesus, in Matthew 25:31-46, is giving you His conclusion to this great sermon on the last things, or the end times, and He paints this picture of what is going to happen when the Son of Man comes, and I want you to see three things in particular.

If you look at Matthew 25 verses 31-33, I want you to see the context or the setting of the final judgment. At verses 34-40, I want you to see Jesus’ judgment of the righteous and their response, and then in verses 41-46, I want you to see Jesus’ judgment of the wicked and their response.

I. The context of the Judgment.

What if you were to stand before God on Judgment Day, and He were to ask you, “Why should I let you into My heaven? Why should you be given the privilege of fellowshipping with Me forever? On what basis have you been made right with Me?” What would you say? “Why should I let you into My heaven; why should you be given the privilege of fellowshipping with Me forever; on what basis have you been made right with Me?” What would you say?

I hope that you would say…not “I tried to be a good person; I tried to live a good life; I’ve done more good things than bad things. I went to church two or three weeks out of every month. I was a deacon. Served in Women’s Guild.” I hope that you would say, “My only hope in life and death is in the precious blood of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lived and died for me. Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to His cross I cling.” I hope you will say, “I am trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, as He is offered in the gospel, and it is my heart’s deepest desire to fellowship with my Father forever, but I know that I do not deserve it; but my Savior has redeemed me, though I do not deserve it.”

But what if God then said to you, “Well, what evidence is there that you trust in Christ for your salvation? What evidence is there that you are My child? What evidence is there that you are really a Christian? What evidence is there that there is real gospel grace in your heart?” What would you say then?

Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about in this passage. This is very important for you to understand, because this passage is not teaching salvation by works. There have been some who have come to this passage and they’ve thought that it was teaching salvation by works. I would argue, in fact, that this passage has an irrefutable argument against salvation by works, but it also has a startling warning that we will be judged according to works. How do you put those together? You’re not saved by your works, but you are judged according to works. How do you put those things together?

Well, let’s look at it together very briefly.

When Jesus comes again, He will come as Judge of all. Look at Matthew [25]31-33:

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left.”

Now notice that this picture has three aspects to it: the majestic coming of Jesus Christ with an entourage of angels in tow; second, the enthronement of Christ as a King and His assumption of the role of absolute Judge; and then, thirdly, His actual judgment, or His distinguishing, or His separation of the nations. This whole passage is designed to make it clear that Jesus is the very Son of God. Jesus is deity. Jesus is divine. The metaphor of the judge as a shepherd comes right out of the Old Testament, Ezekiel 34:17:

“‘As for you, My flock,’ thus says the Lord God, ‘behold, I will judge between one sheep and another; between the rams and the male goats.’”

And so when Jesus comes and says He is going to judge, and He is going to separate between the sheep and the goats, every Hebrew who hears Him speak this for the first time goes right back in his or her mind to Ezekiel 34:17. He knows, she knows, that Jesus is claiming to be the Lord God of Israel who is going to judge. All of us need to come to grips with Jesus’ claims to deity and to the nature of His Second Coming. He is coming as a judging king.

Jesus will judge all men and women.

Who will Jesus the King judge? Well, he makes it clear in verse 32: all peoples; all nations; everyone. What does the Apostle Paul say in II Corinthians 5:10? “All must appear before the judgment seat of Christ…. All must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”

Now it’s an awesome thought, isn’t it, to just think of that scene of the final judgment? But, my friends, understand that when believers look up and see that it’s Jesus who is judging, their hearts will take comfort. Remember that in the Gospels we’re told that when Jesus died there were two thieves with whom He was crucified. And we’re told that at the beginning of the day, both of those thieves were mocking Him. But at the end of that day, we are told that one of those thieves said to Him, even rebuking the other thief for the way he was speaking to Jesus, “Remember me…remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And you remember what Jesus says to that guilty thief: “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” When that thief stands before the awesome arraignment of God, he will look up and see the One who said to him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” It is the sight of Jesus as Judge, as awesome as it will be, that will set at peace the hearts of believers. That’s my Savior; that is the One that I love; that is the One who first loved me; that is the One who died for me. Believers will take comfort.

Unbelievers will tremble, because they will have rejected Him or neglected Him, but they will not have accepted Him. And at that moment it will be too late.

II. Jesus’ judgment of the righteous and their response

Now, look at verses 34-40, Jesus’ judgment of the righteous and their response. As King, Jesus makes it clear that He will reward those who trust in Him, and that His judgment will be in accordance with their lives.

Now again, in Jewish parables, in judgment parables, the King is virtually always God. Here the Judge, the King, is Jesus. It’s another testimony to His deity. Those on His right are His chosen ones, those favored by the Father, given a kingdom prepared for them before time. (By the way, the fact that this kingdom was given to them, prepared for them before time, before the foundation of the world, lets you know that their reason for receiving the kingdom could not be based on their works, since it was prepared for them before time.) But notice in the passage Jesus speaks to them about having cared for the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, those who were sick, those who were in prison. Very often this passage is used to call upon Christians to show kindness to those who are hungry or thirsty, or strangers, or naked, or sick or in prison, or impoverished or oppressed in some way. I want to say two things about that. That is emphatically a Christian duty. The Bible makes it clear from beginning to end that we ought to have a concern for those who are in need. That is basic Bible theology.

But the second thing I want to say is that is actually not what Jesus is talking about here. And the clue is the phrase that He uses in verse 40: “I say to you, to the extent that you did it to the least of these brothers of Mine….” Jesus is saying that at the end of time, judgment will be based on how you treated His followers.

Let me take you all the way back to Genesis 12:1-3, when God told Abraham that he was going to be the father of the faithful, and called him out of Iraq, out of the Ur of the Chaldees, and He made him to be the father of the children of Israel and ultimately, Paul says, the father of all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile, what did He say to him? That in Abraham all families of the earth would be blessed. What else did He say? Abraham, those who bless you–what?–I will bless. And those who curse you, I will curse. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying. In the end those who have blessed the people of God (and who can bless the people of God but those who are the people of God?) will be vindicated. And those who curse the people of God–you can’t curse the body of Christ without cursing Christ. When the Apostle Paul was persecuting Christians in Jerusalem and went up to Damascus to continue doing that persecution, and Jesus met him on the road to Damascus, what did Jesus say? “Saul, Saul. Why are you persecuting My people?” No, that’s not what Jesus said. He said, “Saul, Saul. Why do you persecute Me?” Jesus is saying in the end the judgment is going to be according to whether you blessed or cursed His body, His family, His people, the people for whom He died. This is not a passage about salvation by works, although it does make it clear that you have to do more than simply say that you love and trust Jesus. There is a life that goes along with that. That’s another reason why Jesus says that the heart will be opened up. On the last day, there will be nobody who is a hypocrite who has been saying he loves God, but is in fact living as if he does not, who is going to slide under the bar, under the door of the heavenly kingdom. Because our hearts will be opened up. What we really believe will be shown.

This passage emphasizes that Christian love towards Christians, and especially those in extraordinary need for their labors in Christ, will be the measure and evidence of true love for Christ, and hence salvation. It does not teach that caring for the poor in general is the way that you’re saved. If it does, we’re all going to hell, because we could never possibly care enough. And I don’t want in any way to diminish your zeal for doing that. That is a biblical teaching from Genesis to Revelation, that we ought to care for those who are in need: first in our own families, then in our Christian fellowship, and then among all men. We have concentric growing circles of responsibility. That’s why Paul can say that if a man claims to be a Christian and doesn’t take care of his own family–what? He’s worse than an infidel, because he’s got responsibilities in growing concentric circles as believers. I don’t want to diminish that in any way. But Jesus is not speaking to that here. The good works performed by the sheep or not performed by the goats, though clearly related to the ultimate destiny of each group, are not stated to be the cause of that destiny. These good works are the evidence of who these people really are. And so this is just another reminder that a “decision” is a delusion if it is not accompanied by a life of faith and love.

It is also striking to me, my friends, that the believers are clearly not sitting around waiting to be justified by their works. When Jesus announces to them that they’ve done this, what is their response? “When did we do this?” If they thought salvation was by works, man, they would have had lists out! “Yeah, I certainly did! In fact, on April 12, at 1407, I did such and such for so and so.” They’d have the lists out! But the response of these sheep is “When did I do this?” That doesn’t sound like somebody who’s waiting to be justified, waiting to be saved by works. They’re stunned. They’re stunned.

No, you see, these true believers were loving one another because of Christ’s love for them, and naturally doing that which pleases the Lord. And suddenly on the Last Day, the Lord says, ‘And by the way, your lives were beautiful to Me, because you loved one another that way not because you thought thereby you were earning your salvation, but you were expressing the salvation by grace which I gave you. Therefore you are My sheep.’

III. Third and finally, as King, Christ will condemn those who do not trust in Him and He’ll do it according to their lives.

Those on the left, whether false believers, or pagans, or idolators, first, will be commanded to depart from God’s presence; second, will be sent to the same place of punishment created by God for His fallen angels; and, thirdly, will be condemned because of what they failed to do.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? That the condemnation is not so much here spoken about as to what they did, but what they didn’t do. That’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? That sins of omission are highlighted in the condemnation of those who are the goats on Jesus’ left. They failed to love lowly and needy Christians, and hence showed that they did not in fact love Christ, even if they claimed to. And here Jesus articulates the very uncomfortable and unpopular doctrine of eternal punishment.

Conclusion: The message of the Bible

So, what’s the message? The message is that though salvation is by grace, our faith in Christ is always accompanied by a life of joyful, grateful, service. They always go together. We are not saved by that life, and if that were the way of salvation, no one would be saved, because even that life lived, however beautiful it may be, is imperfect. It must be covered by the blood of Christ. The very best deeds that we have ever done are shot through with sin. The very best deeds that we’ve ever done are shot through with sin–but the true believer always has a life that bears out faith; and the unbeliever always has a life that bears out unbelief. And in that final judgment, that life of unbelief will be definitively revealed. If we truly love the Lord Jesus, we will live lives of love because we love Christ, and because of His first love for us. If we don’t find ourselves living that life of love, we need to ask ourselves first do we really love Christ. Have we trusted in Him?

The way to become a person characterized by real gospel love is to trust in Christ alone, to acknowledge our sin, to flee to Him for pardon, and then, in gratitude to love others because He first loved us.

All these things will be apparent on that great and final Day.

Let’s pray, and then we’ll take some questions.

Father, our hearts do tremble when we think of the approaching Judgment, but we pray that we would live so that more and more we would find comfort at the thought that at the Last Day the same One who died for our sins, the same One who reached out to us when we ourselves were down in the muck and mire of wickedness, will be sheltering our souls, and will declare us to be His friends, His brothers, His sheep, His children, His chosen. And we will share in His vindication, though we do not deserve it. And so all the glory will be His and Yours. Thank You, Jesus. Amen.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

What Happens When Christ Returns?

By / Apr 4


“There Is Hope”

Luncheon Series

April 4, 2007

What Happens When Christ Returns?

The Resurrection of Christ and the Resurrection of the Body

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Today we have somewhat of a blended topic. The next time we’re together we’re going to be looking at the Judgment Day and the issues related to that. We’ll cross into that territory just a little bit today, because our focus is going to be asking how Jesus’ resurrection affects us in this life, and how it affects us at His Second Coming. And we will be looking at the positive side of that today: How does Christ’s resurrection affect us as Christians while we are living, and what does it show us about the nature of our own resurrection following death, and Christ’s return.

There are a number of issues that we want to touch on today. We want to look at the implications of each stage of Christ’s death. There’s no way that I can look at all the implications of each stage of Christ’s death, so I’m going to try and give you a hint by looking at the significance of His resurrection, and then perhaps a few words about His ascension oand His heavenly session, or His sitting down at the right hand of God the Father. We will address issues relating to the timing of the resurrection, but here’s basically what we’re going to do. This outline with all these numbers really breaks down into two parts. We’re going to address the issue of why is the resurrection important for us now, and we’re going to address the issue of what does Christ’s resurrection mean for us when He returns. I’ve tried to put as many of the Scriptures as possible in the outline, knowing that some of you don’t have your Bibles with you and aren’t close enough to look over someone’s shoulders. But if you have your Bibles, it’s obviously always a blessing for you to have it open and following along.

So let’s begin with prayer today.

Heavenly Father, we thank You that You have provided again in Your concern for Your people a time for us to meditate on what is to come and the glorious reality of Christ’s resurrection. We ask that You open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your word, and that You would give us by the grace of Your Holy Spirit to believe them, to embrace them, and to live according to them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

What happens when Christ returns? What are the implications of His resurrection for us when He returns? What are the implications now for us of Christ’s resurrection? How does His resurrection affect us while we’re living, and what does it show us about the nature of our resurrection following death and His return?

I. Why is the resurrection important for us now?

Reasons the resurrection should be believed.
I want to begin with the first question, which is simply, “Why is the resurrection so important to us now?” And I want to start by just taking you to I Corinthians 15:1-11, because in that passage the Apostle Paul gives four arguments for why the resurrection ought to be believed, and they’re very straightforward arguments.

1. The resurrection is part of the Gospel and necessary for our salvation (1-2)

First of all, if you look at verses 1 and 2, Paul makes it clear that the resurrection is part of the gospel, and therefore necessary for salvation. As far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, the physical, the bodily, resurrection–and by the way, that’s the only kind of resurrection that the Apostle Paul ever talked about, was a physical resurrection. This idea that floats around in some circles of a non-physical resurrection is an utter anomaly. The Apostle Paul goes out of his way in I Corinthians 15 to say that if we are not raised again in the flesh, then we are of all men most miserable. So he’s deadly serious about the bodily resurrection, not only of Christ, but of believers. At any rate, he makes it clear that the resurrection is part of the gospel. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the gospel without the resurrection. There’s no gospel without a bodily resurrection. This is what he says:

“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.”

And then, this is what he says in verse 4:

[That it was delivered to you as of first importance that Christ] “…raised on the third day according to the Scriptures….”

So just having said that the message that he has preached was of first importance–was that by which we are saved, and was that if we did not embrace the realities that were contained in the gospel we are not saved–he concludes in that gospel [verse 4] “the resurrection of Christ on the third day according to the Scriptures.” So the Apostle Paul says ‘Christian, why is it you should believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? Because it’s part of the gospel, and thus it is necessary for our salvation.’


2. The resurrection was not a doctrine Paul made up, he himself “received” it and we should too.
Secondly, he makes it clear to us that he did not invent the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. He received the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Look at verses 3 and 4:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

And so what the Apostle Paul is saying to these Corinthian Christians and to you and me is, ‘I am not the originator of the Christian (of the biblical) idea of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That was the thing that was delivered to me, and I’m delivering it to you. I received that when I first became a Christian.’

Who did the Apostle Paul meet? The resurrected Jesus Christ. The resurrected Jesus Christ met him on the road to Damascus. The Apostle Paul from this time on did not have to have complex arguments given to him about the reality of the resurrection of Christ. He met Jesus. He was a firm believer in that resurrection, and so he’s stressing, ‘Look, I didn’t invent this. This was something I received, and I’ve delivered it to you.’ And so the Apostle Paul is wanting you to make sure that you understand that the resurrection is not something that he made up. He received it, and we should receive it as he received it, too.

3. The resurrection is copiously attested as an historical event by people of the highest integrity

Thirdly, look at verses 5-10 in I Corinthians 15. Paul goes out of his way to point out that the resurrection is copiously attested as a historical event by people of the highest integrity. The Apostle Paul names people to the Corinthians who had personally seen the resurrected Christ, many of whom were known to the Corinthians. They could have literally said, ‘Well, OK, I want to ask them…’ and the Apostle Paul would have said, ‘Fine. Go ahead. Ask So-and-So. You know them.’ Look at what he says:

“…He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve.” [Verse 6]: “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at the same time.”

Do you realize what an astounding claim that is? If that was an untruth that he was uttering, he was giving five hundred people — alive — the opportunity to refute his assertion that Jesus had been resurrected.

“He appeared to five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom [he says] remain until now.”

In other words, ‘Corinthians, most of these five hundred that He appeared to are still alive now. You can ask them.’

“Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”

Of course, he’s referring to that day on the road to Damascus.

“For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God, but by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”

And so he’s saying ‘Look, Corinthians. This is not wish fulfillment. This is not the crazy idea of one man, or two men, or three men. This is something copiously attested by people of the highest integrity.

4. The resurrection is part of the core teaching of the Apostles and the apostolic church (11)
And fourth, he says in verse 11 that this resurrection is part of the core teaching of the apostles, and thus characterizes any church that is truly apostolic. [And you understand, when you drive around town today and you see a church that says Apostolic, it usually means that they don’t believe in the doctrine of
the Trinity. That’s a code word for a church that doesn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. By the way, that’s an evidence that they’re not apostolic! But that’s another story for another day!] But when the Apostle Paul uses that word apostolic, he means a church that is in accord with the teaching of the apostles. Paul knows that the apostles’ teaching is normative for Christians. That’s a concept that a number of Christians (especially who have lived in the English-speaking world over the last 200 years) could well afford to learn more about, because there are a lot of Christians, even professors of theology and ministers and others, who think that they have the right to invent Christianity in their own imaginations… to make it up as they go along. As far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, a truly Christian church follows the teachings of the apostles, and what he’s saying in verse 11 is:

“Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

And what he’s saying is ‘I, and all the apostles, preached the resurrection–the physical, bodily resurrection–of Jesus Christ, and we have preached it as essential to and part of the gospel of grace.’

So the resurrection is part of the core teaching of the apostles and of a truly apostolic church. So what? So what? Paul makes this argument as to why we ought to believe the resurrection. So what?

Paul then (in 1 Corinthians 15:12ff, Romans and elsewhere) tells us why the resurrection is so important

Well, now, not only in I Corinthians 15:12ff, but also in Romans and elsewhere in Paul’s writings, Paul tells us why the resurrection is so important. I don’t have time to go through all of Paul’s arguments as to why it’s so important, let me just point to five reasons why he says the resurrection is so important.

First, Paul stresses that the resurrection bears witness to the veracity – that is, to the truthfulness – of the claims of the church regarding the person and work of Christ. In other words, the resurrection vindicates the truth-claims that the church has made about who Jesus is and what He came to do, and in fact accomplished, in His life, ministry, and death. The resurrection validates – bears witness to, shows the truthfulness of – the claims that the church in its preaching makes about the person and work of Christ. In Romans 1 (if you have your Bibles you can turn there), Paul says that Jesus was declared the Son of God with power–how? “…By the resurrection from the dead.” How was it that Jesus was publicly declared and vindicated as the Son of God? By the resurrection.

Now, Jesus Himself had made explicit truth-claims to be the Son of God, and the apostles had declared that they accepted Him as the Son of God. You remember the exchange at Caesarea Philippi when the apostles are talking amongst themselves about who people in the crowds that are following Jesus…what they’re saying about Jesus. And Jesus says ‘Well, what are people saying about me?’ And you know, they say, ‘Well, Lord, some of them say You’re John the Baptist, risen again from the dead. And some people say that You’re Elijah.’ And then you remember what Jesus says: ‘Well, I want to know who you think I am.’ And they all sort of look around at one another, and finally Peter blurts out, as he likes to do, ‘Well, Lord, You are the Christ. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And you remember Jesus’ response: ‘You’re exactly right, Peter. But flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father in heaven.’

And so the disciples have recognized that claim, Jesus has attested to that claim, but now there has been a demonstration of that claim in His resurrection. Death could not hold Him, and His resurrection vindicates His claim to be the very Son of God. So the resurrection is evidential. It is part of the proof of Jesus’ person and the effectiveness of His atoning work. The resurrection distinguishes Jesus from all the other leaders of the world’s religions. And of course, it gives us confidence to receive His teaching.

Secondly, the resurrection, the Apostle Paul says, is important because it is at the heart of the apostolic preaching, and it is connected to the gospel of redemption and justification. Look at Romans 4:25:

“[Jesus] who was delivered over because of our transgression, was raised for the sake of our justification.”

So the Apostle Paul is telling us there that our justification–our being declared right with God, our being pardoned of our sins, forgiven of our sins and declared to be accepted as righteous in God’s sight not for anything in us, but for Jesus Christ’s blood alone–this is something that the resurrection has done. He was raised for our justification, so the resurrection is part and parcel of the gospel, the good news, the evangel. So the primitive gospel, the gospel preached by the apostles, included testimony to the resurrection as one of its characteristic features. If you do a study of the preaching of the apostles in Romans, Acts, I Corinthians, and elsewhere, what you will find is that over and over as the gospel is preached, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is emphasized. It gives assurance to us that Christ’s work is complete, and that redemption is accomplished.

Thirdly, the Apostle Paul says…why is the resurrection so important for us now? Because the resurrection is the source of the new life of the believer, and hence it is the fountainhead of our growing in grace and godliness, or what theologians call sanctification. Romans 6:4:

“Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

So we’ve been raised with Christ so that — what? So that we would walk in newness of life. So that we would live a new way. His resurrection has the effect of providing the source of the Christian life from beginning to end. The resurrection is the source of the new life of the believer, and hence it is the very fountainhead of our growing in grace and living in godliness.

Fourth, the Apostle Paul (in Romans 8:11) tells us that the resurrection is the source, the example, and the guarantee of our future resurrection. Paul says in Romans 8:11:

“If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

And so the Apostle Paul is reminding us there that the resurrection of Christ is of tremendous importance to the believer as we anticipate the future. The resurrection of Christ is the guarantee and the model of our resurrection.

One of the interesting stories that Matthew tells you (in Matthew 27:52) is that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection there were many believers who were also resurrected and went into Jerusalem. They came up out of the tombs, and they went into Jerusalem and they knocked on the doors of their family members. It’s a fascinating passage. Go read the passage in its context sometime. One of the things that Matthew is telling you is that Jesus’ resurrection is that which accomplishes the resurrection which was spoken of in Ezekiel 37. You might go study that passage sometime. That’s the story of the valley of the dry bones.

But another thing that Matthew is saying there by telling you about those believers who were actually raised out of their tombs is that this is a foretaste of our resurrection on the Last Day. As His body was quickened, so will ours be. As His body was glorified, so will ours be. And so all of these things are an important part of the believer’s expectation of rising from the dead of rising from the dead ourselves.

Now one last thing: In the final analysis, the resurrection is the vindication of Christ. It is the vindication of Christ. It proved that He was the Son of God; it proved that He had offered the perfect sacrifice for sin; it proved that He had been found spotless; it proved that God declared Him to be righteous in full. And in that sense, the resurrection could not have not happened.

If the resurrection had not happened, the universe would have ceased to exist, because what had happened on the cross? God had poured out the fullness of His wrath–the wrath that ought to have rested on a multitude of men and women and boys and girls justly because of their sin–He had poured out His wrath–where? On His Son, who was sinless.

Now, we’ve heard this so often in our lives that we have ceased to feel the wonder of that. How is it possible that it is just for God to pour out His wrath for sin on someone who is sinless? Well, there are several ways that the New Testament answers that question. One of the ways the New Testament answers that question is that Jesus Himself voluntarily accepted that. He said ‘Lord, I’ll stand in the place of My people. That’s what I want to do, for Your glory and for their everlasting good. I want to stand in the place of Your people.’ And so those beautiful phrases for usin our place, that you find all through the New Testament, that’s part of the way that the New Testament explains that. How could it be that the Father would pour out His wrath for sin on someone who hadn’t sinned?

But the other way that the New Testament addresses that is that the Father vindicated Jesus by raising Him up from the dead, and thus showing to the watching world–what? ‘He did not deserve to die, because He was perfect. But He did deserve to be raised again from the dead. And in fact, had I not raised Him from the dead, My justice would have been called into question.’

But you see the blessing of that for the believer. If it is true that God’s justice would have been compromised if He had not raised Jesus from the dead (and it is), then it is also true that God’s justice would be compromised if He did not raise all those who have trusted in Jesus Christ from the dead, because Jesus died in their place. And so this is part of your firm and certain hope of future resurrection, as you rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone. It is no less possible for you not to be raised from the dead than it was possible for Jesus not to be raised from the dead.

All of those things are true for us now about the resurrection, and make the resurrection exceedingly comforting to us as believers.

II. What does Christ’s resurrection mean for us when he returns?

But now let’s turn to the second question: “What does Christ’s resurrection mean for us when He returns?” And I’ve quoted for you The Shorter Catechism. It’s No. 38. It has such a beautiful outline of this that I thought we’d start there:

Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?

A. At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the Day of Judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.

That is not only a mouthful, it is a heart full.

Let me point you to the four things that The Catechism has summarized, and all it’s doing is summarizing Bible teaching about what the resurrection of Jesus means for you on the Last Day. Look at the four things here: You will be changed to glory; you will be acknowledged by Christ; you will be acquitted by Christ; you will be made completely happy in fellowship with God. Let’s look at each of these four things.

First, changed to glory.

First, every believer will at the final resurrection be raised, or changed, in glory. The Catechism puts it this way: “At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory….” Now, where does that idea come from? Well, it comes from a number of places. Let me point you to one place–that’s I Corinthians 15:42, 43:

“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”

Now, there are two very important things for you to understand that the Apostle Paul is saying there. One is he is saying that as you are buried in your body, so you will be raised in your body. As Job would say, “Yet in my flesh, I will see God.” But the Apostle Paul says you need to know something about your flesh. When that flesh, weak though it is in this world…decaying as it is in this world…is raised, it will not be raised in weakness. It will be raised in beauty and immortality, and perfection. So it’s comforting to realize that just as we experience oppression in the flesh, so also we will see God in the flesh; but it is comforting to know also, as Thomas Vincent says, that when we are raised our bodies will be most healthful, strong, spiritual, incorruptible, immortal, most beautiful, and glorious.

I love to think about this in lots of circumstances, but my two most favorite times to think of this is when I am watching a dear saint who has trusted in Jesus Christ all his life, all her life, going through the final battle with some debilitating illness which has robbed the once robust capacities of his or her body, and that body has been ravaged and is descending slowly, losing all of the wonderful glorious capacities that it once had in this life, I love to be able to think that God is going to…the next time I see that saint (in glory), none of that physical incapacity, none of that physical infirmity will be there. I will see that saint…I will see him, I will see her… in heaven, in the fullness of what it is and means to be a human being.

I also love to think of this as I see the children of believers who have been born with congenital and permanent disabilities of mind or of body, and to think that when I see that child in glory, I will see her — I will see him — as I never was able to see him, to see her, in this world: in the fullness of what a human being can be.

But I want to say one last thing before I move from this. What a hopeful thing it is to realize that our bodies will be perfected in the resurrection. When Christ comes again and we are raised, our bodies will be raised in perfection — totally perfect, even as Jesus’ body was glorified. You will not have one single physical deformity. You’ll never struggle with being fat again! (Boy, am I looking forward to that!) There will never be that shoulder that gives you trouble again…that lower back, that arthritis, that cancer. Never again. Your bodies will be like Jesus’ glorious resurrected body.

But I want to remind you that there’s one very interesting thing. Though there will not be a scintilla of imperfection in you, it is interesting that we are told in the Scriptures that there will be one mark that you will still see upon the body of your glorified Lord: the wounds that He bore for you He has kept even in His glorified body. So for all eternity in your perfected body, you will be able to look at the body which the Lord has chosen to bear for everlasting time, at the marks which He bore for you, so that you could inhabit a perfected body. It is a glorious thought, my friends, to think of what your Savior has done for you in that regard.

Second, acknowledged by Christ.

There’s a second thing. Every believer will in the final resurrection be acknowledged, or owned, by Jesus Christ. Again, as The Catechism says:

“At the resurrection, believers…shall be openly acknowledged in the Day of Judgment….”

In Matthew 25:34, Jesus is telling His disciples what it’s going to be like on that great Day, and he says:

“The King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

In other words, he is saying that on the Last Day He is going to stand up and He is going to acknowledge you publicly and personally as His friend. As His joint heir. As His brother or sister. He’s going to stand up before the nations and say ‘That’s My friend. I died for him. Everything that is Mine belongs to him…belongs to her.’ You’re going to be publicly acknowledged, you’re going to be publicly embraced, you’re going to be publicly recognized, you’re going to be publicly owned, you’re going to be publicly acquitted by Christ.

And the blessing of this will be several-fold. We’re told in the Bible, for instance in Matthew 24:31, that believers will be gathered from all the corners of the earth by angels. Won’t that be a sight to see? That having been gathered by the angels (Matthew 24:31), you will be placed at the right hand of Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:33). At that point, we’re told (Matthew 10:32) that you will be openly acknowledged by Jesus Christ to belong to Him. Fourth, we’re told that you will then be entertained by Christ and invited by Him to take possession of His Father’s inheritance, which He has purchased for you and given to you freely in His love (Matthew 25:34).

And then the Apostle Paul adds that the Lord Jesus Christ will invite you to join Him in judging the world. The Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 6:2,3, that you will sit with Christ in judgment over wicked angels and wicked human beings, and you will administer judgment with Him. Can you imagine that? The Lord Jesus saying ‘What will be the just judgment that is meted out on this angel who rebelled against My Father eons ago, at the beginning of time? What will it be, My friend? What will the punishment be that we mete out on these who so wickedly abused and oppressed men in this world? What will it be, My friend? What will the judgment and justice of God call for?’ You will administer justice with Christ. You’ll be publicly acknowledged by Him, acquitted by Him, owned by Him, embraced by Him, recognized by Him.


Third, acquitted by Christ.

Thirdly, you will be pardoned, exonerated, by Christ. You will be acquitted by Him. Every believer will in the final resurrection be pardoned and exonerated by Christ. Again, the Catechism question says:

“At the resurrection, believers…shall be openly…acquitted in the Day of Judgment.”

Again, Matthew 10:32 tells us that Jesus promises that:

“Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.”

And so there will be a public, absolute, universal, eternal acquittal of all those who rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel by Christ before the watching world on the Day of Judgment. And this means, among other things, that believers will be acquitted from false aspersions which had been cast upon them in this life, and from the real guilt of all sins which had been committed by them in this life, because of the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Jesus Christ alone. So that every false charge that has ever been made against you, or that ever will be made against you in this life, you’ll be exonerated from it. And every true charge that has been or ever will be brought against you in this life, you will be exonerated of. Jesus Christ will publicly avow you as His.

Think of the eternal peace of conscience that will flow from this. You know, have you ever been so burdened by a false charge brought against you that you began to wonder whether it was true? And you couldn’t get it out of your heart and your mind? Or have you ever been so burdened by the reality of the guilt of what you actually have done, and that you know that you cannot undo, that you wonder if you’ll ever get out from under that guilt? And the answer that the Bible gives is, if you rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, on the Last Day He will deal with both of those things definitively, so that you will never ever again lack peace of conscience.


Fourth, every believer will, in the final resurrection, be made completely happy in fellowship with God.
The Catechism

“At the resurrection, believers…shall be …perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.”

Again, there are a number of beautiful Bible passages that speak of this. I John 3:2:

“Beloved, now we are the children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.”

And John again in Revelation 21:4:

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will no longer be any death, there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain. The first things have passed away.”

And I Thessalonians 4:17:

“So we shall always be with the Lord.”

Every believer will, in the final resurrection, be made completely happy in fellowship with God, and that blessing of happiness and fellowship with God has two parts to it. First of all, in perfect and final immunity from evil. In this world there is no immunity from evil…there is no immunity from evil. The most precious of God’s children suffer pain and trials and tribulations and torments in this world, but not then. That’s what John is saying in Revelation 21:4. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will no longer be any death, no longer any mourning, or crying, or pain. These things have passed away. So the blessedness that we enjoy in fellowship with God on the one hand is because all of the things that mar that blessedness here will have been taken away permanently, finally, irreversibly.

Have you ever had one of those days that was so good that you began to fear…you know, it’s never going to be like this again? It’s never going to be like this again–because you knew that something was going to happen, something was going to change. And it did. Never again. Perfection following perfection…following perfection…following perfection…forever.

But not just that. Not just an immunity from that which mars our blessedness and happiness, but a perfect enjoyment of God. Don’t you love the way that John says it in I John 3:2:

“When he appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

For the first time in our lives…for the first time in our lives…we will see Jesus like He really is, and it will take our breath away. And our breath will be taken away by it for eternity, because here we have seen through a glass darkly, but there face to face. Here we have known Him through His word, but we have not been made like Him fully yet. Then we will be like Him, and so we will see Him as He is.

Don’t you love how the apostle exhorts those Christians at the end of the first century by saying that ‘you love Him, though you have not seen Him’? But on the Day of Judgment, that reality will completely pass away. There will be no one of Jesus’ children who has not seen Him, and seen Him as He is. Even the disciples’ breath is taken away at the sight of Him with whom they dwelt in this life and saw in His glorified body, because they will have been fully made like Him.

And there will be no one that we love more than Him. William Guthrie, the great Scottish pastor, said of Christ and the believer’s sight of Him: “Less would not satisfy, but more could not be desired.” Nothing less than Christ in His fullness can satisfy what God has made us for. After all, He made us to do what? To glorify and enjoy Him forever. And nothing less than that would enable us to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever; but having seen Him, the mind will not be able to bring to pass the thought of something greater that we could desire.

You know, one of the old arguments for the existence of God was that “God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived.” It’s a complex argument. I won’t go into it now, but the point is simply this: When we see Christ, all of us together will say, “There is nothing greater than I could conceive than Him. Nothing greater to delight in. Nothing greater to be satisfied in.” And so we will have a perfect enjoyment of God in Him because we will see Him just as He is.

That’s what the resurrection means for us as believers. That’s what the resurrection of Christ means for us as believers. On this coming Sunday, I’ll spend our focus of attention from the book of I Peter on the issue of the life that the resurrection of Christ produces in us now, but today we’ve thought both about what Christ’s resurrection means for us now, and what it means for us then.

What will the resurrected body be like? It will be like His body. It will be glorious. It will be perfect.

When will the resurrection of our bodies occur? When He comes again.

Will non-believers be resurrected? Oh, yes! Oh, yes, they will. Everyone will be resurrected. But those who have been resurrected trusting in Christ will be resurrected to be like Him and with Him forever. Those who do not believe in Him will be resurrected never to be like Him and never to be with Him.

Let’s pray.

Our heavenly Father, it is hard for us to comprehend what Christ’s grave-robbing, hell-defeating conquest of the death that we deserve and His life-giving resurrection…what these things mean for us, for it is so glorious. Grant that we would appreciate the fullness of the implications of His resurrection for us now, and then; and that we would live in light of that reality, day by day anticipating it, tasting it as the sweetest nectar that our lips could ever touch. Grant, O God, that You would give us a corresponding burden for those who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ, and who have grieved His heart of love. Grant, O God that You would give us a corresponding burden for those who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ and have grieved His heart of love. O God, we would have Paul’s heart for his own people to the extent that he would have wished himself accursed if they could only taste and see that the Lord is good, if they could only trust in Jesus Christ. Give us that kind of love for those who don’t know Jesus and do not love Him. In this Easter season remind us that the resurrection is essential to the gospel, part and parcel of it, necessary, for without it we are of all men most miserable, and we ask these things in Jesus name, Amen.

What Happens After Death?

By / Mar 28


“There Is Hope”

Luncheon Series

March 28, 2007

What Happens After Death?

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Thank you for being here, friends. There are going to be three parts to the message. The first part is what happens after death for the believer; the second part is what happens after death for the unbeliever; the third part is to address a range of practical questions which arise because of this question of what happens after death. So we have a lot to do in a short period of time. Let’s ask for God’s help again as we prepare to do it.

Lord, it’s so important that we understand what You tell us about what happens after death, because so many people live as if this life is all that counts, all that matters, all there is. And we know, O God, that in many ways this life is but a staging ground for a much longer enduring reality, but an enduring reality which has two and two only destinations: everlasting joy and satisfaction and fulfillment in Christ, or everlasting sorrow, frustration, and un-fulfillment without Him. Surely there could be nothing more solemn than for human beings created in the image of God to consider our end. Give us wisdom as we do this to think Your thoughts after You, according to Your word. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Every human being that has ever walked on this planet has to deal with three problems: the problems of guilt, meaning, and death. No human being, however seared his or her conscience may be, does not from time to time feel the pangs of guilt, and asks the question, “In light of my guilt [that is, in light of my own self-recognition that I have done wrong], how can I be put right? How can my guilt be dealt with? How can the wrong-doing that I have done be resolved in such a way that I’m made right, that I’m put right with God and others?” Every human being wrestles with the issue of guilt.

Every human being wrestles with the issue of meaning. Even professors who tell their college freshmen that there is no meaning to this life, ultimately speaking, and that they must supply their own meaning to this life, even professors who say that know that that does not work. Human beings aren’t built to survive that way. If there is no meaning to this life, then human beings would not be able to go on. Human beings do not live as if there is no meaning to this life. They live purposefully and purposely.

And every human being wrestles with the question of death. What happens when I die? What is death? What is beyond it? How do I address the fear of that transition? And I want to say to you that only Christianity, only the Bible, only Christ, only the gospel can give you an answer that will suffice to those three questions, and I’d love to talk about all three of those questions with you today, but my job is to think about the third one. How does the Bible speak of death, and what happens after?

I. What happens after death for the believer?

Well, the Bible teaches us that God has for us in Christ and in the gospel not only blessings here and in this life, but even blessings after this life is done. The Apostle Paul will say emphatically in I Corinthians 15: “If our hope is in Christ for this life only, then we among all men are most miserable.” If our hope is in Christ for this life only, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Now that’s not some charlatan on the street corner, that’s the Apostle Paul speaking. He’s saying that I’m not trusting in Christ simply so that this life will be fuller or more prosperous, I’m trusting in Christ for this life and forever, for this life and eternity, for this life and the life to come, now and hereafter…now and after death. And so the Christian hope is a hope that not only controls our present living of this life, it controls our future anticipation of what is to come.

The Shorter Catechism speaks to this question. I’ve got the S.C. Q.37 in front of you on the outline, because I know that most of you haven’t memorized The Shorter Catechism, or don’t remember what Q.37 says. Here’s what it says:

“What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?”

And it answers:

“The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”

And Thomas Vincent, who wrote an early commentary on The Shorter Catechism, says that this answer teaches that the benefits of believers at their death are twofold, first in regard to their souls, and second in regard to their bodies.

So what I want to do is concentrate on four blessings which belong to believers alone, even in the valley of the shadow of death, which are ours immediately upon death. What happens to a believer not just within the first thirteen seconds after you die, what happens to the believer the minute we slip this mortal coil? What happens to the believer the nanosecond our final breath has left our bodies as our brain and our heart fail us? What happens instantaneously for the believer at death? These four things I want to draw your attention to, and in large measure these things are drawn out of II Corinthians 5:8 (I encourage you to go and study that passage in its context); Hebrews 12:18-24 (I’d encourage you to study that passage in its context); Philippians 1:21-24; and I Thessalonians 4:13-18. We will have opportunity to look at these in more detail.

These four blessings belong to all believers. Now let me quickly say that just because these blessings belong to believers who have a sure and certain hope in the promises of the Bible, in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and anticipate God fulfilling the promises of these four blessings to them, does not mean that death is easy for the believer. I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions — some of you dear friends to me, in your hour of trial — the words of the great English Baptist minister, William Kiffin. He of course believed all the promises that we’re about to study. He believed the Bible, every last jot and tittle of it. And yet when his wife died, he wrote these words:

“It pleased the Lord to take to Himself my dear and faithful wife, with whom I have lived nearly 42 years, whose tenderness to me and faithfulness to God were such as cannot by me be expressed, as she continually sympathized with me in all my afflictions. I can truly say that I never heard her utter the least discontent under all the various providences that attended either me or her. She eyed the hand of God in all our sorrows, and so constantly encouraged me in the ways of God. Her death was the greatest sorrow to me that I ever met in the Lord.”

Now my friends, I want you to understand that those are the words of a Christian, and the Lord would not be standing by William Kippen to deliver him a rebuke. In fact, the Lord, through the Apostle Paul, explicitly says to believers, “You do not grieve as those without hope.”

Now notice what he does not say to believers through the Apostle Paul. He does not say you do not grieve; he says you do not grieve as those without hope. In your grief there is mingled an inextinguishable, inexhaustible, irrepressible hope, so that with Job we say, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him”; so we say with hope as we face the valley of the shadow of death, we have been blessed by God with joy inexpressible and full of glory. So it is not that in the face of death (because of the promises that we are going to study) that a Christian approaches death with stoic indifference and emotionless detachment. Do not think for a second that we are commending that sort of an approach to death. But we are commending for the believer an approach to death which is filled with the comfort of God because of the certainty of His promises.

Now there’s one more thing I need to say before we look at these particular promises of God. The way that a believer approaches death is fundamentally different from the way an unbeliever approaches death. Thomas Boston once said:

“All men must die, but as men’s lives are very different, so their account in death is, also. To an ungodly man, death is loss, the greatest loss; but to a believer, it is gain, the greatest gain.”

Now we need to understand why that is, and that is in part what we’re going to do today. Why is death totally different for the believer and for the unbeliever?

Richard Baxter elaborates on this, and I think he elaborates on it helpfully…and again, I have this quote in front of you, because it’s so important. I want you to see it in Baxter’s own words:

“There is a great deal of difference between the desires of heaven in a sanctified man and in an unsanctified one. The believer prizes heaven above earth, and had rather be with God than here, though death stands in the way and may possibly have harder thoughts from him. But for the ungodly, there is nothing that seems more desirable than this world, and therefore he only chooses heaven over hell, but not over earth; and therefore shall not have it upon such a choice.”

You see what Baxter is saying. Nobody in his right mind would choose hell–though many do. If asked they’ll always say, “Oh, yes, heaven over hell, please!” But Baxter is saying that the mark of a Christian approaching death is that the believer desires heaven over earth, heaven over this life, Jesus over the things that are most precious to him in this world, and not just as what is preferable in comparison to a life of torment in hell forever.

Blessings that belong to believers alone.

So what benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? Four. In the catechism passage we just read we learn of four blessings which belong to believers alone, even in the valley of the shadow of death, and those blessings are why the death of a believer is not only a day of mourning. It is truly a day of mourning, but it is also and especially a day of triumph. Our hopes and hearts are full, as Christians, at death because we trust Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, but our hearts are especially comforted upon the death of a believer because the believer has trusted in Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. And, therefore, as we contemplate that believer’s death, whoever it may be, no matter what the state of their life in this world, the conditions of their trials and tribulations, the believer is the recipient of these four things immediately upon death.

One, with Christ. In death believers are immediately with Christ, whom they prize more than all things here. Now don’t miss this, my friends. This is the great blessing of the believer at death, and everything else pales in comparison to it.

Look at II Corinthians 5:8. The Apostle Paul is speaking of himself and by extension to all believers, as he addresses the Corinthians, and he says: “We are of good courage, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” For the Apostle Paul to be absent from this body (this is his way of speaking of death) is to be at home with the Lord. Now we’re going to come back to that idea of being at home with the Lord in just a minute, but what I want you to see right here is that immediately upon death where does the Apostle Paul anticipate being? With the Lord. And that is the greatest blessing for the believer, because the believer prizes Christ above everything else.

Samuel Rutherford once said, “I am so in love with His love that if He were not in heaven I would not want to go there.” He longed to be with Christ because he prized Christ, and he treasured Christ’s love for him above all else.

You understand that this is the goal of every gospel minister. Every gospel minister knows that you were made for joy, but that the problem in this world is this world tries to trick you into thinking that it can offer you joy when you can only find joy in Jesus Christ, and so the gospel minister is fighting for your joy, not so that you will joy in the passing trivial things of this world, but so that you will joy and delight in Christ alone, and that the things of this world will fade in their value before your eyes, and that He will be exalted and you will treasure Him and long for Him, and want to be with Him. And the Apostle Paul is assuring us here that to be absent from the body (as a believer to be absent from the body, to die) is immediately to be with the Lord.

You ask me, “Where is that going to be?” I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. All I need to know is this: to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Where is the Lord? He’s at the right hand of God. Where’s the right hand of God? I don’t know, but my Lord is there and that’s all that matters. I’m with Him. I’m present with the One for whom my soul longs. And for the believer, He is more precious than husband or wife, than parents or children, than riches, than fame, than power, than ambition, than influence, than success, than pleasure. He is more valuable than anything. No wonder Job could say, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise him,” because he himself would say in Job 19,

“Though worms destroy this body, yet in my own flesh will I see God; with these eyes, I, and not another.”

And this was his longing, to be present with God. And this is the first and greatest blessing that believers receive. We are with Christ. “We are of good courage, I say,” Paul says, “preferring rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”

Two, made perfect. Believers are immediately perfected in holiness. In death — immediately after death — what happens? Believers are perfected in holiness.

The author of Hebrews (in Hebrews 12:22, 23) speaks of the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and he’s emphasizing that those of us who have come to Christ are part of this perfected company of believers. And immediately upon our death as we enter in our spirits into the presence of God — yes, disembodied from these mortal bodies awaiting the resurrection (and we’ll talk about that next week and following) — but immediately believers are perfected, perfected in holiness, made perfect in godliness, freed from sin, made in the likeness of Christ.

Over and over in the book of Revelation as it describes the saints who have gone before us– that is, believers who have died in Jesus Christ who are like us awaiting the day of resurrection. It describes those believers with Christ, perfected; no longer committing sin, no longer struggling with the temptations that result because of indwelling sin, freed completely from the very possibility of sin. If you are like me, there is no thought that is more comforting, because a thousand times a day this heart is tempted to disloyalty to my God. It is tempted to love things which I ought not to love, to betray my Lord and God, and to be in a place where never again…never again…will I have the slightest tinge of temptation to defect from loving loyalty, cherishing service to my Savior, is the sweetest possible contemplation: made perfect in holiness, with our minds illumined and our wills made perfectly upright; our actions matching perfectly God’s perfect will. And the thought of the bliss and the rest of that is overwhelming. Yes, the thought of the transition of death can be daunting, even to a believer, but to realize that to get to the other side means a final cessation of that internal warfare against sin…it’s beyond our imagining. I don’t know what it is like to live with a heart that is wholly given over to my God. Not for one second in my life have I lived in that kind of heart. But then I will. The warfare over, the battle done, my heart wholly and solely His; your heart wholly and solely His, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel. Instantaneously in the moment of death, that battle done, Satan never ever again able to get his hook in my heart and use something in my heart to pull me away from my Lord…perfected in holiness.

Three, in glory. Believers pass immediately into glory. Again in Philippians 1:23, the Apostle Paul says that he has the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is much better. Why is it much better? Because with Christ we pass into glory. What kind of glory? We pass into a glorious place. We are, Jesus says in John 14:2, upon death welcomed into — what? Into the Father’s house. We’re welcomed into the Father’s house in heaven. What was it that the Apostle Paul said in II Corinthians 5:8? That to be absent from the body was to be — where? At home with the Lord. Oh, doesn’t that concept change the way you look at death!

I can remember in the years that I was studying in St. Louis, and then in Edinburgh, Scotland, on numerous occasions thinking, “You know, if I can just get home and be with my family, everything will be all right.” I can remember driving down the interstate or flying on a plane across the ocean thinking, “If I can just get home, I’ll be all right.” And here’s Jesus, here’s the Apostle Paul saying, ‘Let me tell you what happens. The minute you pass into death, you come home.’

I love the way Isaac Watts paraphrases the end of Psalm 23. You know, the part where David says, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I love the way that Isaac Watts paraphrases that:

“Here would we find a settled rest,

While others go and come;

Not like a stranger or a guest,

But like a child at home.”

The minute that death comes–home! Safe in the Father’s arms. Safe with your older brother, Jesus Christ, who shed His blood that you could come home. Immediately! You remember Jesus saying to that thief on the cross that one of the gospel writers tells you had been mocking Him at the beginning of the day, along with the other one. Somewhere during that day, that thief was convicted by what he saw and heard from Jesus Christ and he began to rebuke the other thief, and he says ‘Don’t you know who you’re talking to here?’ Finally he says at one point, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” Like a child at home, he passed into glory…the glory of a glorious place…the Father’s house…home. And believers immediately enter into that place, into that society, into that state. It’s important for us to remember that.

Many of you remember our dear friends, John and Doreen Slater when they lost little Michael, their first son, four years old, through a recurrence of cancer. And how they cared for that child! They held and nurtured that child as his life slipped away. I said to Doreen at one point, “Doreen, you understand that Michael is going to go instantaneously from your arms to the arms of Jesus; and for him on the other side, it won’t seem like there’s been any separation from you. It will be like walking through a portal, and his Savior is waiting. But then you will come. Now for you, how many years it will be, I don’t know. Your heart will be empty. But for him, he’ll look around and not only will his God be there, his Savior will be there, but you’ll be there.”

Four, United to Christ, resting in the grave and awaiting the resurrection. A triple blessing. In death believers remain united to Christ, resting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection…United to Christ, resting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection. Now you’ve just got to turn to this passage because it’s so important. Not just the little snippet that I’ve given you, but you’ve got to turn to I Thessalonians or hone in on your neighbor with a Bible and look over his or her shoulder. All the “T’s” in the New Testament are together…the Thessalonians come first. I Thessalonians 4. Look. The Thessalonians have been upset by somebody who has been teaching in their midst that there’s some sort of uncertainty about what happens to believers that die before Jesus comes again. These Thessalonians are certain that Jesus will come again, and they’re certain that if they are alive that they will be with the Lord; but they’re not certain about their relatives who have died in Christ before them. They’re uncertain about this, and apparently somebody has been teaching them something stupid. And the Apostle Paul pastorally wants to correct this, and he says in

I Thessalonians 4:13:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”

Now there’s that famous passage. And by the way, notice that Paul doesn’t even say this in terms of the imperative. He doesn’t even say “do not grieve” as those who have no hope; he says ‘It’s my pastoral concern for you that you do not grieve as those who have no hope.’ Now how tender and caring and realistic God the Father is as He inspires the Apostle Paul to say to us these words! Now here comes the comfort. Here’s how he’s going to comfort:

“If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.”

Now let’s stop right there. Isn’t that a beautiful way to describe a believer’s death? “Fallen asleep in Jesus.” Our Lutheran friends often put that on the gravestones of departed saints: “Asleep in Jesus.”

You see that the point of that is that the metaphor takes all the sting out of death. Death is not a place of darkness and uncertainty. It is a place of repose and rest where Jesus Himself in the hour of death is cradling and caring for the believer.

But that’s not all Paul has to say, and we’ll have more to say about this later, but understand he says:

“This we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.”

In other words, we are not in a position that is better than the position of those who have already died in Christ. No, in fact, when the Lord returns they will rise first. Their bodies

“…will rise first, then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

I want you to understand that the Apostle Paul is stressing there that God will so care for their bodies that at the Last Day those bodies will be transformed, united with their spirits, and will even go before us as we are caught up to be with the Lord. (And we’ll talk about what happens after that soon.)

It’s important to understand that your loved ones who have died in Christ, who have died resting and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, are more alive now than they’ve ever been because they are united to Christ. And nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

I’ve shared with you before Clement Graham’s note on the flowers that he had on the casket at his wife’s funeral: “You are alive in Christ, and forever in my heart.” I can well remember Donald McLeod saying at Douglas McMillan’s funeral that it is hard for us to contemplate this big, loving, energetic man dead and immobilized without energy and vigor and life and force and activity; and then he reminded us on the basis of I Thessalonians 4 that Douglas is more alive, more vigorous, more energetic, more active than he’s ever been before. He’s been perfected. And so that metaphor of “asleep in Jesus” is not a metaphor of inactivity, it’s a metaphor of rest. It’s reminding us that at the end of the long struggle comes rest. Four blessings that all believers have immediately upon death….

II. What happens after death for the unbeliever?

What about unbelievers? Well, this is the hard truth, isn’t it? This is the hard truth. If believers are with Christ and perfected, if believers are united to Christ and at rest, then the Bible also teaches that unbelievers are not with Christ. And they are sealed in their imperfection, and they are in a state of condemnation, and they are permanently separated from Christ, never again to know peace and rest.

A dear friend of mine, John MacLeod, who was voted the Scottish Journalist of the Year twice in the late 1990’s and the early decade of this century, had the temerity as a columnist for The Glasgow Herald, the largest secular newspaper in Scotland, to write an article on hell, which he called “Between Satan’s Spandau and a Hard Place.” It’s a fascinating article. I wish I could read it all to you, but I simply want to share with you this one part of it:

“There are few of us who care to acknowledge our through and through depravity, and there can be no one reading this column who has never been bereaved. To face the possibility of hell as our final end is enough; to realize that many or any of our loved ones may be there already is to know true horror.

“Now, your intrepid columnist is a buoyant and cheerful fellow, and nothing would delight him more than to be able to assure you, his readers, that hell is a medieval fiction, but he cannot. Hell flows logically from the teaching of Scripture. The terrible end that awaits the ungodly is stressed from Genesis to Revelation. It is as much a part of the New Testament teaching as the Old; indeed, Jesus in the gospel refers more to hell than anyone else in the Bible. He believes in it in sober earnest. After all, He created it. For hell is not the place of Satan’s kingdom, it is the place of Satan’s banishment by the Lord.

“The doctrine of hell necessarily flows from the founding precepts of Christianity. Man is created in the image of God. He is above all other creatures. He has self-awareness, self-knowledge, the capacity to relate, the capacity to create, the capacity to dream. He is immortal. The soul — the think — must live forever. It cannot cease to be, because God created it. In our hearts we all know that death is unnatural and change appalling, the grave obscene; but when man has rejected God in this world, when he has gone his own way, when he has rejected God’s instruction, His moral Law, what then? The logic of God precludes eternal fellowship with such a being, who has despised His Law and defied His will. And when the gospel itself is spurned, the way of Christ’s atonement, what can there be at the last but for God to grant such a soul its own heart’s desire?” 1

You see what he’s saying. You want none of God here. God will give you what you want. It’s so important for you to understand, my friends, that there will be no one in hell who wants to be in heaven. There will be no one in hell who wants to be in heaven. Jesus, in Matthew 8:12, says it’s a place, yes, of weeping; but it’s also a place of gnashing of teeth. And you understand the image there. You know, when you get mad and you just want to hit somebody, and your teeth just start clenching down? You’re gnashing your teeth. What are people in hell gnashing their teeth at? God! There’s no repentance there. There’s no ‘I wish I were with You, God.’ There’s no one in hell who wants to be in heaven. They’ve repudiated God in this life: they forgo Him forever.

You know, the Greeks had a saying that went like this: “Whom the gods would destroy, they answer their prayers.” The point is sometimes we want things that will kill us, and sometimes we get them. And so those who want to forego God in this life, He says ‘Fine.’

This is John again:

“I’ve never doubted the reality of such a place, the Hades of deep and lasting darkness. I’ve never thought of it in popular terms, like a nasty boiler room run by little men in red tights. Hell is ultimately a negative. It’s a place of nothing but anguish. It is a place without God, without anything of God, without light, without warmth, without fellowship, without peace. No rack, no pincers, no claws; only the fires of an awakened conscience and a burning thirst of a frustrated ego. The wicked ones of history will be there, the killers and the exploiters. They will be there. The libertines and the gossips and the rapists and the drunkards, they will be there. Those whose gods were sex or money or ambition or power, they will be there. Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians…if their only faith was in their religiosity, who had nothing for eternity but denominational adherence, they will be there. And in the darkest, thickest corner of all, the nice ministers and the jolly vicars and the benevolent bishops who told their people that it was heaven for all, and that love is all that matters.

“And this I believe,” [John goes on to say] “…I believe, too, that there is only one escape: by flight to Christ and faith in His finished work, living in His service, but never looking to such service for my salvation.

“But there is the final paradox. To believe in this latter end of all things and to live and walk in a world that will one day melt in fervent heat, to walk among the living dead with my bright smile and my polite talk and never to challenge and never to warn.”

What happens after death for those who do not rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone? No Christ. No fulfillment. No fellowship. No love. Eternal separation. It is the most solemn thing in the world.

In my sinful moments–and I stress my sinful moments, because every true believer in God knows that God is good–but in my sinful moments there’s no doctrine that I wish more wasn’t the case. I wish I could say that this doctrine is not true. But you know, what it all boils down to, my friends, is there is nothing more fair in this world than hell.

If you want unfairness, if you want discrimination, I can give you that. That’s called heaven by grace. Heaven by grace is the most unfair doctrine in this world: that though I, sinning and deserving condemnation, get heaven forever because the One without sin took my condemnation, that is unfair. But hell? It’s the fairest doctrine in the world. You get what you want, and you get what you deserve. You’re paid what you earn. It’s the fairest doctrine in the world. Heaven, that’s unfair.

So brothers, sisters, give me unfair! I’ll take heaven by grace. Amen.

1. BETWEEN A HARD PLACE AND SATAN’S SPANDAU (Or, Why I Believe in Hell) John Macleod Glascow Herald, April 8, 1992.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

What is Death?

By / Mar 21

Luncheon Series

“What Is Death?”

March 21, 2007

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Donna came to me a number of weeks ago–it’s probably been months now–and expressed to me how often she was getting questions relating to this awesome and practical subject of death, and how many of our Bible teachers in the church were getting questions from women and from men in various small groups and large groups who were studying the Scripture together…how many of them were getting questions pertaining to death; not just theoretical questions, although certainly there were those sorts of questions. I think some of the reading material that’s sort of out there in the general public right now has prompted Christians to be curious about what are the Bible’s answers to a variety of questions relating to death and to the afterlife. But many of these questions have been profoundly personal, specific, and born out of an experience in one’s own life and family with death, whether that death was the death of someone they had loved for many, many years, and expected because of the age and the physical condition, or whether that death was completely surprising and tragic by all human standards. These kinds of questions have been coming up over and over, and that’s natural, isn’t it? The politicians wrote that in this world the only thing that is certain is death and taxes, and it’s true. Death is a certainty in our reality. Every single one of us will deal with, if we have not already dealt with, death personally in the context of our family and in the context of the circle of our closest friends. And of course all of us, unless the Lord tarries and comes soon, will face personally death. And that’s why you’re here today. It’s not because of the speaker, it’s because of this particular topic. It bears on our heart.

Let me tell you what I want to do today. Today I simply want to address the issue of wrong thinking about death. Secondly, I want to think with you about what the Bible teaches that death is. Thirdly, I want to address the issue of the Christian attitude towards death; and, finally, I want to ask the question: What changed death for the Christian? Why is the Christian attitude to death, in light of what we will have just learned that death is…why is the Christian attitude towards death able to be simultaneously utterly realistic and utterly hope-filled? What is it that has created this change in the way that we view death as believers? Those are the four things that I want to do with you today.

Now over the course of time together, we will not only address the issue of “What Is Death?” but we’ll ask questions and try and give biblical answers to these kinds of issues: What happens after death? What happens to a person — believer or unbeliever — immediately upon death? What happens in the first thirteen seconds after death? What happens until the time that Christ returns again? Then we’ll ask questions like: What will happen when Christ returns? We’ll ask questions and try and give biblical answers to matters relating to the Day of Judgment, and we’ll ask the question, What is heaven, and how do we prepare for it? Those are the kinds of things that we’re going to do together over the course of these five weeks, God willing.

But if I could ask you to turn in your Bibles first — and if you don’t have Bibles, I’ll read all the passages, and perhaps you will be able to look over the shoulder of someone — turn in your Bibles to Genesis 2:7, the very first mention of death in the Bible, and one that is vitally important for us to understand what death is.

Now let’s pray before we begin.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way, and yet we acknowledge, O Lord, that especially in this area of death we often allow the light of the world rather than the light of the word to control and influence the way that we think about death. Lord, for those of us who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t want to think that way. We want to think in accordance with Your word about death. There is perhaps nothing more important for us as believers in this life now — we’ve come to faith in Jesus Christ — than to prepare Christian-ly for death…for our death, for the deaths of those dearest to us. And so, O God, we pray that You would inform our minds, instruct us, teach us by Your Scriptures, and that the Holy Spirit would help us to understand what the Scriptures say about death; that the Holy Spirit would enable us as believers to embrace wholeheartedly and to gain much comfort from what You teach us in Your word about the last enemy, death. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I. Wrong thinking about death.

Thinking about death is confused in our world today. Partly this is because in our culture we are filled with many different worldviews, many different religious beliefs, many different outlooks on life; and those outlooks on life, those worldviews, those religious beliefs, have different views about death. If you believe that there is no God and that this world evolved from a primitive protein in the explosion of some primary particle into all that is now, and that life is just one inexorable sequence of a chain of events of cause and effect, then death is literally meaningless, and after death comes nothing. And if you allow that kind of thinking, that kind of naturalistic, materialistic, evolutionary thinking to control the way you approach death, you will approach death very differently from someone who has a different worldview, and especially a biblically informed worldview, or a Christian worldview. So it’s not surprising that we have many views about death in our culture.

Furthermore, we experience different views of death practically when we are among friends and family in the hour of death. Many people, especially here in the South, love to deal with death by denial. We try to pretend that it is not there. Many years ago I had the privilege of being close to a family in a time when a family member had died tragically, unexpectedly, suddenly. It had taken their breath away. And during the course of the family conversation in the first few minutes and hours after the death of this individual, there was serious discussion among them as to whether they would tell the children in the family that this person had died. And one of the things that I had to do was urge them to be honest, even as they were sensitive and caring in the way they told the children about this particular matter.

Now what was controlling that? Well, a tendency to approach death by denial. We’re going to pretend like it’s not here, and therefore what we’re going to do is we’re going to protect the children from death, too. Now of course in the end that would have been tragic for them. This family member that they had just lost is no longer around…what happened? Was he snatched up into the air, and just disappeared? That kind of uncertainty actually strikes far more terror in the heart of a child than the reality of death, and yet there was a tendency to deal with it by denial… and that kind of escapism has been around for a long time.

Louis XV of France demanded that his advisors not use the word death around him. But guess what? He died. We can attempt to deal with death by denial or by escapism, but the graveyards are still going to fill up. And the Bible does not encourage us to deal with death by denial or escapism, nor does the Bible encourage us to cultivate a stoic attitude towards death.

Very often you will have friends attempt to comfort you in the hour of death by making diminishing remarks about your loss…finding something positive to say in the hour of death. This, too, is a way that human beings often choose in an attempt to cope with death. They are so overwhelmed by the emotions associated with death that they come up with little platitudes to put a happier face on the loss. This, too, is not the Bible’s way of facing death.

II. What the Bible teaches about death.

The Bible simultaneously faces death with realism, utter realism, and complete hope in God. So what we want to do is we want to cultivate a biblical way of thinking about death and the last things, and the way we need to start is by starting with death itself. If we do not understand death, we will never have a right attitude towards death as Christians, so let’s start in the Bible, in the second chapter of the Book. Before death existed in the human world, God was already talking about death to Adam, and in Genesis 2:17, He says:

“From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”

From the very outset, death is presented in the Bible as judgment for sin. Death is God’s judgment on sin. Sin brings with it, the Apostle Paul will say, death as its wages. Or, to say it in the way the verse is actually stated, “The wages of sin is death.” And before death existed in the human world, God had already explained that to Adam: ‘Adam, rebel against Me, sin against Me, ignore Me, be indifferent to Me, go your own way instead of the way I’ve told you to go, and the consequence will be — the judgment will be, the penalty will be, the sentence will be — death.’ And so, at the very outset the Bible asks us to look at death in judicial terms. It is not simply the natural end to life. You know Forrest Gump, that great theologian and philosopher of the age, has popularized a saying that was popular before Winston Groom penned it, that “Dyin’ is just a part of livin’.” Well, I think we know what he may be trying to get to in making that statement, but that is not a good representation of the biblical view of death, because dying had no part in God’s project for Adam’s living in the garden. Dying was threatened only in the instance of Adam’s sin. It was sin that brought the reality of death into the world. Death is the separation of the body and the soul, and it is the fruit of sin and of God’s judgment.

Turn with me to Genesis 3:19. Here we see the result of Adam’s sin:

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,

Till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken;

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

There is the curse that God pronounces after Adam rebels in the garden, in fulfillment of what He had warned Adam about in Genesis 2:17. And so, in verse 24, Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden.

Now understand what’s going on here. Two separations are occurring in Genesis 3. First of all, there is the separation of Adam and Eve from God. (Genesis 3:23.) They’re driven out of the garden. What is that a picture of? It is a picture of the loss of life. Turn back to Genesis 2, and look at verse 8:

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…”

Now I want to just wait a second. How many of you know what the sound of God walking in the garden sounds like? Yeah! I don’t, either! The only people in the history of this world who know what it sounds like for God to walk in the garden with them decided to listen to a serpent rather than to love that God. And that picture of God walking in the garden in Genesis 3 is a picture of the life and communion and fellowship and enjoyment of the living God that God had given to them as a gift. And that picture of Genesis 3:24 with them being driven out of the garden is the picture of the consequence of their sin. A separation has occurred, and in being separated from God, they’re being separated from life…life as it was intended. God intended us to enjoy life.

Now do you understand why when Jesus comes He says to His disciples, “I came to give life, and that abundantly”? And it is so vital to understand that the biblical concept of life is not just having an abundance of things in this world, it is abundantly communing and fellowshipping with the living God. And Adam and Eve by their rebellion lost that privilege for the whole world. And Jesus Christ came into this world in order to regain that privilege for a multitude of men and women and boys and girls no man can number, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation who trust in Him. And so what Adam lost — life! Jesus came to die and live to give again, and so death must be seen in terms of the just judgment of God on sin. So there is a separation from God.

But there is also in Genesis 3 a separation in ourselves, the separation of body and soul. That is a sign and an emblem of the physical separation from God that first brought about physical death, and it is a sign that will be deepened after death [for those] who leave this world without Christ. And that is why the Bible from beginning to end views death as “the last enemy”; not because this life is the thing that we treasure above everything else, and when this life is over, the party’s over; but because the thing we treasure more than anything else is God, and death is the judgment that comes against those who have rebelled against God and lost the right to life and communion with Him. That is why a Christian view of death is radically different from an unbeliever’s view of death. One old saint put it this way:

“As a believer’s life is very different from an unbeliever’s life, so also a believer’s death is very different from an unbeliever’s death. The unbeliever prefers heaven over hell; the believer prefers heaven over this earth. The unbeliever prefers heaven only over hell because he cannot imagine anything more blessed than this life. The believer prefers heaven over earth, because the believer cannot imagine anything more blessed than life with God.”

And so the way the believer and the unbeliever looks at death is dramatically different, because death isn’t the end of the party. Death is a judgment against sin, and the thing that the believer longs for more than anything else is communion with the living God, and death is the visible picture of the just judgment against all those who have fallen into sin: that they do not deserve communion with the living God. And so death and the dissolution of the body and the spirit is a picture of spiritual separation from God. That’s what death is.

But something’s very strange. When you look at the Bible, the Bible both pictures death as an enemy and speaks of death in comforting terms to believers. Think of it. All the way back in Genesis 49, Israel could describe his death as being “gathered to his people.” Or God could say to Hezekiah in II Kings 22:20 that he was going to be “gathered to his fathers.” In Psalm 116:15, we’re told that death is precious–“the death of His people is precious in the sight of God.” In Luke 16:22, Jesus can refer to death as being “carried away by angels in the bosom of Abraham.” In Luke 23:43, He can speak to a thief on the cross of his death in terms of that thief being with Him “today in paradise.” In John 14:2, He can describe to His disciples their death in terms of going to the many mansions which He has prepared for them. In Philippians 1:23, spoken of as a “blessed departure”; in II Corinthians 5:8, we’re told that it’s like being “home with the Lord.” In Philippians 1:21, it’s called a “gain”. In Philippians 1:23 again, it’s called “better by far.” And, in I Thessalonians 4:13, the believer’s death is described as “falling asleep in the Lord.” Aren’t those beautiful pictures of death?


III. The Christian attitude toward death.

We’re thought just a little bit about current thinking about death. We’ve given a brief biblical definition of death. Now we’re exploring what the Christian attitude is towards death, and we learn that there are two parts of that attitude.

On the one hand, death is the last enemy. Believers, too, are sinners, and so unless the Lord tarries, we will die. And so the Christian views death as an enemy. It’s not a natural part of life. It is actually the way things were never intended to be. It is a judgment of God against sin. It’s the most unnatural thing in this world. But on the other hand, death has for the believer become an entrance into glory.

IV. What changed death for the Christian?

Now the question we have to ask is, “How did that happen? What changed, so that the believer not only views death as the last enemy, but also understands that death is now but our entrance into glory?” And for the answer to that question, let me ask you to turn to the very last book of the Bible, and turn with me to Revelation 20:6. This is one of seven benedictions that John the apostle pronounces in the Book of Revelation, and this is in fact the fifth of those seven benedictions. Revelation 20:6 — and listen to this blessing that he pronounces on all believers:

“Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.”

What in the world is John talking about when he speaks about the second death?

Well, that is biblical shorthand for the judgment of God and the punishment that flows out of that judgment of God that will be borne by all those who do not trust in Christ–by all the wicked. The second death is the Bible’s way of speaking in shorthand about the judgment and punishment for the wicked awaiting them in the great Day of the Lord. And the reason that death has been transformed from the last enemy for the believer is that when God sent His Son into this world and placed Him on a cross, He experienced the second death first, so that for the believer, after the first death is experienced, the second death will not be; so that death itself, instead of being a portent, a precursor to the final judgment and separation of God, for the believer is now transformed into the portal into the presence of God. Just as those angels were stationed in Genesis 3:24 to guard and to keep Adam and Eve from coming back into the garden in the presence of God, so now every believer must pass through the portal of the last enemy, death; but Jesus has opened the door by experiencing the second death first. Didn’t you love the way that Doug Kelly put it when he was here just a couple of weeks ago? “When death took on Jesus, it bit off more than it could chew.” And Jesus experienced the second death first, so that our whole view of death is transformed.

Now there are a thousand implications of that for us, but let me remind you of just one right now. Very often we find ourselves, especially when death catches us by surprise — and that can happen in a thousand different ways. It can be when a very young person dies, even an infant, or an infant in the womb. It can be when a young wife dies, or a young husband dies. It can be when an older person who’s in perfect health suddenly is taken away. And it can happen a thousand other ways.

Very often when we have personally experienced that, we are tempted to think that God does not understand what we are feeling and experiencing. And it is so vital for you to understand that when God sent His Son into this world, He knew that by sending Him into this world as a man that He would have to die. And not only would He have to die, but He would have to experience the second death that none of you will ever experience, who have trusted in Jesus Christ. And so when you are looking at that loved one who has been taken from you, and there’s nothing but the body left, and you are tempted to think, “Lord, You do not understand what I am feeling,” it is vital for you to understand that your heavenly Father knows things about death that you will never know. And His Son has experienced a death that neither you nor anyone who trusts in Him will ever experience. And this is what the Apostle Paul means when he says that “He who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up freely for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?” He gave His Son to walk into not only the first death, but the second death, in our place, so that we would never, ever, feel the full force of what death was intended to be: the final separation from a good and loving God on account of our rebellion. And that controlling reality completely changes the way that the believer looks at death.

First of all, it lets us know that we can never, ever, approach death — however surprising, shocking, crushing, and tragic it may be in our experience — we can never approach death with a hint of a suspicion that our heavenly Father does not understand what we are going through. He understands it personally and intimately. There are those of us in this room today — there are those of you in this room today — who have lost children. Your heavenly Father knows what it is like to lose a child, and He knows what it is like not simply to lose a child, but to give a child to be lost for you. And it is supremely unwise to look up into His loving eyes and say, “My Father, You don’t know what I’m going through,” because He can look right back at you and say, ‘Child, You don’t know what I have gone through for you.’ And that radically changes the way a Christian looks at death, because there are a thousand mysteries in death, and it is precisely that fear of the unknown — even in believers — that unsettles us from time to time. But there is nothing unknown in death to God. He created death as judgment. His Son experienced death as judgment for you. There is nothing about death that He does not understand, and you can trust Him in it. That’s why the psalmist can say that “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me.” The psalmist didn’t know what was waiting for him in the valley of the shadow of death, but his God did, and that is all that matters.

And so for a Christian, we understand that death is the last enemy, but we understand that Christ has conquered that last enemy by experiencing the second death for us, so that when we experience the first death–the separation of soul and body, that disembodied experience between now at the time of our death and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ–we do so now not at the end of God’s righteous judgment, but as the beginning of God giving to us that which He created us for in the first place: life!

And that is why over and over in the Bible you hear Christians describing the Christian life in terms of dying. Paul will say “I die daily.” Jesus will speak of “laying down His life that you might have life.” And this is why it is so vitally important for every Christian to make a study of death, and every minister worth his salt wants not only to prepare you for purpose in this life, but wants to prepare you to die. Because for the Christian that point of death is his passageway into glory, and he wants to be ready for that passageway whenever it comes. That means that we want our children to understand what death is and to approach it biblically: not in denial or escape; not in stoic, emotionless detachment; but in realism and in hope, recognizing what death is, recognizing what Jesus’ death has done to death for all who trust in Christ.

Now, in many ways this is the hardest of the lessons that we have to learn, but it sets the foundation for all the encouragement that we are going to receive when we think about what happens to the believer after death, what happens when Christ returns, what happens for the believer in the Day of Judgment, and what is heaven and how do we prepare for it. It all begins with understanding death, because the wages of sin is death; but in Christ, through free grace, we have been given a gift from God. And that gift, the Apostle Paul says in the very same verse in which he announces that the wages of sin is death, that gift is eternal life. And so God’s plan is for the first death to be the passageway to eternal life for all who trust in Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we ask that You would help us to think about death Christian-ly; to be informed by the Bible in our understanding of it, and so to be transformed in the way we cope with death in our own lives in the losses that we experience amongst friends and family. Help us to be an encouragement to one another, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and reminding one another of the glory of what Jesus has done for us that we might never taste the second death. These things we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions information, please visit the FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.