28 Fundamentals: The gospel of death

What really happens when a person dies?

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Death and Resurrection

The wages of sin is death. But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people. When Christ, who is our life, appears, the resurrected righteous and the living righteous will be glorified and caught up to meet their Lord. The second resurrection, the resurrection of the unrighteous, will take place a thousand years later. (Job 19:25-27; Psalms 146:3, 4; Ecclesiastes 9:5,6,10; Daniel 12:2,13; Isaiah 25:8; John 5:28,29; 11:11-14; Romans. 6:23; 16; 1 Corinthians 15:51-54; Colossians 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; 1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 20:1-10.)

It was the late 1970s. My mother and father were engaged to be married and my father was studying the Bible with my mother’s pastor, Pastor Graeme Christian.

As they were studying together, Pastor Christian opened the great themes of God’s Word to Dad, who was loving every minute of it. One day they studied a very important and mysterious subject: what really happens when a person dies? Dad thought he already knew something about this subject, but he was holding some contradictory ideas in tension. He lived in a haunted house, so he felt that he knew for a fact that it was possible for the spirits of the dead to return to either harass or to help the living. He also believed in reincarnation where people are reborn into new bodies when they die. Plus, he’d been raised attending the Roman Catholic Church, so he had heard that people go straight to heaven, hell or purgatory immediately at the moment of death. Somehow Dad knew that not all of these ideas could be true, so he was very interested to try to find out which idea was the truth, if any. What he saw in the Scripture that day was very different to anything he could have thought or even imagined.

There were passages such as Ecclesiastes 9:5,6: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” There was Job 7:9,10: “As the cloud disappears and vanishes away, so he who goes down to the grave does not come up. He shall never return to his house, nor shall his place know him anymore.”

He learned that, over and over again in the Scriptures, Jesus Himself referred to death as being like an unconscious “sleep” (see Psalm 13:3; John 11:13), from which He intended to wake His people and take them to be with Him “ . . . at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:23, cf John 14:1-3), not as soon as they die (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). He learned that the dead do not return to haunt their houses and that the “ghosts” in his home were actually deceiving evil angels, not dead people, for “. . . Satan even transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). He learned that “. . . it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement” (Hebrews 9:27), so we do not die and reincarnate over and over again.

Basically, Dad learned the great biblical theme that we believe and ascribe to as Adventists and which is articulated in our 26th Fundamental Belief: “The wages of sin is death. But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people. When Christ, who is our life, appears, the resurrected righteous and the living righteous will be glorified and caught up to meet their Lord . . .”  The difference and blessing that the biblical understanding of this truth made in our family while I was growing up is something that I am only now beginning to grasp. Popular media such as books, films, music and video games have always been replete with spiritualism and supernatural themes. The subjects of death, ghosts, spirits, demons and the supernatural are expounded on ad nauseam through TVs and computer screens, and it was no different when my sister and I were growing up. The enemy’s purpose in this is, I believe: to educate us to develop unbiblical ideas about the spirit world, and so allow channels through which to deceive. When we spend between 10 and 20 hours a week on screens consuming media and only one hour a week at church, whose ideas are likely to be victorious in the battle for our mind?

The more I talk with people, the more I realise that when we don’t know the truth on this subject, our minds are open to all kinds of attacks and deceptions from the enemy. Luckily for us, when we had a question about the afterlife as children, or we happened to see some ghosts or spirits on TV, my mother and father always encouraged us not to be afraid, explaining to us the biblical truth on this subject. What’s more, they always pointed us to turn to Jesus in prayer for protection when we were afraid and, crucially, encouraged us not to watch or read things that were filled with untruths and errors. 

"Because of His death and resurrection, I can know that I am saved and can joyfully anticipate His soon return."

I remember my friends at high school being scared stiff because they watched some horror movie or because they had experienced some haunting supernatural manifestation. This is even more common today. I always knew that I had Jesus on my side “. . . who is above all principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:10), and that if I called out to Him in prayer there would be “. . . no fear in love; for perfect love casts out all fear . . .”
(1 John 4:18).

What this teaching means to me today can be summed up in the words of 1 John 2:28: “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.” The most important thing in the whole world is to abide in Him through a real and living relationship. Because of His death and resurrection, I can know that I am saved and can joyfully anticipate His soon return.

What this teaching tells me about Jesus is that His victory over death is complete and eternal. He is called the one who “. . . holds the keys of death and the grave . . .” (Revelation 1:18). This mighty King has given us His resurrection as a down payment to guarantee that “Because I live, you too will live” (John 14:19).

One more thing you should know about me is that I was named after the prophet Daniel. For that reason, when Gabriel speaks to the prophet in Daniel 12:13, I hold his words closely to my heart: “But you, Daniel go your way until the end; for you shall rest, and then at the end of days you will arise to receive your allotted inheritance.” I plan to be there on that day when the sleeping saints arise to be with Jesus. Do you?


Daniel Matteo is Tasmanian Conference youth ministry director and pastor of New Norfolk church. He is married to Katy and has two children, Grace and Samuel.

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