The Fear of Death and the Pursuit of Joy: Why the Resurrection Is Good News

This is Easter Sunday. Resurrection Sunday. And on this Resurrection Sunday, we’re going to talk about death: what is death? What happens when you die? Which you might think is odd. “It’s Easter. This is Resurrection Sunday. Christ is risen from the dead? Why are you going to spend your time talking about death?” Like earlier, when we focused on sin because we want to experience the joy of forgiveness, we want to talk about death because we want to experience the power and wonder of the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection will stand out more if we have a deeper understanding of death.

And today we’re mindful especially of our guests. So let me just say something to you here. As a church, we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts, which is the story of the early church. And the central message of the early church is the resurrection of Jesus. They talk about it all the time. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the central claim of Christianity. Now, one time, the apostle Paul preached the good news of Jesus to a group of people who had never heard about Jesus before. So he talked about the Creator God and how we’ve all turned away from God, and he talked about the death of Jesus for sin and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And there were three basic responses to what he said. Some believed in the good news and followed Jesus. Others mocked it and dismissed the message. And others were curious and wanted to hear more about it. So as you listen, I’d just ask you to think about which one of those is you. Because you’re going to respond somehow. You’re either going to say, “That’s it. This is what I’ve been missing. This is what I’ve been waiting for,” or you’re going to say, “That’s not for me. That’s really a bit ridiculous,” or you’re going to say, “Interesting. Not sure I buy it, but I have some questions and I want to hear more.” With that, let’s read a section from the Bible.

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 2:27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” (Acts 2:22–33)

I want to begin this Easter message with two basic claims that, I think, are true of all people. Not just Christians, not just Americans, not just men or women. These statements I think are true for all people at all times in all places.

All Men Seek Happiness

In everything we do, no matter what it is that we do, we seek happiness. We want to be happy. You wake up in the morning and you want to have a good day. You drive to work and you clap along because you feel like happiness is the truth. You may not always be happy. But you want to be happy all the time. Even things that don’t make you happy in the moment, like your job, you do because you think that it’s a means to your happiness. A famous philosopher once said, the pursuit of happiness is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves. Even the person who commits suicide believes in that moment that death will make them happier than the pain and anguish of their life. So my first assumption about everyone here is that you want to be happy, that deep down, what animates you and motivates you is the desire to be happy, and, for that happiness to last. You want happiness and you want it to stick around.

All Men Fear Death

Second claim: All men fear death. Every human being will die. We will all be cut off from the land of the living. And when we contemplate this looming reality, our natural response is fear. We don’t want to die. Death is ugly, and we recoil from its presence. We don’t like to think about death. In fact, some of the ways that we seek happiness are merely designed to help distract us from thinking about death. Death is real, and it confronts us on the news and in our families and in our future. And because we fear death, we try to distract ourselves with television or social media or sex or alcohol or drugs or fill-in-the-blank.

All men seek happiness. All men fear death. The passage that we just read addresses both of these: both the desire for happiness and the fear of death. But before we can look specifically at how Acts 2 speaks to us today, we need to take a step back and reflect on what the Bible says about death. I have three questions:

  1. What is death?
  2. What happens after we die?
  3. What happened after Jesus died? (Where did he go on Saturday, between his death on the cross and his resurrection?)

What Is Death?

First of all, what exactly is Death? Death is separation, a dividing of things that ought to be united. Let’s think of three separations. Fundamentally, Death is separation from God. Paul suggests as much in Ephesians 2:1–3:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Parts of this passage don’t sound like what we mean by death. Mankind, by nature, walk in trespasses and sins. We follow the course of this world; we follow Satan, who is at work in our disobedience. In one sense, we’re alive, but we live in sinful passions, carrying out sinful desires, seeking ultimate happiness in created things. So we’re walking, following, living, working, carrying out desires, and yet, Paul says, we are “dead in sin.” So death in this passage is separation from God. It’s to be enslaved to dark powers and under God’s wrath. This type of separation is an estrangement, a hostility, an alienation from the life and hope of the living God. We were made to know and enjoy God, to be in fellowship with him, and our rebellion against God, our willful disobedience, separates us from our Creator, and we are cut off from life and joy and peace.

But death is not just separation from God; it’s separation from each other. One of the deepest pains of death is that we lose the ones we love. 18 months ago, my dad died after a seven-year fight with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And in dying, he was separated from me, torn from me, and my mom and my brothers and my wife and his grandsons. And this separation hurts; it’s not supposed to be this way. I want my dad to play catch with my sons. I want him to teach them how to swing a bat. I want him to sit in the stands and cheer as Sam rounds third base. I want to hear his voice say, “You gotta go!” And I want him to give him a high five as he comes running back to the dug out. And it’s not going to happen. We’re supposed to be together, united as a family, enjoying one another’s company. It’s horrible to lose those that you love. When it happens, a part of our heart is torn to pieces, ripped from our chest, and everything in us screams, “No! It’s not supposed to be this way.”

Death is separation from God. It’s separation from each other. And finally, death is the separation of the soul from the body. James tells us, “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). At death, our very nature as human beings is torn in two. God made human beings to be embodied souls and ensouled bodies, for the soul and body to be united together, and death rips this them apart.

In this way, death is more than just a separation; it’s a scattering. We’re meant to be with God, and we’re meant to be together with each other, and we’re meant to be whole. And death takes this union and unity and rips it apart and scatters the pieces. I remember as dementia took my dad’s mind, seeing his scattered thoughts and his jumbled words, and thinking, “That’s death.” That fragmenting, splintering, crumbling of my dad’s mental life: that’s death.

What Happens When We Die?

So then, what happens when we die? If we’re separated from God, and from each other, and our soul is separated from our body, what happens to all the pieces? Where do they go? In the Bible, we have to bring a lot of different passages together to try and get a picture. It’s not always the clearest, but I’m going to try and offer a picture of the afterlife from the Scriptures. Let’s think about the two parts of the human person (body and soul). Psalm 16, which Peter quotes in Acts 2, gives us a window into what happens to them.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol / Hades, or let your holy one see corruption.

This passage directs us to the normal account of what happened when a human being died prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The soul was abandoned to Sheol, and the body saw corruption or decayed. In Acts 2:29-31, Peter tells us that David, in writing this psalm, foresaw the resurrection of Christ, “that he was not abandoned to Sheol (that is, his soul wasn’t), nor did his flesh see corruption (notice that Peter reads the second line as a reference to Jesus’s body or flesh). Thus, before Jesus, at death, souls normally went to Sheol, and bodies, flesh, decayed. We’re all familiar with the latter, but the former is more opaque. A quick Bible study will show us why Peter thinks that David’s prophecy in Psalm 16 is such good news.

What Is Sheol?

In the Old Testament, Sheol is the place of the souls of the dead, both the forgiven followers of God (like Jacob, Gen. 37:35, and Samuel, 1 Sam. 28:13-14) and the wicked (Psa. 31:17). In the New Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol is translated as hades, and the description of Sheol in the Old and New Testament bears some resemblance to the Hades of Greek mythology. It is under the earth (Num. 16:30-33), and it is like a city with gates (Isa. 38:10) and bars (Job 17:16). It is a land of darkness, a place where shades, the shadowy souls of men, dwell (Isa. 14:9, 26:14). It is the land of forgetfulness (Psa. 88:12), where no work is done and no wisdom exists (Eccl. 9:10). Most significantly, Sheol is a place where no one praises God (Psa. 6:5; 88:10-11; 115:17; Isa. 38:18).

In the New Testament, the most extended depiction of the afterlife is found in Luke 16:19-31. In the story, there is a selfish, greedy, rich man, who never took thought for others, and he dies without seeking God’s forgiveness. And there’s a poor man named Lazarus who is ignored by the rich man, but apparently was a worshiper of the true God and sought mercy from him.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’

Here we learn that, like the Hades of Greek mythology, the biblical Sheol has two compartments: Hades proper (where the rich man is sent, Luke 16:23, like Tartarus) and Abraham’s bosom (where the angels carry Lazarus, Luke 16:22, like Elysium). Hades proper is a place of torment, where fire causes anguish to the souls imprisoned there. It’s a place where those who have rebelled against God and refused to turn from their sin are punished. Abraham’s bosom, on the other hand, while within shouting distance of Hades, is separated from it by a great chasm (Luke 16:26), and is, like the Greek Elysium, a place of comfort and rest. While much mystery remains, the picture does begin to take shape. All dead souls went down to Sheol / Hades, but Sheol is divided into two distinct sides, one for those who turned from their sins and believed God’s promises and one for those who clung to their sins and refused to turn back to God. Those who sought forgiveness from God prior to Christ dwelt in Sheol with Abraham, and though they were cut off from the land of the living (and therefore from the worship of Yahweh on earth), they were not tormented as the unrepentant wicked were.

What Happened After Jesus Died?

What then does this tell us about where Jesus was on Holy Saturday? Based on Jesus’s words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 (“Today you will be with me in Paradise”), some Christians believe that after his death, Jesus’s soul went to heaven to be in the presence of the Father. But Luke 23:43 doesn’t say that Jesus would be in the presence of God; it says he would be in the presence of the thief, and based on the Old Testament and Luke 16, it seems very likely that the now-repentant thief would be at Abraham’s side, a place of comfort and rest for the forgiven souls of the dead, which Jesus here calls “Paradise.”

So, on Good Friday, when he died on the cross, Jesus endured our first death, the separation from God. When the Savior cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he expressed the inexhaustible horror of a sinless man separated from a holy God because of our sin. But this separation, this death, was completed before he died. That’s why Jesus said, “It is finished!” Wrath absorbed. Penalty paid. Sin conquered.

Following his death for sin, then, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates of the hinges. He liberates Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, John the Baptist, and the rest of the Old Testament faithful, ransoming them from the power of Sheol (Psa. 49:15; 86:13; 89:48). They had waited there for so long, in comfort, but cut off from the land of the living. They had not received what was promised, so that they would be made perfect along with the saints of the New Covenant (Heb. 11:39-40).

After his resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven and brings the ransomed dead with him, so that Paradise is no longer down near the place of torment, but is in the third heaven, the highest heaven, where God dwells (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Now, when those who trust in Jesus die, they aren’t merely carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom; they depart to be with Christ, which is far better (Phil. 1:23). Those who reject God and Christ and his mercy, however, remain in Hades in torment, until the final judgment, when Hades gives up the dead who dwell there, and they are judged according to their deeds, and then Death and Hades are thrown into Hell, into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-15).

What Does This Mean for Us and For Our Joy?

What does this mean for us? What does it mean for our fear of death and our desire for happiness. The first thing to say is that Peter recognizes that Jesus is like us, but different. He’s like us, because he endures death for us. All of the separations: enduring the wrath of God, being separated from his mother and his friends, the separation of the soul from the body. His body was in a tomb (Luke 23:50–53), and his soul was three days in Sheol, in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40).

But, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2, Jesus is also different. Jesus’s body was buried, like ours, but it did not decay. Jesus’s soul went to Hades, like the saints in the Old Testament, but he wasn’t abandoned there. God raised him from the dead. What death scattered, God gathered back up. Reunited in soul and body. Reunited with his mother and his disciples. And ultimately, reunited to God, as he ascends to the presence of his Father, forever to dwell.

And so, because of what Jesus is done, we don’t have to fear death. Death is still an enemy. It’s still horrible, but because Jesus has triumphed over sin and over death, he can deliver us from our deepest fear. We can stare death in the face, as I did for years as I watched my dad wither away, and we can know in our bones that Christ has defeated death, and that in God’s world faithful death always leads to resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus means that when I came face to face with death, I knew in my bones “This is not the end.” My dad trusted in Jesus, and he’s with him now. And someday God is going to put my dad back together. When my dad died, Alzheimer’s had taken his mind and scattered his thoughts. God is going to gather them back up. His words will not be jumbled. He’s going to tell the old jokes again. Not only that, God’s going to bring us back together. We’re going to embrace. We’re going to rejoice. He will get to play catch with his grandsons. We’re going to laugh, laugh. The mountains will ring with it.

Which brings us to the last question about seeking happiness. Psalm 16 doesn’t just deliver us from the fear of death; it also points us to where full and lasting happiness can be found. “You will make me full of gladness with your presence.” “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Full joy, everlasting pleasures. This is the answer to that ache for happiness that you feel. That longing for joy that haunts you, this is the answer. And Jesus says, “It’s a gift.”

Remember, Peter says that Psalm 16 is first and foremost about Jesus. When Jesus ascends to his Father, the Father gives to his Son the joy of his presence. “You are my Beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased. You did it. You finished your mission. You showed them the way back. You are the Way back. There is no other name by which men can be saved from sin and from death. Now receive the fullness of my joy.” And then, after receiving the gladness of God’s presence, Jesus turns and gives it to us.

This is why we Christians love Easter so much. On this Resurrection Sunday, we can say to God, “We receive the gift.” Christ is risen from the dead. He has triumphed over sin and death. He has turned us from our sin and delivered us from the fear of death in this life, and the torment of Hades in the next life. God has invited us in. In him, we’ve found what we’ve been looking for. We’ve found full and lasting joy at God’s right hand, and he offers it to all of us.

  • The fullness of joy now in the forgiveness of your sins. You don’t have to live in guilt and shame.

  • The fullness of joy now in the fellowship of the saints, the family of God. The friendships of the people in this church are bought with blood and built on the conquest of death. That’s an amazing foundation for friendships.

  • The fullness of joy in the future in the reunion of your soul and body at the resurrection. The bad back, the poor eyesight, the sore throat: God is going to do away with all of that.

  • The fullness of joy in the future in your reunion with friends and family in Christ. Heaven is the greatest family reunion you could ever imagine. The barbecue will be fantastic. It’ll be a party for the ages. And the party never ends.

  • The fullness of joy in the future in a beautiful inheritance, a new world, with no pain or sorrow or sin or death. You won’t be able to feel fear if you wanted to.

  • The fullness of joy in your reunion with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus who is the source of our every happiness and the Joy of our every Joy.

The Lord’s Table

It’s a wonderful thing to take the Lord’s Supper on Easter Sunday. The body of Jesus was broken on Good Friday. On Sunday, God put it back together. The Bible tells us that God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. We’ve been talking about Death, which is a Great Enemy. Paul calls it the Last Enemy. So this Table is set to remind us of Christ’s Death while the reality of our own eventual Death looms over us. We don’t know when we’re going to die, so every time we come to the Table, it’s in the presence of our Great Enemy Death. But we don’t fear, our cup overflows. Because Death isn’t the only one pursuing us. This table reminds us that goodness and mercy pursue us all the days of our lives. This table assures us that Death is Defeated. Death is Dethroned. Death has no Sting.

This Table is fundamentally for the covenant members of this church. It’s one of the ways that we fellowship together and experience our union in the Holy Spirit. But, if you’re a follower of Jesus, if you’ve turned from your sin, we invite you to be a guest at our family meal. If you’re not a follower of Jesus, we’re glad you’re here, but we ask that you let the bread and the wine pass by. Eating the meal says “Jesus is mine. I trust him. He’s Savior. He’s Lord.”