A Better Place
I overheard two men talking the other day, and caught the last bit of a conversation they were having. I do not really know what they were talking about, but I can hazard a guess. They concluded their talk with “she’s in a better place.” My guess is that they were talking about a loved one who is now dead. Perhaps they were consoling themselves with thoughts that their loved one was no longer suffering and in Jesus’ protection until his return. But I wonder if those men knew what they were talking about. Does the Bible describe death – even the death of a believer – as “a better place”?
The first recorded death in the Bible was that of Abel, who was killed by his brother, Cain. The Bible states that “the LORD had regard for Abel.”1 Did that mean that Abel was taken up to heaven when he died? No, the Lord told Cain “the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”2 Abel did not go to a better place when he died. He went to the ground where his brother had buried him. That was the very reason that the Lord cursed the ground for Cain. He told him that “When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”3
The great saint and father of the Israelite nation was Abraham. When he died, did the Bible say that he went to a better place? No, it says that “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.”4 We went where his pagan ancestors had gone: the grave. The Bible says that “Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife.”5 Of course, it is popular for people to speak of burying a body, but still believe that the real person has gone elsewhere. Moses, the author of Genesis, entertained no such delusion.
David was called a man after God’s own heart.6 Surely if anyone was to be granted a residence in a better place at his death, it would be David. But the Bible declares that “David himself never ascended into heaven.”7 It was his descendant, Jesus Christ, that would sit at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool.8
When Jesus faced the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept. He knew that death was not a better place for Lazarus. He did not console Lazarus’ sister Martha with the notion that her brother was not really dead. Instead, he told her that “your brother will rise again.”9 He had told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him”.10 If Lazarus had gone to a better place, it would have been cruelty to bring him back.
Even Jesus did not go back to his Father at death. After his resurrection, he told Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”11 He had been in the tomb, and he was raised from that tomb. His ascension forty days later came not as a result of his death, but because of his victory over death. His words to us now are not “do not fear death because it will take you to a better place.” His words to us are “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”12
Christians can be comforted at the death of a loved one. Our comfort comes not because we believe death takes us to a better place. The Bible says “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing”.13 David prayed that the LORD would deliver his life because “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?”14 Our comfort comes because we know death is not the end. It is a terrible prison where our body decays into nothingness while our personhood exists in a state of unconscious sleep. But our Saviour has the keys to that prison. When he comes again, he will raise us from the dead and set us free from death forever.
The world needs honest Christians. It needs people who do not hide behind fairy tales, and deny the existence of death. It needs people who will tell them that death is real, but that Jesus is real too. The world needs hope that extends beyond the cemetery. Believers can offer that hope, but we have to do so with integrity. It is wrong to say that death is a friend when the Bible calls it an enemy.15 It is wrong to imply that the blessed hope is a better place at death when the Bible says Christ’s second coming is the blessed hope.16
When the Thessalonians wanted to know about their loved ones who had fallen asleep in death, Paul told them not to “grieve as others do who have no hope”.17 His instructions for them to teach each other were as follows:
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. ”18
That is all the encouragement we need. Our hope is not in some mythical place that believers supposedly go when they die. Our hope is Jesus. He will not forget us. Death is real, but so is he.
- Genesis 4:4 ESV. [↩]
- Genesis 4:10 ESV. [↩]
- Genesis 4:12 ESV. [↩]
- Genesis 25:8 ESV. [↩]
- Genesis 25:9-10 ESV. [↩]
- 1 Samuel 13:14. [↩]
- Acts 2:34 NLT. [↩]
- Psalm 110:1. [↩]
- John 11:23 ESV. [↩]
- John 11:11 ESV. [↩]
- John 20:17 ESV. [↩]
- Revelation 1:17-18 ESV. [↩]
- Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV. [↩]
- Psalm 6:5 ESV. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 15:26. [↩]
- Titus 2:13. [↩]
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV. [↩]
- 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV. [↩]