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Death is a great mystery. The mere possibility of it—our own or our loved ones’—often terrifies us. We hate death, because it takes us away from those we love. So, many prefer not to think or talk about it. It’s easier just to ignore it. However, death is part of life, and we cannot avoid it.
The Bible tells us that death entered the world with sin—the sin of Adam and Eve:
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned. . . . [B]ecause of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man . . . to condemnation for all men. (Romans 5:12, 17–18)
We long to live—and live longer. We desire that our friends and family not part from us. So it’s natural to ask: Why would God punish us with death? Couldn’t he have allowed us to go on living forever? Couldn’t he have found a less dreadful way to punish us?
Some get angry with God when a loved one dies, especially if the loved one was a young child. “Why did you allow this person to die? Why didn’t you answer my prayers and save this person’s life? Why, why, why?”
God has a joy-filled answer for us, if we are willing to listen.
There is a famous story about Oliver Wendell Holmes, a former Supreme Court judge.
One day Holmes got on a train leaving Washington, D.C., and took a seat. Not wanting to waste a moment, he opened his briefcase and began working. Perhaps it was some case he was reviewing for the court. At any rate, he got absorbed in his work and lost awareness of his surroundings.
Soon the train started its journey down the tracks and the conductor began checking people’s tickets, going down the aisle seat by seat. When he came to Holmes, he interrupted the judge with, “May I see your ticket, sir?”
Stirred as if from a stupor, the judge mumbled, “Ticket? Oh, yes, my ticket!” He then began to check his pockets, searching for his train ticket. He checked his pants, his shirt, his jacket, and finally began emptying his briefcase and rummaging through his papers.
As the conductor recognized the famous passenger, he tried to calm him down. “Your Honor, please, don’t worry about your ticket. You are an honorable person, so when you get to your destination and you find it, just send it to us in the mail.”
But Judge Holmes was not deterred. He continued his search, now more anxious than ever. Again the conductor, wanting to help in some way, said, “Your Honor, we trust you. Don’t worry about your ticket.”
“But you don’t understand!” the judge quipped. “I don’t know where I’m going! I need that ticket!”
This funny and true story seems to be a great metaphor for people today. All of us are traveling together on the “train of life,” heading down the tracks that will lead to our ultimate destiny. Many seem to be on the train with no clue where they are going, where the train will stop and let them off. Perhaps on this train, they, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, are absorbed in their work. Or perhaps they are in the dining car enjoying a good meal, or in the sleeper getting caught up on their rest, or in one of the seats looking out the window at the scenery as life passes them by. So many of our fellow passengers don’t know where they are going.
But at some point this train is going to stop for each one of us and we will be asked to get off. Where will that be? Heaven? Hell? Nothingness?
One thing we can say is that death gives each one of us an opportunity to stop and think. Perhaps we have a brush with death—a serious illness, accident, or near-accident. Perhaps we experience the death of a loved one, a fellow worker or student, or someone we just happened to hear about. In such cases, death can be a kind of wake-up call, a reminder that each of us will eventually die, and we will have to face the reality of what happens after death.
Experiencing the possibility of death causes us to ask ourselves, “If I were to die today, what would happen? Where would I go? Would it be heaven? Hell? Would I just cease to exist, simply drop off into some kind of oblivion or nothingness?”
Now is the time to ask those questions. God doesn’t want us to become like the foolish maidens who were not ready to meet their master:
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:1–13)
The foolish maidens failed to look ahead. They did not anticipate what was needed for the hereafter, and therefore they missed it. But God does not want us to experience this same letdown. He allows us to face the possibility of death now, in order to wake us up from our slumber. He gives us the opportunity to wake up so we can get enough “oil” for our encounter with him and actually look forward to it!
It’s so easy for us to become absorbed in our day-to-day activities as we try to survive and make a life for ourselves. Often we set high goals and admire great accomplishments, whether they are our own or someone else’s. God uses death and disaster to remind us that these things are all temporary.
And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1–2)
I imagine a modern-day Christian pointing out to Jesus not the Temple but the great modern creations of man: skyscrapers, the Golden Gate Bridge, jumbo jets, big-screen TVs, modern computers, smartphones, satellite communication, the space shuttle, the Internet. Jesus would probably respond in a similar way—“Who do you think you are? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down”—making us aware of the transient nature of these accomplishments.
Death puts all our work and plans into perspective. We can spend so much time and effort fooling ourselves that we are building up our little empire, our castle, our temple . . . but death puts all those efforts back into perspective, as Jesus said so succinctly:
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16–21)
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area. A striking video clip was taken from a car that was traveling east on the Bay Bridge. Traffic was at a standstill because a section of the upper deck had collapsed onto the lower deck. To get people off the bridge, the police started routing cars that were traveling east on the lower deck onto the upper deck at Yerba Buena Island so that they could head west to San Francisco and find an alternate route to the East Bay.
However, the drivers of some of the first cars got disoriented and started going east on the upper deck. The people in one car had sensed that something was wrong, stopped, and began recording what happened next. They were filming the condition of the collapsed section of the bridge just as another car sped past them, careening off the collapsed portion of the bridge to death and destruction. It happened so fast that nobody could do anything to stop the errant driver, who obviously thought she was in control.
This incident can be symbolic of how many people take the wrong direction in their lives, so often unaware of the consequences. And beyond that of physical death, another consequence awaits: God calls each of us to give an account of our life.
Another consequence of the Loma Prieta earthquake was how packed the churches were right after the disaster struck—even in San Francisco! People knew they needed God. Yet in just two months the attendance surge was no longer perceivable; for most, life resumed its normal, carefree existence as their need for God faded.
Jesus reminds us how death and disaster should get us to think, lest we forget that this life is not the end:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo’am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1–5)
According to Jesus, death and disaster hit these individuals not because they were sinners, but to remind the rest of us that we too will die. Death is God’s wake-up call. Instead of being a horrible punishment as a result of sin, it’s really God’s gift to get us to stop what we are doing and think about where our lives are really going.
Can you imagine what the world would be like without death—if people such as Hitler and Stalin remained on earth exercising their tyranny without the fear of ever dying? Is that the kind of world you would care to inherit, where selfishness and pride go unchecked until there’s no chance of reform?
We shouldn’t fear death; instead we should see it as an opportunity to assess our own lives, as a way to discern where we are really going. Truly this is God’s mercy in action. He foresaw how easily we can get caught up in this earthly life and forget about the eternal life he wants for us as his children. Death is God’s means of directing us beyond the present moment and immediate pleasure, so that we may consider our actions in light of eternity.
We don’t have to fear death because through his death and resurrection, Christ destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). Death is a great reminder that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
In my own life, I can attest to the impact of people I knew who met with death suddenly and unexpectedly. I remember quite vividly a college student named Tom, who had just turned nineteen (I was twenty-two at the time). One evening he visited the Opus Dei center where I lived and worked, in order to visit with the priest and go to confession. A number of us were decorating the center for Christmas when he came over to give us a hand. After he left, he went home and was having a snack with his parents. He blacked out and fell over backward in the chair. His parents rushed him to the hospital, but there was little that could be done, and he died. He’d had a massive brain hemorrhage. Here was a young man God called home just after he had given an account of his life to him in confession. What a wonderful way to go!
And yet I was shaken by the suddenness of his passing. God used this event to speak to me, to help me to take stock of where my life was going. Was I prepared to leave everything and meet my Maker? Was I really looking forward to it?
Live each day as though it were your last . . . and your last day as though you would live forever. This is really how a Christian lives, with the awareness that we may go to meet God at any moment:
“Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:42–44; see 1 Thessalonians 5:1–3)
You may think: If I knew that I were going to die tomorrow, I would spend all day in church, praying and getting myself ready. But would you? Wouldn’t you spend time with your family, letting them know how much you loved them, asking for forgiveness for the times you hurt them, and forgiving them for any hurt they caused you? Wouldn’t you try to have a good conversation with that coworker who is a bit lost? Wouldn’t you also try to be cheerful, not make a big deal about silly little annoyances, and leave an image of a happy and generous soul in the mind of those with whom you engaged? Certainly you would want Jesus to know that he is numero uno in your life by spending sufficient time in prayer, making a good confession, attending Mass, and receiving Communion. But you would also want to show him that you were doing your best to fulfill the mission he had entrusted to you.
Death allows us to discover the true meaning of everything we do and everything that happens to us in life. It puts earthly pleasure in its very relative place. Let’s thank God for his wonderful mercy in granting us this wake-up call that can frame and put into perspective the little nothings that make up our day. As the apostle Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Why do we fear death?
There are many reasons we fear death. First, because of our limited vision, we love earthly life and don’t want to let go of what we already have. We also fear the unknown and worry about what it will be like after we die. Perhaps we see how often we fall short in our lives and find it hard to imagine a Father who would ever forgive us for all our sins and failings. Thus, we fear the possibility of hell. Perhaps we also have seen the horrible death of a loved one, or just some ugly scenes in a movie or on TV, making death seem like a frightening reality instead of a pathway to the arms of Jesus.
But the more we grow in our faith and in our relationship with God, the less we fear death, because he reassures us of the joy awaiting us if we faithfully respond to his grace and trust in his love.
Why does it feel like God is punishing us when someone close to us dies?
Well, death is a kind of punishment. It’s God’s response to the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, who chose to live their life independent of him. They chose not to respect God’s plan for creation by deciding for themselves what they thought was good and bad, independent of his loving commands.
Yet God did not send us death simply to make us suffer, but to help us understand the consequences of our actions: If we live our life independent of him, we kill our relationship with him. Sin is separation from God, and it produces spiritual death.
Death also contains a call. The more loved ones we have in heaven, the more we want to join them. We think less of pursuing our own selfish interests, we become less attached to the things of this world, and we begin thinking about what we need to do to be with our beloved grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, and friends.
In a sense, death is a punishment that truly heals us.
Why did God punish us for the sin of Adam and Eve? Why should we have to pay for their sin?
The original sin of Adam and Eve caused a break in their relationship with God, which affected his relationship with all their descendants.
One way to look at it is to imagine your earthly father having a very close relationship with the president of the United States.
Consequently, you and your siblings can visit the White House anytime you want, roam the building, and explore the grounds, simply because your father is a friend and confidant of the president.
One day, however, your father betrays the president; he is no longer allowed to return to the White House. Would you and your siblings still have free access to the White House? No, of course not. That was a privilege you had because of your father’s relationship, not because you had some right to it. You are not being punished for any sin your father committed; you simply lost a privilege to which you never had a right.
Original sin is similar. When Adam and Eve sinned, we lost the privilege of not dying; we lost the privilege of an intimate friendship with God. Fortunately, Christ came to restore what was lost by demonstrating the true meaning of life through his death on the cross.
What happens when you die, especially if you don’t know what to believe in? Where do you go?
No one really knows what death is like. There have been many people who have had near-death experiences, but exactly what happens when we die is a mystery. Only God knows.
Hopefully, as you read this book, you will get a clearer idea of what may or may not happen to you—whether you want to believe it or not. God leaves each one of us free to respond to his revelation.
How do you explain death to a little child?
One mother explained it this way: “You know how sometimes you fall asleep in my arms or in my lap, only to wake up in your bed? You don’t know how you got there, but somehow you did.
“When we die, the opposite happens. You fall asleep in your bed or wherever you are, and you wake up in the arms of God, experiencing the great joy of being with the one who loves us
more than any other.”
Is it wrong to want to die?
The desire to die and be with God is not bad in itself, as long as we do not use it to escape from our responsibilities, from fulfilling God’s mission for us. Sometimes our lives may seem to be failures, or we are suffering so intensely that death seems like the only option. Elijah felt that way after purifying Israel of the prophets of Baal and being persecuted by the political powers for his role:
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and . . . went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:1–4)
St. Paul had similar sentiments:
For we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; . . . on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2 Corinthians 1:8–10)
It’s not wrong to want to die, but we should abandon ourselves into the hands of God and allow him to show us what he wants of us while on this earth. We should never be afraid to live, because ultimately we live only by God’s will and mercy.
by John Waiss
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Are heaven and hell real?
Will I ever see my deceased loved ones again? What about my pets? If God is love, how could he create hell? These are just some of the questions we all ask, and they all boil down to one: What really happens when we die?
If you think religion is full of outdated, superstitious, or silly answers, think again. Fr. John Waiss shows us that the Bible gives a rich, challenging, and beautiful vision of what to expect from the life to come. Sure, death will always be a mystery. But you might be surprised at just how much the Bible tells us… and at just how much sense it makes.
What Happens When You Die? is a book for anyone who longs to understand the universal questions of life and death, heaven and hell. It promises peace and assurance, even as we confront the unknown.
Back to What Happens When You Die? (Paperback)
Author description goes here...
Alternative Headline What the Bible Reveals About the Next Life
Product Type Media Books
Author John Waiss
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 104
Book Format Paperback
Heaven is about loving not judging
Fr. John Waiss leads his readers on a revealing journey through scripture unfolding the truth about heaven and hell through the Word of God.
Using a "Q & A" approach, Waiss makes What Happens When You Die? an easy read and a helpful way to learn and study the Bible.
The book encourages us to fall in love with God and leave the task of judging others to Him.
What Happens When You Die? is a critical question we should all ask ourselves, and this book is a very good tool to add to prayer and contemplation. Consider it a road map on the journey home to the wedding feast.
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