13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, believers, about those who are asleep [in death], so that you will not grieve [for them] as the others do who have no hope [beyond this present life].14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again [as in fact He did], even so God [in this same way--by raising them from the dead] will bring with Him those [believers] who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
The Apostle Paul is making two things clear to the church in Thessalonica. The first is that death will happen. The second is that death is not permanent. Death has lost its grip. 2 Corinthians 5:8 says that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Every person will be face to face with the Lord after death either as a follower or as a denier. Paul’s point in making sure the church is not uninformed or misinformed probably has to do with the various philosophies of life after death that were being propagated at that time.
Romans: The ancient Romans believed that it was very important that their loved ones have a proper burial for if they did not they would be denied entrance into the underworld and spend eternity in a purgatory-like existence. They believed in the immortality of the soul and had a complicated belief system about life after death. The ancient Romans believed that when one died, one was met by Mercury, the messenger god, and son of Jupiter and taken to the river Styx, that flowed nine times around the underworld. There they paid the ferryman, Charon, a fee to cross the river where they were met and judged by Minos, Aenaeus, and Rhadamanthus. However, the ancient Romans did not believe in eternal damnation.
Greeks: After crossing the river, you would leave the ferry and walk on to a place called the Asphodel Fields, where people forget all memories of their former life. Then, at a fork in the road, three judges would decide where to send souls: good people were allowed to go onwards to Elysium (a comfortable place where the sun always shone), but those who needed to be punished were sent to Tartarus. Sometimes, when the judges could not decide, souls would be sent back to the Asphodel Fields.
Jews: Prior to the Second Temple period, both Jewish and Greek thought were dominated by the idea that people went to the same space after death and lived a shadowy existence. In the Hebrew Bible this space is called Sheol, and in Greek texts like The Odyssey, it is called Hades. Even though everyone was thought to go to the same place after death, death (and along with it Sheol and Hades) was still something that a person would want to avoid for as long as possible
None of these versions of the Afterlife hold a lot of hope. No wonder Paul is bringing the focus back to Jesus. We can grieve the death of a loved who knows Jesus with hope because its based on the resurrection of Jesus and a relationship with Him instead of a convoluted confusion of multiple levels and eternal uncertainty. Paul is saying that our hope in grieving comes from the fact that we don’t get into to Heaven by our goodness but by Christ Jesus alone! He bridges the great divide through His righteous sacrifice.
My nine-year-old came Justice came up to me yesterday and told me he was crying as he listened to the song Elijah wrote for Jake’s funeral. I smiled and told him I often to do the same thing. His twin Jaxon had told me he kept himself from crying during Jake’s memorial service a month ago. I told him it was ok to cry, that in fact, that’s how we grieve the loss of someone we love. That if we stuff it inside it will make us heartsick. It hasn’t been easy to walk our boys through the tragic loss of our family friend who was only 17 when he died in a car collision a few months ago. We’ve warned them that grief comes in waves. That, out of nowhere it seems. something will trigger a memory of Jake and will break our heart wide open again. In fact, we were just celebrating Ben’s 12th Birthday at Sandy Beach and Cyndi and I was tearing up because the last time we were there celebrating one of our boys birthdays, Jake was with us. There will probably never be a time where we won’t think of Jake when we are at Sandy’s. We’ve told our boys that it’s ok. We don’t grieve as those with no hope. We believe Jake came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and that we will be reunited with him one day in Heaven. This is exactly what so many go through during the holidays. Different traditions will trigger different memories which will bring up the pain and loss of those who are no longer with us. Holiday cheer turns into Holiday Blues before we know it. Then those who are so full of holiday cheer around us simply amplifies the loneliness and hopelessness we feel. Especially those of who have lost loved ones, or who have high expectations of renewed happiness and reconciliation only to be disappointed. It’s good to grieve, but we don’t grieve as those with no hope. We grieve as those who know that the perfect Christmas is not our source of temporary happiness but rather the perfect Christ is our source of eternal joy.
Lord, I thank You that we will see Jake, my grandparents, my cousin again in eternity. I thank You for this reminder that every moment is a gift and I will not take for granted the time I have been given with those around me. I pray that I would be a source of joy to those around me who are having a hard time this time of year. I think You for the light You shine into our Holiday Blues!