Easter Music: Is There Life After Death?

Audio Player

| Watch the video | Download the Video

A week ago last Friday I took my father’s funeral. And in the address I quoted this from his written wishes, which were headed ‘To be read when I die’:

I have no belief in any god or in life after death. I wish for the minimum of ceremony, and forbid anything with religious implications. But I accept that some sort of funeral may be of comfort to my family. I suggest you sit and listen to cheerful music for a while and then go and have a good meal.

He wrote that years ago, so I don’t know whether he gave those beliefs a second thought. But as I said in his funeral address, what anyone else believes is beside the point, because when it comes to the question, ‘Is there life beyond death, and a God there whom we’re accountable to?’, none of us can hide behind the beliefs or unbeliefs of others. In the face of death, we each ultimately stand on our own and we each have to decide for ourselves what we believe – and why.

And what’s striking is that most people have a sense that death is not the end – or at least a wish that it isn’t. Which is why Mum wanted this poem read at the funeral:

Perhaps if we could see
The splendour of the land
To which our loved are called from
You and me
We’d understand.
Perhaps if we could hear
The welcome they receive
From old familiar voices –
all so dear –
We would not grieve.

Perhaps if we could know
The reason why they went,
We’d smile – and wipe away
the tears that flow
And wait content.
Carmelite Monastery, Waterford

Now Mum is not a Christian either, but she said, ‘I find it comforting to think that might be true.’ And the question is: can we get any further than just thinking that might be true? Because the problem, when it comes to death and what lies beyond, is: how do we know what’s true? The only way we could actually know there’s life beyond this life is if someone died and then came back from death, to prove it and tell us about it. But that’s exactly what the New Testament says Jesus did that first Easter. And if that’s true – if Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection (or rising again) from the dead are historical fact – then we do have solid reason to believe there is life after death and a God we’re accountable to and whom we’ll one day meet.

And for the rest of the time, I want to take us back to the second Bible reading we had (John 20) – to look at the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and what it means for us today. So this is from John’s Gospel – John was an eye-witness of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and his Gospel records what he claims to have seen and heard.

Firstly, WHAT’S THE EVIDENCE FOR JESUS’ RESURRECTION?

The background to John 20, as we heard in our first reading, is that on the first Good Friday Jesus had been put to death on the cross by the Roman authorities. He’d been certified dead. His body had been released for burial. And two of his followers had taken it to a nearby tomb. It was too late in the day to give it full burial treatment, and the next day, Saturday, was their Sabbath (or rest) day – so the plan was to come back first thing on Sunday to finish the job. So they closed the stone door of the tomb and left. And another Gospels tell us that the authorities put a guard on the tomb (Matthew 28.62-66), because to them Jesus had been a high profile cause of unrest, and they wanted no tampering with the evidence that he was dead, so that his cause would die with him.

John 20 then picks up events from first thing on Easter Sunday. Some more of Jesus’ followers went to the tomb to finish the burial treatment. But the guard had gone, the tomb was open, and it was empty except for the grave clothes which had been on Jesus’ body. And Mary, one of Jesus’ followers at the tomb, comes up with the obvious, natural explanation – someone must have moved the body. Which, by the way, shows that these eyewitnesses, whose evidence we’re reading, were no more gullible or quick to believe in resurrections than we are. But who could have moved the body? Because like I said, the tomb was guarded by the authorities. And the only plausible explanation for that guard leaving is if they for some reason had checked the tomb early on the Sunday morning and found it inexplicably empty.

So the empty tomb is the first piece of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

The second piece of evidence is that the eyewitnesses say they saw him alive again. Look at John chapter 20, v19:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week [ie, Easter Sunday], the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. (vv19-20)

So this was recognisably Jesus: the same Jesus who’d been nailed through the hands to the cross; the same Jesus who’d had a spear shoved up into his lung cavity to check he was well and truly dead. But this wasn’t just a resuscitation – a limping, wounded body at which your first instinct would have been to dial 999 for an ambulance. This was a transformed body which didn’t need to knock at the locked door because it didn’t need to use the door at all. This is a body which has gone through death and isn’t locked into time and space and mortality any more, like we are. It’s a body ready for heaven. But skip down to v24:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (vv24-25)

And you can see his point, because all human experience says: dead men stay dead.

A friend of mine called Paul as a teenager once looked after the neighbours’ pets while they were away. And on the first day of going round to feed them, Paul took his dog with him. And he’d done the indoor animals and was just coming out to do the rabbit, only to find his dog with the rabbit dead in its mouth. So Paul thought ‘What do I do? Confess, or cover up?’ And he went for cover up. Thankfully it was a black rabbit with no distinctive markings, so he bought a reasonable match in a pet shop, and popped it in the hutch. The day after the neighbours got back, they phoned him – the call he’d been dreading. And Paul said, ‘Hi! I hope the pets are all OK.’ And the neighbour said, ‘They are. We were just a bit surprised about the rabbit. We realise we forgot to tell you, but it died the day before we left. So we buried it at the bottom of the garden, and now we’re trying to explain to the kids how come Sootie’s alive again. And you can see their point, because dead rabbits stay dead (even though dogs will be dogs and dig them up again).

And dead men stay dead. All experience says that – except this experience of Thomas and the other first Christian eyewitnesses. Look on to v26:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (vv26-27)

So if all experience says ‘Dead men stay dead,’ what category do you put Jesus in? Well, what Thomas said next makes it pretty clear what category he went for:

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (v28)

Thomas had once heard Jesus say this about himself:

“For as the Father [that’s God the Father] has life in himself, so he has granted the Son [ie, Jesus] also to have life in himself.” (John 5.26)

And Thomas was now seeing the truth of those words with his own eyes. You and I don’t have ‘life in ourselves’ – we’ll each conk out one day - whereas God does have ‘life in himself’. He’ll never die. He’ll always be there just like he always has been. And Thomas had just seen that kind of indestructible life in a man. Which moved Thomas to believe that Jesus was far more than just a man and that he must be somehow God-become-man. So Thomas said (and for the rest of his life preached):

“My Lord and my God!” (v28)

And that’s the third piece of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. There’s:

• The empty tomb;
• The eyewitnesses saying they saw Jesus alive again; and
• The total transformation which took place in them.

Because their faith in Jesus had been all but destroyed by his death. And yet within weeks of this incident we’re reading about they were preaching him as the rightful Lord and God of everyone – and they were ultimately willing to die for that message.

And the question is: what else explains all that, if not the historical fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead? So,

Second, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR US TODAY?

You may be thinking, ‘I’d like to believe this. I’d like to believe that God has been here in the person of Jesus to show us what he’s really like and to show us that there is life beyond death. But I’d need the same kind of level of proof that Thomas had – and I’m never going to get that. Because he was there to see it with his own eyes, and I wasn’t.’

And if that is what you’re thinking, what Jesus said next is directed at you:

Jesus said to him [Thomas], “Have you believed because you have seen me [ie, because you’ve seen the evidence with your own eyes]? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (v29)

Ie, Jesus expected those of us in the future to be able to believe without actually seeing the evidence with our own eyes. Of course he knew full well that we would need evidence – the evidence that Thomas and the others saw – which is precisely why he’d called them to be his official eyewitnesses, and why they wrote down what they saw and heard. So looking on to v30, John says this:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you [ie, you who weren’t present] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (vv30-31)

Now I realise that from The Da Vinci Code to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, plenty of people are saying to you, ‘You can’t trust the New Testament.’ To which I simply want to say: only you should decide whether or not you can trust it. You shouldn’t believe it just because C.S.Lewis did, or disbelieve it just because Richard Dawkins does. You can’t delegate the decision on which your eternal destiny hangs, can you? I certainly can’t. You’ve got to decide about Jesus for yourself. And you can only do that by giving it a look for yourself – eg, you might like to join our next Christianity Explored course that goes through Mark’s Gospel and gives you the chance to air all the doubts and questions and objections you like.

But let me end by saying something for those here who do believe this is all true, but are wondering, ‘What am I supposed to do to respond to this, to be a Christian?’ Well, thankfully, that’s what John tells us in v31. He says, ‘I’ve written my Gospel…’

so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (v31)

So being a Christian means believing that certain things about Jesus are true. John says I have to believe that he’s ‘the Christ’, which is the Bible way of saying ‘God’s King over everything’ – ie, I have to believe he’s the rightful ruler over my life. And that goes hand in hand with believing that he’s ‘the Son of God’ – because ultimately, only God has the right to that place on the throne of my life.

But just believing that certain things about Jesus are true doesn’t make you a Christian. It goes beyond that to actually entering into relationship with him. Because at the end of v31, John says what it means to be a Christian is:

that by believing you may have life in his name. (v31)

And when John says ‘life’ he means ‘life back in relationship with God.’ He means life where you’ve been forgiven your past of living as if God was not your king, and where you’re now living for him, knowing that he’ll keep forgiving you every time you fail, and knowing that when you die you’ll go through death just like Jesus did – and be welcomed the other side by the risen Lord Jesus himself. That’s the life that God is offering us.

And paying for the forgiveness which that depends on is the whole reason Jesus died on the cross. Because the Bible says that when he died there, he was taking on himself the judgement we deserve for all our wrongdoing in ignoring God and hurting others and messing up God’s world so that on the one hand we can be forgiven our wrongdoing, but on the other hand justice has been done on our wrongdoing – it hasn’t just been ‘swept under the carpet’ as if it didn’t matter or wasn’t serious to God.

And you may be very aware of your wrongdoing (or ‘sin’ as the Bible calls it), and doubtful that God could possibly accept you, as the person you are and given the things you’ve done. But the amazing thing about the Christian message is that, very end of v31, we’re offered this life back in relationship with God ‘in his name’ – ie, in Jesus’ name, on account of what he did for us on the cross to pay for our total forgiveness.

My brother, Niall, works for Vodafone, so I get the perk of a family and friends discount mobile. And he was horrified recently to discover that I’d not upgraded my phone for nearly 9 years. And he told me immediately that he was going to get me the latest iPhone. And he sent me a text saying, ‘It’s all sorted and paid for. Just go to the Northumberland Street store and mention my name.’ So in I went. And I pulled out my ancient, coal-fired Nokia. And the manager actually called over all the other assistants and said, ‘Look at this – you’ll never see a phone this old again.’ (Some of them were so young they’d have only been in primary school when I first got it – this was history.) And all I had to do to walk away with the new one was to mention Niall’s name. It was all sorted and paid for – in his name.

And the forgiveness you and I need was all sorted and paid for by Jesus on the cross. And all you have to do to walk away from here tonight as a Christian is to ask him to forgive you and to come into your life by his Spirit to be your king from now on.

Now, many of us are further on and have done that already. Others are much further back and needing to look into this more before reaching any sort of decision point. But there may be some here saying, ‘I know this is all true and I want to respond to Christ – how do I do that?’ So I’m going to end with a prayer that would be a way of doing that. Let me just read it out first so that you can think whether it would be an appropriate prayer for you:

Lord Jesus,
I have not lived as I should with you as my King.
Thank you for dying for me, to bring me back to yourself.
Please forgive me. And please come into my life by your Spirit, to enable me to live for you from now on.
Amen

You may be further on or further back. But for some of us, that may be just what we want to pray right now – in which case you could echo it in your mind as I lead us in prayer. Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus,
I have not lived as I should with you as my King.
Thank you for dying for me, to bring me back to yourself.
Please forgive me. And please come into my life by your Spirit, to enable me to live for you from now on.
Amen

Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus says this:
“Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6.37)
Ie, ‘Whoever comes to me in a prayer like that, I will forgive them, accept them, and never give up on them until I bring them through death to be with me in heaven.’ And if you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, you can put your name to that promise – you can say, I’m one of the Whoever’.’ And it would help you to tell a Christian you know that you’ve taken that step, so they can give you some suggestions about getting going in the Christian life.

Then lastly, to everyone: can I say thanks for coming. Please do come back to any of our Easter services – there’s a card about those in your service sheet. Do ask about Christianity Explored if that sounds like it might be good for you – again, there’s a leaflet in your service sheet. And if you’d like to take something away to read, there are free copies of Mark’s Gospel and this booklet Why Jesus? on the Welcome Desk and at the doors.

Back to top