Our dead won’t stay dead.

1 Thessalonians 4.13-18.

The Greeks claimed when you died, you went to the netherworld. Specifically, you went to the god of the netherworld, Ἅ́δης/Ádis (or as the Romans called him, Pluto; or as well call him, Hades; no, he’s not a bad guy like the movies make him out to be, although he did kidnap Persephone) and he determined where you went.

  • Good people went to Ἠλύσιον/Ilýsion, a continent or island in the far west (you know, like where the Elves went in The Lord of the Rings), full of green fields.
  • Bad people went to Τάρταρος/Tártaros, a place as deep below Ádis as he was below earth, to be imprisoned with the Titans whom Zeus defeated when he took over the world.
  • Special cases, like Dionýsios and Iraklís (whom the Romans called Hercules) were turned into gods, and lived with them on Ὀλυμπος/Ólympos—a literal mountain near Thessaloniki, where the Greeks imagined the gods lived when they weren’t busy on adventures.
  • The rest stayed with Ádis as he determined what to do with them.

Other than Ólympos, all these places were spirit worlds: Once you died, you weren’t coming back. Not that people didn’t want ’em back; some Greek myths told of living people who went to Ádis and begged him for one of the spirits he kept. He rarely said yes—it’s why he was called Ádis the Adamant—and even when he did, the myth’s hero usually botched the rescue and lost the dead person forever. Dead stayed dead.

And really, claimed Greek philosophers, you didn’t wanna come back to life. Life meant decay. You were in an aging human body, which’d eventually succumb to entropy. But in the spirit world, there was no such thing as matter, and no matter means no decay. So being a spirit is way better than being alive and material.

This belief isn’t just a Greek one. Lots of religions teach it. The ancient Egyptians believed Osiris came back from the dead like Jesus… but not back to our physical world; he left to rule the netherworld. Buddhists aspire to escape the Hindu cycle of reincarnation and rebirth, and remain pure spirit, i.e. join the universe. Even Christians figure, “When I die I’m gonna live forever in a spirit body”—which they insist is most definitely not a material one.

In contrast the Pharisees insisted God’s plan is to bring people back to life. Material, physical life. They took their cue from Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 37.12-14 KJV
12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, 14 and shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.

That whole valley of dry bones thing was a metaphor for returning Israel to their land, but the Pharisees insisted it likewise represents the resurrection: At the end, when the LORD judges the earth, he can’t judge the dead, ’cause they’re dead. So he’s gotta first make them alive. And he will, ’cause he’s almighty like that. Everybody who ever lived will be alive again, and then he’ll judge humanity. Some will be forgiven and live in his kingdom forever; the rest will not.

I admit: If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead himself, I’d immediately take the side of the people who insist Ezekiel was only an apocalypse, and not a preview of what the resurrection might look like. Makes more sense, right? Dead is dead. But we do have Jesus in the equation: He taught the resurrection—even said he is the resurrection Jn 11.25 —and demonstrated this with his own literal, physical rising from the dead. He proved the idea.

This fact of resurrection is meant to give hope to every Christian who has a dead loved one. Unlike pagans, who knew Ádis would never let you come back, and knew Zeus was downright arbitrary about where you went—you could be a great guy like Promithéfs the Titan, and Zeus would stick you in Tártaros because he didn’t like you—we know God is good, that he gives grace to those who seek him, and we know the dead will rise.

No, we don’t know when. But in Christ, resurrection is a hard historical fact. He came back. So will we.

So to correct those Thessalonians who still weren’t so sure about this, the apostles wrote this:

1 Thessalonians 4.13-14 KWL
13 Fellow Christians, we don’t want you to not know about the “sleepers,”
lest you grieve like other people who have no hope,
14 for we believe if Jesus died and rose again,
likewise God will bring the “sleepers” through Jesus to life with him.

Sleepers.

People have always been anxious about death. Mostly because we know so little about what happens after we die.

Yep, even among Christians. Both the Old and New Testaments tell us very little about the afterlife. The scriptures are more about new life; resurrection and eternal life and God’s kingdom. There are a lot of blanks… so Christians have filled them in with best guesses and fiction and near-death experiences. The result is Christian mythology. Like all mythology, it’s based on truth… but there’s so much fiction mixed in, y’may as well call the whole thing fiction.

The lack of info and knowledge, whether among the ancients or today, turns death into an uncomfortable or even taboo subject. Even saying “They died” is a serious hangup for a lot of people. They don’t wanna say “died”; they don’t wanna even think about death. So they’ll use any euphemism instead. They’ll use the entire list from the Dead Parrot sketch.

“It’s not pining, it’s passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.”

I hear far more people described as “passed away,” “gone to be with Jesus,” “gone on to glory,” or “gone on to their eternal reward,” than “died.” Like I said, people don’t wanna say “died.”

True of the Thessalonians too. They wouldn’t say “died”; they’d say “sleeping.” It was a common euphemism; so common even Jesus used it—then dropped it when it gave his kids the wrong idea.

John 11.11-14 KJV
11 These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. 12 Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. 13 Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. 14 Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.

I mean, if we’re gonna be raised from the dead, death is kinda like sleep. One we’ll eventually be awakened from. It’s for this reason some Christians still use the term “sleeper” as a euphemism. But the term’s become rarer and rarer—partly because Christian mythology insists the folks in the afterlife are totally awake, and partying in paradise or screaming in torment; and partly because we like other euphemisms, like “on to glory” and “rest in power” and so forth.

Yeah, there are those Christians who insist “sleeper” oughta be taken literally—that the dead are in the afterlife, but they’re sleeping, or so drowsy they’re barely aware of their surroundings. It’s a lot easier to wait for the second coming when you sleep through the wait time! But we’ve no proof the euphemism must be taken literally, so if people wanna believe that, meh.

Still, for Christians our hopes aren’t in the afterlife. It’s not about going to heaven when we die; heaven’s for the living anyway. It’s not about becoming spirit beings, or even angels, but about perfecting our humanity, and that includes our physical humanity, in earthly bodies on a New Earth. Our hope is in eternal life.

And our eternal life begins now, not after we’re raised. Don’t waste your life, assuming you needn’t worry about God-things till Jesus returns. Follow him now. Tap that kingdom power now. You’re a citizen of heaven; start acting like it.