Sleeping in Death, Waking to the Resurrection
Like many older people I don’t sleep well these days, I wake often during the night and have vivid unsettling dreams; fortunately I can’t remember them when I wake up. Nights are often not restful times for me!
Yet the Bible describes death as a sleep for disciples of Jesus’ disciples and I used to be puzzled about this as death surely could not be anything like my sleep experiences!
Then I remembered the two occasions on which I had been into hospital for an operation. Each time I had a general anaesthetic and each time I was amazed at its effect. One moment I was laid on the operating table chatting to the anaesthetist and the next moment I was waking up in a recovery bed. I was not aware of ‘going under’, I had no memory at all of anything that happened to me during the operation; I did not know how long I had been asleep. This must be the picture we are meant to see when we read of the sleep of death. For the dead in Christ time does not exist, however long we wait for his return and the resurrection does not matter, in one sense his coming is never more than our lifetime away. But there is no continuing existence, no awareness of anything amongst the dead, no part of them continues at all.
It was Jesus himself who first spoke of death as a sleep. He was approached by an elder of the Jews whose twelve year old daughter was dying. ‘Please come and heal her’ he begged of Jesus. Yet by the time Jesus arrived at the house she had just died and the ruler’s message was that he was too late. ‘She is not dead but sleeps’ the Lord said and all who heard him ridiculed him until he gave the girl her life again.
We learn more later in the Lord’s ministry when he raised Lazarus back to life. This friend of Jesus had been dead and buried for four days and people at the tomb were horrified when Jesus told them to remove the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. ‘He stinks!’ they cried, knowing that Lazarus was not only dead; his body had begun to decay back to dust as do all dead people. But Lazarus came out of the tomb, alive and healed to resume his life. These people lived again for a while but then died and remain dead. Like all who lived in faith they await the return of Jesus when the dead in Christ will be resurrected, not to a resumption of mortal life, but to be made like their immortal Lord.
“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep…
But each in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”