Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Is Death the End?

Roland Clarke

People of every race and religion believe in some kind of life beyond the grave. Hardly anyone believes death is the end - that our bodies disintegrate and we cease to exist. Whenever our loved ones die we hope to see them again, somehow, somewhere in the hereafter. For ourselves too, we instinctively hope that life will continue beyond the grave. This longing for a happy life in the hereafter is described differently in various cultures but it boils down to essentially one thing – eternal life.

A modern writer expressed this longing in these words, "Every tiny part of us cries out against the idea of dying and hopes to live forever." (Ugo Betti in ‘Struggle to Dawn’, 1949). Three thousand years ago a similar statement was penned by King Solomon, "God has set eternity in the hearts of men." (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

The Covid-19 crisis engulfing our world (2020) is a shocking reminder of our mortality. The extreme measures being taken globally to fight this pandemic demonstrate how deeply humans hate to die.

Our longing for eternity is a reflection of our Creator. The One who is eternal has imprinted eternity in our hearts. God made us with aspirations for eternity and he purposes to fulfil this noble desire. However, eternal life by itself, should not be our supreme goal. The ultimate fulfilment of our longings is to be with God in his eternal home.

Solomon described death as a homecoming. He spoke about old age as though we are "standing at death’s door. And as you near your everlasting home, the mourners will walk along the streets… For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:5-7)

But this ‘homecoming’ is not a joyous occasion, like most homecomings where people are reunited after years of separation. It means going through the door of death – something we usually associate with grief, pain and fear. What an irony! Let us not be too hasty in trying to solve this riddle otherwise we might overlook unpleasant feelings evoked by death.

How Can We Unravel this Riddle?

It was only a few years ago that my mother died. I cannot easily forget the heartache I felt. This triggered memories of another heart-wrenching experience, when I lost my father at the tender age of eight years. Whether we are young or old, all of us sorrow the loss of loved ones. Neither is grief limited to certain cultures, it is the common experience of people everywhere.

Death not only evokes emotional pain, it is also associated with physical suffering. The most common circumstance leading to death is an illness of one form or another. And of course, it is normal for us to try to prevent such pain from worsening, to seek healing and to avoid dying, if it were possible.

Grieving, feeling pain and fighting off death are natural ways of responding to death but it is also normal to fear death. The Bible describes humans as "those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." (Hebrews 2:15)

When we are stricken with an incurable disease such as HIV or cancer, we seek medical treatment or Divine healing because we deeply dislike death and fear it. This attitude is reflected in the prayers of King David and Jesus Christ.

One time David was in an extremely dangerous situation, and he cried out to God, "My heart is in anguish within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling came upon me; and horror has overwhelmed me." (Psalm 55:4,5) Even Jesus the Messiah knew the anguish of facing death, as he "offered up both prayers and supplication with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety." (Hebrews 5:7)

It is obvious that death evokes negative feelings but this simple observation has some profound implications. Solomon pondered these, saying, "A good reputation is more valuable than the most expensive perfume. In the same way, the day you die, is better than the day you are born. It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and you should think about it[1] while there is still time. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks much about death, while the fool thinks only about having a good time now." (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)

The prophet Moses similarly pondered the meaning of death, "You sweep men away in the sleep of death… You have set our iniquities before you… Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom." (Psalm 90:5-12)

Solving the Riddle of Death

In this Psalm we find a clue that helps us understand our painful feelings about death. Moses repeatedly says that our sin provokes God’s wrath and ultimately brings death upon ourselves.[2] Reading through this Psalm, we hear echoes of God’s punishment against the Israelites, "The Lord’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the desert for forty years, until the whole generation of those who had done evil in his sight was gone." (Numbers 32:13)

When we understand sin as the root cause of death we realise why death evokes so many negative feelings. We’ve seen how it affects people, but now we will consider death from God’s perspective.

God is Repulsed by Death

As human beings we instinctively feel a sense of disgust at the stench emanating from a dead, decaying body. We should not be surprised therefore, to learn that God is also repulsed by death. Through Moses God gave instructions relating to death. People were not allowed to enter the holy tabernacle for seven days if they had touched a bone or carried a corpse to be buried. People also became ritually defiled if they were in a house where someone died. Of course, these instructions were not complete without providing a way of purification[3] so that one could re-enter the tabernacle to worship God. (Numbers chapter 19)

God Does Not Take Pleasure in Death

God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel warning the Israelites to repent and stop sinning or they would die. "Why will you die, O house of Israel… I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live." (Ezekiel 18:31,32)

God is Opposed to Death, He Will Destroy It

Seeing that God’s attitude to death is so negative, it should not surprise us to read in the writings of Isaiah the prophet, "On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces… The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us… let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’" (Isaiah 25:7-9) This promise is truly remarkable, but how will it be fulfilled?

How Will God Defeat Death?

A day is coming when God will raise people from the grave. Death will be overpowered. People will be released from death’s grip. The apostle John also spoke of this day. He described what life will be like for believers, after the day of resurrection. "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4; compare surah 44.56)[4] The thought of "wiping away tears" calls to mind the prophecy we have been pondering, where God said he will defeat death.

Seeing how this prophecy will eventually be fulfilled in heaven inspires hope. God provided another clue to help us understand how he will destroy death. And this clue is in the here and now – not way off in the distant future. Isaiah foretold that a special ‘Servant’ "will bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6) Bear in mind that Isaiah spoke of defeating death as the day of ‘salvation’. "On that day, they will say… ‘let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’."

"Who is this ‘servant’ who will bring God’s salvation?" Seven hundred years after Isaiah gave this prophecy, a child was born of a virgin. God gave him a special name through an angel. I’m sure you recognise who this person is, but what does his name mean? Jesus (‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew) literally means ‘God is salvation’, which fits Isaiah’s prophecy about salvation. The meaning of the name is reflected further in Messiah’s actions and character.

Jesus healed people who were stricken with terminal illnesses, such as leprosy. Such miracles saved people from dying and, in a sense, showed power over death (Matthew 11:5, surah 5.113)

But Jesus did more than save people from the ‘brink of death’. He saved them after they went ‘over the brink’, in other words, he raised them from the grave. This miracle showed power over death even more dramatically. But this miraculous sign was small in comparison to what will eventually happen. Jesus foretold that, "a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself… Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out . (John 5:25-29) It is important to notice that all the dead "will hear his voice and come out".

This remarkable teaching about the resurrection is reinforced in a conversation Jesus had at the graveside of Lazarus. Jesus comforted the grieving sister, Martha, saying, "Your brother will rise again."

"Yes", Mary said, "When everyone else rises on resurrection day."

Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish." (John 11:23-26)

These words help us understand what Jesus meant when he said, "all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out." Think about it, if an ordinary person claimed to be ‘the resurrection’ it would seem incredible, even preposterous. However, Jesus proceeded to raise Lazarus, thus proving he had the right to make such a claim.

If you were Mary, and you saw your brother who was dead for 4 days come out of the grave alive, would you doubt that the Messiah is ‘the resurrection’? Clearly God has authorized him to raise everyone from their graves on the day of resurrection.

Having carefully examined how Isaiah the prophet predicted the destruction of death we have noted that it fits with God’s plan to bring salvation through his Servant the Messiah. We have seen how the Messiah’s God-given name, Jesus, and his miracles were also consistent with this prophecy. There is, however, one more detail, in Isaiah’s prophecy that we need to consider.

Where Will Death Be Defeated?

According to Isaiah’s prophecy the battle against death will take place ‘on this mountain' (Isaiah 25:7)." But the mountain is not named so we must look in the preceding paragraph where it is named, "Mount Zion, Jerusalem". (Isaiah 24:23)

But Isaiah was not the only one to predict where this battle would happen. The Messiah gave a similar prophecy, identifying Jerusalem as the place where he would clash with death and rise triumphant. In the gospel of Luke Jesus took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again." (Luke 18:32,33)

Ponder what Jesus foretold and you will realise that it confirms Isaiah’s prophecy of the defeat of death, particularly the place where this would happen – namely, Jerusalem.

A Fitting Climax

The resurrection was a fitting conclusion to Messiah’s life – in contrast to the one mentioned in the Qur’an. Think about these two alternatives and ask yourself, "Which one fits better with God’s plan to conquer death through his servant the Messiah?"

Christ’s resurrection, as taught in the Bible, is an exceptional demonstration of power over death, implying that he defeated death. In addition scripture describes Christ’s resurrection as a triumphant act of Almighty God, who "released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life again, for death could not keep him in its grip." (Acts 2:24)

From a Muslim viewpoint the Messiah will return to earth near the end. He will live for 40 more years and then die and be buried. Do you think it is a fitting conclusion to Messiah’s life to believe that he will die and lie motionless in a grave until the day of resurrection?

Here is another question to ponder: Does it make sense to imagine on resurrection day that Christ will be in a grave and, from that helpless position, he will summon "all who are in their graves to come out"? Doesn’t it seem more reasonable to believe that the Messiah makes this proclamation while he is alive and well? The Bible says Jesus will summons the whole world – not from inside the grave - but from an exalted position in heaven.

In conclusion we note Jesus words, "Don’t be afraid, I am the First and the Last. I am the living one who died. Look, I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death and the grave." (Revelation 1:17,18)

Summary

It is not difficult to see that God hates and punishes sin but we cannot understand the real meaning of sin until we realise the terrible consequences. Sin leads to death. Yet God does not want to inflict pain on us or grieve us. He is compassionate and wants to comfort us – to wipe away our tears. Indeed, God will eventually do this - but not without first destroying death.

Making These Truths Personal

Perhaps you are wondering, "How can I experience the compassion and comfort of God as Martha did?" In her grief Martha expressed her regret that Jesus arrived too late to heal her brother Lazarus. Jesus could have healed him and spared her much weeping. What she didn’t realise was that Jesus was able to raise Lazarus from the grave, not just heal him from the sick bed. When Jesus finally did raise him to life, Martha felt a deeper sense of comfort than if Jesus had intervened earlier and healed him from sickness.

We realise that in one respect Martha was only temporarily comforted because Lazarus eventually died after aging like all mortals. Therefore this temporary comfort was only a foretaste of something much greater – a comfort and peace that transcends this life. Like Martha, you and I must believe that Jesus is "the resurrection and the life". Like her you can find eternal comfort in the Messiah’s promise, "Those who believe in me, even though they die, like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish. Do you believe this Martha?" (John 11:23-26)

Martha responded from her heart with a sincere "yes". And what about you, what is your response?

Your response to Jesus might be clouded by opposing ideas instilled from childhood – one example is the cross. You may also struggle with strong feelings, perhaps even anger about death. Experts tell us that anger is a normal part of the process of coping with death. It is interesting to see that Jesus expresses holy anger against death as he saw the people weeping by the graveside of Lazarus. We read that "When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled." (John 11:33)

This helps us understand that our anger can be appropriate but it mustn’t distract us from seeing Jesus as the conqueror of death and the giver of eternal life.

We have already learned that sin is the root of death. The answer to this root problem is Jesus Christ. Scripture clearly teaches that the Messiah came as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29; Genesis 22:1-14) If you admit your sin and believe that Jesus died in your place, for your sin, you can know God’s forgiveness. Only by believing in Messiah’s death and resurrection can you face death without fear of judgement.

Pondering a Proverb

Do you remember the proverb we read near the beginning? -- "A good reputation is more valuable than the most expensive perfume. In the same way, the day you die, is better than the day you are born." (Ecclesiastes 7:1,2)

This proverb is connected to the topic we’ve been discussing, the topic of death. Is there is any connection between expensive perfume and death? In ancient times – and even today – people sometimes arrange to have their body anointed with expensive perfume before burial. But how long does this good aroma last -- before decay sets in and bad odours overpower the most pleasant aroma?

When a godly person is buried, his good reputation lingers on. It lasts longer than expensive perfume. But how does this help us to understand the second half of the proverb? We read in Psalm 116:15, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." Proverbs 14:32 tells us, "The wicked are crushed by their sins but the godly have a refuge when they die." The prophet Isaiah expressed a similar confidence, "the godly who die will rest in peace... we have this assurance: those who belong to God will live; their bodies will rise again!" (Isaiah 57:1,2; 26:19)

The day a righteous man dies is better than the day of his birth because he goes to a better place where there is "no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4) "In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality." (Proverbs 12:28) In a similar way, the apostle Paul explained, "when we die and leave these bodies - we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself." Speaking of the hereafter, Paul said, "to depart and be with Christ ... is better by far." (2 Corinthians 5:1-6; Philippians 1:21-24)

Further understanding of what Solomon is saying in the proverb is found in the example of our Lord Jesus. Shortly before Christ died he explained that his death would be a gateway to glory, "The time has come for the Son of man to enter into his glory. The truth is, a kernel of wheat must be planted in the soil. Unless it dies, it will be alone-a single seed. But its death will produce many new kernels." (John 12:23,24) Jesus was able to face "a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterwards." (Hebrews 12:2) What was this joyous occasion Christ looked forward to after his crucifixion? We read that he "offered himself to God as one sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down at the place of highest honor at God's right hand." (Hebrews 10:12) Clearly Christ's death paved the way for his glorious exaltation.

We have learned that Jesus the Messiah "holds the keys of death and the grave", so for those who trust in him, death becomes a stepping stone to immortality. This is reinforced by the words of Jesus Christ, "a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out - those who have done good[5] will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned .... For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 5:28,29; 6:40)

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ENDNOTES

1   Muslims believe they should meditate daily on death because fear of death helps keep them on the right path. In a book entitled, ‘Sakrat Nama: The Agony of Death’, Muslims are warned that the "prophets even feared this moment. O how terrible is the day of death. Adam and Noah wept day and night due to the agony of death. Jonas sighed and wept about this affair because he felt there was not a more horrible time in the world… death is inevitable and our heart is overwhelmed by its fear." (p. 2,3)

2   God’s wrath is terrible – awful enough to wipe out a whole generation but could he destroy a whole people? God clearly implied this when he spoke through the prophet Malachi saying, "I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you, descendants of Jacob, are not already completely destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my laws and failed to obey them. Now return to me and I will return to you." says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:6,7) The fact of the matter is: If God were to unleash his wrath against sin without showing any patience and mercy, he would not leave anyone on earth. The Bible states this clearly, as does also the Qur’an (Genesis 6:5-8; Zephaniah 1:18; Isaiah 57:16; surah 16.61) Some communities in our world today are seeing AIDS wipe out virtually a whole generation. Are we humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God?

3   Muslims place great importance on maintaining ritual cleanness in regard to burying their dead. They have elaborate cleaning procedures for cleaning the dead person’s body (ghusl). Muslims are very careful to protect the dead from being contaminated by the living e.g. from women who are in their monthly cycle of uncleanness. A careful look at the instructions Moses gave reveals that the Muslim procedures contradict what God revealed in the Torah. According to the Torah, the danger of defilement is a danger for the living not for the dead. Defilement comes on the living from the dead, not the other way around (Numbers 19). Cleansing is performed on those who are alive, not on the dead.

4   Similarly, the Qur’an says that in Paradise believers will not "taste Death, except the first Death; and He will preserve them from the chastisement of the Blazing Fire." (surah 44.56)

5   The question arises, "How do good deeds relate to true spirituality?" This was essentially what the Jewish leaders wanted to know when they asked Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Notice how they framed the question so as to emphasize 'works'. This is not surprising since Judaism emphasized doing ritual good deeds in order to earn merit with God. Jesus' response took them by surprise, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:28,29). Having true faith in the Messiah makes eternal life with God an absolute certainty. The issue is essentially a matter of believing in God's Messiah - something the Pharisees were not willing to do. Moreover, if one genuine faith this will "show itself by good deeds" (James 2:17ff)

If the Jewish leaders had been following the scripture faithfully they would have known that "they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live for ever and never see the grave." (Psalm 49:7,8) God, however, does redeem us (verse 15). He ransomed us by providing his Messiah to be the sacrificial Lamb. Jesus confirmed this was God’s redemptive plan, saying, "I, the Son of Man came ... to serve others and to give my life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) You may like to check the following article which shows how Jesus Christ fulfilled God’s ancient promise of a lamb as revealed through Abraham.

 



PSALM 49 verses 1-15 (A meditation probing the riddle of the meaning of death)

Listen to this everyone in the world! High and low, rich and poor – listen! For my words are wise … filled with insight. I listen carefully to many proverbs and solve riddles with inspiration from a harp.

There is no need to fear when times of trouble come, when enemies are surrounding me. They trust in their

wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave. Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind. The grave is their eternal home, where they will stay forever. They may name their estates after themselves, but they leave their wealth to others. They will not last long despite their riches – they will die like the animals.

This is the fate of fools, though they will be remembered as being so wise. (Interlude)

Like sheep they are led to the grave, where death will be their shepherd. In the morning the godly will rule over them. Their bodies will rot in the grave, far from their grand estates.

But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of death….