The following is an excerpt from Beautiful and Terrible Things, chapter 8, “Raised Imperishable.” A recent comic by my friend Michael Jantze made me think again about how we refer to death. I may be pushing my exegesis of 1 Cor. 15:20, but I think there is significance in Paul’s choice of terms. Jesus really did die, but in so doing we may now “fall asleep.” Still, I agree with Michael, we should not shy away from talking about death or those who have died.
In the New Testament, Paul refers to those who have died as having “fallen asleep.” In so doing, Paul is making the point that our death, as real and final as it is in this world, is just a temporary state before we will awaken to new and eternal life in Christ. The New Revised Standard Version masks this by rendering the term as “died,” but Paul uses this expression often and with purpose. For example, in talking about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 he reminds us of the fact that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” We actually have two different Greek words for the single English in the NRSV (always a poor decision in translation). In the first case it is the word for “dead,” nekron. The emphasis is upon the fact that Jesus was really dead and yet he was raised to life again. “Those who have died” are described as “those who have fallen asleep” (kekoimēmenōn). So, the sentence is better rendered as, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Paul’s is emphasizing that Jesus died, the death we all must follow, but as he rose from the dead, he transformed our death into a mortal sleep that will be followed by life eternal.
Yet we still have no clear explanation of what happens to us when we die.
I would suggest that this is not an accident. We know that humans have always been interested in what happens when we die. The fact that we do not find this topic explored, or better phrased, revealed in Scripture strongly suggests to me that it is a subject we should best leave alone. I don’t mean that we do not think about what has happened to our loved one or what will happen to us; I think about that all the time. What I mean is that the truth about the moment of death, that transition, is unknowable. Or, at least, it is not revealed in the Bible. Jesus, the only one who could tell us about it, chose not to. What Jesus did tell us is that “in my father’s house there are many rooms and I go to provide a place for you.” (My Uncle Freddie never liked the newer translations, preferring the grandeur of John 14:2 in the KJV. He said, “I have been promised a mansion and I want my mansion!” I feel confident he is not dissatisfied.) The mechanics of death and resurrection are absent, surprisingly so since it is a central tenet of our faith, and that tells me that our focus ought to be on living this life in the promise of the resurrection.
From: Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope, Christian Brady.