Death and Dying, What Happens at Death? By Jack Kettler
What Happens at Death? Death is one of the most certain realities: “it is appointed for men to die once.” (Hebrews 9:27)
There is a discipline called thanatology that started during the 20th Century. Thanatology can be defined as the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the review of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.
Thanatology, as defined, has overlapped with biblical pastoral counseling. Christian colleges offer training and certification in this area. The word thanatology comes from the Greek “thanatos,” which means death. It is good to understand the promises we see in Scripture on death and dying to increase our hope in the final resting place of believers.
Scriptures that are relevant about the death of the saints in the Lord:
God speaking to Moses:
“Then die on the mountain where you ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:50 NASB)
What does gathered to his people mean?
From Brown-Driver-Briggs we learn:
“אָסַף200 verb gather, remove (Assyrian asâpu, DlPr 45) —
Qal Perfect אָסַף Genesis 30:23 +; אָסַפְתָּ Psalm 85:4, etc.; Imperfect יֶּאֱסֹף 2 Kings 5:3; יַאַסְפֵנִי Psalm 27:10, etc.; also וַיֹּסֶף 2 Samuel 6:1; 2masculine singular תֹּסֵף Psalm 104:29; 1singular אֹסְפָה Micah 4:6; so probably (suffix) אִֹספְךָ 1 Samuel 15:6 (read אֹסִפְךָ) see Köi. 382 DrSm; Imperative אֱסֹף Numbers 21:16 + אֶסְפָה Numbers 11:16; 2feminine singular אִסְמִּי Jeremiah 10:17; אִסְפוּ Psalm 50:5 +; Infinitive absolute אָסֹף Jeremiah 8:13 + (Hiph`il, from סוף according to BaNB 73); construct אֱסֹף 2 Kings 5:7 +; אָסְמְּךָ Exodus 23:16; אָסְמְּכֶם Leviticus 23:39; Participle active אֹסֵף Numbers 19:10; אֹסִפְךָ 2 Kings 22:20; 2Chronicles 34:28 (pointed אִֹספְךָ i.e. Hiph`il; compare Köl.c.); אֹסְפָם Psalm 39:7; passive plural construct אֲסֻפֵי Ezekiel 34:29;
1 gather, collect (a) persons Genesis 29:22; Genesis 42:17 (followed by אֶלֿ) Exodus 3:16; Exodus 4:29; Numbers 11:16,24; Numbers 21:16; Joshua 2:18 (followed by אֶלֿ + הֿ locative) Joshua 24:1 (followed by הֿ locative; all these J E); 1 Samuel 5:8,11; 2 Kings 23:1 (followed by אֶלֿ) Joshua 2:16; Isaiah 11:12; Zephaniah 3:8; Habakkuk 2:5; Ezekiel 11:17 (all “” קבץ) +; collect men, people, armies, etc., for fighting Numbers 21:23 (E) Judges 11:20; 1 Samuel 17:1; 2 Samuel 10:17; 2 Samuel 12:29 +; compare Zechariah 14:2 (followed by עַלֿ against); (b) once object beasts Jeremiah 12:9; (c) things, especially fruits ofearth Exodus 23:10,16 (Cov’t code) Leviticus 25:3,20,39 (H) Deuteronomy 11:14; Deuteronomy 16:13; Deuteronomy 28:38; Isaiah 17:5; Jeremiah 40:10,12; Job 39:12; Psalm 39:7; compare Ruth 2:7 (“” לקט glean); the quails Numbers 11:32 (twice in verse); food in General (מַאֲכָל) Genesis 6:21 (followed by אֶלֿ); eggs Isaiah 10:14; money 2 Kings 22:4; 2Chronicles 24:11; ashes of red heifer Numbers 19:9,10; chariots 1 Kings 10:26; 2Chronicles 1:14, etc.; of fisherman (בְּמִכְמַרְתּוֺ, in metaphor) Habakkuk 1:15; of collecting wind Proverbs 30:4 מִי רֿוּחַ בְּחָפְנָיו׳א.
2 gather an individual into company of others: (a) object person especially gather to one’s father 2 Kings 22:20 (עַלאֲֿבֹתֶיךָ) = 2 Chronicles 34:28 (אֶלֿ; both “” Niph`al of same verb q. v. ); hence also (b) bring, object person 1 Samuel 14:52 (on form here see Dr) 2 Samuel 11:27 (both followed by אֶלֿ), association, responsibility, protection being implied; also of stray ox or sheep Deuteronomy 22:2 (followed by אֶלתּֿוֺח); hence also (c) take up, care for, subject ׳י Psalm 27:10 (compare perhaps Isaiah 40:11 קבץ); (d) draw up the feet upon the bed (אֶלֿ) Genesis 49:33.” (1)
As the lexicon notes, “gather an individual into the company of others.” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all were gathered to their people. Who are their people? God called Abraham or (Abram) out of Ur of the Chaldees, see Genesis 11:27-12:9. In Abraham’s case, many or all of his relatives were pagans. God called Abraham out of Ur and set him apart from his bloodline relatives. Were his bloodline relatives “his people” that he “was gathered to” that is referred to in the Deuteronomy passage? The answer must be no to this question. Whom was Moses gathered to?
The people Moses were gathered to must be the redeemed saints in the Old Testament that are now with the Lord in Heaven. Moses died on Mount Nebo. The relatives of Moses people did not die there. In the case of Aaron, he died on Mount Hor. Moses and Aaron died on two different mountains. So, gathered to his people cannot mean the physical grave. There are too many graves in different locations. Therefore, both Moses and Aaron were gathered to their people, the saints, in heaven.
In Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible in Deuteronomy 32:50, we see why this gathering place must be heaven:
“And die in the mount whither thou goest up, … Immediately after having taken a view of the land, expect to die, prepare for it, and willingly and cheerfully submit to it:
and be gathered unto thy people; to the spirits of just men made perfect in heaven, his more immediate and more remote ancestors, the souls of good men; for otherwise there were none that died, and were buried here, before him, and therefore can have no respect to the burying place of his people.” (2)
Gill makes the case that this gathering place must be heaven since both Moses and Aaron were buried in two different mountains.
What about Abraham’s Bosom? Can this explain, “Gathered unto thy people”?
As a necessary aside from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
booz’-um (kolpos Abraam; kolpoi Abraam):
Figurative. The expression occurs in Luke 16:22, 23, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, to denote the place of repose to which Lazarus was carried after his death. The figure is suggested by the practice of the guest at a feast reclining on the breast of his neighbor. Thus, John leaned on the breast of Jesus at supper (John 21:20). The rabbis divided the state after death (Sheol) into a place for the righteous and a place for the wicked (see ESCHATOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT; SHEOL), but it is doubtful whether the figure of Jesus quite corresponds with this idea. “Abraham’s bosom” is not spoken of as in “Hades,” but rather as distinguished from it (Luke 16:23)–a place of blessedness by itself. There Abraham receives, as at a feast, the truly faithful, and admits them to closest intimacy. It may be regarded as equivalent to the “Paradise” of Luke 23:43. James Orr” (3)
Abraham’s Bosom must be understood figuratively. Jesus’ use of the term was intended to convey comfort just like his Words to the thief on the cross about “Paradise.” Therefore, “Abraham’s Bosom” and “Paradise” must be equivalents.
Going on in the survey of passages about the death of the saints:
“Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10 ESV)
According to this passage in Numbers, the death of the upright is to be desired. Interesting, this prophecy about Israel is confirmed by Balaam who is speaking.
As John Gill notes regarding this passage about the death of the upright:
“‘the death of the true ones,’
who are truly righteous and upright, truly gracious persons; who have the truth of grace, and the root of the matter in them: these die as well as others, yet their death is different from others, not in the thing itself, but in the concomitants and consequences of it; they die in the Lord, in union to him, in faith of him, in hope of eternal life by him, and their death is precious to him; and in consequence of this they are carried by angels to glory at death are immediately in heaven with Christ, and it will be well with them to all eternity. Balaam had some notion of this; and though he did not care to live the life of such, he wished to die their death, or that he might be as happy at death as they; by which he bears a testimony to the immortality of the soul, to a future state after death, and to an eternal life and happiness to be enjoyed by good men.” (4)
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4 ESV)
Because God is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, we do not have to fear.
“For this God is our God forever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.” (Psalm 48:14 KJV)
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible on Psalm 48:14 is edifying:
“For this God is our God for ever and ever, Who is spoken of throughout the whole psalm as greatly to be praised, as well as is known in Zion, as the stability, security, and protection of her. This is said as pointing unto him as if visible, as Christ is God manifest in the flesh, now in Gospel times, to which this psalm belongs; as distinguishing him from all others, from the gods of the Gentiles, rejected by the people of God; as claiming an interest in him as their covenant God; as exulting in the view of such relation to him; as suggesting how happy they were on this account; and especially since this relation will always continue, being founded in an everlasting covenant, and arising from the unchangeable love of God;
he will be our guide, even unto death; the Lord orders the steps of the righteous, holds them by the right hand, and guides them with his counsel and in judgment: Christ, the great Shepherd of the flock, feeds them, as the antitype of David, according to the integrity of his heart, and guides them by the skilfulness of his hands; he guides their feet in the ways of peace, life, and salvation, by himself; he leads them into green pastures, beside the still waters, and unto fountains of living waters: the Spirit of the Lord leads them to the fulness of Christ; guides them into all truth, as it is in him; directs them into his and his Father’s love, and leads them on to the land of uprightness. And this guide is an everlasting one; “even unto death”, or “in death”, or “above death” (k); so as not to be hurt of the second death. He guides not only to the brink of Jordan’s river, but through the deep waters of it, and never leaves till he has landed them safe on the shores of eternity: and some, as Aben Ezra, render the word as if it was “for ever”; and others, as Abendana observes, render it “secretly”; the Lord sometimes leading his people in ways dark and hidden to them: and others give the sense of it, “as in the days of youth”; that is, God is the guide of his people in old age as in youth; he is always their guide, and ever will be: to which sense incline R. Moses in Aben Ezra, others in Kimchi and Abendana, and as also Jarchi and the Chaldee paraphrase; but Kimchi and Ben Melech render it as we do, “unto death”, or “unto our death”.” (5)
This comforting promise from Psalm 48 is personal to us when Gill says; “unto our death” God will be our guide.
The Psalmist continues:
“Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His saints.” (Psalm 116:15 KJV)
“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1 KJV)
Entering into the New Testament, we read:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4 ESV)
Mourning is part of a grieving process for our loved ones who die. Comfort shall come!
“And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, to day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 KJV)
These words of comfort to the repentant thief bring comfort to all the faithful.
“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (John 11:25-26 KJV)
“For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8 ESV)
As Paul notes, if we die, “we are the Lord’s.” As we see in the next passage from 2Corinthians, if we die, we are at home with the Lord.
“Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2Corinthians 5:8 ESV)
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible captures this great hope of Christians perfectly:
“We are confident – 2Corinthians 5:6. We are cheerful, and courageous, and ready to bear our trial. Tyndale renders it: “we are of good comfort.”
And willing rather to be absent from the body – We would prefer to die. The same idea occurs in Philippians 1:23. “Having a desire to depart and to be with Christ; which is far better.” The sense is that Paul would have preferred to die, and to go to heaven; rather than to remain in a world of sin and trial.
To be present with the Lord – The Lord Jesus; see the note on Acts 1:24; compare Philippians 1:23. The idea of Paul is, that the Lord Jesus would constitute the main glory of heaven, and that to be with him was equivalent to being in a place of perfect bliss. He had no idea of any heaven where the Lord Jesus was not; and to be with him was to be in heaven. That world where the Redeemer is, is heaven. This also proves that the spirits of the saints, when they depart, are with the Redeemer; that is, are at once taken to heaven. It demonstrates:
(1) That they are not annihilated.
(2) that they do not sleep, and remain in an unconscious state, as Dr. Priestley supposes.
(3) that they are not in some intermediate state, either in a state of purgatory, as the Papists suppose, or a state where all the souls of the just and the unjust are assembled in a common abode, as many Protestants have supposed; but,
(4) That they dwell with Christ; they are with the Lord (πρὸς τὸν Κυρίον pros ton Kurion). They abide in his presence; they partake of his joy and his glory; they are permitted to sit with him in his throne; Revelation 3:21.
The same idea the Saviour expressed to the dying thief, when he said, “today shalt thou be with me in paradise;” Luke 23:43.” (6)
“For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel.” (Colossians 1:5 KJV)
Keeping our eyes fixed upon heaven decreases our attachment to things of this earth.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if, we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” (1Thessalonians 4:13-14 KJV)
Paul gives encouragement to those whose loved ones have already passed.
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13 ESV)
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 ESV)
The following sermon from Spurgeon is a fitting close of this brief study.
Death is at Christ’s Disposal by C. H. Spurgeon:
“All the issues of death are at Christ’s disposal. No man can die unless Jesus opens the mystic door of death. It is our consolation that our death is entirely in his hands. In the midst of fever and pestilence, we shall never die until he wills it.
In the times of the greatest healthiness, when all the air is balmy, we shall not live a second longer than Jesus has purposed; the place, the circumstance, the exact second of our departure, have all been appointed by him, and settled long ago in love and wisdom.
A thousand angels could not hurl us to the grave, nor could a host of cherubim confine us there one moment after Jesus says, “Arise.”
This is our comfort. We are “immortal until our work is done;” mortal still, but immortal also.
Let us never fear death, then, but rather rejoice at the approach of it, since it comes at our dear Bridegroom’s bidding!
Christ has the key of death, and therefore death to us is no longer a gate of terror.
“Fear not” may be specially applied to the matter of the grave. We need not fear to die, because Jesus has the key of the grave. We shall never pass through that iron gate with an angel to be our conductor, or some grim executioner to lead us into a dreary place of hideous imprisonment. No, Jesus shall come to our dying bed, in all the glory of his supernal splendor, and shall say, “Come with me my spouse, for the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”
The sight of Jesus, as he thrusts in the key and opens that gate of death, shall make you forget the supposed terrors of the grave, for they are but suppositions, and you shall find it sweet to die.
Since Jesus has the sepulcher’s key, never fear it again, never fear it again.
Depend upon it; your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death.
It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall go no more down forever!
Let the fear of death be banished from you by faith in a living Savior.
“I have the keys of hell and of death.”
Excerpt from Christ with the Keys of Death and Hell by C. H. Spurgeon” (7)
From the above Scriptural passages, we see what blessings awaiting the believer when passing from death to life:
· An end of suffering – Matthew 5:4; Revelation 21:4
· The hope of heaven – Colossians 1:5
· Being reunited with the saints – Deuteronomy 32:50
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) And “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
1. Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew-English Lexicon, Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), p. 62-63.
2. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Psalms, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 535.
3. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, Entry for “Abraham’s Bosom,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 22.
4. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Numbers, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 345.
5. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Deuteronomy, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 466.
6. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, 2Corinthians, Vol. 2 p. 2976-2977.
7. Excerpt from Christ with the Keys of Death and Hell by C. H. Spurgeon
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM
For More Study:
Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying Available at Amazon.com
About the book Final Gifts:
In this moving and compassionate classic – now updated with new material from the authors -hospice Nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley share their intimate experiences with patients at the end of life, drawn from more than twenty years’ experience tending the terminally ill.
What to learn when reading this book? “My mother was nearing the end of a nearly 7-year battle with advanced breast cancer, when I found this wonderful book. Thank God I’m a fast reader, as her condition deteriorated rapidly, and she became bedridden and practically non-communicative within two days of the book’s arrival. Although her body seemed ready for death, something seemed to be holding her back, causing her to become agitated. Using the clues in the book, I realized that she was waiting for my father to say good bye and to tell her he’d be okay. Once I convinced him to do this, she passed peacefully about six hours later, surrounded by those she loved.” Anonymous
There are many stories like this in the book that help the relatives of loved ones who are close to death understand their loved one’s physical actions or verbal communications.