By Billy Graham
There is but a step between me and death. --1 Samuel 20:3
IT HAS been said that all of life is but a preparation for death.
The psalmist said: "What man can live and not see death? (Psalm 89:48).
This is supposed to be a free-thinking age of radical experiment. We have sought to change the world and the laws which govern it through knowledge, science, invention, discovery, philosophy, and materialistic thinking. We have tried to enthrone the false gods of money, fame, and human intelligence; but however we try, the end is always the same: "It is appointed unto men once to die" (Hebrews 9:27).
In the midst of life, we see death on every hand. The wail of the ambulance, the illuminated mortuary signs, the graveyards we so frequently pass, and the sight of a hearse threading its way through traffic, all remind us that the Grim Reaper may call for us at any moment. None of us can be sure when that exact moment will be, but we are well aware that it may come at any time.
Someone has said, "The only certain thing about life is death." Oscar Wilde said, "One can survive everything nowadays -- except death!" Books on death and dying have proliferated in recent days -- as have books by those who claim to have experienced death and come back to tell about it. Rather than looking for a way to make our peace with God, the world has instead come up with classes on dying and how to face death -- accepting it as a normal part of living. Actually, all mankind is sitting on Death Row. How we die or when is not the main issue, but where do we go after death.
Each year many Americans step into their automobiles little realizing this to be their last ride. In 1980, fifty-two thousand Americans died in automobile accidents. In spite of all the increased safety measures, another forty-six thousand persons were killed in accidents at home, when all thought of death was far from their minds. For death stalks mankind relentlessly, and although medical science and safety engineers wage a constant war against it, in the end, death is always the victor.
Because of this long-fought scientific battle, we now have the advantage of a few years more of life, but death is still standing at the end of the road, and the life span of the average person does not far exceed the biblical three score years and ten.
Heart diseases still cut down far too many of our citizens in the prime of life. Cancer still presses its pain into the bodies of thousands. Blood disorders take their toll, although medical research has greatly decreased their annual number. Herpes and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) are the illnesses of the '80s. They are on the rise around the world and have been reported on all the major continents. But however optimistic the statistical surveys, however much our life span has been increased since 1900, whatever the figures may show on murder, suicide, and other forms of violent death, the inevitable fact of death remains unchanged -- it is still our ultimate experience on earth!
A Lifelong Battle
From the moment a child is born, the death process, and the fight against it, begins. The mother devotes years of attention to protecting the life of her child. She watches the food, the clothes, the environment, the medical checkups and inoculations, but in spite of her loving care, the child has already begun to die.
Before many years the tangible signs of weakness will be obvious. The dentist will check the decay of our teeth. Glasses will be needed to help improve our fading vision. Skin will wrinkle and sag as time passes, and our shoulders will droop and our step become slower and less sure. The brittleness of our bones will increase as our energy lessens. Almost without realizing it we have begun to move closer to death.
Health insurance and hospitalization will be used to help us cushion the blow. Life insurance will be purchased to cover our final expenses and obligations, and we shall suddenly see our whole life as a great and never-ending battle with death. We shall see that we are all running a race in which the most we can hope for is a little more time; and, outwit our opponent as we may, in the end we know that death will always win!
What a mysterious thing is this enemy of ours -- as mysterious as life itself. For the life that we see so plentifully around us in plants and animals, as well as in human beings, cannot be reproduced by us, or even explained. Death is also without explanation, although we are as aware of its presence as we are of life. How little we like to talk about it, however, or consider its importance! When life comes, and a child is born, we rejoice. When life goes, and a man dies, we try to dismiss the thought as quickly as possible.
Today (1984) there are something like five billion people living on this planet. Almost all of them will be dead in a hundred years. Their bodies will be without feeling. But what about their souls -- the essential and eternal part of life? Here is the mystery. What is missing when a man dies? Where does that missing thing go?
Why Do Men Reject God?
Some years ago a newspaper columnist died in Denver, Colorado. The mourners listened to his recorded voice at the funeral when he said, "This is my funeral. I am an atheist and have been for many years. I have the utmost contempt for theological nonsense. Clergymen are moral cowards. Miracles are the product of the imagination. If any four reporters were sent to an execution and got their facts as twisted as the apostles in the Bible report, they would be fired forthwith. I want no religious songs. This is going to be a perfectly rational funeral."
Contrast this to the beautiful description of death pictured by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem, In Memorian: "God's finger touched him, and he slept."
Every age has produced men who in their hatred of God have attempted to heap ridicule and abuse upon the church, the Scriptures, and Jesus Christ. Without presenting evidence they cry out against the voice of God. History testifies of the George Bernard Shaws, the Robert Ingersolls, the B.F. Skinners and many other philosophers who strove, by argument, to destroy the fear of death.
Listen to the anthropologist tell of death in the jungle. There is no "theological nonsense" there, for they have not heard of Jesus Christ. What of death there? In some tribes the old are turned into the bush so that the wild animals might attack them and death need not be faced by the young. In another tribe the clothes are stripped off and the bodies of the mourners painted with white. Hour after hour the moans and screams of the women tell the world that a soul is about the leave a body. Death outside of Christian influence is filled with horror and despair -- or, at best, resignation and indifference. Among the Moslems, for instance, death is looked forward to in anticipation, for Moslems believe that great pleasures await the faithful -- if they die while killing infidels or fighting for their faith.
Compare this to the death of the Christian. When Christ came He gave a new approach to death. Man had always looked upon death as an enemy, but Jesus said that He had conquered death and taken the very sting out of death. Jesus Christ was the Master Realist when He urged men to prepare for death, which was certain to come. Do not worry, said the Lord Jesus, about the death of the body, but rather concern yourself with the eternal death of the soul.
I think of Helen Morken who, as she lay dying, was surrounded by her husband and children singing hymns for hours each day. Literally, she was sung into the presence of the Lord. And I think of those saints of God described by Alexander Smellie in his book, Men of the Covenant. He tells of the great men of faith who died during those "killing times" in Scotland when executions were anything but pleasant. There were no electric chairs, firing squads, lethal injections to make death as painless as possible. It was a time of torture -- thumb screws, the boot, of being hanged and then quartered. For this reason, each man described by Smellie had a horror of death. Yet, each one, when he came to the actual point of dying, died in an ecstasy of joy!
The Bible indicates that there are actually two deaths: one is physical death and the other is eternal death. Jesus warned that we are to fear the second death far more than the first death. He described the second death as hell, which is eternal separation from God. He indicated that the death of your body is nothing compared to the conscious everlasting banishment of a soul from God.
The Death of a Saint
The last statements of dying men provide an excellent study for those who are looking for realism in the face of death.
Matthew Henry -- "Sin is bitter. I bless God I have inward supports."
Martin Luther -- "Our God is the God from whom cometh salvation: God is the Lord by whom we escape death."
John Knox -- "Live in Christ, live in Christ, and the flesh need not fear death."
John Wesley -- "The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!
Richard Baxter -- "I have pain; but I have peace. I have peace."
William Carey, the missionary -- "When I am gone, speak less of Dr. Carey and more of Dr. Carey's Savior."
Adoniram Judson -- "I am not tired of my work, neither am I tired of the world; yet when Christ calls me home, I shall go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school."
How different is the story of the Christian who has confessed his sin and by faith received Jesus Christ as his personal Savior! For many years Dr. Effie Jane Wheeler taught English and literature where I attended college. Dr Wheeler was noted for her piety as well as for her knowledge of the subjects she taught. In May of 1949, on Memorial Day, Dr. Wheeler wrote the following letter to Dr. Edman, then president of the college, her colleagues, and former students:
I greatly appreciate the moment in chapel that may be given to reading this, for before you leave for the summer I should like to have you know the truth about me as I learned it myself only last Friday. My doctor at last has given what has been his real diagnosis of my illness for weeks -- an inoperable case of cancer. Now if he had been a Christian he wouldn't have been so dilatory or shaken, for he would have known, as you and I do, that life or death is equally welcome when we live in the will and presence of the Lord. If the Lord has chosen me to go to Him soon, I go gladly. Please do not give a moment's grief for me. I do not say a cold goodbye but rather a warm Auf Wiedersehen till I see you again -- in the blessed land where I may be allowed to draw aside a curtain when you enter. With a heart full of love for every individual of you. (Signed) Effie Jane Wheeler.
Just two weeks after writing this letter, Dr. Wheeler entered the presence of her Savior, who had kept His promise to take the sting out of death.
While we were writing this chapter, in one mail we received four letters. One was from a ninety-four-year-old saint, eager to be with her Lord; one from a woman on Death Row who, since becoming a Christian six years ago, can now look beyond her approaching execution to the glory that lies ahead; and two letters from women whose husbands had just died after many years of marriage (one just short of their forty-ninth wedding anniversary). Each is looking beyond death to the glory that lies ahead.
The great Dwight L. Moody on his deathbed said: "This is my triumph; this is my coronation day! It is glorious!"
The Bible teaches that you are an immortal soul. Your soul is eternal and will live forever. In other words, the real you -- the part of you that thinks, feels, dreams, aspires; the ego, the personality -- will never die. The Bible teaches that your soul will live forever in one of two places -- heaven or hell. If you are not a Christian and you have never been born again, then the Bible teaches that your soul goes immediately to a place Jesus called Hades, where you will await the judgment of God.
An Unpopular Subject
I am conscious of the fact that the subject of hell is not a very pleasant one. It is very unpopular, controversial, and misunderstood. In my crusades across the country, however, I usually devote one evening to the discussion of this subject. Following my discussion many letters to the editors of newspapers appear for days as people argue the pros and cons, for the Bible has almost as much to say about this subject as any other. In student discussions on many campuses of America I am continually asked the question, "What about hell? Is there fire in hell?" and similar questions. As a minister I must deal with it. I cannot ignore it, even though it makes people uncomfortable and anxious. I grant that it is the hardest of all teachings of Christianity to receive.
There are those who teach that everybody eventually will be saved, that God is a God of love and He will never send anyone to hell. They believe that the words eternal or everlasting do not actually mean forever. However, the same word which speaks of eternal banishment from God is also used for the eternity of heaven. Someone has said that "fairness demands that we make the joy of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked both qualify, as they are the same Greek word and of the same duration."
There are others who teach that after death those who have refused to receive God's plan of redemption are annihilated, they cease to exist. In searching the Bible from cover to cover I cannot find one shred of evidence to support this view. The Bible teaches that whether we are saved or lost, there is conscious and everlasting existence of the soul and personality.
There are others who teach that after death there is still a possibility of salvation, that God will offer a second chance. If this is true, the Bible gives no hint of it because the Bible is continually warning that "now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).
What the Bible Says
Scores of passages of Scripture could be quoted to support the fact that the Bible does teach there is hell for every man who willingly and knowingly rejects Christ as Lord and Savior:
"I am tormented in this flame" (Luke 16:24).
"Whosoever shall say, You fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22)
"The Son of Man shall send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:41-42).
"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:49-50).
"Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41).
"But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12).
"He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
"He, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever; and they have no rest day or night" (Revelation 14:10-11).
"And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14-15).
"But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars -- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death" (Revelation 21:8).
But I hear someone say, "I don't believe in hell. My religion is the Sermon on the Mount."
Well, let's listen to a passage from the Sermon on the Mount: "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30).
Here we have the distinct teaching of Jesus that there is a hell. In fact, Jesus told stories and gave illustrations on the subject and warned men time after time about the folly of living a sinful and hypocritical life here on earth.
Hell on Earth
There is no doubt that wicked men suffer a certain hell here on earth. The Bible says, "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23). Again the Bible says, "Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7). However, there is evidence all around us to show that some wicked men seem to prosper and the righteous suffer for their righteousness. The Bible teaches that there is going to be a time of equalization when justice shall be done. Someone has said that "we are not punished for our sins but by them." Both are true.
Will a loving God send a man to hell? The answer is -- yes, because He is just. But He does not send him willingly. Man condemns himself by his refusal of God's way of salvation. In love and mercy, God is offering to men and women a way of escape, a way of salvation, a hope and anticipation of better things. Man in his blindness, stupidity, stubbornness, egotism, and love of sinful pleasure refuses God's simple method of escaping the pangs of eternal banishment.
Suppose I am sick and call a doctor, who comes and gives me a prescription. But after thinking it over I decide to ignore his advise and to refuse the medicine. When he returns a few days later he might find my condition much worse. Could I blame the doctor, could I hold him responsible? He gave me the prescription. He prescribed the remedy. But I refused it!
Just so, God prescribes the remedy for the ills of the human race. That remedy is personal faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. The remedy is to be born again, as we will discuss in another chapter. If we deliberately refuse it, then we must suffer the consequence; and we cannot blame God. Is it God's fault because we refuse the remedy?
The man who refuses to believe in life after death, in heaven to gain or hell to shun, the man who refuses to believe what God says in His Word about heaven and hell awakes in the next life to find that he has been wrong, he has lost everything. In People magazine, one of the nation's leading gamblers, Lem Banker, has been quoted as saying, "Never bet what you want to win, only what you can afford to lose." Can you afford to lose your eternal soul?
There are others who ask, "What is the nature of hell?" There are four words that have been translated in our Bible as "hell." One word is Sheol, which is translated thirty-one times as "hell" in the Old Testament. It means an "unseen state." The words of sorrow, pain, and destruction are used in connection with it.
The second word is Hades, which is translated from the Greek and used ten times in the New Testament. It means the same as Sheol in the Old Testament. Judgment and suffering are always connected with it.
The third word is Tartarus, used only once in 2 Peter 2:4, where it says that disobedient angels are cast into Tartarus. It indicates a place of judgment, such as a prison, or dungeon, where there is intense darkness.
The fourth word is Gehenna, used eleven times, and translated as "hell" in the New Testament. It is the illustration that Jesus used of the Valley of Hinnon, a place outside Jerusalem where rubbish and debris were burned continually.
Others ask, "Does the Bible teach literal fire in hell?" If it is not literal fire, it is something worse. Jesus would not have exaggerated. There is no doubt that the Bible many times uses the word fire figuratively. However, God does have a fire that burns and yet does not consume.
When Moses saw the bush of fire, he was amazed to find that the bush was not consumed. The three Hebrew young men were put in a fiery furnace, but they were not consumed; in fact, not a hair of their heads was singed.
On the other hand, the Bible talks about our tongues being "set on fire of hell" (James 3:6) every time we speak evil about our neighbors. That does not mean that literal combustion takes place every time we say something against our neighbors. But whether it be literal or figurative does not affect its reality. If there is no fire, then God is using symbolic language to indicate something that could be far worse.
Separation from God
Essentially, hell is separation from God. It is the second death, which is described as the eternal conscious banishment from the presence of all that is light, joyous, good, righteous, and happy. The Bible has many fearful descriptions concerning this awful condition in which the soul will find itself one minute after death.
It is strange that men will prepare for everything except death. We prepare for education. We prepare for business. We prepare for our careers. We prepare for marriage. We prepare for old age. We prepare for everything except the moment we are to die. And yet the Bible says it is appointed unto all of us once to die (Hebrews 9:27).
Death is an occurrence that to each man seems unnatural when related to himself, but natural when related to others. Death reduces all men to the same rank. It strips the rich of his millions and the poor man of his rags. It cools avarice and stills the fires of passion. All would like to ignore death, and yet all must face it -- the prince and the peasant, the fool and the philosopher, the murderer and the saint alike. Death knows no age limits, no partiality. It is a thing that all men fear.
Toward the end of his life, Daniel Webster related how once he attended a church service in a quiet country village. The clergyman was a simple-hearted, pious old man. After the opening exercises he arose and pronounced his text, and then with the utmost simplicity and earnestness said, "My friends, we can die but once."
Daniel Webster, commenting on this sermon, later said, "Frigid and weak as these words might seem, at once they were to me among the most impressive and awakening I ever heard."
An Appointment with Death
It is easy to think of others having to keep this appointment with death, but difficult for us to remember that we, too, must keep this same appointment. When we see soldiers going to the front or read of a condemned prisoner or visit a dying friend, we are conscious of a certain solemnity which gathers about such persons. Death is appointed for all, and the question of its occurrence is merely a matter of time. Other appointments in life -- the appointment of pleasure -- we can neglect or break and take the consequence, but here is an appointment that no man can ignore, no man can break. He can meet it only once, but meet it he must!
If physical death were the only consequence of a life lived apart from God, we would not have so much to fear, but the Bible warns that there is the second death, which is the eternal banishment from God.
However, there is a brighter side. As the Bible pronounces hell for the sinner, it also promises heaven for the saint. A saint has been described as a sinner who has been forgiven. The subject of heaven is much easier to accept than the subject of hell. And yet the Bible teaches both.
If you are moving to a new home, you want to know all about the community to which you are going. If you are transferring to another city, you want to know all about the city -- its railroads, industries, parks, lakes, schools, etc. And since we are going to spend eternity someplace, we ought to know something about it. The information concerning heaven is found in the Bible. It is right that we should think about it and talk about it. In talking about heaven, earth grows shabby by comparison. Our sorrows and problems here seem so much less when we have keen anticipation of the future. In a certain sense the Christian has heaven here on earth. He has peace of soul, peace of conscience, and peace with God. In the midst of troubles and difficulties he has an inner peace and joy, not dependent on circumstances.
There Is a Heaven
But the Bible also promises the Christian a heaven in the life hereafter. Someone asked John Quincy Adams at the age of ninety-four how he felt one morning. He said, "Quite well. Quite well. But the house I live in is not so good." Even though the house we live in may be sick and weak, we can actually feel strong and sure if we are Christians. Jesus taught there is a heaven.
There are a number of passages that could be quoted, but the most descriptive is found in John 14:2: "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am there you may be also". Paul was so certain of heaven that he could say, "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).
How different is the anticipation of the Christian and that of the agnostic Bob Ingersoll, who said at the grave of his brother, "Life is a narrow veil between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights.
We cry aloud and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry."
The Apostle Paul said time after time, "We know," "We are confident," "We are always confident." The Bible says that Abraham "looked for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God."
Many people say, "Do you believe that heaven is a literal place?" Yes! Jesus said, "I go to prepare a place for you." The Bible teaches that Enoch and Elijah ascended in a literal body to a literal place that is just as real as Hawaii, Switzerland, the Virgin Islands, or more so!
Many people have asked, "Where is heaven?" We are not told in the Scripture where heaven is. Nor does it matter. It will be heaven and Christ will be there to welcome us home.
A Place of Beauty
The Bible teaches that this country will be a place of beauty. It is described in the Bible as "a building of God" -- "a city" -- "a better country" -- "an inheritance" -- "a glory."
You may ask, "Will we know each other in heaven?" The Bible indicates in a number of places that it will be a time of grand reunion with those who have gone on before.
Others say, "Do you believe that children will be saved?" Yes. The Bible indicates that God does not hold a child accountable for his or her sins until he or she reaches the age of accountability. There seems to be plenty of indication that the atonement covers their sin until they reach an age at which they are responsible for their own right and wrong actions.
The Bible also indicates that heaven will be a place of great understanding and knowledge of things that we never learned down here.
Sir Isaac Newton, when an old man, said to one who praised his wisdom, "I am as a child on the seashore picking up a pebble here and a shell there, but the great ocean of truth still lies before me."
And Thomas Edison once said, "I do not know one millionth part of one percent about anything."
Many of the mysteries of God, the heartaches, trials, disappointments, tragedies, and the silence of God in the midst of suffering will be revealed there. Eli Wiessel said that eternity is ". . . the place where questions and answers become one." And in John 16:23 Jesus says, "And in that day you will ask me nothing." All our questions will be answered!
Many people ask, "Well, what will we do in heaven? Just sit down and enjoy the luxuries of life?" No. The Bible indicates that we will serve God. There will be work to do for God. Our very beings will praise God. The Bible says, "And there shall be no more curse; but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him" (Revelation 22:3).
It will be a time of total joy, service, laughter, singing, and praise to God. Imagine serving Him forever and never growing tired!
Into the Presence of Christ
Now the Bible teaches to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The moment a Christian dies, he goes immediately into the presence of Christ. There his soul awaits the resurrection, when the soul and body will be rejoined.
Many people ask, "How can the bodies that have decayed or been cremated be raised?" God knows. But the new body that we will have will be a glorious body like the body of Christ. It will be an eternal body. It will never know tears, heartache, tragedy, disease, suffering, death, or fatigue. It will be a renewed body, but still recognizable.
Here we have a picture of two eternal worlds floating out into space. Every son of Adam will be on one or the other. There is a great deal of mystery surrounding both of them, but there are enough hints and implications in the Bible to give us light that one will be a world of tragedy and suffering and the other will be one of light and glory.
We have now seen the problems of the human race. Superficially, they are complex; basically, they are simple. We have seen that they could probably be summed up in one word -- sin. We have seen that man's future is hopeless without God. But just to analyze our problems and have an intellectual understanding of God's plan is not enough. If God is to help man, then man must meet certain conditions. In the next few chapters we will survey these conditions.