The Facts of Death
Some believe that we are the same as other Jews and have merely added our faith in Jesus as an extension of Judaism. This is not true! Our faith in Yeshua causes us to be different in many ways, and those differences are not insignificant. They are matters of life and death.…
I was too close to the edge! I tried to veer away but stumbled on a rock and was suddenly over the cliff. I grabbed for something, anything, to break my fall, but there was only the rush of air as I plummeted down, down, down. I wanted to scream but could not. My whole body tensed—and I awoke with a start.
Maybe you know the terror of such dreams and the relief of awakening. Perhaps you have also known real tragedy and you understand that death is not just for dreams or television or the cinema. Death and dying are as real as life itself.
Death is an ugly intruder that tears the soul and body asunder. There is no beauty in a corpse. A skilled mortician might create a pleasant illusion, but human beings have an inherent sense that a body no longer animated by a soul is somehow obscene. There is an inner nakedness that causes some to stare and others to avert their eyes.
Saturated as our society is with violence and images of death on television, it is surprising how most people exclude the subject from conversation. Death is a ubiquitous enemy, yet we find ways to anesthetize ourselves to its painful presence. People keep their thoughts and fears about death to themselves. There is a conspiracy of silence. Even believers may try to ignore the fact of death, postpone it for a while, but eventually it will lay claim to each of us and to those we love.
The good news is, we don’t have to be afraid!
Yeshua came to release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). Fear of death causes bondage, but Jesus has liberated us. We need not be part of the conspiracy of silence. We have a hope that is unlike that of the rest of the world. We have confidence in our eternal relationship with God through Yeshua. For us, death is but a door through which we pass into the presence of our Lord. We know that we will be united with Him and reunited with those we love in the Lord who have gone before us.
Whereas fear of death subjects people to bondage, confronting death liberates and produces something of great value. “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. …So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:10, 12).
It is time for us, as mishpochah, to speak frankly and help one another face the facts of mortality so that by God’s grace we may gain that heart of wisdom. Wisdom will help us recognize realities and overcome temptations in matters of life and death.
Unbelievers Do Not Share Our Hope
This is a harsh reality, but it is better to endure reality and act accordingly than to be lulled into passivity by an illusion.
Most unbelievers know that they do not have hope. My father tells the story of the funeral of his father, Nathan. Cancer had claimed Nathan’s life at an early age, but he, along with his wife (my grandma), my father and his brother had become believers just days before his death. At the graveside, my great-grandma was overcome by the loss of her son. Wailing and crying, she moaned in Yiddish, “Oh my Nathan, he’s in the ground, he’s in the ground. Oh my Nathan, he’s in the ground.” My grandma spoke softly through her tears to reply, “No, Mama, Nathan is not in the ground; he is in heaven with the Lord.” What a contrast. Had my grandfather died a few days earlier, his wife would have had no hope to share with his mother.
This contrast does not exist merely on an ordinary personal level. The unbeliever’s uncertainty about the hereafter is woven into the very fabric of Judaism. Compare and contrast the words of two first-century rabbis.
First, hear from one who knew Yeshua: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.…Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?'” (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).
That same rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, also wrote that he was hard pressed to say whether he preferred life or death. He was eager to depart this world and be with the Messiah, but he knew his death would leave a void among the living. Paul did not fear death; in fact he had to curb his desire for death in order to fulfill his responsibilities to younger believers who needed him.1 He had full confidence in his eternal destiny as well as the eternal destiny of all believers.2
Compare Paul’s thinking to that of the first-century rabbi who was the architect of modern-day Judaism and who did not know Yeshua:
When Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. When he saw them he began to weep. His disciples said to him: Lamp of Israel, pillar of the right hand, mighty hammer! Wherefore weepest thou? He replied: If I were being taken today before a human king who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, whose anger if he is angry with me does not last forever, who if he imprisons me does not imprison me for ever and who if he puts me to death does not put me to everlasting death, and whom I can persuade with words and bribe with money, even so I would weep. Now that I am being taken before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He who lives and endures forever and ever, whose anger, if He is angry with me, is an everlasting anger, who if He imprisons me imprisons me forever, who if He puts me to death puts me to death forever, and whom I cannot persuade with words or bribe with money—nay more, when there are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep?3
The pious Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai profoundly articulated the uncertainty, and thus the terror, death holds for those who have not accepted the reconciling work of the Messiah, Jesus. Most rabbis today do not speak with the certainty of Rabbi ben Zakkai regarding everlasting life and everlasting death, any more than they speak of a personal God who judges and determines eternal destiny.
Today’s frequent omission of statements about God and eternal destiny are part of the anesthetization that keeps people from a proper fear, a fear that tells them to concern themselves with God’s requirements. (After all, the Scriptures teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.) But what has not changed since the first century is the unbeliever’s statement, “I do not know…”
We believers in Jesus are different. Our hope springs from true faith in God’s provision, Yeshua, through whom we can and do know our destiny. Those who do not share the faith do not share our hope or our destiny. That lack of faith and hope causes people to be terrified of death.
People try to deny their terror by saying that all paths lead to God. They do not realize how very correct they are! All paths do lead to God. One path leads to Him as Father and Savior; the rest lead to Him as Judge. This adds great urgency to our obligation to tell others—especially our loved ones—of our hope in Jesus. A heart of wisdom recognizes that those who don’t know the Messiah do not share our hope, and it also recognizes that there are limited opportunities to expose them to the hope that we have in Jesus.
None of Us Knows How Much Time We Have
My pastor, Scott Rubin, has a heart of wisdom. He knows more about life and death than most other men in their thirties. If he doesn’t think something is worth his time, he’ll let you know—sometimes rather bluntly. But he always has time to pray, to pick up a weary traveler at the airport, to encourage a member of his congregation. He knows just how he wants to invest his time and his emotions. He is in the tenth year of life as a heart transplant survivor. Every day he takes drugs to restrain his immune system from mounting an attack on his heart. We hope and pray that he is with us for many more years, and I am sure he hopes the same. Meanwhile Pastor Scott makes each day count.
Any crisis can be productive if we respond by “numbering our days,” so as to use them to full advantage. But it isn’t necessary to undergo a crisis in order to confront our mortality and gain wisdom in the use of our time.
The fact of death should stimulate us to renewed vigor as we tell those who don’t know Messiah about our hope in Him. We have no idea how long we will be around to tell it, just as we do not know how long they will be around to hear. Physical death always looms larger than spiritual death, yet which should concern us more? In the grand scheme of things, spiritual death is far more significant. Yet it is physical death that makes the condition of spiritual death permanent.
Our own death may seem of little concern when compared to the death of loved ones who don’t know the Lord. Perhaps no other grief is as profound as that of losing close friends or relatives who have kept themselves outside of Christ. A heart of wisdom deals with grief honestly and redemptively. Anything short of that enables grief to fester and cause a sickness of soul.
We Must Be Truthful in Our Grief
There are many temptations to offset or deny the pain of losing an unbelieving loved one. Each temptation offers us a way to lessen the profound anguish, but none of us can afford the price. Our pain stems from the truth: an unbeliever’s death causes that person separation not only from us but also from God…forever.
The temptations to ease that pain each involve some deviation from the truth. We are not looking to be dishonest; we are simply trying not to hurt so much. If we allow ourselves to become desperate for relief from grief, we may loosen our grip on truth.
We may be tempted to create an illusion. Many people seek to manage their pain over the death of an unbeliever by saying, “Who knows, what if at the last moment, just before she passed into eternity, she said yes to Yeshua?” The more they dwell on this, the more certain they become that it is precisely what happened.
There are even those who insist that God personally revealed to them that beloved relatives had been saved, even though the relatives never indicated that they wanted Yeshua. Certainly God can reveal whatever He wants to whomever He chooses. But God does not reveal to anyone anything that is contrary to His Word or contrary to reality. I believe in the possibility of “death-bed conversions” vis-?-vis the thief on the cross. Yet even the thief on the cross confessed his faith.
We must never discount the grace of God, yet we cannot trade the truth for a pain remedy. People who insist that loved ones were saved at the last moment without any kind of evidence may not realize that they have violated their loved one’s right to choose. They also show a lack of trust in God. Creating illusions regarding unbelieving loved ones trivializes reality. Like all illusions, it may look like a blanket in cold weather, but the person who trusts in it for warmth could freeze to death.
We may be tempted into denial. A Jewish believer who has lost unbelieving loved ones can seek to ease the pain by thinking that heaven and hell are not that important. Perhaps even the reality of the afterlife dims. Then the reality of Christ and His cross become diminished in that person’s eyes. What was once held to be true by virtue of God’s Word and a real encounter with Him, what was known by the power of His Spirit is no longer accepted, not because it is any less true, but because of the pain we feel over those who perish without that truth. Such a person is tempted to avoid reading the Bible, to avoid praying, to avoid doing all those things that remind him or her of the truth.
When the truth hurts, it is natural to avoid it. What we need to realize is that the truth doesn’t change if we stop believing it. Any relief we might feel from avoiding the truth comes at our own peril. There is a time to mourn and a time to grieve; there is a time to weep and a time wail. The death of a loved one outside of Christ causes pain that we cannot soften or avoid if we want to function within reality.
We may be tempted to create a different, nonbiblical theology in order to ease our pain. Some allow themselves to believe that people are saved by sincerity. They are convinced that if their loved one had known that Jesus was the Lord, he or she would have believed, and that God somehow reckons this as faith. This kind of theological shape shifting trivializes the cross and makes what the Messiah did for us into a cruel joke. If God accepts people based on what they would have chosen rather than on what they did choose, Jesus should not have had to die at all. Yeshua’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane should have been enough since God knew that He was sincere and willing to make the supreme sacrifice. That kind of thinking is contrary to Scripture, and we must not succumb to the temptation to bend the truth for the sake of lessening our grief.
We may be tempted by the mistaken notion of a second chance. It would be comforting to believe that there is some cosmic way station after death. We know God is merciful, so why not believe that He will give another chance to people who had what we feel are hindrances to faith? It would be comforting to believe this, but there is no biblical basis for the idea. In fact, the Bible indicates just the opposite, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:27-28). As surely as Jesus is coming again, so does judgment come after death. We cannot argue for grace beyond what Scripture allows.
How can we avoid the temptation to be less than honest when we grieve over unbelieving loved ones? In the end we must trust all of our loved ones to God. The one thing that enables us to survive the death of unsaved loved ones is the knowledge that God is just and loving. God does all things well, and beyond this we cannot argue with Him. One day we will know as we are known. We must know now that what we will know then will answer all the questions of the heart.
Meanwhile, grief for those who don’t believe must move us to pray, to witness boldly, to risk everything so that while they are yet living, they may hear and be saved. And we must not turn from our pain when those who were not saved die.
A heart of wisdom bears the pain of death as part of life’s reality. We come to the Lord with our pain and tell Him we hurt. He does not remove the pain any more than He removes the reality, but He lets us know that we are not alone, and we are able to bear real grief with Him as our comforter.
Part of our comfort is that we know a day will come when there shall be no crying or mourning—the day when every tear shall be dried and His presence will fill our hearts with understanding and joy.
How Do We Interact With Others As We Grieve?
If a family member has died and your relatives are sitting shiva, no matter what it takes for you to be there, it is good to spend all seven days in mourning. This enables you to enter into the family grief and also to be a witness to the living.
Part of the reason for grief is to release the departed person. That is why we need the funeral and why sitting shiva helps. People spend time with one another missing the person who died and accepting the fact that there is a profound absence. Mirrors are covered so the mourners need not be reminded of their grief-altered appearance and are not tempted to vanity. A minyon gathers for prayer so the mourners need not leave the house for worship.
This is a time when people are thinking about life and death, so there is a chance for discussion and an opportunity to tell of your hope in the Messiah. It is a good time for witnessing, but it is not a time to hand out tracts. If you are the only believing member of your family, you may be excluded from participating in certain parts of the funeral. Don’t let that keep you from being there.
I was in Israel for Project Joshua with Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, who was the teacher/guide for our group of Jewish Christian college students. Dr. Fruchtenbaum received a phone call from his wife, MaryAnn, saying that his father had passed away and that the funeral was set to take place in less than 48 hours.
I know that Arnold really struggled over what he should do. His family had planned the funeral without him, and had left little time for him to return. It would have been easy for him to be offended by the slight and to reason that he had a responsibility to the tour. Instead, he made the arduous journey to Los Angeles, arriving just in time for the funeral. I believe Dr. Fruchtenbaum made the right decision. He reported upon his return to Israel that he had been asked to say Kaddish on behalf of the entire family. God honors our efforts to do what is right.
How do you eulogize a loved one who didn’t believe? You need to speak of the things that you appreciated about the person, but you also want the chance to share the hope people can have in Yeshua. You can stand up and say, “First of all, I need to tell you where my father and I had some differences.” Then you can tell briefly and concisely what Yeshua means to you. For a transition you might say something like, “Dad never pretended to support my faith, but where some fathers might have turned their backs on their children, he respected my right to think for myself and arrive at my own conclusions.” Then go on to tell of his other attributes. In other cases it may be appropriate to say, “If so and so were able to speak today, I believe he/she would want you to know about the reality of life after death.” Then speak of God’s salvation in Messiah.
What about relating to bereaved in general, not merely our own family? Unfortunately, comfort is an art that has practically been lost except for the act of choosing a greeting card. James 1:27 tells us, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.…” We demonstrate our love for God by consoling those who grieve. Death is a wound to the living, and we must be willing to dress and wrap that wound.
We can comfort survivors; we can pray for them to manage their grief well. During shiva we can visit and read Psalms to those who care to hear. We can send condolence cards. Too many of us have so protected ourselves from pain that we have lost our ability to cry. If we ask, God will give us the ability to weep with those who need to weep. Yeshua wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He entered into the grief of Mary and Martha, and so should we enter into the grief of those people whom God has placed in our lives.
When we help someone who grieves, we must not seek to diminish reality with platitudes or say what the grieving person knows to be true. Most often it is not what we say but what we do that makes a difference. Job’s comforters started out well. They wept when they saw Job. They sat on the ground without saying a word for seven days and seven nights. If they had stopped there, they would have done well. But they ceased to minister when they began to speak and to seek explanations.
A heart of wisdom responds to grief in simple and sensitive ways: through an invitation to dinner, by inviting a child to a family outing who has lost his father. Acts of kindness provide comfort and can go beyond comfort to encourage healing.
Facing the Death of a Believer
We face the death of a believing loved one with mixed feelings. We grieve, knowing we will live the rest of life on earth without that person. It could be a loss that requires us to regroup and figure out how to go on as a single parent. It might mean finding a way to live without the advice of a cherished mentor or the security of a loving parent. There is no denying the pain. Yet there is, or should be, a sense of rejoicing to know that these loved ones are in the presence of the Lord. Not only are they enjoying Him forever, but we will see them again!
It is important to allow ourselves to have those mixed feelings. If we deny that it is painful to go on without a believing loved one, we carry that pain alone. There is nothing unspiritual about allowing ourselves to feel a terrible sense of loss.
It is important to be honest with ourselves about the loss so that others can help bear our burden and we can adjust our lives to function without that person. But it is also important to keep our loss in perspective. It is a temporary loss in a world that is quickly passing away. The joy we will have at our union with the Messiah and reunion of loved ones in Him should never be far from our thoughts.
One thing to do when a believing loved one dies is establish a memorial gift that shows the meaning of that person’s life. At our training center in New York City we have the Rachmiel Frydland Memorial Chapel. Those who knew Rachmiel know of his untiring commitment to telling our Jewish people about Yeshua. It is fitting, then, to have such a place in his honor where Jewish people can hear the Good News. It is wonderful to have lasting tributes to those whom we love in the Lord.
How Do We Prepare for Our Own Death?
Some of the mishpochah have asked about what is involved in having a Jewish funeral and burial. Many of us already have burial plots purchased for us by our families. Certain problems may arise from this. If you own cemetery property, it is probably illegal for anyone to keep you from being buried there. Yet I know of cases where this was done to Jewish believers because of their faith.
It would be wonderful if there were provision for Messianic cemeteries. The American Board of Missions to the Jews, now Chosen People Ministries, at one time purchased a section of a cemetery in New York for Jewish believers. For most of us, this isn’t an option. Therefore, we have to ask, is it good to be buried in a Jewish cemetery by a rabbi? Definitely not!
If an unbelieving rabbi performs your funeral, some might say that you renounced Jesus and “went back to Judaism” before you died. Your funeral might very well be used to prove that. You won’t have the gospel preached at your service, rather the message of one who does not share your hope will be the last official words spoken on your behalf.
Most of us wouldn’t think of moving from one city to the next without filling out change of address forms, letting family and friends know where we will be. In a sense, when God calls us home to be with Him, we need to fill out one final change of address form. That is the best way for us to make sure that those we leave behind can find us and join us in our new home. If there is ever a time when we ought to be a story, it is upon our death. The funeral can serve that purpose.
I think it is very important for each of us to have a will that includes our wishes concerning the details of our own funeral. Planning it yourself is the only way to be certain you will get what you want. You can pick the songs that you want sung. You can even make a cassette to greet people who come to your funeral. You can decide now what you will tell them.
For example, a believer’s message might be:
Shalom! Thank you for coming to honor my memory. I want to let you know that I’m not just a memory, because I’ve invested my life with Yeshua Ha Mashiach. I’m not in the body that is going in the ground. I am in the presence of the Lord, and I can truly say that I am happier than I have ever been! I know this by faith, and you can know it too. If you put your trust in Jesus, you will enter into that joy. You will have a bit of heaven inside of you while you walk this earth, and you won’t have to be afraid of death. Okay, now I especially want to tell my brother.…
Then you can greet different ones in the family and tell them how you have appreciated them. You might even conclude by saying:
This is the last time you will hear from me unless you invest your life in Yeshua. I hope you will because if you do, I know that soon we are going to have a joyous reunion in a much better place.
The most important thing about our funeral is not where but how we are buried. If you decide to make it so, what takes place at your funeral can be a story to unsaved family and friends that Jesus is alive and so are you.
Near the end of his life, D. L. Moody said, “Soon you will read in the newspapers that Moody is dead. Don’t you believe it, for I shall be more alive than I am now.” That is our hope and our story.
Some of us have gotten well past the fear of death, but we still fear the actual process of dying. We can ask the Lord to help us die well, not knowing what the circumstances will be, but desiring to glorify Him in all things. And though we might tremble a bit in thinking of walking through that door, we need not fear. For we will surely awaken, not as dreamers from a nightmare, but as beloved citizens of our true home, radiant as we greet our Heavenly Host. “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me” (Psalm 49:15).
- Philippians 1:21, 23
- 2 Timothy 4:7-8
- Ber. 28b
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.