In the past three weeks, three Christians whom I knew and revered died. Paul Finkenbinder, known as “Hermano Pablo,” was an evangelist whose radio broadcasts in Latin America reached millions. Florence Tracy was a counselor and colleague from my days at Newport-Mesa Christian Center in Costa Mesa, California. Glen Colewas a veteran senior pastor, denominational leader, and college president from Northern California. All were longtime family friends.
I mention these wonderful people by name because death is never abstract. It is always concrete, always personal. A person dies, and we who knew and loved them mourn.
According to Paul, Silas, and Timothy, however, there are two ways to mourn: hopelessly and hopefully. Consider what they write in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–14:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
The issue that occasioned these words seems to have been the death of certain Thessalonian believers, which caught the living Thessalonian believers off guard. Of course, the moment of death always catches us off guard, even when it is the result of a long illness. It is always a surprise, especially when unexpected, but even when expected. Perhaps death caught the Thessalonians off guard because they expected everyone to be alive when Jesus returned. If some died before that event, was there hope for them?
In the pagan world, death was the end of the story. Period. After death, there was nothing, or at best a shadowy, undesirable existence. This was a hopeless view of death, “that Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveller returns,” as Hamlet put it. Or “a fifty yard dash with a brick wall for a finish line,” as restaurateur Rocky Aoki put it.
In the biblical imagination, however, death was but a sleep from which Christ would awaken all who believed in him. This was not an unfounded hope or form of wishful thinking either. Rather, it was the logical inference of an empirical fact: “Jesus died and rose again.” If him, then us in him as well.
Notice that hope doesn’t rule out mourning whatsoever. I am sad that Paul Finkenbinder, Florence Tracy, and Glen Cole have died. I miss them. The world was better with their presence. But I mourn hopefully, knowing that one day, they’ll wake up, and we’ll be reunited. I cry with a smile, not merely because of memories of good times past but because of anticipation of good times future. “All’s well that ends well,” to cite the title of another Shakespeare play. And it will end well.
Death is concrete and personal. It catches us off guard. It makes us sad. But in Christ there is joy on the other side of mourning, the hope of awakening after a long sleep.