Over the years, I’ve been asked a number of questions about death, dying, heaven and hell. I’ve also heard an equal number of statements indicating what people believe about those topics. Here are four I’ve heard recently, written in the form of a question and answer.
Q: Do people become angels when they die?
A: The short answer is, “No.” The long answer is that we will be elevated above the angels. People and angels are in completely different categories of created beings. At the present time, human beings are “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5). If we have trusted Christ for our salvation (John 3:16; 14:6), then when we die and go to heaven, we will be in a position where we will judge the angels (1 Corinthians 6:3).
Part of the confusion on this topic comes from Matthew 22:30 where Jesus said that when we die, we “are like angels in heaven.” What he meant is that we will not be married in heaven. However, Jesus did NOT say we will become angels.
Q: Do our loved ones who died watch over us?
A: Yes, and, No. The answer is, “Yes,” in the sense that they are aware and watching. Hebrews 12:1 says that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Luke 16:19-31 tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was concerned about his relatives’ spiritual condition and wanted to warn them about the afterlife. The answer is, “No,” in the sense that they don’t watch over and protect us. God has sent angels for that purpose (Hebrews 1:14).
Q: Does the presence of a red cardinal mean someone beyond the grave is trying to communicate with me? Is this a visit from the spirit world? (My wife and I saw this on a garden ornament at a local country store and few weeks back.)
A: Unfortunately, the answer is “No.” This is a belief that comes from Native American spiritism. No where in Scripture will you find this.
Q: What do we mean when we say, “Rest in Peace”?
A: This question requires a much longer answer, as you can see below.
In one sense, death is a time of rest, at least for our physical bodies. Scripture uses the metaphor of “going to sleep” to describe death. This picture is mentioned three times in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Dr. Luke uses the same concept in Acts 7 and the apostle Paul uses it again in 1 Corinthians 15 on two occasions. In Mark, chapter 5, the daughter of a religious leader had died and Jairus, her father, begged Jesus for help. Jesus said, “She’s not dead; she is asleep.” In this sense, death is a time of rest.
In another sense, death is a time when we rest from our labors and enjoy our inheritance. Hebrews 4 talks about the “Sabbath rest” for the people of God. It links the idea to God’s work of creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh day as well as Israel’s wandering in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. Tying them together, to rest means to cease from our labor of trying to earn God’s favor and enjoying the inheritance and blessings he has prepared for us.
This doesn’t mean, however, that eternity will be spent floating on clouds strumming a harp. Scripture pictures heaven as a place where we engage in meaningful activity. We will be engaged in worship (Revelation 22:1-3), praising Christ for providing our salvation. We will also be serving as we reign with Christ in eternity (Revelation 20:6).
However, these pictures of rest are only true of those who trusted Christ for salvation during their lifetime. Those who rejected Christ as savior will find themselves in hell enduring an eternity of suffering (Matthew 13:42, 50).
With this is mind, we need to be careful about whom we say “Rest in Peace” to. We don’t want to come across as closet universalists who believe all people go to heaven regardless of their beliefs or lifestyle. Nor do we want to communicate that we secretly believe God grades on a curve and the more well-known you are, the more likely you will be in heaven. We also don’t want to act as if this life is all there is, and there is no afterlife. In addition, we don’t want to say “Rest in Peace” simply because we don’t know what else to say.
Eternal rest is only available to those who stopped working to earn their salvation. For the Christ follower, they can go to sleep and later wake up in the arms of Jesus. They can rest and fully enjoy the blessings of salvation and heaven.