“If I go to heaven immediately when I die, why stay alive?”
It’s a question I’ve heard numerous times in my ministry. Usually asked by someone who is on hospice care, whose cancer has just been pronounced inoperable or whose family is far away and disinterested. Seldom does this question come from someone who feels the daily love of family and friends.
Several times the question has drawn me back to my academy and college notes on the state of the dead, which reminded me one day of George Storrs, a Methodist lay pastor who was labeled a “heretic” for believing that death is little more than a “peaceful pause before the resurrection.”
Storrs, a stocky man with full gray beard and piercing spirit, first “fell out of grace” by asking a question that seemed heretical and even impudent: “What happens to the wicked when they die?”
People did not like his questions. “He believes that when people die they just die! Just lose their minds and hearts and bodies and then slowly rot into dust. That’s so crazy!” A whispering campaign was started against him, and it quickly became so loud that Storrs was forced out of the church.
Church-goers had very strong beliefs about death back then, as is obvious from words carved into cemetery markers.
“Gone to Jesus.” “Called home.” “Heaven is now a happier place.”
“He gave this baby to us for just three days and then needed her more than we. So, He called, and she returned to grace the halls of heaven.”
“Seriously, I really want to know what we must believe,” Storrs would say. “If the righteous go directly to the Pearly Gates when they die, then the wicked must go directly to hell. Right? So, the big question is how God knows whether a person is to go up or down, when Jesus Himself said that God does not do the judgment until the end of time.
“And, furthermore, what about that verse in Ecclesiastes where it says, ‘The dead don’t know anything?’”
His questions got the young Adventists to studying and asking their own set of questions.
“Where do the wicked go when they die?”
“What would happen if God took someone straight home to heaven and then in the final judgment found that person didn’t pass the final test?”
“What happens to the souls God takes to heaven when it’s time for them to go back into the grave so He can resurrect them at the Second Coming?”
These were faith-challenging questions in the mid-1800s. Questions that could get you tossed from most churches. Questions that led to biblical answers for the Seventh-day Adventists.
“People stay dead ’til the Second Coming when a blast from God’s bugle will burst them from their graves — to either a life of eternal joy with Jesus or to a second death that will separate them from Jesus forever. I guess that would really be hell!” my well-worn Adventist uncle used to say while thumping his Bible.
My Bible is quite clear. Unless you’re Jesus, Enoch, Moses or Elijah, when you’re dead you’re dead. Your heart stops beating. Your mind stops working. You enter into the time of peaceful pause before the resurrection.
Thanks, Pastor Storrs, for helping us ask the right questions.