And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:3).
A famous children’s prayer begins with the words, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” It continues, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
That’s a prayer for all ages. If I don’t die tonight in my sleep, I will surely die sometime—unless Jesus first returns to close out our universe. It is important then, to know what to expect if I die.
It’s not as if there is a scarcity of theories. Some would say, “If I die I will become an angel.” Others think they will become nothing more than some molecules mixed into the dirt. At this time of year, we might see people in costumes pretending to be the walking dead. Sadly, some believe this could actually happen.
Jesus, the Lord of life and death sets us straight. The day of the death of a Christian is the day Jesus comes to take that one home to heaven. Only the outer shell, the body, is left behind. It’s as simple and as wonderful as that.
The 1st of November was named as All Saints Day in the Roman Catholic Church. October 31st was then called a hallowed evening, now called Halloween. In that religion, a saint is said to be someone who lived such a high level of spiritual life that death led directly to heaven—and purgatory was skipped.
Purgatory is supposed to be half-way between hell and heaven where a person serves time to pay for sins. The idea is based on the teaching that a person earns heaven by doing good works.
In this plan, every sin needs to be made up for with a good work of at least as great a value. Theoretically, if, as a child, you lied to your mother about your homework, you could make up for it by taking out the garbage without being asked. If you stole a car, a much greater good work is required. Sin not paid for is a debt before God.
But there is no way of knowing exactly how many sins a person has committed, and no way of being sure of what one must do to make up for a certain sin. The result is frightening uncertainty. “The greater the debt at death, the greater the punishment in purgatory.”
So, unless a person led an exceptionally holy life, purgatory was expected to follow death. Heaven came only after pain. Thus, the words, “If I die…” brought dread.
Ironically, the hallowed evening was also said to be a time when the powers of evil ran free. The American celebration of Halloween does not speak of evil powers unleashed, but it does reflect that history. Costumes of witches and goblins have frightening stories in their background.
For the Christian who dedicates every day and every night to the holy Lord God, Halloween can be a true holy evening. It can be a reminder that the death of the Son of God paid for every last human sin. Everyone who believes this is truly a saint in God’s eyes.
The words, “If I die before I wake…” do not frighten us. The request, “I pray the Lord my soul to take.” will be answered. The Lord will come to take that soul immediately to heaven. There is no purgatory. Jesus has spoken. Jesus has promised. Jesus will do it.
We can sleep in peace.
We pray: Lord Jesus, Savior of the world and caretaker of our souls, we have been declared holy because your holiness now covers our guilt. Remind us that we are saints in the eyes of the holy God. Teach us to fear our grave as little as our bed. Amen.
Written by Pastor Paul Ziemer, WELS National Civilian Chaplain and Liaison to the Military, Cape Coral, Florida-Provided by WELS Ministry to the Military