Questions on Death

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What does a person's soul look like? The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus gives me a mental picture of sorts. There is recognition of others. Is a ghost-like appearance of one's body one way to think of it?

While the body is physical and can be seen, the soul is immaterial and not visible.  When the apostle John relates that he “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Revelation 6:9), we recognize the genre of Scripture and understand that John was describing what he saw through a vision that God granted him.  John thus saw what human eyes normally cannot see.

The account of the Rich Man and Lazarus that you cited definitely illustrates that death is the separation of the body and soul.  At death, the body remains on the earth, while the soul immediately goes to heaven or hell.  On the last day God will raise the dead and join bodies and souls together.  While the soul is what gives life to the body, I would not equate the soul to “a ghost-like appearance of one’s body.”

You question does lead one to ponder about eternity and to tend to the needs of our souls through faithful use of the means of grace.  May we do just that.

My niece's husband was recently killed in a car accident. She believes in God and heaven, however, she wants to know that her husband can hear her talking to him, and that he is able to guide and give her and her daughter strength from his heavenly home. She does believe that God is the true source of her strength, but is wanting to believe that somehow her husband is also watching over her as well. Do we know from Scripture that this is, or is not, possible?

Allow me to pass along my sympathy to you and your family.  Death was never part of God’s design for his creation.  Death is an intruder into God’s perfect world.  Death is a consequence of sin (Romans 6:23).  As Christians, our joy is that by his victory over death Jesus Christ has turned death into the means by which his followers enter the presence of God in heaven.  Our joy is in the Bible’s declaration that “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Revelation 14:13).

Scripture does not indicate to us that Christians in heaven are watching over us on earth.  Isaiah 63:16 would seem to rule out the saints in heaven watching over the saints on earth.  What the Bible does teach is that God watches over us always (Psalm 121) and that God uses his holy angels as part of his providential care of us (Hebrews 1:14).

Your niece sees it correctly—that God “is the true source of her strength.”  God has promised never to leave or forsake his followers (Hebrews 13:5).  He has promised to strengthen and uphold his children (Isaiah 41:10).  He has promised his abiding love (Isaiah 54:10).  Through Word and Sacrament God nourishes our faith and strengthens us for godly living.

To you, your niece and your families:  “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).

Is there any scriptural basis against cremation?

Scripture is silent on the issue of cremation.  It is a matter of personal preference when it comes to burial or cremation.  There was a time not that long ago when some voices in the Christian church cautioned against cremation.  In a day and age when some unbelievers utilized cremation as a way to defy God (“Let’s see if this supposed God can put me back together some day.”), some Christians advocated that followers of the Lord not cremate their bodies, so as not to be associated with unbelievers or an activity of unbelievers.

That type of taunting has largely disappeared, so Christians today who make use of cremation are not likely to be confused with unbelievers.  The choice of cremation over burial often includes ecological, economical and convenience factors.

In the end, cremation essentially speeds up the process that occurs with burial:  “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).  And, regardless of cremation or burial, “All who are in their graves will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out” (John 5:28-29).  What a blessing to know and believe in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (The Apostles’ Creed).  God grant that same blessing to many more.

If a person is on ventilators, but brain dead, is their soul still in their body?

Your question underscores the benefits and challenges, in this case, that advancements in medical technology have given us.  Allow me to pass along information that Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director of Christian Life Resources, shared with me on the subject:

There is considerable disagreement in society about “what is death.”  A diagnosis of “brain dead” used to mean the complete cessation of all measurable activity in the cerebral cortex and the brain stem.  Failure in both of those areas of the brain causes the lungs to stop processing air, the heart to stop pumping blood and, without a circulation of oxygen throughout the body, there is death.

What has happened, however, is that defining death has become more a process of measuring quality of life.  Patients deemed to be in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) are often called “brain dead” but, in actuality, while showing minimal or no activity in the cerebral cortex, their brain stem is functioning, the lungs are processing air and the heart is migrating that air throughout the blood by means of the blood system.  A recent study has demonstrated that PVS patients actually show awareness of their surroundings but are unable to respond.

Some people are moving quickly to a purely quality of life measurement.  Maladies like dementia, Alzheimer’s or trauma to the brain which reduce its activity is interpreted by some to be “essentially dead” because of the declined quality of life.

Scripture tells us that God breathed life into the first man (Genesis 2:7) and that breathing (the process of taking in oxygen) is life (Job 33:4; Ezekiel 37:5; Acts 17:25).  Elsewhere Scripture instructs us that death comes with the last breath – the removal of life-sustaining oxygen (Genesis 25:8; 1 Kings 17:17-18; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46).

Some object to ventilator support because it is “artificial.”  Yet, we use all sorts of artificial equipment and medicine to help us breath better, take in more oxygen and be healthy.

Biologically, death is present when the body as a whole no longer takes in and processes oxygen.  Close encounters with death always involve the interruption of oxygen to a portion of the body.  With a stroke, a clot cuts off oxygen-rich blood to portions of the brain.  With a heart attack, a chamber of the heart stalls in its task of cycling oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.  With cancer, we see infected cells that no longer transport and process oxygen.  That is why the death of Christ was confirmed with the spear stab to the abdomen.  The outpouring of blood and water provided evidence that the body was no longer circulating blood and that it had begun to settle in the lower parts of the anatomy (John 19:34).  Other organs had also failed.

Final death comes when all of this is irreversible.  Through the blessing of technology God has permitted  us to more closely observe near death and death.  That same technology is often God’s instrument of protecting and prolonging life.

In summary, if there truly was brain death, the body would not be cycling and processing the oxygen received through the ventilator.  The body would not be staying warm.  There would be no measurement of activity in either the cerebral cortex or the brain stem.

Ventilator support is assistive in nature.  It requires the “cooperation” of the other body organs to make bringing in oxygen effective.  Death, therefore, becomes near not only with diminished brain activity, but you will see other indicators as well, such as failure of the kidneys, liver, pancreas and heart.

Simply stated, life is the body taking in oxygen (an unborn child does this by getting all of her oxygen through the umbilical cord from the placenta) and disseminating it throughout the body.  Death, therefore, would be the opposite.  As the body dies, the absence of oxygen can be observed through the cascading effect of multiple organ failures.  And when death takes place, the body and soul separate (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Luke 23:43, 46; Acts 7:59).

You will find more information on end of life issues on the Christian Life Resources website.

I have always been taught through my WELS education that there are no ghosts. When we die we go to heaven or hell. No one comes back to visit the living. But I myself have experienced unexplained events in familiar surroundings that make me question whether there are ghosts or not. How do I answer those who ask me whether I believe in ghosts?

When a person dies, the body and soul are separated and there is immediate judgment by God (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Hebrews 9:27).  The lifeless body remains on the earth, while the soul is in heaven or hell (Luke 16:19-31).  That last Scripture reference informs us that souls do not leave heaven or hell.  Those who have died do not return to this world as ghosts.

Still, what might explain unusual events in this world?  We do know that Satan and evil spirits or demons roam the earth (Job 2:2; Matthew 12:43-45; 1 Peter 5:8).  Satan’s powers exceed our own natural powers (Ephesians 6:12).  Satan uses his powers to lie and try to rob people of spiritual and eternal life (John 8:44).  We can attribute paranormal experiences to Satan.

Thankfully for us, Satan is a defeated enemy.  Through his redeeming work, Jesus crushed his head (Genesis 3:15).  It is a matter of time before Satan is put out of commission entirely (Revelation 20:7-10).  Until that time, we arm ourselves for battle against Satan (Ephesians 6:16), and know that we have the upper hand because of the Lord’s power and promises (James 4:7).  Hopefully with information like this, you can address your own questions and the questions of others.

Are dying willingly and committing suicide the same thing?

No, they are not necessarily the same thing.  I do not know the context of your question, but I can think of situations in which people would give up their lives for others (“dying willingly”), and their deaths would not by any means be considered suicides.  I think of a soldier in combat, throwing himself on an explosive device to shield his fellow soldiers.  That is an act of amazing bravery and sacrificial love, not a suicidal action.

The distinction between “dying willingly” and “suicide” is one that Jesus also made.  He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  And of course Jesus did more than talk about laying down his life.  He did that.  He laid down his life for people who were his enemies, not his friends, because of sin and unbelief.  What a Savior we have in Jesus!

Does Scripture have any insight on "death with dignity" or "right to die" issues, such as people who are terminally ill ending their own lives?

The Bible has much to say about life and death.  Life is important because it is a time of grace; it is the only time people have to be brought to a confession of their sins and a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior (2 Corinthians 6:1-2; Hebrews 9:27).

God makes it clear in the Bible that only he—directly or indirectly through his representatives in government—has the right to end a person’s life (Deuteronomy 32:39; Psalm 31:15; Psalm 90:3; Romans 13:4).  Along with suicide, God forbids murder.  Since God forbids the taking of one’s life (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 32:39; Psalm 31:15), assisting a person to end life is equally forbidden.

Christian Life Resources has much good information on this subject.  You can jump to their section on “Assisted Suicide” information via this link.  Supplied with biblical information, you and I can witness to others about the precious gift of life and their only Savior from sin:  Jesus Christ.

I've been told that if you commit suicide, you can't go to heaven because it's a sign of unbelief. What does the Bible say? Are there known cases in the Bible where someone has committed suicide and has gone to heaven?

The Bible reports six cases of suicide: Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), Saul (1 Samuel 31:4), Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20), and Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:3-5). Some would include Samson (Judges 16:25-30) in the list, yet his death was not a selfish act of self destruction but a self-sacrificing act similar to that of a soldier who sacrifices himself for his fellow soldiers. His final act did not reflect despair and hopelessness but a prayerful trust in the true God. For this reason he is mentioned among the people of faith in Hebrews 11:32. However, this was not the case with the other six that were mentioned above. They acted in despair and unbelief and forfeited any hope of heaven.

But even though the examples of suicide mentioned in the Bible are all negative, this does not mean that every person who takes his or her own life is eternally lost. Perhaps a person is suffering from a pyschological disorder. Like other organs and parts of the body, the brain can also malfunction. Or perhaps someone in a moment of emotion crisis acts rashly and takes his or her own life. We cannot say in each of these cases that the person acted in unbelief. And finally it is unbelief that condemns us to eternal punishment, not any particular sin per se. Likewise it is trust in the crucified and risen Savior that saves us—not because we lived a good life, and not because we died a good death, but because he lived and died in our place.

I have a non-WELS, Christian friend who spoke to me about Abraham's Bosom as a holding place for the dead before Jesus' resurrection. I have not heard about this in my upbringing as a WELS member, and wasn't sure how to carry on the conversation with my friend. What does the WELS believe about Abraham's bosom? Thank you.

We believe that “Abraham’s bosom” (“Abraham’s side” in many Bible translations) is synonymous with “heaven.”  The account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) explains that the souls of two men went to two vastly different places upon their deaths:  heaven and hell.

“Abraham’s bosom” is a fitting term for heaven when one considers that followers of the Lord Jesus are called sons and children of Abraham (Luke 19:9; Galatians 3:7).  The idea of “Abraham’s bosom” being a holding place for the dead before Jesus’ resurrection is what the Roman Catholic Church has in mind with its teaching of limbus patrum (limbo of the fathers).  The teaching has no scriptural basis.

If an infant dies in the womb or shortly after being born and his parents are not Christians and believe in another religion such as Hindu or some other religion, does that infant go to heaven or hell ?

We know from God’s revelation in the Bible that all people are sinners and in need of forgiveness from the moment of their conception (Psalm 51:5).  We know from God’s revelation in the Bible that faith in Jesus Christ saves and unbelief condemns (Mark 16:16).  We know from God’s revelation in the Bible that God works saving faith in people through the gospel.  God’s revelation to us in the Bible is that people need to have the gospel of Jesus Christ to be brought to saving faith in the Lord.  Going beyond what God has revealed in the Bible is speculation on our part.  Suffice it to say that your question is an incentive for the Christian Church to do what Jesus said:  “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

When a person dies, his soul goes to either heaven or hell immediately. In the Bible a number of people were "raised from the dead." See 1 Kings 17:17-24, Acts 20: 7-12, Matthew 27:51-53, and of course John 11:43-44. I'm assuming that each of these people were righteous. My question is this: Were these individual's souls actually brought back out from heaven to be reunited with their bodies? Imagine going from perfect bliss back into this vale of tears. Or could it be that I'm just not reading those passages correctly?

You are reading those passages correctly (and there are additional accounts of people in both the Old and New Testaments being raised to life).  While death is the separation of body and soul (with the soul going to heaven or hell), resurrection is the reuniting of body and soul.  The Bible is simply silent on what kind of memories those who died and were raised to life might have had about their experiences.

Today we received a funeral planning folder from a local organization. Many people are planning their funerals, but their family finds later that those plans are not approved by the pastor conducting the service. Since most of us don't know who will be conducting our funerals, are there guidelines for a WELS funeral? Which songs are appropriate? Which Bible verses? What should and should not be included in the service folder? Since genealogists use obituaries as a source of information about a person, should the newspaper account differ from that used in church, where to list a person's accomplishments seems to put works before grace? I've spoken to a number of people on this subject recently while attending funerals, and we all agree that we need some guidelines.

I am not sure what funeral service plans you have in mind that were not approved by a pastor.  I can only guess that perhaps people, on their own, made the request in their plans to have certain friends or family members serve as musicians or officiants in the funeral service.  Then, when the time came for those plans to be implemented, family members were surprised to learn that those individuals would not be able to serve in those capacities after all because they are outside our fellowship.

Otherwise, pastors will work with the suggested hymns and Bible readings.  Pastors will receive information from families and gauge what biographical information is to be included in the funeral worship service folder.  Local practice will determine to what degree the content of a newspaper obituary aligns with the service folder information.

Your question about funeral service planning is a good reminder of what we all can do to make a challenging time less stressful for our loved ones.  Different organizations do provide funeral planning guides, as you noted.  I would like to make you aware of one that is included in a packet of information from WELS Ministry of Christian Giving.  The document is called “Estate Planning for the Christian Steward” and is available via this link.  (Scroll down to File C once you land on the website page.)  Pages 25-27 of the document have application to your questions.

Congregations would do well to encourage their members to make funeral plans, submit them to their pastor for review and have the plans filed at the church office.  Again, that preliminary work can make a challenging time for loved ones less stressful.

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