It was a Tuesday morning and my just-turned-three-year-old charge was looking at his pet garden snails. He has five, painted different colors, named–all blissfully multiplying in his dime store fish tank. One had been recently buried in the flower pot on the front porch. He looked up at me wide-eyed and said, “I miss Johnny. I want to put him back in here.”
“Honey, Johnny died. Only his shell is in the flowerbed. If you put his shell back in your tank, he wouldn’t play or eat with the others because he’s not in his shell anymore.”
“Why?” Then he waited for an answer. He couldn’t understand. In his games, when his dinosaurs killed each other, they got back up. Why could Johnny not get back up?
Death is a subject that children sometimes accept more quickly than the adults in their lives. They’ll believe whatever we tell them. Sometimes we tell them pets are “gone to live with Jesus,” thinking this makes it easier for them. Then when they’re taught that we are just animals, they’re confused further. We should tell them the truth because the truth for us is far better and we are more than animals. We are eternal. We can believe that what we believe is really real. Jesus truly was raised from the dead; therefore, what He has told us about death is valid.
Death by definition means “separation.” It’s a separation of our life force from our physical bodies. When animals die, their life force leaves and they return wholly to the elements. Their atoms blend with the earth to be used in nature’s work. But there is more for us. We are created to be like God…in God’s image. Our essence–the core of our elemental nature–is eternal. It’s well documented and observed that humanity has an innate need to look to something greater than itself. God, as revealed in scripture, is the only Being capable of completely fulfilling that need. Though our physical bodies decay, our essence relocates to the place of the living where Jesus and the thief on the cross visited on the day of their crucifixions. “Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” he said. The Wiseman tells us, “Your body came from the earth. When you die, your body will return to the earth. But Your spirit came from God, and when you die, it will return to him.” Eccl. 12:7
But so often we miss the greatest wonder of all: our own resurrection! Jesus will return with our spirits to gather up our remains, remake us immortal and then we will be relocated by God to our eternal place. If we have chosen His world in life, He will welcome us there in eternity.
“Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be ignorant about those who have died. We don’t want you to grieve like other people who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and came back to life. We also believe that, through Jesus, God will bring back those who have died. They will come back with Jesus. We are telling you what the Lord taught. We who are still alive when the Lord comes will not go into his kingdom ahead of those who have already died. The Lord will come from heaven with a command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the dead who believed in Christ will come back to life. Then, together with them, we who are still alive will be taken in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. In this way we will always be with the Lord. So then, comfort each other with these words!” I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Did you see it?! “God will bring back those who have died. They will come back with Jesus…First, the dead who believed in Christ will come back to life.” THAT’s the thrilling part. After we die, our conscious essence will go to be with other God followers to wait in Paradise for the Resurrection. Though our guilt or innocence is concluded at death, “passing of sentence” by the Judge happens when Jesus comes back and we are sent to our eternal place with God. “So then, comfort each other with these words.”
With all this in mind, I smiled at the little upturned face before me waiting for my answer.
“Johnny can’t play anymore because only his shell is left. Johnny’s body turned to dirt and is helping the flowers to grow now. But when we die we don’t stay in the dirt. Our bodies are our shells and are buried, too, but our “selves” go to be with Jesus. And one day he’s going to come back and wake our bodies up and take all of us who love Jesus to be together at his house.”
He returned his gaze to the other snails, quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, “Frankie has Joey and Turbo and Herbert to play with, so it’s ok.” Then he looked back up and asked, “Will Johnny be in heaven?” I smiled. I could tell him what he hoped to hear. But one day that answer might confuse him more. He needed the truth.
“God is the one who can answer that question. I’ll ask Him and tell you what He says, OK?”