On “passed (away)” “asleep” and “dead/died” with a stop in the “mansions” of John 14:2-3

Rembrandt, Raising of Jairus’ Daughter

Was curious if my friend and colleague Chris Brady had posted anything lately to his excellent blog site and came across his post “Passed,” “asleep,” or “dead”? at Targuman.org. For years I have been mildly annoyed when people use the expression “passed” or “passed away”. Why? Because that person died dagnamit and is now dead (although as Chris points out what we mean by “dead” is less clear from Scripture). Over the course of 2021 quite a few people in Livingston Parish have died from Covid (including a member of my congregation). A month ago someone I knew at the library died unexpectedly. I regularly hear dear Christian people (and co-workers at the library who might not be active members of a faith community) say “passed” and the like.

Part of my resistance to this euphemism is how I was trained by our professor of pastoral care in seminary. We were trained to speak with people about what was happening and to avoid euphemisms and circumlocutions as well as efforts to change the subject. I got called out on this in some of my verbatims.

>He wants to go.
Go where?
>He wants to die.

(From a conversation in class. Part of Pastoral Care was talking about pastoral care situations and offering feedback about conversations we had with church members.) I have read blog posts and heard talks by experienced clergy who sometimes comment that in Western culture people regularly avoid talking about the reality of death. “A celebration of the life of Someone”. Recently someone on Twitter expressed gratitude that the funeral liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer is clearly labelled The Burial of the Dead.

A few months ago a funeral home director explained to person giving the eulogy/sermon that his talk was not a “sermon”. Oh no. It was a “celebration of life”. I did not say anything but thought it was out of place for a funeral director to explain to a minister (or family friend) what our job is during a funeral service. His role is to help us do our job as clergy and he would do well to stay in his lane. 

Getting back to the post by Chris Brady which is an excerpt from his excellent book Beautiful and Terrible Things. He writes,

Paul is emphasizing that Jesus died, the death we all must follow, but as he rose from the dead, he transformed our death into a mortal sleep that will be followed by life eternal.

Yet we still have no clear explanation of what happens to us when we die. 

I would suggest that this is not an accident. We know that humans have always been interested in what happens when we die. The fact that we do not find this topic explored, or better phrased, revealed in Scripture strongly suggests to me that it is a subject we should best leave alone. I don’t mean that we do not think about what has happened to our loved one or what will happen to us; I think about that all the time. What I mean is that the truth about the moment of death, that transition, is unknowable. Or, at least, it is not revealed in the Bible. Jesus, the only one who could tell us about it, chose not to. What Jesus did tell us is that “in my father’s house there are many rooms and I go to provide a place for you.” (My Uncle Freddie never liked the newer translations, preferring the grandeur of John 14:2 in the KJV. He said, “I have been promised a mansion and I want my mansion!” I feel confident he is not dissatisfied.) The mechanics of death and resurrection are absent, surprisingly so since it is a central tenet of our faith, and that tells me that our focus ought to be on living this life in the promise of the resurrection.

Two thoughts. The first is I have for a while been irritated the apostle Paul of all people appears also to use a euphemism for death namely “asleep”. In his post Chris offers another interpretation such that “asleep” is not a euphemism to avoid the dreaded D-word but “Paul is making the point that our death, as real and final as it is in this world, is just a temporary state before we will awaken to new and eternal life in Christ” (op cit.). Chris and I have had several good conversations about death and the idea of “soul sleep” which is doctrine among Jehovah’s Witnesses. I used to subscribe to the idea myself. Chris makes the interesting point that no Paul does not mean something like soul sleep but – if I may paraphrase for a moment – that for human beings death is like sleep in comparison with “new and eternal life in Christ” after the Resurrection of the Dead. 

Not to mention our Lord himself uses the expression “asleep” for death in Mark 5:39. 

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36 But overhearing[g] what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

And no he did not mean she was merely unconscious. So why use the expression? Perhaps how Christ and how Paul use “asleep/sleeping” help shed light on each use of the expression.

Getting back to the post/excerpt. In 2014 I attended the regional meeting of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion aka SECSOR in Atlanta. I addition to giving a paper of my own on 2 Samuel 11-12 heard a fascinating paper by a scholar who was teaching New Testament at my seminary (which alas closed two years ago). It was about the meaning of μοναὶ in John 14:2-3 which is commonly translated “mansions”. I cannot remember everything he said in his paper and would love to see the article. What I do remember is that μοναὶ does not mean “mansions” as in “here’s a description of heaven, it has super nice houses” so much as “places of abiding” and has much more to do with relationship (abiding in Christ, Christ abiding in us) than it does with architecture.

We exchanged a few emails right after the meeting. I will take the risk of quoting this scholar without his express permission.

Me: I enjoyed the paper very much. Like I shared, it’s something I’ve been thinking and discussing with some of my ministerial colleagues [Ed – including Chris Brady]. Not to throw out the idea that we are “with God” after death, but the New Testament just doesn’t seem to teach “believers go to heaven after death” as much as we think, and your careful treatment of John 14:2-3 was new and enlightening. It does leave me wondering, “so what do we say, when a faithful follower of Christ has died?”

Rick—thanks for writing back! Yeah, the intention of my paper wasn’t to undermine the sense that Christians are in some way present with God after death (Jesus’ in Luke: “Today you will be with me in paradise.). My paper was less ambitious than that. 🙂 I do think consistently the NT documents present the idea of bodily resurrection (1 Thess, 1 Cor 15, plenty of places in the Gospels, etc.) and they don’t suggest believers dwell in heaven forever and ever. In some ways I think the “good news” is even better: God comes to us. [Ed – that one statement has stuck with me since. Influenced a sermon or two about the Ascension.] Rev 21 and 22 depict God coming down to dwell with people on a renewed earth. How powerful of an image is that?

All of this has left me in sort of a murky grey area with respect to the pastoral issues, too! I don’t know what to tell people! I think resurrection is good news. I don’t know “where” people are after death. But I do think the overriding concern in the NT is this life and living in response to God’s grace and Jesus’ example in this life, and so I think a lot of Christians and denominations are out of balance in this respect.

I would riff on what this fine scholar says by noting John uses the language of space (and geography) to talk about relationship.

Edited 2021-12-22 = Revised a sentence so it flows better. Maybe.

About Rickwright67

I am the pastor of a Methodist church, spent 18 years ministering with internationals, as an adjunct taught Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew, husband and dad, love astronomy, space exploration, science-fiction, computers, animals, cinema, and more.
This entry was posted in Academia, Bible, Death, Hermeneutics (Interpretation), Ministry, New Testament, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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