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Joan Rivers: what happens when we die?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Joan Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants.  She ran away from home at age 23 to become an actress, and changed her name at the advice of her agent.  By 1958, she had decided to do comedy.  She auditioned for The Tonight Show seven times before she first appeared on the show in 1965.  She eventually became Johnny Carson’s permanent substitute, appearing more than 80 times by 1983.

In the years after she did her own comedy show, appeared on numerous talk shows and television programs, wrote 12 best-selling books, and became a fashion designer.  On August 28, she underwent a vocal chord procedure at a doctor’s office in Manhattan, but experienced serious complications and was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital.  Last Thursday she passed away at the age of 81.

Her death proves that life is guaranteed to no one.  Joan Rivers’ net worth is estimated to have been more than $200 million, with a salary of $50 million a year.  She recently sold her country house in Connecticut and her Manhattan penthouse apartment for a combined $34 million.  And yet her wealth could not protect her from a medical tragedy no one would have foreseen.

Unless Jesus returns first, we will all die.  Most of us have lost someone we loved to death.  So, we all want to know what happens when we die.  As we begin a fall series on life’s ultimate questions, let’s look at what God’s word says, then see how it relates to our lives today.

What God says

First, we will all die, unless Jesus returns first.

Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed unto all men once to die, and then the judgment.”  Death comes for us all.  Psalm 49:10: “All can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others.”  Neither wisdom nor wealth can prevent it.  James 4:14: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  This is true of us all.

Second, we die so we can live eternally.

People often wonder why death exists.  If God were all-loving, he’d want to destroy death, we assume.  If he were all powerful, he could.  But he doesn’t.  Why not?  Because of sin.  The thief said, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (v. 41).  The Bible agrees.

Romans 5:12 says, “Sin entered the world through man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned.”  This wasn’t God’s intention.  He created a perfect world, with eternal life with him.  But when sin entered, death stayed.  Death exists, not because God doesn’t love us or isn’t powerful, but because of sin.

Now God had a choice.  We could live forever in these fallen, sinful bodies and world, or we could step through death into eternity in paradise.  God’s word is clear: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50).  And so physical death frees us to live forever in glorified bodies, with God in his heaven.

Then, one day death will be destroyed forever.  Revelation 20:14 says, “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of five.”  Revelation 21:4 is clear: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Third, death is eternal punishment for nonbelievers.

Revelation 20:15 says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”  In Luke 16 Jesus described hell as eternal torment.  This is eternal separation from God.  None of us wants this.  This is why it’s so important to do what the thief did—to choose Jesus today.  And tell those you know tomorrow.  So be ready now.  The Lord said to King Hezekiah, “Put your house in order, because you are going to die” (2 Kings 20:1).

Fourth, believers are with Jesus.

Our Lord told the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  This was a Persian word for the walled garden of the king.  Not only would the thief receive eternal life, he would spend it with the King himself!  “Today,” he said.  Now, in the Greek.  The Buddhist and Hindu do not have this promise, for they look to a future filled with reincarnations and mystery.  The Muslim and Jew do not have this promise, for they see a future of uncertain judgment.  Only the Christian can receive this promise.

Paul did.  He knew it: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23).  Jesus taught us that the moment we die, the angels carry us to God’s side (Luke 16:22).  When we close our eyes here we open them there.  We never die!  We are forever and always with Jesus.

Imagine a small boy who falls asleep in the back seat of the car.  When the family gets home, his father picks him up and carries him into the house.  When he wakes up, he’s home.  That’s exactly what happens for us, if Jesus is our Lord.

Fifth, we are in glory.  It is paradise, as Jesus said.

Paul said “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Revelation 14:13 says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”  We will know God and each other as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12).  And Revelation 22 promises that we will eat of the tree of life and live forever.

What should we do now?

So what now?  Let’s learn from the thief.

Jesus was and is the sinless, perfect Messiah, the only one who can get you off your cross of mortality.  Don’t look to the soldiers, the authorities, the religious leaders, or your own wealth or status—the nails are secure.  There’s only one Savior.

Do what the thief did.  Turn to him now.  Ask him to forgive your sin, and save you from hell and for heaven.  Turn your life over to him now.  For you have only today.  And know that he will answer you.  This is one prayer he always answers for us as he answered it for him: Today you will be with me in Paradise!”

God doesn’t care about your past, only your future.  If this thief could be with Jesus in Paradise, so can you.  But only this way, for we’re all thieves.  We’re all sinners.  We’re all nailed to the cross of mortality.  And there’s only one way down.  How ironic: a crucified criminal was the first Christian in heaven.  Not an apostle, or rabbi, or priest, but a thief.  Just like us.

What about those you love who are in heaven?  For them it will only be a moment before they see you again.  There is no time in heaven.  They don’t feel the separation we feel.  In heaven there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”  For them, you will be united again momentarily, and eternally.

If this were your day, would you be ready?  Are you ready now to meet God?  Is Jesus your Savior?  Are your sins confessed?  Are things right in your marriage, and family, and relationships?  Are you ready to meet God?  The choice is with you.


One of the most powerful sermons on our theme was preached many years ago by Arthur John Gossip as he spoke at his wife’s funeral after her dramatically-sudden death.  Gossip noted:

In the New Testament . . . you hear a great deal about the saints in glory, and the sunshine, and the singing, and the splendour [sic] yonder.  And, surely, that is where our thoughts should dwell.  I for one want no melancholious tunes, no grey and sobbing words, but brave hymns telling of their victory. . . . Think out your brooding.  What exactly does it mean?  Would you pluck the diadem from their brows again?  Would you snatch the palms of victory out of their hands?  Dare you compare the clumsy nothings our poor blundering love can give them here with what they must have yonder where Christ Himself has met them, and was heaped on them who can think out what happiness and glory?

I love to picture it.  How, shyly, amazed, half protesting, she who never thought of self was led into the splendour [sic] of her glory. . . . To us it will be long and lonesome: but they won’t even have looked round them before we burst in.  In any case, are we to let our dearest be wrenched out of our hands by force?  Or, seeing that it has to be, will we not give them willingly and proudly, looking God in the eyes, and telling Him that we prefer our loneliness rather than that they should miss one tittle of their rights. . . .

When we are young, heaven is a vague and nebulous and shadowy place.  But as our friends gather there, more and more it gains body and vividness and homeliness.  And when our dearest have passed yonder, how real and evident it grows, how near it is, how often we steal yonder.  For as the Master put it: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also” (quoted in Yandall Woodfin, With All Your Mind, 231).

Where is your treasure today?