I was staring into the open grave of my son Christopher. It was an unspeakably painful moment. The nightmare all parents dread had become my life. Had I been physically able to muster more tears, I would have been weeping uncontrollably. As I watched four men struggle to lower a steel lid over the grave vault holding Christopher’s miniature white casket, I realized I would see his little smiling face no more, and run my fingers through his beautiful blond hair never again. We would never snuggle together or touch one another again. Our time together was over. As I stood there, looking into what felt like an abyss, I realized that I was in the most despairing, skeptical, and faithless state I had ever been in. I felt like cursing God for the rest of my life. I was on the edge of the dark, bottomless pit of hell.
The excruciating pain of my son’s death was a defining moment for me, profoundly shaping my view of God’s Word. Previous to that moment, while God’s Word had been central to my life, I thought its primary purpose was to give me guidance and doctrinal stability. While I knew His Word was about real human experiences (like suffering and death), it had seemed flat, two-dimensional, like a blueprint or a map. To me, it had been little more than a divinely inspired collection of information. I had experienced no great loss or defeat in life up to that point, and I even thought that 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (which deals with the death of loved ones) was about nothing more than the timing of Christ’s return. “Sure, a few Christians in Thessalonica died, but that was simply an occasion for Paul to teach about the end-times.”
Over the years, I had logged quite a bit of time studying 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, trying to understand it. I sought to comprehend the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the relationship between death and Christ’s coming for His church. I struggled to know the facts about Jesus’ raising the dead at the rapture of the church, and once I knew these facts, I even meditated upon them. In other words, I laid a basis of knowledge about this part of God’s Word. And part of my knowledge was the correct application of the passage: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (verse 18).
In a culture that is rapidly moving into emotivism, the above paragraph is terribly out of step. How dare I use words like “study,” “understand,” “comprehend,” “facts” and “knowledge” when talking about death?
I used these strong, cognitive words intentionally, because one of the purposes of the Word of God is to give us knowledge; we are instructed to learn about the things Scripture recounts. While this isn’t the ultimate end of God’s Word, it is certainly the essential beginning. The Bible has a very real cognitive dimension; knowledge of certain things is absolutely necessary for meaningful living on planet earth. Quite simply, we must know what biblical passages mean before we can apply their meaning to our lives.
As I pondered the fact that my son’s little body was being covered by a steel lid and several feet of dirt, I wondered how God could possibly resurrect his body through such obstacles. It was at this curious, yet horrifying moment that God graciously reminded me of my study of 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. I began to ponder with new tear-clouded eyes Paul’s graveside theology for the grieving Thessalonians:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (ESV)
While these verses contained rich truths about the end times, this passage suddenly seemed far more oriented toward families and friends grieving the death of loved ones. It was theology wrapped in real, gritty, painful, emotion-filled experience. It was shaped to address not an abstract and mechanical interest in the end-times, but the tear-stained eyes of believers who had lost their friends and family members, even their children. It was addressed, at that moment, to me. It was God’s Word to me, pulling me back from the abyss of despair and unbelief. It was God’s Word to me, giving me emotional comfort and a hope that could overcome unspeakable tragedy. It was God’s Word to me in my grief, so that I could grieve my heart out, yet “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In that graveside realization, I learned to apply God’s Word in a very different way. Perhaps I began to apply it in the way God intended, with both my mind and heart, with both my intellect and my emotions. At that moment I learned how desperately I needed to apply God’s Word to my life.
Although it has been almost 22 years since my graveside pondering of 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, I continue to unpack the significance of this experience. It was pivotal in helping me wed the informing dimension of the Bible with its transforming one. My scales had been tipped toward the information/knowledge end and needed to be balanced with the corresponding transformational intention of the Scriptures. It is always a both/and. While my generation has emphasized the Bible’s informing dimension, younger generations are hungering for its transforming dimension. Perhaps my generation’s imbalanced emphasis on knowledge has fueled your generation’s imbalanced emphasis on experience. Neither is complete by itself. We must know the Bible’s information before we can experience the Bible’s transformation. I could never have been comforted by the remarkable truths of Christ’s uniting of loved ones at the “catching-up” of the church without first knowing those truths. More bluntly, I could never have experienced this timely application of God’s Word in the midst of the darkest moment of my life if I hadn’t first mastered the information about it. It was a grave lesson, but a life-changing one, about application.
Walt Russell is a New Testament professor at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and is author of Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (NavPress, 2000).