Can Aunt Hayley see me?” my 5-year-old, Emma, asks one afternoon. “I think Hayley’s watching over me.”

Aunt Hayley passed away two years before Emma was born. Her question reveals a conflation of pop-culture depictions of the dead, her young Christian imagination, and her own experience with death.

Death is a frequent topic in our home. At times, I wonder if we’re too comfortable talking about death, if others would find us morbid—like the Christian Addams Family, or something. But death has been a part of our story, and my wife and I believe not talking about it would do more harm than being open and honest. So we do our best.

My daughter’s question remained: Can her deceased aunt see her? I didn’t know where exactly to begin. No Bible verses immediately came to mind. Pop culture has done more to shape modern views about death than biblical teaching has. Movies and other sources portray our deceased loved ones as disembodied spirits looking after us, at times leading us away from danger—perhaps even toward God. But how does this fit with Scripture? 

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The apostle Paul wrote to those in the early church of Thessalonica on this point, to correct false ideas
of what happens to their loved ones after they die: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). Interestingly, Paul refers to the deceased as tōn koimōmenōn—literally, “those having fallen asleep.” This description fits Jesus’ remarks about the synagogue leader’s recently deceased daughter in Mark’s Gospel. “Why do you make a commotion and weep,” Jesus asks the mourners who had gathered. “The child is not dead,” he insists, “but sleeping” (Mark 5:39). Jesus’ words are met with laughter; people know a dead body when they see one. To their amazement, the 12-year-old girl soon rises at Jesus’ command. 

What do these accounts offer Emma’s question about her aunt? Perhaps they help correct depictions of our deceased loved ones as wandering spirits. Instead, Scripture appears to suggest they are resting—for now. 

“God’s peace means rest for those whom life has made tired,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached. “It means quietness for the battle weary, relief for the tormented, comfort for the distressed and those who weep. … God has put an end to the ceaseless hustle and bustle of this life. They are in peace.” 1

Can Aunt Hayley see you? Well, sweetheart, this is a mystery. And a lot of people have a lot of different ideas about how this works. So far as I can tell, she’s resting. But our hope is that we will see her again one day, when we see Jesus with clear eyes.

“Encourage one another with these words,” Paul writes (1 Thess 4:18). So we do our best. 

 

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Confident Hope,” A Testament to Freedom, eds. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (HarperOne, 1990), 220. The sermon was delivered in 1933 on “Death Sunday,” a German Protestant holiday to commemorate the dead.

 Ryan J. Pemberton (MA, University of Oxford; MTS, Duke Divinity School) is the minister for university engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. He is the author of  Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again  (Leafwood Publishers) and the newly-released  Walking With C.S. Lewis  companion guide (Lexham Press).

Ryan J. Pemberton (MA, University of Oxford; MTS, Duke Divinity School) is the minister for university engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. He is the author of Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again (Leafwood Publishers) and the newly-released Walking With C.S. Lewis companion guide (Lexham Press).


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