My father-in-law, Albert Mast, is nearing death. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us who are nearest to him. It sounds strange to say it, and stranger still to experience it, but we are waiting for him to die. I waited beside his bed for some four hours last night, then one of his brothers waited till morning. I think Albert’s been waiting longer than any of us.
While we wait, we think. My wife Zonya’s thoughts, along with the thoughts of many in her family, seem to be drawn mostly to the past, reflecting on memories of Albert from before his illness turned much worse about five years ago. Since I have fewer memories of Albert from before that time, and since I may have opportunity to speak publicly after his passing, my thoughts are wandering more to the future than to the past.
What will happen to Albert when he dies? What will he experience? What should he hope to experience? He’s lived in a crippled body for so long; what measure of relief will he experience immediately? What surprises might he experience? To what extent is his hope shaped according to the biblical revelation, and to what extent has it been shaped by gospel songs we sing and by that vast stock of traditional Christian phrases that reveal and drive our popular theologies?
Don’t worry. I’m not on a campaign to change my father-in-law’s theology at this point. I’ve read some Scriptures to him (1 Cor. 15) and prayed with him, but this is not the time for theological education. His hope is fixed on Jesus, and that’s more than sufficient for his journey ahead! But for those of us who will remain, I think a better understanding can lead to a fuller hope, a more expansive vision of what lies ahead. So here are a few thoughts while I wait.
A question: When Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2), what was the joy that he was anticipating? What anticipated joy gave him such great endurance? Was Jesus anticipating “dying and going to heaven”? Was he eager to “spend eternity in heaven with God”?
I’m certain Jesus was indeed eager to return to the presence of his Father, but I think such phrases miss a crucial element of the joy that fueled his endurance. Hebrews summarizes Jesus’ reward by saying that he “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” This phrase does not mean merely that Jesus is in the presence of God. Rather, it means that he is reigning with God. So, when did Jesus begin to reign? On Friday evening, immediately after he cried “It is finished” and gave up his spirit? Sometime on Saturday, while his body lay in the grave? Or on Sunday, after the stone was rolled from the tomb?
I think Paul summarizes the NT answer to this question well: “[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20). In other words, Jesus was granted authority to reign not on Friday, not on Saturday, but on Sunday morning–or maybe at his ascension about 40 days later.
What is very clear is that “the joy that was set before Jesus,” the joy that fueled his endurance, was not something that he anticipated would happen on Friday night or on Saturday. The joy that fueled Jesus’ endurance was the joy of his upcoming resurrection and all that would flow from it.
We can see this, too, in Jesus’ repeated prophecies of his own suffering. Each time he told his disciples of his impending death, it was all bad news until the final line: “and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 17:23; 20:19; etc.). Never do we read anything like, “and he will go to heaven to be with God.” As true as that was, Jesus didn’t mention it. It wasn’t on his radar. The focus of his hope was his upcoming resurrection. I simply cannot imagine Jesus being satisfied with “going to heaven to be with God” on Friday without also being “raised on the third day”! The very idea is so strange that, if you’re like me, you’ve never even thought of that possibility before today.
If all that is true, then what about our own hope in death? I’d like to suggest that it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so. I’ll say that again: I think it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so.
Here’s a challenge: Do a word search in the NT for “heaven,” and see if you can find any passages that are anything like “go to heaven when you die.” See if you can find any passages that invite the Christian to set his hopes on going to heaven after death. Then do another search, a search for “resurrection,” “raised,” and all the other related words you can think of. See how many pages of passages you can find describing the hope that awaits the Christian in the coming resurrection, at Christ’s return. I did such searches several years ago, while preparing for Easter sermons, and I’ve never recovered. (Here is where I must also thank N.T. Wright and Randy Alcorn for starting me down this path and surprising me with new hope–see here and here.)
Millions of saints who have believed in purgatory have faced a pleasant surprise after death: They have found themselves immediately with Jesus, with no need to suffer long years in purgatory! But some of us who have rightly rejected purgatory have set ourselves up for a less pleasant surprise: If we think we are going straight to our full eternal reward immediately after death, we will suddenly discover that we need to “wait a little longer” (Rev. 6:11) for Christ’s return, bringing our resurrection and the final judgment. This is a less significant error than purgatory—but also a less pleasant surprise. Yes, it is “far better” to leave our bodies and be with Jesus (Phil 1:23). But let’s “set [our] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13) and “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
Much should be said about why this clarification of our hope matters. Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that a hope fixed on “going to heaven when you die” tends to be more self-centered than a hope fixed on Christ’s return and the resurrection and the restoration of all things. The former focuses on personal salvation; the latter on cosmic salvation. The former focuses on us going to be with Jesus; the latter focuses on Jesus coming to be with us and with his entire creation. I’m sure many selfless saints have fixed their hopes on “crossing the river” to see Jesus face to face and meet their loved ones. But I think a hope fixed on Christ’s return helps us see much more of the glory of Christ!
A bigger vision of a bigger Christ, a greater hope that fuels a greater endurance. I’m sold. Where are you pinning your hopes?
I’ll end my polished thoughts here and invite you to respond in the comments below. But I’ll also post the Scriptures I was mediating on today, along with my observations about four things I think we can learn about from each passage: death, afterdeath, resurrection, and implications for us now. Many more passages could be cited, but these alone are enough, I think, to shift the focus of our hopes from after death to the resurrection to come.
Afterdeath and Resurrection – Scriptures Describing the Christian’s True Hope
Note: I am using the term afterdeath rather than afterlife for the intermediate state (between our death and Christ’s return) because afterlife is potentially misleading. For the Christian, though death brings an end to the natural life of our bodies, our life continues and then blossoms into fullness after death. Eternal life is unending, so there is nothing that comes “after” life for the Christian.
2 Timothy 4:6-8
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
Death: Death is the time of departure, the end of the fight, the end of the race, the end of the fight/race of preserving the true faith from attack and corruption. (It could also be called an offering, at least if it involves the suffering accompanying a martyr’s death, as with Paul’s suffering and impending death.)
Afterdeath: No more fight, race, or faith-keeping. Time of waiting for final rewards.
Resurrection: Christ’s appearing on that Day, the day of judgment, is when the crown of righteousness will be given.
Now: We love and long for Christ’s appearing, willingly suffering for Christ as we pin our hopes on that Day.
21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
Death: When we die we no longer remain in the flesh. We depart from fellow believers and our time of labor and serving others in gospel ministry ends.
Afterdeath: Christians are with Christ in a fuller way than we presently are. (Cf. Stephen in Acts 7:59: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and Jesus’ words to thief on cross in Luke 23:43: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”) They rest from their labors. Therefore, the afterdeath is far better than remaining in our corruptible flesh. Yet it is a time of separation from earthly saints.
Resurrection: Paul says nothing about the resurrection in this passage. Later in the same book he does (3:10-14, 20-21), and notice how he makes it the centerpiece of Christian hope:
“10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus… 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Now: For us to live is Christ—we live Christ-shaped lives, imitating him in suffering service for his sake, laboring for the good of others.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Death: Can come through martyrdom, unjustly, because of our faithfulness to the word of God for the witness we have borne. Yet even this kind of death is “numbered” and overseen by God. Yes, death is our enemy. But every Christian dies under God’s watchful eye.
Afterdeath: At least for some (martyrs), a time of intense longing for God to bring final justice on the earth. Saints are crying, “How long?!” just as the ancient psalmists did. They are conscious. They can speak with God. They experience the passage of time. They remember their earthly lives and have a least some awareness of what is currently happening on earth (cf. 1 Sam. 28:16-19; Rev. 18:20; 19:1-5)—at least that suffering and wickedness is continuing. Tears are seemingly not all wiped away until the coming of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:4). Yet saints now in God’s presence also receive God’s comfort—purity (Rev. 3:4-5; 7:9-14; 19:8) and glory as symbolized by a white robe, and the assurance that it will be only “a little longer” until God judges evil and rescues his people. Note: these robes are clearly metaphorical in Revelation (“washed… and made white in the blood of the Lamb,” 7:14) and do not indicate that saints in the intermediate state possess bodies.
Resurrection: Not mentioned directly, but the joint-event of the final judgment is presented as the hope of the saints.
Now: Endure faithfully as witnesses for Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:1-10:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Death: Our tent (body) is destroyed; our time of being in the body and away from the Lord ends.
Afterdeath: We are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Sight begins to replace faith. Yet it is still a time of waiting for our final clothing. (Vs. 3-4 are difficult. Perhaps they suggest that during afterdeath, as now, we will still experience something of the shameful nakedness of Adam as we wait for our final glorious bodies and the full restoration of all that was lost at the Fall; see Scott Hoffman NIVAC. But Murray Harris NIGTC thinks the “nakedness” comments are rather designed to refute the Corinthian doubts about bodily resurrection during the eternal state, as in 1 Cor. 15.)
Resurrection: We will put on our heavenly dwelling, our eternal bodies, our final and full clothing. This will happen at the judgment seat of Christ (which happens at Christ’s return) we each receive what is due for what we have done while in our bodies. All that is mortal will be swallowed up by life!
Now: We are only partially clothed, and we groan for our “overgarments”—our eternal bodies; we don’t yet see all we long for, but we are of good courage as we walk by faith, because we already have the Spirit as a guarantee of our eternal bodies to come.
1 Corinthians 15:20-26:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Death: Experienced by all descendants of Adam; a result of the Fall, an enemy that has not yet been fully destroyed.
Afterdeath: A sleep. This was a common way of referring to death, used by pagans, Jews, and Christians alike, whether or not anyone believed in a coming resurrection (Green, Thessalonians, 217). Perhaps this term was used as a way of expressing the fact that we can’t communicate with the dead, just like we can’t communicate with people who are sleeping. Or maybe it was just a pleasant term to soften the ugliness of death. Most important: It does not indicate that those who are dead are unconscious (which would contradict other texts like Luke 16:19-31 or Rev. 6:9-11). Although it was used by all kinds of people, it is sometimes used in Scripture to insinuate that death isn’t the final end (Dan. 12:2; Mark 5:39). Therefore, even though the term in its original usage doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the afterlife, it is a doubly-fitting term for Christians: death, like sleep, is a temporary time of waiting that will be followed by an awakening on the resurrection morning.
Resurrection: All who are belong to Christ will be made alive at his coming—they will receive incorruptible, spirit-powered bodies. Then, at the end, death itself will be destroyed.
In Conclusion: Being with Christ is “Far Better,” But Sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is Our True Comfort and Hope
The message we use to comfort each other:
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. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
The place where our hope is fixed:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ… 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7, 13)