A much-loved relative had died “full of years,” as the King James Bible quaintly puts it. Family and friends gathered in the funeral home to say goodbye. Open-casket funerals are the tradition in our area. So we sat sadly before the mortal remains of our loved one. A solemn recording of a well-known hymn provided an appropriate background for the snuffles and choked-back tears of the mourners.
“That was her favorite hymn,” said someone. “She would have liked that.” And that is when the words of an old Beatles song suddenly popped into my head.
You say goodbye, but I say hello.
I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.
I had to suppress a chuckle. Funerals are serious occasions, and certainly a time to keep one’s sense of humor in check. A Beatles song would not have gone down well. But, I asked myself, could those words actually reflect what was happening?
God did know why we were saying goodbye. Death seems so final. The skillfully made-up mortal remains of our loved one was not actually her. She had gone. Death is a frontier, and it is one we rightly fear to even approach, let alone cross. It is, as Paul wrote, an enemy, and we hold it at bay as long as possible. But in the end it conquers us all.
But then what? Most people have some kind of belief that death is not the end. The people who joined together to say “goodbye” came from many religious persuasions, and it was obvious, talking with them afterwards, that they had different ideas about what happened to their departed loved one.
Some were convinced she was in heaven with Jesus. Others believed she was asleep, awaiting the resurrection. Maybe some believed she was in Purgatory (but surely not for long, as she was a devout and sincere Christian.)
What is interesting is that all of us get our ideas about life after death from the Bible, or at least we think we do. Who is right? What has God told us happens to us when we die?
The answer is not what you might expect. God has not told us precisely what happens immediately after we die. He has told us enough for us not to worry about it. He tells us that through Jesus, we have victory over death. He assures us that he wants us to join him, to experience life in a way that we cannot begin to imagine, and his promise is that it will last forever. But beyond that, the Bible is vague about the details. Especially the details of what happens immediately after we die.
“Wait a minute! Doesn’t the Bible say in…?” I can hear you protesting, as you reach for a familiar scripture to reinforce your own belief. Yes, it does. But in other places the Bible tells us something that seems to contradict that, or at least modify it. It is important to be specific and dogmatic where God is specific and dogmatic. But if he is not — and on this topic he is not—we need to approach the subject with caution and humility.
You may be surprised to know that the Bible has little to say specifically about what happens immediately after we die. (I keep saying “immediately” — that’s important.) By emphasizing some texts over others, you can build a case for any of several points of views. But the result can be a theological house of cards.
Some scriptures suggest that the dead are safely “asleep,” and will know nothing until the moment of resurrection when Jesus returns. But others imply that they are in some way conscious, and experience emotions. Paul had no fear of death. He had, at some time in his eventful life, been given a “visitor’s pass” to heaven, and this had transformed his worldview. Life “here below” was difficult, and he was eager to begin the next step.
“As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do,” he wrote to the Philippians. “If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better” (Philippians 1:22-23, Message Bible).
But what did he mean by “be with Christ”? He does not elaborate. Another Bible writer with a day pass to heaven was John, the author of Revelation. He tells us:
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Revelation 6:9-11)
Leaving aside the question of how literally he saw these things, the point is that he does not describe the dead as being asleep and unconscious. He would hardly invent an analogy that he knew to be heretical. Puzzling, isn’t it?
If anyone should have known, it was Jesus. Just before he died, he asked the Father to “receive my spirit.” Shortly before that, he made a promise to the repentant thief suffering crucifixion beside him. He was the first person in history to look on the dying Savior and ask for help. That man’s belief was that when they die, good people go to “paradise.” But he had not been a good man. He realized that Jesus had, so he begged him to remember him in whatever came next.
Jesus reassured him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
What did he mean by that? In the English language you can juggle with the punctuation, and manipulate it to support several ideas. But the original language in which Jesus spoke these words, and those into which they were translated, had no such distinctions. Enigmatic or not, it is best to take it at face value.
Dead and gone
The Bible does not really answer the question of what happens to us immediately after we die.
We can say with confidence that from our point of view, the dead are “departed.” One phase of life is, for better or worse, definitely over. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us to make the most of this life because, “in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The point the writer is making is that your physical death is a cutoff point. One phase of your existence is definitely over. Wherever, whatever happens next is different. You don’t just pick up where you left off.
So pagans get it totally wrong when they bury food, money, bows and arrows, pots and pans, etc., with their dead. But Christians also get it wrong if they reassure themselves that the righteous dead go to heaven, and the rest to hell. The Bible does not teach it precisely that way.
The Bible does not dwell on the details of what happens in the short term to the departed. It is as if God is saying, “Don’t worry about it. Leave it to me. I have things under control. Death is an enemy, but it is the last one you will ever face.” Rather, the emphasis of Scripture about what happens when we die is on something far more exciting — the resurrection of the body — to what theologian N. T. Wright has called “the life after life after death,” in a new heavens and a new earth.
When Jesus died on the cross, the Father “received his spirit,” along with, a little later, that of the repentant thief. “Whatever happens next” happened to them, and it still is happening for the thief. But after three days, Jesus was resurrected.
He was resurrected with a body. A real, recognizable body, with genuine body parts — not a wispy, ethereal manifestation that could look like a body when he needed to make himself visible. This spiritual body was a new life form — an everlasting version of what he had before — a human being made eternal. No longer bound by the limitations of time and space, Jesus could move back and forth from the dimensions we experience to those that are at the moment beyond our reach, although not necessarily beyond our imagination.
With the astounding evidence we are uncovering about the nature of reality, we are perhaps better equipped to contemplate this idea than ever before. We know there are dimensions we cannot experience, sights we can’t see, and “dark matter” that lies beyond the reach of our senses and the instruments we have developed to enhance them. Theoretical physicists play with notions that would, even a generation ago, have seemed like science fiction. The more we probe, the stranger and yet more wonderful it all seems. Physicist Freeman Dyson once observed, “The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine. It is stranger than we can imagine.”
We need to revamp our ideas of “eternal rest.” There is much more to eternal life than just living forever. It will be filled with activity, experiences, projects and much more.
In an age where parallel universes, time travel and string theory are taken seriously, it no longer seems preposterous to suggest that this earth is not all there is, and that this earth is not yet all it will be. Or that there is a new creation within this one, waiting to be born. Just trying to put these ideas into words that make sense brings us, as theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne put it, to the “frontiers of language.” We can’t blame people from other times for not having words to express such things, although Paul came close in his epistle to the Romans:
The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance” (Romans 8:19-23, The Message Bible).
The Bible tells us that what happened to Jesus will also happen to us. “We are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
This is what the Bible focuses on when it tells us of life after death.
A new heaven and a new earth
There is much more to eternal life than just living forever. Eternity will not be spent in a sort of nebulous nether world, completely different to everything we have experienced and everything we enjoy. No one looks forward to an “eternal rest” of sitting on a cloud playing a harp, do they? About five days of that would be more than enough for most of us.
Fortunately, that is one of our ideas, not God’s. He offers us a destiny with a new heavens and a new earth, with animals, trees, friends, love and fun. We need to revamp our ideas of “eternal rest.” It will be a rest from anxiety, feelings of guilt and the limitations of our frail bodies. But it will be filled with activity, experiences, projects—all you could possibly want in this life — and much, much, more.
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:9). He added, “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (v. 10). At least, he gives us some tantalizing glimpses. That new world will not happen in its fullness until Jesus returns, and we don’t know when that will be. But we can get foretastes of it when we experience the really wonderful things about being alive now.
Human love, hard-won accomplishment, deep friendships and acts of genuine unselfishness – those moments when we think, “I wish life was always like this” give us “flash forwards” to another kind of existence. It is the way we were meant to live, the way the world could be — and will be one day. They encourage us to join Jesus Christ in working for it with, as Paul said, “joyful anticipation.”
Could it be that the joyful anticipation continues in some way immediately after our physical death? Why not? Although we should not be dogmatic, there is enough in the Scriptures to show this is a strong possibility.
In the parking lot
Here is an analogy that might help. If you have ever visited one of the great theme parks on a holiday weekend, you’ll know that the journey to get there is the worst part—crowded freeways, hot car, fraying tempers. But finally, you get to the parking lot.
The parking lot is still not the theme park, but you do feel you have arrived. There is upbeat music coming from speakers, and helpful attendants to guide you to a parking space and the transportation to the main gate. In the mid-distance you can see the tops of some of the rides, and hear the sounds of people enjoying themselves. It is a foretaste of what you too will soon be experiencing.
You have not yet arrived at the final destination, but you are no longer outside. The hardest part of the journey is over. Perhaps you are eager to get started, and your children are tugging at you, asking, like those souls under the altar John saw in Revelation, “Can we go in now?” And the answer is “All in God’s good time.” In God’s good time, the new heavens and the new earth will be revealed. There may be some surprises, but surely no disappointments for those who have eagerly awaited the fulfillment of our destiny.
This is what was going through my mind as the funeral service progressed. We were saying goodbye to a loved one. But could it be that somewhere—in a place beyond our reach and experience, God was saying “Hello. Welcome [not to your eternal rest, but] to the rest of eternity”?