Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning. Scripture is clear, and Jesus said plainly, that he desired (Jn.17:24), planned (Jn.6:39-40), and provided (Jn.14:1-4) for his people to share life with him – permanently. Paul (I Cor.15) even goes so far as to say that without the resurrection (#35), we might as well forget the whole thing (v.17-18)! Although he represents the resurrection of committed disciples to have taken place, symbolically and practically, at their conversion and baptism (Rom.6:1-9, Col.2:12), and asserts that their / our new life has already begun, he clearly expects something more (I Thes.4:13-18) when Jesus returns.
Huge amounts of ink have been spilled over when, exactly, that resurrection takes place. None of the references to it make any mention of “heaven”, as we have seen. Opposing “sides” have stockpiled their textual “weapons”, some to insist that it is all instantaneous at the moment of physical death (citing the thief on the cross), and others to maintain that those who have passed on are “asleep” (a common euphemism for death both in and out of Scripture) until the Lord’s return (as suggested in the I Thes.4 passage). This whole controversy strikes me as rather silly, since, if “time shall be no more” (Rv.10:6), the “timing” couldn’t possibly matter – or even be discernible!
When Jesus spoke of “eternal life” (W.S.#28), it was almost always in the present tense, and predicated, as in Jn.3:36, upon obedience and faithfulness to the Son of God, and not upon subscribing to any list of “doctrines”. Indeed, the tense is occasionally even perfect: Jn.5:24 – (the faithful person) “has passed from death into life”! John reiterates that statement in his first letter (3:14) – it must have made an impression on him!
Nevertheless, (physical) death was / is still a “fact of life”: it was for Jesus himself, and has been for even the most faithful of his people. Jesus is the only one who said anything about “where” he was “going” – and his statement was simply, “I am going to the Father” (Jn.14:12, 28; 16:28), or “to the one who sent me” (Jn.16:5). For Paul, (Phil.1:23) “to depart and be with Christ” was an attractive prospect. But notice that this is embedded in a much longer discourse about faithful living.
Most of the references to a person having died say no more than that: whether the person was faithful – like Simeon, (Lk.2:28), John the Baptist (Mt.14:10-11 and parallels), Stephen (Ac.7:54-56), Dorcas (Ac.9:36), and James (Ac.12:1) – or unfaithful – like both Herods (Mt.2:19, Ac.2:23), Ananias and Sapphira (Ac.5), and Judas (Mt.27:5) – or innocent, like the children of Bethlehem (Mt.2:18)– they just “died”. Please also refer to the previous post regarding the people who subsequently were raised. As noted there, there is no instance where they are said to have “gone” anywhere. The young man at Nain “sat up and talked” (Lk.7:15), Lazarus simply walked out of the tomb (Jn.11:44), and Dorcas “opened her eyes and sat up” (Ac.9:40). Luke (8:55) says that the little girl’s “spirit returned”, without saying from where. Jesus also committed his spirit to the Father at his death (Lk.23:45). Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:36) speak of his having “released” his spirit, and John (19:30) says “yielded.” As he was stoned, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Ac.7:59). Please note that the word used in each case is pneuma – “spirit / breath” (W.S.#52) – and not the pagan concept of “soul” psuche. (Refer to discussion in #28, “life”).
We have also treated the word aion, aionios in the study on “life” , and seen that its reference is virtually impossible to pin down. The easy cop-out, rendering it “eternity, eternal, or forever” simply does not work in many places. For example, do you really think Jesus intended to say that he would accompany his disciples (Mt.28:20) “to the end of eternity”? I don’t think so!
Jesus’ responses to people who asked him about “eternal life” – even if the questioner thought they were referring to an afterlife – were exquisitely practical – “Do this, and you will live / enter into life!” is the refrain. Like “entering the Kingdom”, (#19,20,21), this happens during one’s physical life on earth! And a more accurate (yes, “literal”) translation of Jesus’ statement in Jn.11:26, in answer to Martha’s postponement of resurrection until the “last day” (v.24), is “Everyone living, who is faithful to me, will not die forever!” If he had meant “never die”, he would have used oudepote, and not eis ton aiona. Millions of faithful people have died – but not forever!
The epistles, concerned as they are with the faithfulness of living brotherhoods, make rather few references to death, except to say that it is really not a problem. Although Paul, who was probably thoroughly tired of sitting in jail, writes to the Philippians that he’d really like to “depart the be with Christ” (1:23), which he calls “far preferable”, his focus is that “Christ be magnified in my body whether through life or through death” (v.21).
In other contexts, “death”or “dead” is used as a description of total alienation from God and his ways (Rom.6,7,8), of people’s condition before their commitment to Jesus’ Kingdom (Eph.2:1, 2:5, Col.2:13), of the expected complete abandonment of one’s former way of life (Rom.6:11, 8:10, Heb.6:1, 9:14), or as identification with Jesus in his death and resurrection life (Rom.6:1-13, 8:11, I Cor.15, Eph.5:14).
Since the epistles were frequently written in a context of extreme persecution, however, the reality of the constant threat of execution is not ignored. Jesus had given fair warning that the time would come when (Jn.16:2) “everyone who kills you will perceive that he is offering service to God!” Paul himself (Ac.9:1, 22:4) had shared that perception before he met Jesus! But in his new life, he expressed a new attitude in II Cor.1:9-10, and II Cor.4:11,12 is buttressed with v.16-18. John relays Jesus’ message in Rv.2:10 to beleaguered brethren,and Paul reassures the Roman church (8:38) that death does not have the last word.
I really believe the primary lesson here is that it’s not about what happens to ME, either before or after physical death. It’s about faithfully representing Jesus and his Kingdom, regardless of the consequences either now or later!
We can say this because there is yet another glorious truth, far too frequently neglected in what passes for “Christian teaching”. Paul refers to it in II Tim.1:10 – (Jesus) “DESTROYED death, bringing to light life and immortality through the Good News!” and I Cor.15:26 – “The last enemy to be destroyed is death!” “So then, if we are living, we are living for the Lord, and if we die, we are dying for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord!” (Rom.14:8).
The situation is even more vividly described in Heb.2:14,15: through (his) death, (Jesus) once-and-for-all destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and rescued those who, by fear of death, were held in slavery all their lives! One who does not fear death, cannot be enslaved or otherwise coerced!
“He (Jesus) died on behalf of everyone, in order that those who are alive might no longer be living for themselves, but for the one who died and was raised on their behalf!” (II Cor.5:15).
Jesus himself said it most simply: “Because I am alive, you also will be alive!” (Jn.14:9)
Here is one follower of the Lord Jesus who really doesn’t care.
In the words of an old hymn, “It’s heaven to me, wherever I be, if he is there!”
And of that, his promise is certain.
Thanks be to God!