Monday, August 29, 2011

What Happens When Someone Who Is “In Christ” Dies?

If someone who is "in Christ" dies now, where are they? Here is, as far as I can tell, what Scripture says about this.

• They are, immediately, “with Jesus.” This is, of course, prior to the final resurrection. As Paul wrote, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” (Phil. 1:22) So when a Jesus-follower dies they do not go to heaven as a one-stage postmortem journey. (But NT scholar Joel Green [Fuller Theological Seminary] diagrees with Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, et. al. who interpret immediate post-mortem existence as I do. Green does not think Scripture gives us an intermediate state.)

• This ‘departing and being with Christ’ is not the same thing as the eventual resurrection of the body, which Paul describes vividly later in the same letter (Phil. 3.20-21). The dead in Christ have ‘departed’ and are ‘with Christ’.

• They are ‘sleeping in Christ'. Paul uses this idea frequently. (1 Corinthians 11.30; 15.6, 18,20,51 – Paul speaks of “those who have fallen asleep in Christ.”) See  1 Thessalonians 4.13-15 – 13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

• This is not an unconscious, but a conscious state. See Rev. 6.9-11-  9 When he opened the fifth seal, 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. 10 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?”

• Luke 23.43 – to the thief on the cross - ‘Today,’ he said, ‘you will be with me in paradise.’ ‘Paradise’ is not the final destination; it is a beautiful resting place on the way there. Jesus assures him of his place in paradise, not in a few days or weeks, not if his friends say lots of prayers and masses for him, but ‘today’.

N.T. Wright’s view is this: “all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place.”

See N.T. Wright: "Rethinking the Tradition," and Surprised by Hope.