by Stu Johnson
Posted: January 17, 2018
What happens when we die?…
No. 7 in the Thursday Morning Guy’s group series ()
Once again, I report from the Thursday Morning Guys group I’ve been attending at a local church. Each week one of the guys suggests a topic for discussion. The blogs that result are not minutes from the session, but an attempt to glean useful themes, to which I may add my own insights. The topic at the January 11 session focused on the question of what happens when a believer in Christ dies..
THE DISCUSSION STARTER
Topic suggested by one of the guys, shared in an email the night before
Pastor Lutzer of the Moody Church in Chicago is very definite when saying what happens when we die. He says that when a believer dies, his Soul/Spirit immediately goes to heaven. In fact, he said Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:8 spoke of his preference to die and be “with the Lord”. Pastor Lutzer also said that when the King returns to earth he will bring with Him the dead in Christ. That is, the believers who have died and gone to heaven. We, of course know that in Luke 23:43 Jesus tells the criminal on the cross next to him that “today you will be with me in Paradise”.
NOTE: Erwin Lutzer was Senior Pastor of Moody Church in Chicago from 1980 to 2016. In addition to his sermons, he is well known as a speaker and author. Among his books is “ …the Truth About Tomorrow and What it Means for Today,” which combines three books under one cover: “One Minute After You Die,” “How You Can Be Sure You Will Spend Eternity with God” and “Your Eternal Reward.”One of the guys in the group brought a copy of Randy Alcorn’s book “ ,” which “brings eternity to light in a way that will surprise you, spark your imagination, and change how you live today.” Companion books include “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Heaven” and “50 Days of Heaven: Reflections That Bring Eternity to Light.”
Among the dozen or so men who had gathered, the topic produced a wide-ranging conversation. Here is a sampling, before moving on to propose two principles:
- One of the guys suggested that most believers he knew grew up with the idea that when we die we are immediately “present with Christ,” while others were not as certain and consider what will actually happen immediately after death as a mystery.
- A number of specific comments added to this sense of mystery: cremation, burial at sea, death through tragedies that destroy the body, scattering or destruction of bones, etc.
- One of the guys, whose mother died ten years ago, expressed confidence in his mother’s eternal place with Christ, but still had questions about her immediate destiny. He found comfort in Randy Alcorn’s explanation that while the material body stays on earth, the soul/spirit is reconstituted in heaven (which itself may be seen in two stages according to Alcorn: one immediate; the other eternal, following the return of Christ).
- How do we reconcile Jesus’ statement to the thief that “today you will be with me in paradise” ( ) with the sequence in the Apostle’s Creed (emphasis added)? The Modern English Version, from the Book of Common Prayer, states that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” The Traditional English Version also includes the phrase “he descended into hell” between burial and ascension. (see an article about the Apostle’s Creed on ).
- Several reported instances of loved ones who had death-bed visions of relatives who had preceded them in death. There have been reports of those with visions of Christ in the final moments before “passing” (an interesting term that is either an apt description of those who believe in eternal life in Christ, or a euphemism used by those with no such belief to soften the term “died.”)
- Speaking of ideal ways for believers to die, one mentioned V. Raymond Edman, President and then Chancellor of Wheaton College. “Prexy” Edman collapsed and died in 1968 while delivering a chapel message, “In the Presence of the King,” a spiritual lesson based on his own visit with Hallie Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia.
- Someone mentioned "Pascal's Dilemma," also known as "Pascal's Wager." Seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–62) argued that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell). (From a well-sourced article)
- We talk about people being “in a better place,” but what about those who are not followers of Jesus? That opens up a whole host of additional questions, and adds urgency to the Great Commission ( )
Three principles struck me on reflection about our conversation.
Two important principles struck me, the first on reflection about our Thursday Morning conversation, the second from observations since then.
Expect the promise, accept the mystery
It was obvious from our discussion that there are many beliefs about the afterlife just within our small group of evangelical Protestants. Some of the ideas we were familiar with often involve “proof texting”—picking one or a small number of Bible verses to prove a fine point. Proof texting, it seems, is most common among those who cannot “abide mystery.” The reason it is best to accept the mystery of the afterlife, however, was described by one of the guys as “the finite trying to describe the infinite/eternal.”
Add mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and other Christian traditions, and you will find more ideas and concepts about the nature of heaven and the mystery of what happens after we die. Enlarge the circle to include Judaism, Islam, world religions, and nonbelievers, and you have even more ideas of heaven, paradise, purgatory, reincarnation, or absolutely nothing, with this life being all there is.
We just don’t know enough to present the details, yet those who follow Christ can rest in the certainty of God’s promise of eternal life. That is the what, and it is so compelling that it should drive every believer to share the Good News of Jesus with as many people as possible. It is the how that remains uncertain and, when it comes right down to it, unimportant. As one of the guys said, what glory we will see! —we just don’t know the details.
In the church my wife and I attend, the sermon this past Sunday was about Christ as the Light of the World, based in part on . In that passage there are several references to the “mystery of Christ.” The pastor’s explanation of mystery was, I thought, apropos to our Thursday Morning discussion on life after death.
Unlike an Agatha Christie mystery where Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple sort through the clues to solve a crime, the mysteries of the Christian life, he suggested, can only be revealed by God, and only in his time. That means we will not know the full meaning or “solution” of the mystery until we have crossed from this life to eternity. No amount of proof texting can solve it now. We must be content to accept, experience, and celebrate the mystery, seeing it as part of God’s sovereignty and majesty. As the Apostle Paul told the believers at Corinth:
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (, NLT)
A bit of heaven on earth
Since our Thursday Morning discussion, two other ideas came to my attention.
Sabbath: a taste of things to come. My wife and I have started going through “ ,” with reflections by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Dr. Temper Longman III, the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. The passage we read the other day was called “Heaven on Earth.” I was struck by this statement by Rabbi Eckstein:
In the Jewish faith, life in heaven is described as a time when it is always the Sabbath, a time when the beauty and tranquility of Shabbat are continually experienced. For Jews, observance of Shabbat enables us to experience a taste of the world to come and gives us a glimpse of the ideal state of Creation experienced by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Eckstein than goes on to describe the importance of Shabbat in daily life. “The Sabbath is observed not for the sake of the rest of the week, but rather, the rest of the week is the prologue for the arrival of Shabbat. We live each day in anticipation of the Sabbath.”
Dr. Longman then presents a Christian perspective:
The importance of the Sabbath in the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] is indisputable. In the New Testament, however, Christ’s coming transformed his followers’ attitude toward the Sabbath. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “These rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is the reality.” () . . .
A glimpse of heaven. A comment about the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday this past weekend reminded me of another experience. For many years, I attended banquets, business meetings and training sessions for the midwest regional district of the denomination of the churches I had attended most of my life, Converge Worldwide (formerly Baptist General Conference and known from its founding in the 1860s until World War II as Swedish Baptists).
While there still are not many ethnically mixed churches in the denomination, the MidAmerica district is, in fact, made up of dozens of churches representing many backgrounds far beyond its Swedish roots. This reflects the growing diversity of the Chicago area and central U.S., especially following World War II, and accelerating in the 21st century.
“Black and yellow, red and white” is not just a cute phrase from the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” it is a picture of the ethnically diverse mix of churches. At the banquets and other events, it was for me “a glimpse of heaven.” Thank God that a growing number of denominations today have the vision expressed by on its website:
The plan of God in the Great Commission is that all nations be reached with the gospel. This was seen in the first days at Pentecost and will be true in our future days in heaven, where every tongue, tribe, people and nation will worship together.
What principles can you add from what you have learned, observed, and applied to your life?
GUIDANCE FROM SCRIPTURE (God’s written Word, the Holy Bible)
In addition to the passages already mentioned, here are some additional references among hundreds that touch on this week’s topic:
The hope and mystery of eternity
- Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. ( )
- “From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch anyone out of my hand. No one can undo what I have done.” ( )
- [Jesus speaking in the Sermon on the Mount] God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way. ( )
- And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. ( )
- For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven. ( )
- (In Matthew 24, Jesus talks about his future return, including these phrases) And he will send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones from all over the world—from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. . . . However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. (from – similar to )
- Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. ( )
- But if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven. ( )
- Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. ( )
- But Stephen, [about to be stoned for preaching the gospel of Jesus] full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” ( )
- Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like[a] the heavenly man. ( )
- I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. ( )
- For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven. You have had this expectation ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News. ( )
- Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. ( )
- All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, 4 and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. ( )
- Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. ( )
- But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. ( )
Worship in heaven
- So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. ( )
- “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” ( )
- And they sang in a mighty chorus: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang: “Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.” ( )
- They sang, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever! Amen.” ( )
- After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” ( )
About the Scripture references: unless indicated otherwise, these are taken from the New Living Translation (NLT). Links connect towhere you can see other translations, view the broader context, listen to an audio version and find other Bible resources. Also check the resources available in the section of this site.
Stu Johnson is principal of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois. He is publisher and editor of SeniorLifestyle, writes the InfoMatters blog on his own website and contributes articles for SeniorLifestyle.• Author bio (website*) • E-mail the author (moc.setaicossajs@uts*) • Author's website (personal or primary**)
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