What is the purpose of death in the Christian life? What happens to our bodies and souls when we die? When will we receive resurrection bodies? What will they be like?
The last aspect of the fallen world to be removed will be death. Paul says: "After that the end will come, when he will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death." (1 Cor.15:21-26).
When Christ returns,
then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?(1 Cor.15:54-55)
But until that time, death remains a reality even in the lives of Christians. Although death does not come to us as a penalty for our individual sins (for that has been paid by Christ), it does come to us as a result of living in a fallen world, where the effects of sin have not all been removed. Related to the experience of death are other results of the fall that harm our physical bodies and signal the presence of death in the world - Christians as well as non-Christians experience aging, illnesses, injuries, and natural disasters (such as floods, violent storms, and earthquakes). Although God often answers prayers to deliver Christians (and also non-Christians) from some of these effects of the fall for a time (and thereby indicates the nature of his coming kingdom), nevertheless, Christians eventually experience all of these things to some measure, and, until Christ returns, all of us will grow old and die. The "last enemy" has not yet been destroyed. And God has chosen to allow us to experience death before we gain all the benefits of salvation that have been earned for us.
The positive purpose for God's discipline is clear in Hebrews 12, where we read, "For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child. ... For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But Godís discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening ó itís painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. (Heb.12:6,10-11). Not all discipline serves to correct us when we have committed sins; God may allow it to strengthen us so that we may gain greater ability to trust him and to resist sin in the challenging path of obedience. We see this clearly in the life of Jesus, who, though he was without sin, yet "learned obedience from the things he suffered" (Heb.5:8). He was made perfect "through suffering" (Heb.2:10). Therefore, we should see all the hardship and suffering that comes to us in life as something that God brings to us to do us good, strengthening our trust in him and our obedience, and ultimately increasing out ability to glorify him.
The understanding that death is not in any way a punishment for sin, but simply something God brings us through in order to make us more like Christ, should be a great encouragement to us. "Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying" (Heb.2:15). Nevertheless, although God will bring good to us through the process of death, we must still remember that death is not natural; it is not right; and in a world created by God, it is something that ought not to be. It is an enemy - something that Christ will finally destroy (1 Col.15:26).
The persuasion that we may honor the Lord even in our death and that faithfulness to him is far more important than preserving our lives, has given courage and motivation to martyrs throughout the history of the church. When faced with a choice of preserving their own lives and sinning, or giving up their own lives and being faithful, they chose to give up their own lives - "And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die." (Rev.12:11). Even in times when there is little persecution and little likelihood of martyrdom, it would be good for us to fix this truth in our minds once for all, for if we are willing to give up even our lives for faithfulness to God, we shall find it much easier to give up everything else for the sake of Christ as well.
We also read John's word in Revelation: "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!'" (Rev.14:13).
Believers need have no fear of death, therefore, for Scripture reassures us that not even "death" will "separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom.8:38-39; Ps.23:4). In fact, Jesus died that he might "set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. (Heb.2:15). This verse reminds us that a clear testimony to our lack of fear of death will provide a strong witness for Christians in an age that tries to avoid talking about death and has no answer for it.
It is not wrong to express real sorrow at the loss of fellowship with loved ones who have died, and sorrow also for the suffering and hardship that they may have gone through prior to death. Sometimes Christians think it shows lack of faith if they mourn deeply for a brother or sister Christian who has died. But Scripture does not support that view, because when Stephen was stoned, we read that "Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning." (Acts 8:2). Certainly there was no lack of faith on anyone's part that Stephen was in heaven experiencing great joy in the presence of the Lord. Yet the sorrow of his companions showed the genuine grief they felt at the loss of fellowship with someone whom they loved, and it was not wrong to express this sorrow - it was right. Even Jesus, at the tomb of Lazarus, "wept" (John 11:35), experiencing sorrow at the fact that Lazarus had died, that his sisters and others were experiencing such grief, and also, no doubt, at the fact that there was death in the world at all, for ultimately it is unnatural and ought not to be in a world created by God.
Nevertheless, the sorrow that we feel over the death of loved ones is clearly mingled with hope and joy. Paul does not tell the Thessalonians that they should not grieve at all concerning their loved ones who have died, but he writes, "that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess.4:13) - they should not grieve in the same way, with the same bitter despair, that unbelievers have. But certainly they should grieve. He assures them that Christ "died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever" (1 Thess.5:10), and thereby encourages them that those who have died have gone to be with the Lord. That is why Scripture can say, "Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work" (Rev.4:13). In fact, Scripture even tells us, "The Lord cares deeply when his loved ones die" (Ps.116:15).
Therefore, though we have genuine sorrow when Christian friends and relatives die, we also can say with Scripture, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? ... But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor.15:55-57). Though we mourn, our mourning should be mixed with worship of God and thanksgiving for the life of the loved one who has died.
Yet it also must be said that we often do not have absolute certainty that a person has persisted in refusal to trust in Christ all the way to the point of death. The knowledge of one's impending death often will bring about genuine heart searching on the part of the dying person, and sometimes words of Scripture or words of Christian testimony that have been heard long ago will be recalled and the person may come to genuine repentance and faith. Certainly, we do not have any assurance that this has happened unless there is explicit evidence for it, but it is also good to realize that in many cases we have only probable but not absolute knowledge that those whom we have known as unbelievers have persisted in their unbelief until the point of death. In some cases we simply do not know.
Nevertheless, after a non-Christian has died, it would certainly be wrong to give any indication to others that we think that person has gone to heaven. This would simply be to give misleading information and false assurance and to diminish the urgency of the need for those who are still alive to trust in Christ. It is much better on such occasions, as God provides opportunity, to take time to reflect on our own lives and destiny and to share the gospel with others. In fact, the times when we are able to talk as a friend to the loved ones of an unbeliever who has died are often times when the Lord will open up opportunities to talk about the gospel with those who are still living.
The fact that the souls believers go immediately into God's presence means that there is no such thing as purgatory. In Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is the place where the souls of believers go to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted into heaven. According to this view, the sufferings of purgatory are given to God in substitute for the punishment for sins that believers should have received in time, but did not.
But this doctrine is not taught in Scripture, and it is in fact contrary to the verses quoted immediately above. The Roman Catholic Church has found support for this doctrine, not in the pages of canonical Scripture as Protestants have accepted it since the Reformation, but in the writings of the Apocrypha. It should first be said that this literature is not equal to Scripture in authority and should not be taken as an authoritative source of doctrine. Moreover, texts from which this doctrine is derived contradict clear affirmations of the New Testament and thereby oppose the teaching of Scripture. For example, the primary text used in this regard, 2 Maccabees 12:42-45, contradicts the clear scriptural affirmations about departing and being with Christ quoted above. The text reads:
[Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the Jewish forces] also took a collection, man by man, to the amount of 2,000 drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking into account the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.Here it is clear that prayer for the dead is approved and also making an offering to God to deliver the dead from their sin. But this contradicts the explicit teaching of the New Testament that Christ alone made atonement for us. This passage in 2 Maccabees is difficult to square even with Roman Catholic teaching, because it teaches that soldiers who had died in the mortal sin of idolatry (which cannot be forgiven according to Catholic teaching) should have prayers and sacrifices offered for them with the possibility that they will be delivered from their suffering.
Other passages sometimes used in support of the doctrine of purgatory include Matthew 12:32 and 1 Corinthians 3:15. In Matt.12:32, Jesus says, "anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come." Ludwig Ott says that this sentence "leaves open the possibility that sins are forgiven not only in this world but in the world to come." However, this is simply an error in reasoning, for to say that something will not happen in the age to come does not imply that it might happen in the age to come! What is needed to prove the doctrine of purgatory is not a negative statement such as this but a positive statement that says that people suffer for the purpose of continuing purification after they die. But Scripture nowhere says this.
In 1 Corinthians 3:15 Paul says that on the day of judgment, the work that everyone has done will be judged and tested by fire, and he says, "if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames." But this does not speak of a person being burned or suffering punishment, but simply of his work as being tested by fire - that which is good will be like gold, silver, and precious stones that will last forever (v.12). Moreover, Ott himself admits that this is something that occurs not during this age, but during the day of "the general judgment," and this further indicates that it can hardly be used as a convincing argument for purgatory.
An even more serious problem with this doctrine is that it teaches that we must add something to the redemptive work of Christ and that his redemptive work for us was not enough to pay the penalty for all our sins. But this is certainly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Moreover, in a pastoral sense, the doctrine of purgatory robs the believers of the great comfort that should be theirs in knowing that those who have died have immediately gone into the presence of the Lord, and knowing that they also, when they die, will "go and be with Christ, which would be far better" (Phil.1:23).
The fact that souls of believers go immediately into God's presence also means that the doctrine of soul sleep is incorrect. This doctrine teaches that when believers die they go into a state of unconscious existence, and the next thing that they are conscious of will be when Christ returns and raises them to eternal life. This doctrine has never found wide acceptance in the church.
Support for this view has generally been found in the fact that Scripture several times speaks of the state of death as "sleep" or "falling asleep" (Matt.9:24,27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Col.5:6,18-20; 1 Thess.4:13;5:10). Moreover, certain passages seem to teach that the dead do not have a conscious existence (see Ps.6:5;15:17-18; Eccl.9:10; Isa.38:19). But when Scripture represents death as "sleep," it is simply a metaphorical expression used to indicate that death is only temporary for Christians, just as sleep is temporary. This is clearly seen, for example, when Jesus tells his disciples about the death of Lazarus. He says, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up." (John 11:11). Then John explains, "They thought Jesus meant Lazarus was simply sleeping, but Jesus meant Lazarus had died. So he told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead.'" (John 11:13-14). The other passages that speak about people sleeping when they die are likewise to be interpreted as simply a metaphorical expression to teach that death is temporary.
As for the passages that indicate that the dead do not praise God, or that there is a ceasing of conscious activity when people die, these are all to be understood from the perspective of life in this world. From our perspective, it appears that once people die, they do not engage in these activities any longer. But Psalm 115 presents the full biblical perspective on this viewpoint. It Says, "The dead cannot sing praises to the Lord, for they have gone into the silence of the grave." But then it continues in the very next verse with a contrast indicating that those who believe in God can bless the Lord forever: "But we can praise the Lord both now and forever! 'Praise the LORD!'" (Ps.115:17-18).
Finally, the passages quoted above demonstrating that the souls of believers go immediately into God's presence and enjoy fellowship with him there (Phil.1:23; Heb.12:23) all indicate that there is conscious existence and fellowship with God immediately after death for the believer. Jesus did not say, "Today you will no longer have consciousness of anything that is going on," but, "Today you will be with me in paradise.Ē (Luke 23:43). Certainly the conception of paradise understood at that time was not one of unconscious existence but one of great blessing and joy in God's presence. Paul did not say, "My desire is to depart and be unconscious for a long period of time," but rather, "My desire is to depart and be with Christ" (Phil.1:23) - and he certainly know that Christ was not an unconscious, sleeping Savior, but one who was living and reigning in heaven. To be with Christ was to enjoy the blessing of fellowship in his presence, and that is why to depart and be with him was "far better." Iím torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.(Phil.1:23) Thus, he says, "We would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord." (2 Cor.5:8).
Finally, the fact that the souls of believers go immediately into God's presence means that we should not pray for the dead. Although praying for the dead is taught in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45 (see above), it is nowhere taught in the Bible itself. Moreover, there is no indication that this was the practice of any Christians at the time of the New Testament, nor should it have been. Once believers die, they enter into God's presence and are in a state of perfect happiness with him. What good would it do to pray for them anymore? Final heavenly reward will be based on deeds done in this life, as Scripture repeatedly testifies (1 Cor.3:12; 2 Cor.5:10; et al.). Further, the souls of unbelievers who die go to a place of punishment and eternal separation from God's presence. It would do no good to pray for them either, since their final destiny has been settled by their sin and their rebellion against God in this life. To pray for the dead, therefore, is simply to pray for something that God has told us has already been decided. Moreover, to teach that we should pray for the dead, or to encourage others to do so, would be to encourage false hope that the destinies of people might be changed after they die, something Scripture nowhere encourages us to think.
The book of Hebrews connects death with the consequence of judgment in close sequence: "And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment" (Heb.9:27). Moreover, Scripture never represents the final judgment as depending on anything done after we die, but only on what has happened in this life (Matt.25:31-46; Rom.2:5-10; cf. 2 Cor.5:10). Some have argued for a second chance to believe in the gospel on the basis of Christ's preaching to the spirits in prison in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and the preaching of the gospel "even to the dead" in 1 Peter 4:6, but those are inadequate interpretations of the verses in question, and, on closer inspection, do not support such a view.
We should also realize that the idea that there will be a second chance to accept Christ after death is based on the assumption that everyone deserves a chance to accept Christ and that eternal punishment comes only to those who consciously decide to reject him. But certainly that idea is not supported by Scripture; we all are sinners by nature and choice, and no one actually deserves any of God's grace or deserves any opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ - those come only because of God's unmerited favor. Condemnation comes not only because of a willful rejection of Christ, but also because of the sins that we have committed and the rebellion against God that those sins represent (see Jo3:18).
Although unbelievers pass into a state of eternal punishment immediately upon death, their bodies will not be raised until the day of final judgment. On that day, their bodies will be raised and reunited with their souls, and they will stand before God's throne for final judgment to be pronounced upon them in the body (see Matt.25:31-46; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Rev.20:12,15). This leads us to a consideration of the resurrection of the body of the believer, which is the final step in the believer's redemption.
We may define glorification as follows: Glorification is the final step in the application of redemption. It will happen when Christ returns and raises from the dead the bodies of all believers for all time who have died, and reunites them with their souls, and changes the bodies of all believers who remain alive, thereby giving all believers at the same time perfect resurrection bodies like his own.
Paul further explains in 1 Thessalonians that the souls of those who have died and gone to be with Christ will come back and be joined with their bodies on that day, for Christ will bring them with him: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, "God will bring back with him the believers who have died" (1 Thes.4:14). But here Paul affirms not only that God will bring with Christ those who have died; he also affirms that the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thes.4:16-17). This only makes sense if it is the souls of believers who have gone into Christ's presence who return with him, and if it is their bodies that are raised from the dead to be joined together with their souls, and then to ascend to be with Christ.
Using the example of sowing a seed in the ground and then watching it grow into something much more wonderful. Paul goes on to explain in more detail what our resurrection bodies will be like: "Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised spiritual bodies... Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man" (1 Cor.15:42-44,49).
Paul first states that our resurrection bodies will be "imperishable." This means that they will not wear out or grow old or ever be subject to any kind of sickness or disease. They will be completely healthy and strong forever. Moreover, since the gradual process of aging is part of the process by which our bodies now are subject to "corruption," it is appropriate to think that our resurrection bodies will have no sign of aging, but will have the characteristics of youthful but mature manhood or made perfect. Our resurrection bodies will show the fulfillment of God's perfect wisdom in creating us as human beings who are the pinnacle of his creation and the appropriate bearers of his likeness and image. In these resurrection bodies, we will clearly see humanity as God intended it to be.
Paul also says our bodies will be raised "in glory." When this term is contrasted with "weakness" and "brokenness", as it is here, there is a suggestion of the beauty or the attractiveness of appearance our bodies will have. They will no longer be "broken" or "weak", but will look "glorious" in their beauty. They may even have a bright radiance about them (see Dan.12:3; Matt.13:43).
Our bodies will also be raised "in strength" (1 Cor.15:43). This is in contrast to the "weakness" we see in our bodies now. Our resurrection bodies will not only be free from disease and aging, they will also be given fullness of strength and power - not infinite power like God, of course, and probably not what we would think of as "superhuman" power in the sense possessed by the superheroes in modern fictional children's writing, for example, but nonetheless full and complete human power and strength, the strength that God intended human beings to have in their bodies when he created them. It will therefore be strength that is sufficient to do all that we desire to do in conformity with the will of God.
Finally, Paul says that the body is raised a "spiritual body" (1 Cor.15:44). In the Pauline epistles, the word "spiritual" (Gk. pneumatikos) never means "nonphysical" but rather "consistent with the character and activity of the Holy Spirit" (see, for example, Rom.1:11; Rom.7:14; 1 Cor.2:13,15; 1 Cor.3:1; 1 Cor.14:37; Gal.6:1 ["you who are spiritual"]; Eph.5:19). The RSV translation, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body," is misleading, and a clearer paraphrase would be, "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body [that iss, subject to the characteristics and desires of this age, and governed by its own sinful will], but it is raised a spiritual body [that is , completely subject to the will of the Holy Spirit and responsive to the Holy Spirit's guidance]." Such a body is not at all "nonphysical," but it is a physical body raised to the degree of perfection for which God originally intended it. The repeated instances in which Jesus demonstrated to the disciples that he had a physical body that was able to be touched, that had flesh and bones (Luke 24:39), and that could eat food, show that Jesus' body, which is our pattern, was clearly a physical body that had been made perfect.
In conclusion, when Christ returns, he will give us new resurrection bodies to be like his resurrection body. "When he appears we shall be like him" (1 John 3:2); this statement is true not only in an ethical sense, but also in terms of our physical bodies; cf. (1 Cor.15:49; also Rom.8:29). Such assurance provides a clear affirmative of the goodness of God's physical creation. We will live in bodies that have all the excellent qualities God created us to have, and thereby we will forever be living proof of the wisdom of God in making a material creation that from the beginning was "very good" (Gen.1:31). We will live as resurrected believers in those new bodies, and they will be suitable for inhabiting the "new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with Godís righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13).