Scriptures: Philippians 1:18b-26, I Thessalonians 4:13-18
I mentioned last week that many questions submitted to be answered in sermons this summer are already found in my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. For example, Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.” Hobbes replies, “Pittsburgh?” Calvin says, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”
What happens when we die? That is this week’s question of faith. More specifically, a person in the congregation wrote, “Many people think the soul goes straight to God at death. The Bible states we rest in the grave until Christ’s second coming. Which is it?”
The idea that we “rest” in the grave until Jesus’ second coming comes from several places in the Bible, but particularly from our first scripture reading in I Thessalonians 4. In verse 13, the apostle Paul says,
“But we do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died [in Greek “those who sleep”], so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
The idea of “sleeping” in the grave suggests that our consciousness is in a sense on hold until Jesus returns and raises us from the dead.
Notice, however, that Paul expects this to happen fairly soon. Verse 15:
For we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.
He says that the dead in Christ will rise first. Then he says in verse 17,
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.
Paul expects Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead to happen at any moment, possibly during his lifetime.
But then we come to our second scripture reading in Philippians chapter 1. At this point Paul is in prison, probably for preaching that Jesus is Lord instead of any other gods, including the Roman Emperor. Paul knows that such talk could get him executed, so at this point he is not so sure he will still be alive when Jesus comes again. But he is not afraid. Verse 19: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” [in Greek salvation].
What does he mean? Is Paul expecting deliverance from prison, or is he talking about his ultimate salvation even if he dies? Probably both. The point is that either way he wins! Verse 21: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” In other words, if he lives he gets to serve Jesus longer, and if he dies he gets to be with Jesus now. Verses 23-24: “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
Paul does not say anything here about resting in the grave until Jesus returns. He talks only about going to be with Jesus if he dies.
So which is it? When we die do we go immediately to heaven to be with Jesus? Or do we rest in the grave until Jesus comes again? According to the Bible, both are true.
How does that work? The classic explanation is that when we die our souls go immediately to be with Jesus, while our bodies are cremated or decay in their graves. Then when Jesus returns we are raised from the dead with a glorified body that is united with our soul and we live with Jesus forever, body and soul together.
I don’t know if that is the best explanation or if it is better to think that in heaven time does not mean the same thing it means here. For us there is a time gap between a person’s death and the resurrection of the dead when Jesus comes again. But maybe for those in heaven there is no time gap.
But either way we win! That’s Paul’s point. If we go to be with Jesus immediately after we die, or if we “sleep” in the grave until Jesus wakes us up and takes us to be with him forever, it does not matter. Either way, death loses and life win!
As an aside, let me say here that as Presbyterians we have no problem with cremation. If God can raise from the dead a body that decays for decades or centuries in a grave, or a body buried at sea that has long ago been eaten by the fish, then God can certainly raise us from the dead if our ashes have been scattered on a hillside. Cremation is not barrier to resurrection.
But here is why the resurrection is important. If all of us who believe in Jesus go to be with God when we die, then we win, but God doesn’t. Because the world is left behind still in the same mess it has always been.
The Christian faith is about more than our personal immortality; it is about God’s redemption of creation. It is not just about God collecting a bunch of disembodied souls to inhabit heaven. God wants to save a messed up world. That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the body. God is not out to get rid of bodily life but to transform it. God intends to create a new heaven and earth where death and suffering will be no more, where there will be no more hunger, violence, disease, poverty, injustice, or hate, where people of all nations, races, and languages will be stand around the throne of God shouting “Hallelujah!” That is how the book of Revelation describes heaven. The immortality of our personal souls is not the whole story. God wants to redeem the whole creation, making it the good thing it was intended to be all along.
Beginning in 1993 Jonathan Kozol spend a year interviewing children and families in the South Bronx of New York. He wrote a book about these interviews called Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. At the time, South Bronx was one of the poorest districts in the country. In 1991 the median household income was $7,600.
One of the children he interviewed for his book was a 12 year-old boy named Anthony. Anthony was an acolyte at St. Ann’s church in the heart of the South Bronx. One day they were talking about heaven and the kingdom of God, things Anthony had been learning in church. Pointing to his street Anthony said, “This out here is not God’s kingdom. A kingdom is a place of glory. This is a place of pain” (p. 84). Then Jonathan Kozol asked Anthony what he thought heaven would be like. So Anthony went home and wrote an essay about it. He called his essay: “God’s Kingdom.” He wrote,
God’s Kingdom. God will be there. He’ll be happy that we have arrived. People shall come hand-in-hand. It will be bright, not dim and glooming like on earth. All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones. … No one will look at you from the outside. People will see you from the inside.
Anthony was African American. I wonder if he meant that people will no longer look at him suspiciously because of his race, but will respect him because of his heart. He continues,
All the people from the street will be there. My uncle will be there and he will be healed. You won’t see him buying drugs, because there won’t be money. Mr. Mongo will be there too. You might see him happy for a change. … No violence will there be in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS. You won’t have to pay taxes. You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little. Jesus will be good to them and play with them. At night he’ll come and visit at your house (pp. 237-238).
I was struck by how realistic Anthony’s picture of heaven was, and how bipartisan. No taxes: that will make the Republicans happy. No guns: that will make the Democrats happy. No drugs: that will make everyone happy, except maybe the pharmaceuticals. It is a very bodily picture of heaven, very down to earth, but it’s a transformed earth.
That’s why as Christians we believe not just in the immortality of the soul but in the resurrection of the body. The resurrection means that God will not give up on bodily life. And every time we feed the hungry, every time we heal the sick, every time we visit the lonely, every time we work to reconcile broken relationships, every time we invite others into a life with Jesus as part of a family of faith, we demonstrate how this new life will look and get a taste of it, even while wait for its coming.