Over these last couple of weeks, I have been swiftly reminded of just how fleeting our time on this earth can be. A series of events has compelled me to share with you in this blog my thoughts on how we can think biblically about life after death and to provide some clarity as to exactly what scripture has to say about life, death, and eternity with God. It all started when a friend reached out to me seeking a clearer understanding of what the Bible says regarding what happens when we die, this was followed by a commitment I had made to officiate a graveside service for a family member of someone who is very special in our church. But what really got me thinking about sharing my thoughts on this matter was when I attended the wake of a family member who suddenly passed away from lung cancer a little over a week ago. There is something about the finality of life and the certainty of physical death that can cause in us a longing to understand more about God and to answer the questions concerning a Christian’s existence once they pass on from this life. The following is a response I crafted to that friend who originally reached out to me.
For the sake of context, I began this response first by addressing the passage that was presented to me in the original communication. The passage is found in Luke 23 where Jesus responds to the criminal who is being crucified next to Him with these words, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” My response first addresses this passage and how it relates to the discussion of the immediacy of God’s presence after death and graduates from there into some alternate passages which I believe with greater clarity provide for us some explanation as to what to expect when our time here on this earth has come to an end. My hope is that you are someone you know will find a sense of assurance and certainty in the Word of God when it comes to the gravity of these matters.
In Luke 23:39 we see Luke record with exquisite detail an additional narrative in the crucifixion story, a narrative that both Matthew and Mark do not include. We cannot conclude the reason for Matthew and Mark’s exclusion of this portion of the story, Mark’s gospel moves quickly without a lot of explanation through the events of Jesus’ life and Matthew may have deemed it less important when considering both his audience and overall narrative. Whatever the case, we can with a considerable degree of certainty assume that they may have been aware of this additional narrative especially Matthew whose gospel was written in the early to middle 60’s of the first century, around the same time as Luke’s gospel and roughly 10 years after Mark’s gospel. (If you are interested in learning more about the Gospel accounts and the timeline of their origin check out our 5 week Zoom series called, “Can I Trust The Bible” on our YouTube Channel). Luke could have ended his account of the crucifixion at verse 38 and would have maintained a measure of consistency with Matthew and Mark’s account but he continues his account in addressing in clearer detail the matter of these criminals with Jesus in verses 39-43. We know that in the other accounts these criminals were hardly mentioned as they were relegated to merely two men who reviled Jesus. In the parallel accounts both Mathew and Mark dedicate less than one verse to these men highlighting their unimportance to the overall narrative presentation.
Not so with Luke, he is attempting to draw our attention to a much different and, dare I say, more important spiritual truth than “where do we go when we die”. Luke’s narrative aims solely to magnify the immeasurable grace of God, the infinite worth of His mercy, and the abounding excessiveness of His goodness to all who would abandon their rebellion, turning to Christ in repentance and receiving His limitless forgiveness. This passage more than anything heralds the compassionate faithfulness of God towards the one who would humble themselves, revering God as possessing distinct authority over life and death, distinguished in the ownership of every right to determine our eternity.
We know from Matthew and Mark’s account that at one point both criminals reviled Jesus but Luke records that the heart of one of the criminals was changed, regenerated, light pierced the darkness of his soul and he was brought face to face with His depravity. Knowing he could do nothing to save himself he simply humbled himself at the acknowledgement of the Kingship of Christ, the authority of the Messiah, the power of the Anointed One. This scene is the final foreshadowing of the approaching good news of the Gospel as we read in Ephesians 2, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing but a gift from God. Not a result of works so that no man may boast”. The wages of that criminals work was death, alienation, separation from the glory of God forever and an eternity of wrath and torment but the work of Christ ransoms us, relieves our guilt, covers us with HIS righteousness (not our own) and adopts us into the family of God as His sons and daughters. The work of Christ on our behalf humbles us and illuminates our spiritual bankruptcy as Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, those who recognize their utter dependence on the grace of Christ. The criminal said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom”, a request made with great uncertainty lacking assurance in its future recognition. But Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”. Not only did Jesus promise to remember Him but honored His penitent heart by granting forgiveness of His sins. Wow! What a wonderful promise, every time we come to Christ in humility with our eyes fixed on the splendor of His glory, recognizing the majesty of His mercy He forgives all that we have done, that which transgresses the treasure of His holiness. The criminal’s request was “someday I hope to be a part of your Kingdom” but Jesus replies, “Today you will be in paradise.” The criminals’ eternity was not just the Kingdom (Rule and reign of God) but paradise (Greek for “garden”, the place of God’s dwelling and presence) and not just someday but “today”. Today is always the day of salvation, it is the very essence of Luke’s gospel as he records in Luke 19:9-10 with the repentance of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, for the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” We see in the New Testament that an authentic work of salvation is almost always preceded by repentance, not some hyper emotionalized, super spiritual experience! We find in Psalm 115:12 more robust clarification and sturdy support for Jesus’ response to the criminal when he says, “Jesus remember me.” This is what we read in Psalm 115, “The Lord has remembered us, He will bless us, He will bless the house of Israel, He will bless the house of Aaron, He will bless those who fear the Lord.” The fear of the Lord precedes blessing just as the fear of the Lord with the criminal preceded the blessing of salvation. We will not receive spiritual blessings through a casual relationship with God but a relationship in which He is revered, honored, where His name is not carried into falseness, misrepresented, or spoken for presumptuously. The fear of God magnifies the mercy of God, the kindness of God which leads us into a life of continual repentance before a God who is holy and pure, just, and perfect and who grants us through our repentance “times of refreshing!” (Acts 3:19-20). These spiritual truths seemed to be at the forefront of this encounter between Christ and the criminal. The experiential nature of fate and eternity seem to be a secondary narrative in this account and so it is much better to rely on other portions of God’s word to bring illumination to this mystery.
Now to the question about the immediacy of heaven and God’s presence upon death. A passage that provides a great deal of clarity on this matter is found in Philippians chapter 1. Paul is writing this letter to the church in Philippi and at this time we believe Paul is under house arrest most likely chained most of the day to a Roman guard awaiting the ruling of Caesar as to how he will deal with Paul. Paul is acutely aware that his life is hanging in the balance and that his fate will be determined by the ruler who holds immutable sway over the entire Roman empire. Yet even in this circumstance it is not lost on Paul the tremendous joy he has in Christ. In fact, the Philippian letter is an unabashed heralding of the infinite joy he possesses in Christ. Paul more than anything seeks to spotlight the aim and goal of his life being the glorification of Christ and the joy he finds in that pursuit whether in life or death. Paul is clearly expressing his uncertainty with regards to his future in that he does not know if he will live or die. It is unclear whether he will join his beloved Philippian church again which is very much what Paul desires. Yet there is an inescapable tension present in the words of Paul as he also desires greatly to be with Christ. Paul is emphatic in presenting parallel desires to return to his brothers and sisters in Christ and yet to be with Christ. He is truly uncertain of his fate although later in verse 25 we see he leans towards being released, still a level of uncertainty in these moments remains.
Let’s begin in chapter 1 verse 20, “As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or death.” Paul focuses on his eager expectation and hope, not a hope that lacks content but a hope that finds its source in certainty. A hope that is assured, beyond question, without a doubt, filled with conviction that he would not be put to shame but that the opposite would be true, he would honor Christ whether in life or death. This idea Paul is presenting of being ashamed is tied to a lack of trust in God. In other words, Paul states that whether my fate is release (life) or conviction (death) in either circumstance I am confident I will trust God and not be ashamed, that Christ would be magnified, honored, exalted in his body whether he lives or dies. We see a similar juxtaposition with these thoughts in Psalm 34:3-5, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.” The implication here is that as Paul, and by way of application us, revere God and see Him for who He truly is, He will cause His glory to be revealed to us as we gaze upon His radiance, and that radiance is reflected upon our faces, and as we see God for who He truly is, the reality of His essence, the staggering truthfulness of His being, it will cause in us a trust and hope which guards us from the shame of doubt or unbelief.
He then states in verse 21, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain”. This emphatic statement presents such a boldness and clarity of message. Paul’s singular focus in life was one thing, the magnificence of Christ, the glory of Christ, the proclamation of Christ, the preaching of the Gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). It was an unwavering and unswerving commitment to the heralding of the good news of Christ crucified purchasing our salvation, forgiveness, redemption and initiating our sanctification, it was an unyielding allegiance to a resurrection proclamation for our justification. In other words, if Paul was going to live it would be solely for Christ. You can sense the gravity of the call, the heaviness of the responsibility that it would be Christ magnified in his life at all costs. There was an unequivocal resolve that the supremacy of Christ and the power of the Gospel must be preached. In the original Greek the word “is” cannot be found, the literal rendering is “For me to live, Christ”. The forcefulness of this statement is brought into direct contrast by stating the better option, “To die is gain! As wonderful as the option was of remaining on the earth in the body and declaring Christ, Paul was absolute in his understanding, categorical in his conviction that in his death he would gain something much greater than any work he could achieve on this earth, He would gain CHRIST! In other words, the greatest gain a person can ever acquire occurs in the seminal moment where all seems lost, DEATH!
And finally, we reach verse 23, where Paul peels back the foreskin of his heart, unzipping the sleeping bag of his soul as we are given a glimpse into the depths of his most concealed thoughts. Paul showcases his very inward parts revealing with such precise transparency his true desire, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Oh, for that to be the cry of our heart! In all truthfulness I cannot say that this is what I desire each day as I put my feet on the floor but oh my prayer is that God would cause in me this great desire to be with Christ. The greatness of what Paul would gain in planting more churches, raising up more disciples and preaching the Gospel to see more penitent souls won for Christ was far surpassed by the splendor of the gain in his death which was Christ Himself! In other words, the savoring of Christ face to face Paul declared could only be brought about through one means, DEATH! It seems we can confidently assume from this passage that Paul considered death to be the eternal usher escorting Him and every believer immediately into the presence of Christ bringing to bear the finality of his statement in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” We can conclude with a suitable level of assurance that Paul never regarded a moment experienced by the believer absent the presence of Christ in some measure, whether it would be in this life (Holy Spirit infilling upon conversion) or after this life (face to face, “to be with Christ”)
How we think as believers about these important topics must be informed and fashioned by the word of God and we must strive to understand how scripture both proves and interprets itself. While there may be some ambiguity with Paul’s statement in Philippians 1, he presents unequivocal support for this post-death reality in 2 Corinthians 5:8 by providing a wealth of clarity with regards to this mystery, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” This text reinforces the substance of Paul’s teachings with regards to Philippians 1. First, Paul emphasizes once again this paradox that we all experience in life, the continual struggle we face as believers, the duality of being “away” from Christ while in the body yet possessing an earnest desire to be “home” with Him when we exit these bodies, he further illustrates this contrast implying that being “away” is living “by faith” yet being “home” is living “by sight”. Secondly, he underscores once again his continual and unwavering desire to honor Christ, to savor Christ, to magnify Christ whether in his life or in his death (at home or away). Paul with an emphatic declaration seeks to draw attention to the believers unparalleled responsibility and commitment to the worship and exaltation of Christ in every circumstance, in every season for the purpose of His glory!
Bottom line is this, for Paul being absent from the body (death) meant being with Christ. For Paul, death gained him something that this life could never offer, to be at home and to be with Christ. And for Paul, I think it’s safe to say, this was an IMMEDIATE REALITY. I think we can conclude with a level of certainty from the text that Paul never ascribed to a “timeless” existence after death but at death we would be ushered into a state of existence with Christ, in the fullness of His presence, fully conscious yet without bodies as we await the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead with glorified bodies. At issue here is the mystery of a conscious, time-oriented existence versus the infinite, continual eternal moment with God forever. To Paul this was not an either/or proposition and there is room in God’s word to support both existences yet not at the same time. For further clarity we move to Philippians 3:20-21, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” While it is true that upon conversion, we have been made citizens of heaven, adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God, that citizenship finds its ultimate fulfillment when we are “at home” with the Lord upon death in accord with 2 Corinthians 5. We as heavenly citizens in heaven upon death or as heavenly citizens on the earth prior to death are waiting for something. What we are waiting for is eternity, the continual and infinite moment with Christ to be shared and experienced with our resurrected and incorruptible bodies. This transformation is coming and it’s awaiting every citizen of heaven whether they are living on the earth or at “home” with Christ. In our attempt to synergize these texts it seems Paul is making the case for a conscious, time bound existence with Christ absent the body upon death to be followed by a conscious, timeless eternity with resurrected bodies upon Christ’s return to claim His spotless bride and judge the world.
In conclusion, given the totality of what God has said through His Word we can believe with a considerable measure of certainty that we do in fact meet Christ upon death and are fully ushered into His presence in a timeless and seemingly bodiless state awaiting the coming of Christ and the resurrection of our bodies to spend eternity with Him. This truth should grant us as believers in Christ a tremendous sense of hope, comfort, and encouragement. The Word of God allays every fear, eases every mind regarding the encroaching reality ushered in by death. There is certainty in God’s truth both for our loved ones and for us who are “in Christ” that we will be with Him, delighting in the glory of His splendor when we pass on from this life. The good news is there is hope for all who have professed the name of Christ as their personal savior recognizing His distinguished ability and trusting in His blood to provide the payment for our debt, the forgiveness of our sin, the accrediting of His righteousness, justifying us through His resurrection before a Holy God, supplying the Holy Spirit who is sufficient in every way to cause in us a life of sanctification. Through His distinguished ability to remain faithful, He will return ushering in a finality to our redemption, a completeness to our salvation and a reality to our resurrection with a new body to savor the splendor and joy of a new life spent with Christ “face to face”, “at home”, “by sight”, knowing Christ to the measure and stature of which He already knows us! What a wonderful promise presented to us by The Lord in His inspired Word. Our hope is in the Lord because every promise finds their “yes” in Christ. He has come and has fulfilled every decree, every declaration, every promise concerning Himself and His beloved church! It is in these fulfilled promises that we can find rest, comfort, and encouragement for our souls as we await the one unfulfilled promise, Christ’s return, and the full and complete union with Him and with those that we love! May God richly bless you with an abundance of every heavenly blessing! To the praise of His glory! ~ Chad