Monday, December 3, 2018


When someone whom we love dies, it is natural for us to have some questions about death. In fact, it would seem unusual to me not to have some questions. Despite the fact that death is something that is part of everyone’s experience, there remains much about it that we do not know or do not understand. Our questions about this are not surprising, since there is also much about our very existence that we do not understand.

It is our nature to react negatively to the concept of death. We react in this way because there are so many unknown factors about it. We have some assurances in the Bible about what to expect if we have placed our trust in Jesus, but there are still many questions that we have.

What actually happens when a believer dies?

We have all heard stories of people who had a near death or even a death experience, and who have said that during that time, they were in heaven. They have reported to us what they had seen and experienced. Their experiences are sometimes encouraging to us, perhaps even enlightening at times, but they also might be contradictory and leave us with more questions than answers

It is not that I necessarily discount these stories. I am not one to quickly make a judgment on someone else’s experience. But neither can I refer to these events and tell you that this is what will happen. For factual information, it is my practice to look to the Bible. I consider all other information, including the experiences of others and even my own opinion, as possibly being tainted by subjectivity.

Even some of what I am going to tell you now is in great part opinion and only my own perspective, but it may be helpful to you. If it is not, just disregard it. Ignore it. 

Two Aspects of Our Death as a Christian

However, from my best understanding of the teachings of Scripture, there are actually two aspects of the death of our bodies and again coming to life as followers of Christ. The first of these is that we immediately go to be in the presence of the Lord. We are there!

The second aspect is that we will still await the resurrection of our bodies. As Jesus died and rose again from the dead in a resurrected and glorified body, so also is this same future our assurance. However, our bodies will not be resurrected after only three days in the grave. That will happen in the more distant future. 

An Analogy with Birth

But before I talk more about these two aspects about what is to come, first I would like to step back and observe the broader aspect of our entire existence. I would like to compare the death of a Christian with another life event that might seem happier to you. But this other event only seems happier because we are viewing it from this side. It may not always have been a cheerful thought to us.

This other event is our birth here on earth. If we make this comparison, we might notice some similarities between our birth here on earth, and what happens when we die.

I am one who has the opinion that a little baby in the womb of his or her mother is a living human being. This is not a “glob of tissue,” it is not even an embryo. In fact, I do not even prefer to call it a “fetus.” It is a human baby child.

If you were somehow able to have a conversation with a little unborn child still within the womb of his or her mother, and in the course of your conversation, you discover that the child was afraid of being born, what would you tell this little one?

I think that I would probably say something along the lines of, “I know that you feel safe and secure within your home of your mother’s womb, and I know that the thought of leaving it is frightening, but if you do not go through with the birthing process, there is so much that you would miss.”

I would then go on to tell of the beauties of my forested hills in Wisconsin, and of the mountains and rivers where I have traveled in the world. I would tell of the splendor of the sunrises and sunsets, and of the myriad of interesting and diverse creatures that God has placed on the earth. I would tell him of the pleasures that I am experiencing right at this time in my life, living back on our little farm and taking care of my few farm animals.

Then I would go on to tell him of all of the interesting and wonderful people in many parts of the world that I have known in my days of wandering the earth. I would tell him of my wife and how lovely it has been to be married to her for more than forty years, and of our children and now grandchildren.

I would say to that little baby in the womb of his mother, “I know that you feel safe and secure now, but I can assure you from my own experience, I believe that better things await you after you are born.”

Of course, this little baby would not understand the things that I am telling him, because all of it is outside of his experience. He does not know what a forest is; he has never seen a tree or an animal. He knows nothing of the rest of the world, much less the concept of a sun up in the heavens. Up until this point in his life, he has been confined to the limitations of his mother’s womb.

In some ways, we as believers in Jesus Christ are like that little baby in the womb of his mother. We might like it here on earth, and we may not want to leave. Besides this, the death process is a little frightening to us.

In addition, just as a little baby in the womb of his mom has not much knowledge about what awaits him after he is born, neither do we have much knowledge about what awaits us. No matter how experienced about life we may think we are, our every experience has so far been confined to the limitations of this present life.

However, just like my own assurances to the baby in the womb, we also have assurances in the Word of God from Someone who has experienced life outside of this world. Neither the baby nor we may understand much of what is told to us, because much of what we are told is outside of our experience. Nevertheless, as I told the baby in the womb things that I myself have experienced in the world, our assurances about heaven also come to us from someone who has seen them. The best that we can do is to take him at his word.

I know that at this point, some will object and say that the picture that I have painted for the baby of the things that are outside of the womb is incomplete. I did not tell the baby about the evil that he will encounter, nor the pain and heartache. There is no denying that these things are also real, but I have not finished with my analogy of the baby in the womb. 

God is in the Process of Making Something Wonderful

But now let us move on to the two-fold coming to life process that we read about in the Bible. I have already mentioned that when a Christian dies, in one sense he or she is immediately with God, but in another sense, they must wait for the resurrection of their bodies when the Lord calls us out of our graves.

In thinking about this, it is important at this point is to compare the methods in which we produce things in the world, contrasting that with the way that God produces things. When we produce things, we think of construction or fabrication. We take various parts of a building or a machine, for instance, and nail or screw or weld or bolt them together to make our finished product.

God does not produce things in this way. Apart from the original creation (about which we actually have very little information), God does not build things, he grows them. From the tiniest of plants to the largest of trees, from animals that inhabit the earth to great sea creatures, God makes them by growing them. Even the minerals in the depths of the earth are grown. And of course, so are we.

We might say that we were conceived in the wombs of our mothers, but actually, the Bible tells us that God knew us well before that time. In the book of Ephesians, we learn that God chose us before the very foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). Our growth process included a conception in the womb of our mother, and then nine months of development before we were born into this world. As children, we continued to grow and learn and to develop in other ways.

As we became older, our physical growth stops, and indeed begins to decline. It is in those years when we may especially begin to think about the time when we will die. Like a baby in the womb when he or she is getting ready to be born, we have many questions. But despite the questions that we have and despite the fact that our physical growth has stopped, it is important for us to remember that God is still in the process of having us grow.

He is not finished his growth process for us. The simple fact that we have been born into an imperfect would where evil still exists makes this evident. Our death, if we die in Christ, is not an ending to a life, but rather the beginning of something new in our lives.

I know that death is a fearful time and it brings us sadness, but if we are trusting in the words of Jesus, it is also an exciting time. We are about to see what God has prepared for us.

“Eye has not seen, nor has any ear heard, nor even has the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (The words of the Apostle Paul: 1 Corinthians 2:9). 

Where is Grampa Now?

When a child asks us what happened to grandpa or grandma when they died, and where they are now, our quick answer is that they are in heaven with God. That is the short answer and it is a good and true answer (if grandpa or grandma were believers in Jesus Christ), but it is not quite as simple as that.

Indeed, there is one sense that when we die, we immediately go to be with the Lord. We have some stories in the Bible that suggest that this is true. When Jesus was hanging on the cross during his crucifixion, one of the thieves who was being crucified beside him expressed his decision at that moment to put his trust in Jesus. Jesus told him “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”

I understand that this is far from conclusive, for the word, “today” can have several connotations. However, Jesus did not tell the thief that he would be with him sometime in the distant future when the thief’s body would one day be resurrected (in 2000+ years). Jesus told the thief that he would be with him “today.”

In 2nd Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul also makes reference to the fact that when we are absent from the body we are present with the Lord. We recognize that this statement of Paul’s is also inconclusive, for he was not actually giving a teaching that this is what happens immediately when we die. He was really just expressing how much better it will be for him when he is with the Lord.

In the words of Paul, “We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 NAS). Paul also spoke of his “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much the better” (Philippians 1:23 NAS).

This then, is one aspect of the death of the believer in Christ. He or she is in the presence of the Lord, but there is more yet to come. 

First Fruits

The other aspect of the believer’s death is the promise of a resurrected body, a body that rises from the grave alive and never to again die. An example of this was the resurrection of Jesus himself, whom Paul calls the “first fruits” of our own resurrection.

This term, “first fruits” is an interesting one to me. It is an agrarian term. On my little farm, I have a small apple orchard, some grape vines, and some other fruit. In the autumn, when these fruits are nearing ripening, I anticipate what they will taste like when they are mature. On the day the first apple looks ripe, the first cluster of grapes, I pluck them off the branch where they grow, and bite into the sweetness of the year’s harvest. With those first tastes, I will know the quality of the harvest of this season.

These are my first fruits. They are my first indications of the quality of the rest of the fruits that will be harvested. They are my first indications of what is to come.

Paul says of Jesus Christ, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep…in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order; Christ, the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23 NAS).

Paul uses the common euphemism “sleep” to describe death, and notice he says that those who die in Christ shall be made alive when Christ comes again. This he describes in another of his writings: 

But we do not want you to be uninformed brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus… 

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 NAS) 

This is the second aspect of the death of the believer. This is the future completion of our existence, an existence that, at least in some ways, began even before the foundation of the world. To me, it is of great assurance to see that God has been involved with my life for all of these eons of ages. It is no wonder that Paul tells his readers, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” 

The Joy that Follows Sorrow
And now I return to my analogy of the baby in the womb who is afraid of being born. No one will say that the birthing process is an easy and enjoyable procedure. There is fear involved and there is pain. But there is also promise. There is a promise of the riches of a life to come.

Jesus said, “Whenever a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish she felt because of the joy that a child has been born into the world” (John 16:21).

In a way that is more similar than we even know now, so it will be for those who have put their faith in Christ when they die.

Commenting further on the birth of a child and comparing it with our own situation concerning death, Jesus continued, “So you also now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
What happens to us when we die? Like a baby in the womb of his mother, we all presently may have many questions. But we also have assurances, and we have enough answers to give us confidence that it will all be worth the difficulty of death.

And we have a God who has been involved with our lives from before the foundation of the world, and who will be with us for an eternity with him.

As believers in Christ, we will enter into a new phase of our existence that is beyond anything that we can imagine and where he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, no crying; no pain. All of these first things will have passed away, and we will have entered into our new world with Christ (Revelation 21:4).

That is why we can comfort one another with these words.

And that is why the Holy Scriptures closes with these words: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”

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