What happens after death? Nothing, according to some. Death is the universal anticlimax to life. So we should “seize the day” or “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32 NRSV).” Then there are those who, like the ancient Greeks, saw death as “the release of the immortal soul from its mortal bodily tomb . . .” (Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 130). For them life after death was disembodied and that was the preferred state.
Modern popular culture however, ranging from the X-Files to Cantonese ghost story movies from Hong Kong, often portrays life after death as an existence less substantial than life before death and therefore portray the spirits of the dead as jealous of those still alive. What is a Christian view of what happens after death?
Last Friday (October 30th) Bernice and I had the privilege of spending some time with Beverly, a dear friend. She was in pain and distress, in what appeared to be the tail end of a courageous and faith-filled fight against cancer. I wondered what passage of Scripture I should read to strengthen her faith. Listening to her groans, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 came to mind.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always confident; even though 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 do have confidence, 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. For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. (NRSV)
I wondered if the passage was too negative but in the end I read it. There are times when we have to face life and death head on. Friday evening was one of those times. Beverly passed on on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009. I had the privilege of sharing the word on the first wake, held on the evening of November 4th.
I spoke from the same 2 Corinthians passage. I shared that for Christians, at death, we trade in our present perishable body for our eternal resurrection body. Paul seems to hint at an intermediate stage between the trading in of our old body and the time when we receive our new body but how does one actually experience time in the life to come is something that we cannot comprehend. What we can be absolutely sure of is this: what awaits us is not some disembodied life but a resurrection body.
Paul refers to our present body as a tent.
Paul likens the process of physical decay and death to the dismantling of a tent-dwelling . . . As something that can be easily swept away by storm, wind, or some accident of nature, the comparison of the body to a tent is a particularly apt one …. (Belleville, 2 Corinthians, 132)
In contrast, Paul refers to our resurrection body as a heavenly house.
God’s intention for the believer is bodily existence, not disembodiment as some would claim. More specifically, those who face physical hardship and suffering . . . are assured that, come what may, a house of God’s own deigning . . . awaits them. This house is distinguished in three ways. It is of heavenly versus earthly origin (in heaven). It is permanent (eternal) as opposed to a temporary structure. And it is assembled by God rather than by human hands (not built by human hands). (Belleville, 2 Corinthians, 133).
Indeed, in a previous letter to the Corinthians, Paul had already taught that our present bodies are unable to inherit all the blessings that God wants to give us (1 Corinthians 15:50). Not only does the surrendering of our present body result in our inheriting our resurrection body, this body “trade in” has to take place for us to be able to receive all the treasures that God has in store for His children.
One of those treasures is the privilege of relating to Christ face to face, in perfect communion. Christians are folks with two homes. There is the home of our present life. Then there is the home where we have face to face communion with our Lord. We cannot be in our two homes at the same time. I am now based in Singapore and I call both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur home. But I cannot be in KL and Singapore at the same time. I have to leave one to be in the other. We have to leave our present life to go to our eternal home.
. . . Paul speaks of ‘in the body’ and ‘with the Lord’ as two different homes in diverse locations. He cannot be in both places at the same time. And his preference is to be at home with the Lord (v.8). But for this to happen he must be away from the hometown of his mortal body (Belleville, 2 Corinthians, 139).
If our loved ones had a tough time dying, we tend to remember them as the emaciated bodies they had before their death, often with great sadness. We must make a deliberate effort to remember them in “real time”, where they are now. We must remember that, for the Christian, life after death is much more substantial than life this side of heaven. The Bible is clear on this point. Many of us are not.
When we try to console ourselves and others that our dearly departed have gone on to “a better place” it often sounds wimpy and unsubstantial. For Bev, death was no anticlimax to a life well lived. It was the beginning of a glorious, eternal crescendo! This will also be true for all of us who are followers of Jesus. And so whatever we go through in this life, we live our lives with confidence, we live our lives “making it our aim to please Him” because we are utterly clear as to what happens next.