Like last week, this week’s LOFT lesson is intricate and controversial enough that I wanted a written copy in case anything I say gets taken the wrong way. This is a touchy subject and a surprisingly contentious one in our faith, but what lies beyond the sleep of death is a topic that we have to address. Of course, just to be safe, I want to give a disclaimer: I believe that Heaven and Hell are real physical places, and I believe that the path to Heaven is through Christ alone. Okay, now for the lesson…
What Happens After We Die?
It’s a question that has haunted humanity as long as we’ve existed. The first written work (the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh) is all about trying to thwart death, and almost every religion or philosophy since then has at some point grappled with the question. Many atheists have leveled the claim that the only reason we seek religion is to answer the question of death, and they’re not entirely wrong. As humans, we have a tremendous fear of the unknown, and what happens after death is pretty much the last realm science has not explored. Even without a scientific answer, we still want to be reassured that there’s something beyond this life, and in our desperation, religion looks pretty promising. So yeah, the atheists have a point.
On the other hand, Jesus didn’t actually talk that much about life after death. He was talking about something far greater and much more nuanced. He talked about The Kingdom, and tonight, we’re going to talk about what that really means.
Let’s imagine what it was like for the disciples after Jesus died and came back to life. They hung out with him for a while, but then, one day, Jesus told them he was leaving and would return to bring about his perfect Kingdom, and they weren’t going to know when he was coming back. I like to imagine them standing around for a little while checking their watches after he goes up. “Hey, do you guys think he got stuck up there or something? What’s taking so long?” Thankfully, a couple of messengers in white assured them that Jesus will come back down from the heavens sometime in the future, and they should go about their business.
As they traveled around spreading the Gospel, many of them maintained the assumption that Jesus would come back within their lifetimes. After all, he had assured them that they would see the Kingdom, so that meant it was coming before they died, right? Of course, with the Romans persecuting them, a lot of Christians were dying, and that was starting to cause some questions about the whole Jesus-coming-back thing. Thankfully, the apostle Paul would come along and shed some light on all this. Prayerfully looking back at the life of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul arrived at the proper answer for what happens to us after we die, and that’s what we’ll talk about tonight.
So, let’s dive right in. I’d be willing to bet that the main explanation of the afterlife you’ve heard goes a little like this: “When you die, your soul leaves your body and immediately goes off to be judged; good people will go to Heaven for an eternity of bliss, while bad people will go to Hell for an eternity of torment.” There’s a big problem with this interpretation though: it’s not all that biblical. It’s mostly based on Vergil’s Aeneid with a light dash of Egyptian mythology. The only thing even remotely like this in Scripture is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and that was a story told for illustrative purposes only. So we’re going to pick this statement apart for a bit and get to what Christians really believe about life after death:
“When you die, your soul leaves your body…”
Except for the euphemistic phrase “giving up your spirit,” there’s really nothing in the Bible to suggest that your soul leaves at death. Still, for some reason, the thought that your soul and body are inextricably linked just really bugs people. I know many very strong Christians who just cannot handle this idea. We’re convinced that our soul is somehow infallible and immortal when compared to our nasty filthy bodies, but I’ve got news for you: that’s just not the case. You are a fallen soul with a fallen body, just as Jesus is a sinless soul with a sinless body. When Jesus died on the cross, he died completely:
Body = dead
Soul = dead
Mind = dead
Heart = dead
In the same way, when he rose from the grave, every part of him was renewed– body, mind, soul, heart, all of it. Now comes the tricky part: if you believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, you will get to share his fate. You will be granted the same resurrection with a perfected mind, a perfected body, a perfected heart, and a perfected soul in his perfect Kingdom. This is the whole reason that Jesus physically came to earth in the first place, and Paul outlines all of this in 1 Corinthians 15:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:12-14)
Paul is basically saying that, if you think God only saves your soul, you’re not really a Christian. That’s why I always make such a big deal of this issue. You need to know that Jesus is here to redeem every part of you; one day, his grace is going to completely reshape every aspect of who you are– not just your soul. And, almost as important, I want you to know that God didn’t just make your soul; He made your body too, and no matter what you think of it, He loves it, and He’s going to make it perfect one day, just like He’s making your heart and soul and mind perfect. This is the first thing you need to understand about life after death: we’re coming back in real physical bodies, but there’s still more that’s going to happen after that resurrection takes place.
“…and immediately goes off to be judged…”
Yeah, about that… The Bible pretty clearly portrays a time in the future when all people –living or dead– will be brought together to be judged at once with Jesus acting as a sort of divine defense attorney. If you don’t believe me, check out 1 Thessalonians 4, Revelation 20, and Matthew 25; they all paint a pretty different picture than Heaven Is For Real. Rather than a slow trickle of souls into the afterlife, the Bible depicts one big cosmic event during which the faithful will be separated from the wicked, and death itself will be banished from existence, locked away in Hell to trouble humanity no more so that we can fully enjoy God’s Kingdom. So, next logical question: When will this big judgment occur? When Jesus returns, but we have no idea when that will be.
Of course, I’m sure this raises another big question for you: If that judgment is going to occur off in the future sometime, what’s going to happen to us while we wait for it? Well, there are like eighty theories on that one, so I’m going to go with my tried and true answer of “I don’t actually know.” Still, in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul describes death as merely falling asleep for a while to be reawakened when Christ calls us forth, and that to me is a comforting image. Of course, now we need to address the way we’ll be judged.
“…good people will go to Heaven for an eternity of bliss, while bad people will go to Hell for an eternity of torment.”
Ugh. So close, but missing one very crucial point. Yes, Heaven and Hell are real physical places to be experienced with your real physical body that we’ve been talking about this whole time. They’re not just spiritual realms off somewhere else; Revelation 21-22 vividly describes Heaven coming down to meet Earth at a time when Jesus and the Church are permanently bound together in the perfect Kingdom. Looking good so far, except for one thing.
The problem with saying “good people go to Heaven” is this: there’s really no such thing as a good person. As Leonce Crump put it, “There are only two kinds of people in this world: bad people and Jesus, and you ain’t Jesus.” On the other hand, the Good News is that Jesus died to save bad people like you and me, and it’s in him that we find salvation. Paul says in Romans 10:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)
That is our only criteria for resurrection and entry into the Kingdom of Heaven: faith in Jesus. Your fate after death has nothing to do with whether you’re “good” or “bad”; it’s all about clinging to Jesus and trusting in his resurrection. So just to make sure we’re 100% clear on this, your answer to the question “What happens after we die?” should go a little something like this:
“Because Jesus Christ came to earth in a physical body, died for our sins, and rose again, anyone who has faith in him will also be resurrected in a new body, judged favorably, and welcomed into his perfect Kingdom which has no end.”
But enough about the afterlife. This knowledge should change the whole way we live in the here and now, and now that your salvation is secure, you’re faced with a whole new set of choices:
Will you condemn the world around you, OR will you dream of its eventual redemption?
Will you loathe your sinful body and idolize your soul, OR will you acknowledge your complete fallenness and dream of the day when we are all fully physically renewed?
Will you passively await entry into a far off Heaven, OR will you work diligently to make way for Heaven here on Earth?
How you view the afterlife drastically changes how you live your life, so what do you believe?