Scripture is clear that the departed soul goes straight to God.
Our attention is often directed newspaper or television reports. As a result, death has become a part of everyday life. One important question that all Christians would have asked at some time is “what happens to me after I die?”
Different answers have been offered. The atheist, of course, believes that there is no form of existence beyond the grave. Some believe that the spirit is transported to a kind of middle state for purification from sin. Others teach a state of future happiness, but a “soul sleep”, without any consciousness, between death and the final resurrection.
However, the Scriptures present an entirely different picture. Let us consider some of the relevant statements.
To begin with, the whole teaching of the Bible concerning angels is that they are pure spirits without bodies. This reveals that the existence of the spirit or soul apart from the body is entirely possible.
In the Gospels, our Lord assumed as a fact that the soul lives on after death, separate from the body. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he informs us that when Lazarus died angels carried his spirit into Abraham’s presence. Lazarus experienced a personal, conscious existence after death (Luke 16:19-31).
Again, Christ makes a distinction between the soul and the body in Matthew 10:28. Though persecutors may kill the body they cannot harm the soul. If the soul did not continue its essential existence after death, people would be able to kill both body and soul, but since they can only kill the body, the soul clearly remains alive after death.
Moses died, whereas Elijah was transported directly to heaven. Yet both appeared with Christ on the mount of transfiguration, indicating that both are in glory (Matt. 17:1-6).
As he was dying on the cross, our Lord gave this undertaking to the penitent thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, the apostle Paul equates Paradise with heaven. That first Good Friday saw the souls of both the thief and the Saviour depart for heaven. Thus, our Lord gave his most explicit assurance of the continued existence of the soul after death.
In the book of Acts, the first martyr Stephen, as he was dying, called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). He expected to be with Christ in heaven immediately upon death.
Paul’s supreme longing was to “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:23). Is it likely that Paul would choose to forego the active life of an apostle, which so blessed other people and brought glory to God, if he was to undergo an inactive soul sleep until the return of Christ? No, the apostle takes it for granted that as soon as he departed this body he would be ushered into the presence of the Lord.
In this life, the apostle Paul enjoyed a close relationship with Christ – “for me, to live is Christ,” he insisted (Phil. 1:21). Such communion was precious, but it had its limitations. “As long as we are at home in the body,” he laments, “we are away from the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6). The body’s presence hinders the full freedom of communion with Christ, which was his supreme desire. For that reason, he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Cor. 5:8). It is difficult to imagine the apostle expressing more clearly the immediate transition of the believer upon death into Christ’s presence.
The apostle John, in the book of Revelation, saw and heard the souls of the martyrs (Rev. 6:9-11). This confirms that, after death, the soul can exist independently, be recognized and communicate.
It is commonly said that death introduces believers to two things: freedom from all evil and the fruition of all good. The evil from which they are released includes the evil of sorrow and the evil of sin. As to the first of these, all causes of sorrow and grief will be removed – there will be no more hard work, sickness, pain, hardship, adversity, poverty, disappointments or persecution.
The other evil death frees believers from is sin, the evil of evils. They are delivered from actual sins, as well as from the influence of the world, the flesh and the devil, and from the condemnation due to sin.
Furthermore, death introduces Christians to a state which involves the fruition of all good. In heaven, they will associate with an innumerable company of angels and with the spirits of righteous people made perfect (Heb. 12:22-23). Communion will be restored with believing relations and friends, whom they dearly loved here and whose loss they greatly lamented.
However, there is something that will transcend all else. In this world no human being can see God and live (Ex. 33:20). But what cannot be here will be hereafter. Whereas now we “see in a glass darkly,” there we will see him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). This enjoyment of God in heaven has been called the Beatific Vision.
It is of little point to ask how our spirits will see when they lack physical eyes. The angels are pure spirits and they see. There seems little doubt that, as Jonathan Edwards proposes, saints will be admitted to another manner of perceiving God than we can now imagine. What we do know is that this vision will not disappoint. It will surprise and exceed the expectations of every Christian.
The vision of God includes an intellectual sight. Here our knowledge of Him is imperfect, but there we will “know as we are known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
To know God as a personal being is the most excellent and noble kind of knowledge. That is why the Lord Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God and knowing Himself (John 17:3). Eternal life not only consists in endless duration, but is the highest form of life.
Our sight and knowledge of God will increase the ardour of devotion. God’s perfections of wisdom, love, mercy, grace, goodness, and holiness (Ex. 34:6), stamp His character with infinite moral excellence. His holy character, which furnishes His personality with infinite beauty, will allure us and perfectly endear Him to us.
God’s love, also, will engage our attention. To see fully that such a glorious being loves us individually and infinitely will be transporting. Our clearer sight of what He has done for us in Christ will inflame our love (1 John 4:19), and will be the source of endless praise to the Saviour (Rev. 5:6-14). Our capacities will be greatly increased so that our love, which now is fragile and fleeting, will then be both intense and all-consuming.
As God will be the object of unlimited love, so He will be the source of endless delight. If faith and love here for Christ produces a “an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pet. 1:8) in this life, what will be the effect of the unveiled sight and uninterrupted communion? There, joy will be so great that none greater is possible; it will constantly be fresh and new and the assurance that it will never end will heighten the joy.
Therefore, when believers pass from this world, there is a continuation of their personal identities, and they live in an ongoing conscious state in heaven. It is the beginning of something utterly remarkable: a happy existence that is worthy of the name.
Jim Greenbury attends the Presbyterian Church at Annerley, Qld.