“Heaven & Resurrection”

“If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

(Philippians 1:22-23)

What happens when a Christian dies? We know that in death the spirit and body separate (Ecc. 12:7; Jas. 2:26). We also know there will be a future resurrection but what happens to the faithful until then? God hasn’t revealed much on this issue but he has given us a glimpse through the inspired writings of the Apostle Paul.

Writing to the Philippian Christians from prison, Paul contrasts “departing” this world to be with Christ with “remaining” in the flesh (Phil. 1:19-24). If Paul is acquitted he will continue to “live in the flesh” and honor Christ in his work with the churches. If he is found guilty and executed, he considers this a “far better” situation because he will then “depart” from this world “and be with Christ.”

He says in another place, “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.” (2 Cor. 5:6-8) So, while we are faithfully serving the Lord here on earth (walking by  faith, not by sight) we are “at home in the body” and alive “in the flesh” but “away from the Lord” (locationally not relationally). If we die, we “depart” to be “with Christ” and are “at home with the Lord.”

But how does all this work with the resurrection? Scripture teaches that when the Lord returns there will be a bodily resurrection and he will hold the world to account in an ultimate act of judgment (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 17:30-31). We may not understand all the intricacies of this but here’s what we know for sure: Unless the Lord returns first (and thus initiates the resurrection and judgment), we will all face our death, or as Paul puts it, our “departure” from this world (2 Tim. 4:6). If that departure occurs before the resurrection, we will then go to “be with Christ” to await the resurrection (Heb. 9:27).

Paul teaches that when the Lord returns, he will “bring with him those who have fallen asleep” in Jesus, and these will rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). This makes sense if the faithful go to be with Jesus when they die. Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross, “today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). While Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, before his resurrection, he was in Paradise where the tree of life is in the presence of God (Rev. 2:7).

But why the resurrection? If when we die we are “with the Lord” why do we even need to be raised from the dead? The answer lies in God’s eternal plan to redeem all that has been corrupted by sin since Genesis 3, including our sin-cursed bodies. God created us in his image as embodied beings not disembodied spirits (Gen. 2:7; cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5). God’s goal, which he has initiated in Jesus’ resurrection, is to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), to “reconcile” all that sin and death estranged from him (Col. 1:20). Part of that process of reconciliation is to unite our spirits with our renewed and incorruptible bodies in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:50-57).

Our resurrection will then signal the freedom of “all things” that were subjected to corruption and death. Paul says, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Both Peter and John borrow a phrase from Isaiah and call this new creation, which has already begun in Christ but is not yet complete (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4).

This “new creation” will be finally realized only when the Lord returns (2 Pet. 3:7-12; Rev. 20:14). In the meantime, we have an imperishable inheritance kept in heaven for us (1 Pet. 1:3-5). We are to live holy and hopeful lives awaiting the day when we “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). If we “depart” before then, we will “be with the Lord” to await that day.