“Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:8
“I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Philippians 1:23
What happens to Christians after they die? We depart this life to be with Jesus. The Bible speaks of three conditions of our life. The first condition is our life “in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:6). This refers to our present life on earth. The second condition is “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). This describes our life after death but before the resurrection. Theologians call this the intermediate state because it is the period in between death and the resurrection. The third condition is “in the resurrection” (Matthew 22:30). This is our life in our glorified existence. When Jesus returns to earth, he will resurrect our bodies, and we shall dwell with him on a renewed earth. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). When Christians die, our bodies are buried, but our spirits immediately pass into the presence of God. Jesus proclaimed to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in
Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Christians need not wait until the resurrection in order to be with Christ in Paradise. Paul describes this state as being “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) and as being “far better” (Philippians 1:23) than his life on earth. Shorter Catechism 37 asks, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” The answer is, “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.” So what happens when a Christian dies? Jesus happens! We do not know many details about the intermediate state. We have a visionary description of it in Revelation 4 and 5 where we read of the continuous worship of heaven, but as a vision it is difficult to know how literal the description is intended to be. We may observe that heaven is a place of joyous song and uninterrupted adoration of the Trinity. God is praised for his holiness, power, eternity (Revelation 4:8), creation (Revelation 4:11), and redemption (Revelation 5:9-10). Heaven is God-centered and God-exalting. We have another visionary description of the intermediate state of the redeemed in Revelation 7:9-17. There we read the following description of our blessed condition: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17). Nevertheless, as wonderful as the intermediate state is for believers, it is not our ultimate destination. Our final destination is the resurrection of the body and the renewed heaven and earth. Paul explains the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The passage emphasizes that the resurrection is not extraneous to our creed but is the essence of our faith. So then, as great as it is to be present with the Lord in the intermediate state, we know that those souls still long for the Second Coming, the resurrection of the body, and their ultimate vindication. They cry out to their Sovereign Lord, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” (Revelation 6:10). Revelation 21 teaches us that the end of the story is the creation of a new heaven and earth. This is the consummation of God’s plan of salvation for his people. This condition is far better than the intermediate state. Heaven descends to the earth. God again dwells with his people (Revelation 21:3) and removes his curse from creation (Revelation 22:3). The whole world then becomes a temple for the Lord and a place of righteousness, peace, joy, and love. Shorter Catechism 38: “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection? At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the Day of Judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” In heaven our full human purpose will be realized. In this life we should glorify God and enjoy him forever; in the life to come we shall glorify God and enjoy him forever. One problem that Christians will encounter when it comes to the intermediate state is that we are not given much information. We are told that we will be “with Christ” and that it will be “far better.” God will remove the curse of sin and dwell with us. Yet many of our questions remain unanswered. One reason for this is to teach us to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). “But it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10). Another reason for our limited knowledge is to teach us to ponder what heaven will be like. We are called to enjoy the anticipation of our heavenly home. Thoughts of heaven should make their way into our songs, prayers, and conversations. How little Christians speak about heaven today! Let us employ our sanctified imagination to consider what the life to come might be like. Christian theologians provide two main ways to ponder the glory that shall be revealed to us: a positive way and a negative way. First, the positive way is to take all the good things of this life and to imagine a world with more of the same. Second, the negative way is to take all the bad things of this life and to imagine a world without them. So let us reflect upon a world with delicious food, beautiful music, fascinating conversations, breathtaking sights, and exhilarating worship! Let us also ponder a world without death or disease. Let us hope for a world without poverty. May our thoughts dance as we think of a world without murder, theft, rape, molestation, adultery, divorce, disappointment, pride, greed, and selfishness. In his Word God has painted heaven with broad strokes, and he graciously invites us to fill in the colors of our home with the anticipation of our hopeful hearts. After we have spent our energies contemplating the renewal of creation, we must keep in mind that the greatest joys of heaven will be to be with Jesus. Charles Spurgeon said, “Heaven is wherever Jesus is.” When we are in heaven, we shall see the One who loved us and gave himself for us on the cross. We shall see the One who emerged from the empty tomb to reverse the curse pronounced on the sons and daughters of Adam. We shall see the One who now abides in us by the Holy Spirit. We shall see him and be like him for we shall see him as he is. Let us set our hearts and affections on this place prepared for us!