What’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave? Human beings have always pondered that question.
The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. In the Nicene Creed – which goes back in its earliest form to the fourth century A.D. – we say, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. But what does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?
Not surprisingly, the early Christians asked these questions just like we do. One of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; many scholars think it was written around 50 A.D., about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-believers who had died: were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other with these words.
Now that’s an odd answer, isn’t it? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about going to heaven. But Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?
I find it helpful to try to figure out what question the Thessalonian Christians were asking Paul. When you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ Rather, it seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our brother and sister Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’
Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul deals with that issue. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?
Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. Apparently Paul didn’t actually say ‘died’ – he said ‘fallen asleep’: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. This is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ.
Why do the biblical authors use this ‘sleep’ metaphor? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer there are some similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead.
But the second reason is more important: sleep is temporary. The sleepers are going to wake up! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.
From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?
A lot of people are surprised to hear that the New Testament doesn’t actually have a lot to say about ‘dying and going to heaven’ – if by ‘heaven’ you mean ‘a non-physical existence far away from this earth where we will live a life forever as disembodied spirits’. That idea actually comes more from Greek philosophy, not Jesus and his apostles. Christian teaching about life after death is different; we stand up week by week and say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – our bodies, that is, not just Jesus’ body.
But what about heaven? Well, you can make strong arguments from the New Testament for two different points of view. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it! The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!
To tell you the truth, I don’t really know for sure which of these views is the right one, and I don’t worry about it, because the thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – the life after life after death – is the coming resurrection.
So let’s go back to 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul says,
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).
Now I need to say at this point how easy it is for modern people like us to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, being caught up in the clouds, meeting the Lord in the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, but I don’t think the earliest readers would have done that. Paul was using the symbolic language of Jewish apocalyptic literature – literature that was designed to bring hope to people who were oppressed and were looking for God’s intervention for a better future.
Apocalyptic literature had well-known codes. For instance, if you were an early Christian and you were listening as someone read from the book of Revelation or the book of Daniel, you’d hear a lot of talk about ferocious beasts. You’d know right away that they weren’t literal beasts; they were symbols for evil empires. That’s how apocalyptic literature worked. In the same way, back in the early 1980s, if you saw a political cartoon in the newspaper with a bear in it, you knew it wasn’t meant to be a literal bear: it was a symbol for the Soviet Union. A man with a top hat with the stars and stripes was ‘Uncle Sam’, the U.S.A. If you didn’t know the code you’d be confused, but if you did, you’d understand.
The problem nowadays is that when we read this kind of thing in the Bible we don’t know the code. So in today’s passage we don’t realize that when Paul talked about the sounding of the trumpet and going to meet the Lord in the air, he was using the symbolism of a royal visit, or even a coronation. If the Roman emperor came to visit Thessalonica, the leading citizens of the city would go out to meet him with great pomp and ceremony, with fanfares and the sound of trumpets. But they wouldn’t stay out there with him – they’d lead him back into the city to meet his other subjects there.
This is what Paul is talking about. Jesus is Lord of all, Lord of heaven and earth. At the moment his reign is hidden, but one day it will be revealed. Paul uses the symbolism of clouds and sky because it was the most exalted symbolism available to him, and also because it was used in the Old Testament for the same thing. But the idea isn’t that the true believers are snatched up to be with the Lord so they can spend the rest of eternity floating around with him in the sky. In the Book of Revelation, when the last day comes the City of God descends from heaven to earth. We’re not escaping from the world; we’re welcoming our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of love, as God’s anointed King of all creation! And when he comes, or when he appears, he will bring others with him: those who have ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and are now awakened to share with him in his eternal kingdom.
In other words, our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. And that future will involve bodies and matter, not just souls and spirits. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world. No: the Bible tells us God is going to ‘make all things new’; God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.
Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. For instance, I’ve sometimes been asked ‘Where are we going to put everyone?’ After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? I don’t have an answer for that question, except to say that there are a lot of things God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of us to speculate.
What we do know is that the Christian hope is about the renewal of this world. It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; the last word will be God’s word, not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth God will make his home among us and live with us forever. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; and God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).
That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. We don’t pretend death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they don’t need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). People who don’t have the hope of resurrection grieve because they see death as the final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.
You and I, and our loved ones who have died in the peace of Christ, have been promised that we will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God!