I mentioned in my earlier post that my friend, Trisha, asked me a question about death: Do we go immediately to heaven (into God’s timeless, boundless presence) when we die?
Two seemingly contradictory passages came immediately to my mind: Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:43 KJV and I Thess 4:16 and 17 KJV, “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord”
In the first, Jesus implies that we will immediately enjoy the presence of God upon our death. In the second, the implication seems to be that those who are dead will rise to meet Him upon His return, and will be joined by those still living at that time. Which is it? Is it important? It is an important question, in my mind, because a babe in the Lord asked it of me. So I tried to find as serious and complete an answer as I possibly could.
A pastor friend of mine from years back – my high school years, in fact – Pastor Wayne, once presented the idea to me that “Paradise” was not exactly what we commonly perceive it to be. To this day, I don’t know if he was expressing his personal belief, or simply challenging mine (he did that from time to time), but he ventured the idea that between death and resurrection Christ descended to hell (or some variant thereof). This concept is part of certain renditions of the Apostle’s Creed - and it is discussed here.
The above link also brings into remembrance another significant passage: The story of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke 16:19 – 31 Note a few things from this story – Lazarus rested in the bosom of Abraham, but the rich man was tormented in hell; and between the two there was an uncrossable gulf. Also, the rich man’s brothers were still living, he wanted them to be warned in order that they could avoid the fate he suffered.
I have always assumed that the “bosom of Abraham” was an euphemism for heaven, or the presence of God. Apparently this is not universally accepted as true. According to the previously linked discussion of Christ’s death to resurrection period, there is a line of theological thought that distinguishes between Paradise and Heaven. Paradise being a waystation for the faithful between death and the Day of Judgement. However, this familiar verse implies diifferently (at least to me it does): “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” Heb 9:27 KJV. What I read is a judgement following immediately upon death, with no intervening period of time, or “paradise”.
So what are we to make of all this? My first thought, and I often take some small bit of consolation in this thought, is of the difficulty, futility even, of trying to fully understand eternal, infinite existance from our finite perspective. However, we know from mathematics that the human mind is able to conceive, consider, contemplate and calculate the concept of infinity. While we may not grasp its entirety, we are able to grapple with its broad abstractions.
So finally, here is the answer I received, and passed on to Trisha: Upon death, we pass from time into eternity. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, we slip the surly bonds of time, and touch the face of God. As we do so, time ceases to have meaning and existance to have bounds. We can therefore, in that instant, that twinkling of an eye, be transported to the Rapture, to join Christ and all His Church in the sky, to stand before thee Judgement Seat and hear our name called from the Lamb’s Book of Life as covered, forgiven sanctified and justified by blood, to be directed to the right hand of God, there to abide all eternity. In my humble opinion, to Trisha’s question, including the unverbalized portion of it, “When we die, do we go directly to Heaven, or is the day of Rapture the moment we join Christ?” – the answer is yes.