“What Happens to the Christian at Death?”

December 11, 2018

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (ESV) ” So we are always of good courage. 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.”

Several times lately, I have been asked about the state of the Christian after physical death. More than a few people have been confused and discouraged by some bad teaching on this topic. Namely, some say that at death the believer enters into some kind of “soul sleep” and will remain at rest until the final resurrection. Whereas, in the hundreds of funerals over which I have presided, I always say that the departed Christian is “more alive than we are and would not come back if we could arrange it!” That hardly seems to be a reasonable assertion if they’ve gone off to some great place of sleep only to be roused back to life when God gives us new physical bodies. In fact, that word picture is downright boring to contemplate. Yet, it is taught by certain writers and theologians. Why?

One reason seems to be the use of the word “sleep” as a way of saying death. When Jesus spoke of Lazarus we read:

John 11:11-15 (NIV) 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Sometimes the Jews spoke of death as sleep. A sort of gentle way of referring to physical death. Some who believe in soul sleep point to the thief on the cross. You’ll remember that our Lord told the man:

Luke 23:43 (NIV) Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

That should settle the matter but it does not, in the minds of some preachers. Why? Because the text literally says: “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.”

In other words, according to some minority theologians, Jesus was not saying that the man would be with him THAT DAY but eventually. As if Jesus was saying “Today I tell you the truth…” That would suggest that on other days Jesus did not necessarily tell them the truth? Absurd. No, the emphasis is on the truthful promise that THAT DAY the penitent thief would be with Jesus in paradise. It would hardly be paradise if Jesus just took the man’s spirit to a place of sleep. As if the Son of God is minding a great nursery of sleeping spirits.

Aside from those thoughts, what evidence do we have that the Christian at physical death is nonetheless alive in the spirit and alert and filled with joy at the presence of God? Let me suggest several factors:

FIRST, our eternal life does not begin when we die but when we are saved. The shedding of a broken body simply frees our spirits to enter into God’s presence as we await a new body. But we were already eternally alive while on planet Earth.

Remember, Jesus said: John 5:24 (NIV) “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” For the true Christian, death is simply a physical event; he or she has already “crossed over” and death is simply a change of zip code! That is why Jesus said to Martha:

John 11:25-26 (NIV) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Our spirits cannot die … so why would they “sleep?”

SECOND, we do not need a physical body to be alive. Notice that God is very much alive without a body as we know bodies to be. He has some “form” and perhaps in that in-between state, we will have a “form also” … I do not know.

THIRD, as mentioned above … why would Paul say it would be better to be away from the body and present with Christ if all that “presence” meant was a long boring sleep!

FOURTH: Jesus said “I will come back for you!” (John 14.3) This promise makes no sense if all Jesus does is scoop us up like sleeping toddlers and carry us to some divine nursery. Rather, he promises conscious and delightful life in that “in between state.” Remember the promise of our Lord only makes sense if our spirits, out of these physical bodies, are alive and alert and aware: “Well done good and faithful servant” found in Matthew 25.21 This clearly teaches a review of our lives when we come into his presence.

Finally, the Apostle Paul had several dramatic visions of the world beyond and he could not wait to get back there. And it was not sleep that excited him.

Philippians 1:20-24 (NIV) “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”

This is why I always say that the Christian who has left the body behind is more alive than we are. Don’t worry about “soul sleep.” Departing these bodies is “better by far!”

Blessings! Pastor Alberta


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8 responses to ““What Happens to the Christian at Death?”

  1. Mary Henriksen

    Thank you SO much for posting this, Pastor Alberta. That is what I have always believed, but lately others have told me that I am wrong and told me about “soul sleeping” which made me wonder if I had misunderstood. This makes so much more sense to me and scripture backs it up. Thank you!

  2. Carlene Meyer

    This is how I’ve always viewed death and it is very comforting.

    I can’t remember the reference or the exact words, but there is a passage which speaks of the faithful waiting under and altar asking “how long must we wait”? Is that in reference to the coming of the Messiah? I may be mixed up on this.

  3. Paulette Olah

    Great blog, Pastor! I know that when I close my eyes in death, I will open them and see the LORD, because of His faithfulness to me!🙏👍

  4. Paulette Olah

    Oh, and I know I won’t be sleepy!;)

  5. Steve Pichan

    Thanks for clarifying an oft confusing teaching Pastor!

  6. Richard Swan

    Hi Pastor Alberta,     As I approach my 80th birthday, I take great comfort in your message in this blog. While I was not with Barb when this happened, Karen told me that she smiled and appeared to be greeting people in Heaven that had passed on before her. While I can’t comprehend how it will be, I believe that our gracious God will reunite us with our Christian loved ones so we can spend eternity with Him and them. Richard


    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  7. Jan Amos

    Here is my question, on the cross Christ referred to being in heaven that day, but in the Apostle’s Creed we say that Christ was in hell for three days. How could both be true?

  8. Sandra

    Thank you for these messages Pastor

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