The following is a series of experts from Chapter 8, “Raised Imperishable,” in my book Beautiful and Terrible Things.
When I teach courses on the Bible one of the first interpretive rules I put forward is this: The Bible doesn’t answer all the questions that we want to ask. My go-to example is “Who did Cain marry?” Cain was Adam and Eve’s eldest son and killed his brother Abel. As a result, God exiled him saying “you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” (Gen. 4:12) Just five verses later, with no other explanation, we read “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.” So far as we know from the biblical account up to this point, there are only three people on the earth: Adam, Eve, and Cain. Who did Cain marry? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We might speculate, coming up with all sorts of explanations and rationalizations and, frankly, that can be kind of fun. But we only have what the biblical text tells us, and it is not concerned with that particular question.
There are so many different questions that we would like answers to that the Bible does not address fully or to our modern satisfaction. One of the questions that most of us have at some point is, what happens when we die? I don’t mean our ultimate status, as we are assured of the resurrection throughout the New Testament and we shall return to that later, but the Bible doesn’t give us in any sort of detailed answer to the question of what happens to us at the moment when our physical body ceases to function. Popular imagery suggests our soul flies immediately heavenward, appearing promptly at the pearly gates for admission. But this is not an image confirmed in Scripture. As the Teacher in Ecclesiastes said, “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (Eccl. 3:21).
The resurrection of the dead and the day of judgment are very Jewish concepts, however, and are found in the Book of Daniel. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:2-3). Whether or not there was a bodily resurrection was, in fact, a major debate within first century Judaism, as seen in the debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees attested in the Gospels. To quote my father, “The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Therefore, they were sad, you see?” Jesus and Paul shared the view of the Pharisees, that all would be raised from the dead for the Day of Judgment, when all would be held to account for their actions.
In the New Testament, Paul refers to those who have died as having “fallen asleep.” In so doing, Paul is making the point that our death, as real and final as it is in this world, is just a temporary state before we will awaken to new and eternal life in Christ. The New Revised Standard Version masks this by rendering the term as “died,” but Paul uses this expression often and with purpose. For example, in talking about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 he reminds us of the fact that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” We actually have two different Greek words for the single English in the NRSV (always a poor decision in translation). In the first case it is the word for “dead,” nekron. The emphasis is upon the fact that Jesus was really dead and yet he was raised to life again. “Those who have died” are described as “those who have fallen asleep” (kekoimēmenōn). So, the sentence is better rendered as, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Paul’s is emphasizing that Jesus died, the death we all must follow, but as he rose from the dead, he transformed our death into a mortal sleep that will be followed by life eternal.
Yet we still have no clear explanation of what happens to us when we die.
I would suggest that this is not an accident. We know that humans have always been interested in what happens when we die. The fact that we do not find this topic explored, or better phrased, revealed in Scripture strongly suggests to me that it is a subject we should best leave alone. I don’t mean that we do not think about what has happened to our loved one or what will happen to us; I think about that all the time. What I mean is that the truth about the moment of death, that transition, is unknowable. Or, at least, it is not revealed in the Bible. Jesus, the only one who could tell us about it, chose not to. What Jesus did tell us is that “in my father’s house there are many rooms and I go to provide a place for you.” (My Uncle Freddie never liked the newer translations, preferring the grandeur of John 14:2 in the KJV. He said, “I have been promised a mansion and I want my mansion!” I feel confident he is not dissatisfied.) The mechanics of death and resurrection are absent, surprisingly so since it is a central tenet of our faith, and that tells me that our focus ought to be on living this life in the promise of the resurrection.
Put on Immortality
In the months following Mack’s death I would not say that I had a crisis of faith, but I certainly felt a general malaise. I was writing about Mack’s death and my faith in his/our resurrection, and at the same time there was no doubt that I felt a pall over me. Then we decided to go to my parents’ church for Easter. The reading for the sermon was a portion from 1 Cor. 15, a passage I knew well, but when the pastor read it and began preaching, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time.
“For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died [are asleep] in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:16-19).
This is the heart of our faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Did I believe it or not?
Everything hangs upon the resurrection of Christ. With his resurrection, everything changed. We still live in a broken world with all the consequences of the fall, but we can now answer the Teacher’s question (Eccl. 3:21) and affirm that the human spirit will be raised. In that moment in the pew of the church I grew up in, it was all new again. I had to ask myself, why have I believed in the resurrection of Jesus? Why do I preach and teach it? If I only believed in it for the impact it made on this life, if it was just to inspire myself and others to love one another and to be gracious even to the most ungracious of people, then “we of all people are most to be pitied.” Believing in the resurrection should mean believing that this world is not all that there is. Yes, the risen Christ in our lives means that we are to love the most unlovely, but it also means that there is something more to live for than just this world. Yes, I realized all over again, I do believe. I still wept because Mack was still gone, ripped from us in such a cruel if quiet way, but I wept because it also means that I know I shall go to him.
This was not a crisis of faith, but rather the life of faith, the ebb and flow that can come at any point in one’s life. The death of a loved one, especially such an untimely death, naturally brings us back to these moments of asking ourselves, “Do I really believe?” When you find yourself in this situation, and in all likelihood we all do at some point, remember that to question God, to be angry, to be disappointed, to feel abandoned is not showing a lack of or a weak faith. It is the sign of resilience and resistance.
We are resilient in that we are questioning, recognizing that not everything is clear cut and we are willing to dive into the murky, real world of our emotions, experience, and faith. We are being resistant by not accepting simple answers, including just saying, “Well, there can be no God.” Instead, we ask again, “Do I believe? Why do I believe? What do I believe?” In that moment, I accepted God’s grace all over again. I confessed that I do believe in the resurrection; I am not to be pitied because I share with my son in God’s eternal kingdom.
That chapter in 1 Corinthians is an extended message of encouragement, particularly for those of us in that moment of doubt, depression, and just weariness. He reminds us that Christ died for our sins “and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4). Further, he assures us that just as Christ has been raised so shall we. It is our creed; it is our confession. Paul’s audience, however, was no different than our own and couldn’t help but wonder how such a thing is possible. After all, the entirety of human experience has taught us that once someone is dead, they are gone. They do not come back. “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” (1 Cor. 15:35). What I love about Paul’s response is not his flippancy (he calls the questioner a “fool,” Jesus had something to say about that [Matt. 5:22]), but the way in which he answers the question while seeming to dismiss it. Again, we do not get the mechanical details of what happens when we die, how it occurs, or even any clear idea of when we will be raised. He does, however say that our raised bodies will be spiritual bodies, imperishable, and immortal.
This image, of our current bodies as a seed that, when planted, will give birth to a spiritual body of power and glory, has been on my mind of late. In the last few years of my father’s life the several strokes and related issues left him thinner than usual, needing a walker, and having difficulty speaking. Really, nothing too surprising for someone in their early 80s but exacerbated by his illness. As we stood by his body with my mother and brother, he seemed so frail. “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” It seemed in some way fitting that although he had been six foot two inches tall, an engineer, and wit in his prime, he now resembled the “seed” that was to be sown.
Think of a grain of wheat, as Paul suggests. It is so small and tiny and yet grows thousands of times in size and complexity when it is fully formed as the plant. The human being is amazingly complex and gorgeous as an organism, not just the physical being, which is stunning enough, but consider our very nature, the mix of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual that combines into something so spectacularly unique that there are never any two alike. There never have been. In the course of all existence, over 100 billion and counting, there have never been two humans that are the same. Even when there are “identical” twins (or more) they are never completely identical. And that is the seed. This incredibly complex and stunningly unique organism that each of us is, will be the “simple” seed that will give birth into the unimaginably complex and beautiful spiritual body of glory and power. Just meditate on that for a bit. Let your mind wander…what might that be like, what might we be like in the World to Come? What will this meagre seed, which is mighty and gracious already, be transformed into? It is pure speculation, of course, but I have found it humbling and encouraging to contemplate.
Where and When
Over the millennia there have been any number of imaginations of the World to Come. Most people’s imaginings come from the apocalyptic visions in Daniel and Revelation, with God on his throne pronouncing judgment and angels waiting upon him and making declarations. There we also find the roads paved with gold and pearly gates, God as an old man with white hair, and images of angels all around the throne singing God’s praise. Inevitably, such images reveal much about the culture and community that developed them and their conception of God and heaven, but they do not tell us much about life after the resurrection because they are primarily concerned with the moment of judgment, not the time which follows. The Bible is not particularly verbose regarding the “new heaven and new earth,” the environment and world in which we will spend eternity.
In fact, the one place we find some clear statement, albeit still within the metaphorical language of apocalyptic literature, is in the next to last chapter of Revelation. In his vision John sees a “new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). We will not, according to this vision, spend eternity in some cloudy, otherworldly heaven, but on the new earth and God will reside with us. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3). The images of God walking in the Garden with the man and the woman should spring to our minds as everything is being redeemed, transformed into God’s original intention for Creation. This is the reason for the emphasis upon God’s judgment. It is not because God is vindictive, but because removing evil is necessary for the establishment of the Holy and Good Creation. We, humanity, have exerted our free will, we have acted upon our impulses, repented and returned to God and now “he will wipe every tear from our eyes.” Evil, in reality and in all its metaphorical expressions, will be destroyed, removed from existence so that “death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). And God and humanity will again walk in the Garden together, in communion with one another. This is the “new heaven and new earth” that John sees in his revelation and we talk about this as being at the end of time.
It is understandable that we wonder and, in some cases worry, about what happens in between, after we die and before Jesus returns and unites heaven and earth. This was a question and concern from the beginning of the Church and so Paul writes, “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” (1 Thess. 4:13). It is natural that we seek assurances and make speculations. In medieval stories we read accounts of righteous men and women seeing Jesus and a host of saints receiving them in their last moments. Today, we often encourage one another, without much thought behind it, that our loved ones are now “with Jesus in heaven.” There are numerous imaginations about what happens at death. N. T. Wright has written extensively on this subject, offering a good corrective to the various non-biblical understandings of the resurrection. In particular, Wright emphasizes the fact that the Bible describes our physical resurrection and ultimately the union of heaven and earth where we will begin this new “life after life after death.” He also argues from Paul’s description of the dead as being “asleep,” that we will enter an “intermediate state,” one where we are with God and with Christ yet are not yet resurrected. This image of “restful happiness” is certainly consistent with Scripture and more in line with its testimony than the fluffy clouds of popular Christian culture, yet he admits that it is often not a very comforting image for those whose loved ones have died.
The idea that they are simply in a kind of stasis—as opposed to being immediately with Christ, in our new resurrection bodies—can be very disheartening to some who mourn, no matter the ultimate joy of the resurrection. I have spoken with many who find the image of their loved one, and eventually themselves, being in some sort of spiritual coma is very disconcerting. While Wright finds this consistent with Scripture and for him it is a picture of complete peace, others find greater comfort in knowing that their loved one is already transformed and watching over them. In light of that, I want to encourage you to hold on to the conception of what happens after we die that brings you comfort and strength. All such speculation is just that, speculation based upon general imagery in the Bible that it is intended to provide comfort and encouragement to the faithful. Paul uses the image of those who have died in Christ being “asleep,” but it is just a metaphor, he does not articulate that as a doctrine as he has done with the actual, bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15). So, if Wright’s description or my own theorizing in the following section does not provide you comfort, just set it aside. The only purpose is to offer comfort and consolation in the truth of the resurrection.
Years ago, long before I began serious theological study, I wrestled with just this question of what happens to us when we die. I came to a different understanding than Wright’s that I do not believe is in conflict with Scripture, but I readily admit is not clearly stated. It was my sophomore year at Cornell and I clearly remember sitting by Beebe Lake, in the old sandwich shop called the “Noyes Lodge,” thinking about the fact that so much time had elapsed since Jesus ascended “to prepare a place for us” that Abraham was closer to the time of Jesus than we are. How do we reconcile the extreme length of time that has elapsed with the promise of the Parousia—Jesus’ return to bring justice and healing, mercy and grace? What is he waiting for? God knows (literally) we need it!
All those years ago, the thought occurred to me that God is outside of time. After all, God has always been and preexisted the conception of time. That being the case, why must we continue to think of “life after death” in a linear progression? Of course, we live in an historical “line,” with one moment occurring after another, day after day, and so we tell our stories in a linear fashion and the Bible does likewise. Yet if we recognize that God is outside of time and space, could it not be that when one dies one is also outside of this linear path? If so, regardless of the point in history at which we each die, we all arise at the same moment, on the Day of the Resurrection. Christ’s return then is not “delayed” but is always in the future and always at this moment.
These are the thoughts that occurred to me when I was twenty. Over the years, I have shared my speculation with others in Sunday school classes and on my website. After Mack died, I returned to this possibility and reshared that essay on the site, pointing out that I find comfort in the thought that my grandfather, Mack, and I will all open our eyes in the World to Come at the same time. Mack is not “waiting” for me, Elizabeth, or Jesus; we all arrive at the end of this world and the beginning of the next right on time at the same time. A commenter asked if I was informed by the work of Emil Brunner. I had to admit I had never heard of the outstanding Swiss theologian. I had not heard of him when I was twenty or even late into my forties. It is perhaps not surprising that I and others have not heard of Brunner since he is often, even in his own lifetime, overshadowed by his contemporary Karl Barth, but I have since read much of what he wrote, and he is deserving of study.
The Brunner work that is most relevant is Eternal Hope and I was not terribly surprised when I found that this work was dedicated to his deceased sons Peter and Thomas. Brunner, it turns out, had long ago observed that God is, indeed, outside of our spheres of time and space and as such our conceptions of life being made up of discrete, linear moments of event, is misleading. “The being with Christ is not the moment immediately after death. For in the eternal world there is no next moment. In death the world of space and time disappears, and … the being with Christ and the future coming of the Lord [are] both … one and the same.” What Brunner is expressing (and which may sound heretical or discomforting in the first sentence, the idea that we are not “with Christ” at the moment immediately after death) is that this conception of linear time—that we move from one moment, “alive,” to another moment, “dead on earth, but alive with Christ”—is nonexistent once we are no longer tied to this world. As he says, being with Christ and the Parousia, the future coming of the Lord, are both one and the same.
Of course, it all depends upon the perspective from which one perceives it, our temporal plane or the eternal. Brunner says earlier, “So also the departing and being with Christ is no merely individual personal happening but only the this-worldly appearance of what from the other-worldly angle is called the Parousia.” So, what we often consider a specific future moment within this timeline of history, a fixed point albeit it unknown to humanity, from the perspective of God is the moment when each individual dies, since at that same moment all have died.
Once we set aside our linear view of time, our vision expands and there is no longer meaning to the sequencing of “moments.” Moments, from the eternal perspective, are simply “now.” That also opens up a broader understanding of God’s sovereignty, agency, and omniscience. From the eternal, all can be seen and known, but that does not mean that it is directed or ordained in a mechanistic sense. God is sovereign and knows all our days, but that does not mean that God has dictated all evil and suffering that befalls us in this life.
Is this conception of the moment of death being the moment of Parousia accurate? No one can know. It is a conception, a depiction, an attempt to understand, to the best of our knowledge on this temporal plane, what happens when we move from this world to the next. The New Testament has other images, but they all are efforts to express the ultimately ineffable and, in so doing, provide comfort and encouragement to us now, in this moment. Take such comfort as you find in these imaginations but set aside that which does not draw you closer to Christ and his peace.
What we know is the promise of the resurrection, our eternal life in Christ, though the mechanism of this is unknown. Brunner concludes his chapter in just this way. “Summa summarum: We know nothing of the how, we know only the fact, and its implication: that it will be the end of history in the Kingdom of God, the judgment and the perfecting of creation in the eternal world.” Amen.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.
Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all;
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since by a man came death,
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die,
so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.
 It is also the root of much of rabbinic commentary called “Midrash.” The rabbis looked for these gaps and sought to fill them in based upon speculation and various other exegetical tools.
 There have been many, thorough academic studies of the nature of Sheol in the Bible and the development of Heaven and Hell but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this work.
 The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 203). The greatest strength of this excellent work is Wright’s proper rooting of the understanding of the resurrection in the Jewish context. See also the engaging interview from Time Magazine, “Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop,” http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html.
 “Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop.”
 The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 216. See also N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
 Wright makes a distinction between this “restful happiness” and “soul sleep,” but his argument seems to me largely a distinction without a difference. “Though this is sometimes described as ‘sleep,’ we shouldn’t take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as ‘being with Christ, which is far better’. Rather, ‘sleep’ here means that the body is ‘asleep’ in the sense of ‘dead,’ while the real person—however we want to describe him or her—continues.” Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp. 183. I would not say that I think Wright is “wrong,” but that there is room for other interpretations of Scripture.
 That is, assuming you take the most conservative view of his likely time frame, c. 1800 BCE.
 An excellent place to begin learning about Brunner is Alister E. McGrath, Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).
 Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 153.
 Eternal Hope, p. 151.
 Eternal Hope, p. 154.
 The Pascha Nostrum. This is an ancient Christian hymn sung at Easter that is comprised of 1 Corinthians 5:7–8, Romans 6:9–11, and 1 Corinthians 15:20–22.