WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH? PART SEVEN
Transformation of the Body:
2 Corinthians 5:1-9: Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Paul speaks of our having an eternal house in heaven that is not built by human hands. He contrasts this eternal house with the earthly tent we live in. This appears to be a contrast between our physical or natural body and a spiritual body. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes of there being a natural body and a spiritual body and he sees resurrection as the natural body being transformed into a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15: 42-44: So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
In this passage Paul writes that what is perishable will be raised imperishable which corresponds to his saying in his second letter to the Corinthians that “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” In his second letter he compares this transformation to receiving a heavenly dwelling. The focus is on our change from mortal to immortal. The spotlight is on our change in composition. Paul contrasts a tent with a house. A tent is usually a temporary dwelling whereas a house is generally seen as a permanent structure. Paul is contrasting our having a temporary structure with our having a permanent structure. Paul goes on to say that we would prefer to be away from our earthly body which he compares to the temporary structure of a tent and instead be clothed with a heavenly body which Paul sees as equivalent to the permanent structure of a house and equates this with being at home with the Lord.
Apostle Peter also recognized that God’s purpose for us humans was that we be transformed from experiencing the corruption of the physical to experiencing the divine.
2 Peter 1:3-4: His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
In Romans, chapter seven, Paul writes a lengthy discourse about his human nature and concludes with:
Romans 7:24-25: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Paul knew he would be rescued from his body of death because of what Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection.
When reading Paul’s letters, it is this contrast between the sinful body of death versus the new divine body of life that is his focus. Paul appears to see resurrection as this transformation. When does this resurrection take place? Is it yet future to us or did it take place in the first century in conjunction with the expected return of Christ.
As covered in a number of essays on this website, it is absolutely certain that the leadership of the first century church believed and taught that Jesus would return during their lifetime and that resurrection would take place in conjunction with Christ's return. This return of Christ was viewed as the consummation of a process that began at the cross and was now completed when Christ came in judgement upon first century Israel when the means to facilitate the Old Covenant system of death was totally removed in the destruction of the Temple. For a complete exposition of this understanding, please read the multipart series on this website entitled, “When Does Christ Return.” Here are just a few statements recorded in the NT narrative that demonstrate the perspective of the first century Christian leadership as to the timing of the appearing of Christ.
Hebrews 10:36-37: You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while (Greek: mikron hoson hoson), "He who is coming will come and will not delay.
The Greek here is very emphatic. The Greek phrase mikron hoson hoson means, “in just a very, very little while.” This statement was made nearly 2000 years ago to Jewish Christians who are being told to persevere so they will receive what was promised at a near to occur coming of Christ. The return of Christ is viewed as an event that will take place in a very, very little while and without delay. The writer had already told these first century Christians in verse 25 not to abandon meeting together as they saw the day approaching.
Hebrew 10:25: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Remember, this statement was made to first century Christians who are being told that some are failing to meet together and this is not a good thing. The writer encourages his readers to continue meeting together and encourage one another and to do so all the more as they saw the Day approaching. What Day? As is seen from many other NT passages, this is virtual code language that refers to the appearing of Christ.
This passage in Hebrews is just one of dozens of scriptural passages that shows the first century church fully expected Christ to return during there lifetime and it would be then they would receive eternal life. It must be understood that when Paul and others write a letter to a first century church they are not writing to us. They are writing letters to first century Christians and such letters reflect the theological perspective extant in the first century church. We are in essence reading someone else’s mail when we read the letters found in the NT. The whole task of scriptural exegesis is to determine what discussion found in the letters addressed to first century Christians is limited to those Christians and what has application to Christians of all ages. In 1 Corinthians 15 we see Paul telling first century Christians they will experience a change from being mortal to being immortal and this change is going to occur in their lifetime.
1 Corinthians 15:51-54: Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
We see Paul addressing first century Christian congregations with the clear perspective that a great transformation was going to occur in their lifetime. We see Paul addressing the first century Corinthian Christians by writing that the perishable must be clothe with the imperishable and the mortal must be clothe with immortality. This is seen as accomplished through resurrection. Paul says, “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” Paul is not using the word "we" in some editorial sense to mean a "we" who are living at a far in the future return of Christ. When this passage is read within the overall context of the expectancy statements seen throughout Paul's writings and the imminency statements in Hebrews, and other NT documents, it is undeniable that Paul is seeing the transformation he speaks of occurring within the lifetime of those being addressed.
Paul is writing from the perspective this is going to happen to the people he is addressing. The "we" being addressed are first century Christians, including Paul. In Paul saying "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed," he is saying that some of the "we" he is addressing will die before this transformation occurs but those that die will be included in this transformation. Others of the "we" being addressed will be alive when this event takes place. Paul writes something very similar to the Thessalonian Christians of the first century.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17: Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
The manner in which Paul addresses these Thessalonian brothers should make it clear that He fully expected these events to occur in his and their lifetime. In reading through this entire letter, and Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, it is abundantly clear Paul was anticipating an imminent occurrence of resurrection in association with the return of Christ.
Over the centuries, a variety of philosophers, theologians and other thinkers have concluded Paul and the first century church must have been in error as to their belief regarding the timing of these events as it is believed nothing of the sort happened. Since it is believed nothing happened to justify this first century teaching, some question the very credibility of the NT authors. It is felt that if they were wrong on this issue, what else were they wrong on? How can we be sure of any of their theological teachings if they were so mistaken as to the timing of the return of Christ and all related events? Since Christ also made a number of statements that point to eschatological (end time) fulfillment in the first century, the very credibility of the Son of God is seen to be suspect if these prophesied events didn't occur in the time frame prophesied.
I remember while still in college I read a book entitled, “Why I am Not a Christian” by the renowned philosopher and mathematician Bertram Russell. While Russell gave a variety of reasons for his position, a major reason was that he plainly saw that the NT authors believed and taught an imminent to them coming of Christ and resurrection. Since Russell saw no evidence of such events occurring in the first century, he concluded these men were frauds. Albert Schweitzer, the famed humanitarian, theologian, missionary and medical doctor, also saw the focus on imminent fulfillment in the NT and concluded there were series problems with seeing these teachings as referring to events to occur thousands of years in the future.
If Russell and Schweitzer would have examined this matter in greater depth, they may have seen there are reasonable answers to the “imminency problem” found in the NT narrative and they may have been forced on the basis of the evidence to draw a different conclusion. I again refer the reader to the series on this website entitled, “When Does Christ Return.”
It is apparent from a careful reading of the NT narrative that the first century Christians fully expected a resurrection to immortal life to occur during their physical lifetime. Some theologians, who have clearly recognized the first century expectations of the Christian community, believe an actual “rapture” had to have occurred in the first century wherein the dead in Christ were raised and given immortal bodies whereby they passed on into the heavenly realm. The alive in Christ were changed by also being given immortal bodies and they too passed on (were raptured) into the heavenly realm.
Other theologians, who have come to see the necessity of a first century fulfillment if the scriptures are to have creditability, believe the dead in Christ were raised and given immortality and passed on into the heavenly realm while the alive in Christ were granted provisional immortality and passed into the heavenly realm upon their physical death. This second perspective involves seeing the passing from death unto life as tied to the covenantal change that was occurring in the first century. Both these perspectives see the expectations of the early church being clearly fulfilled in the first century and tied to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (See "What is the Kingdom of God: Part Two" for further discussion of these two perspectives).
Resurrection of the OT Dead:
If resurrection of the dead took place in association with a first century return of Christ, were those who died before the Christ event raised as well? As seen in Parts One and Two of this series, the OT shows the soul is the blood and when combined with the breath given by God, gives life to the physical body. The soul is the life of the body. When the breath from God is removed upon physical death, the soul dies resulting in the death of the body and both soul and body go to Sheol/hades. We saw from the scriptures that there is no conscious activity in Sheol/hades. Sheol/hades simply appears to be the grave, the abode of dead souls.
We saw from both Old and New Testament scriptures that the soul is not created immortal. However, it can be granted immortality by God because of the sacrifice of Christ. In the OT we see the soul goes to the grave upon physical death. We also saw from OT scripture that the spirit goes back to God who gave it. However, there is nothing in OT scripture to indicate that the spirit that goes back to God lives on as a disembodied conscious entity. We determined that to be consistent with the many scriptures that show the OT dead to be in an unconscious state, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man can not be taken as a literal representation of the abode of the OT dead. A literal interpretation of this parable must assume the dead are not really dead but instead exist in a conscious state of being.
Some believe the Lazarus and rich man parable provides a literal picture of the state of the dead prior to the Christ event. Since before the Christ event it doesn't appear salvation to eternal life was available, it is believed that the Sheol that all went to was a temporary place of conscious abode. Those who take this position believe Sheol was made up of two compartments. In one compartment resided the "righteous" dead and in another compartment resided the "unrighteous dead." The two compartments were separated by a huge gulf of space. The "righteous" dead are seen as residing with Abraham and enjoying a blissful life while the "unrighteous" are seen as residing with the devil and experiencing great torment. Some believe that at the time of the crucifixion of Christ, Sheol was emptied of the righteous dead and they were granted eternal life in heaven while the unrighteous dead remained in Sheol and continue to suffer and are still there to this very day suffering while awaiting a final judgement (and apparently greater punishment).
This whole approach is based on belief in the immortality of the soul. In Part One of this series we showed the immortal soul concept to be unscriptural. This in itself should negate a literal interpretation of the Lazarus/rich man parable. In fact the whole idea of consciously aware souls in a "righteous" compartment of Sheol being resurrected at the time of Christ's crucifixion is problematical.
The scriptures clearly show the granting of life beyond the grave is not based on our righteousness but on the imputed righteousness of Christ. While some people in OT times behaved more righteously than others, such righteousness would not make them more eligible for the granting of eternal life than anyone else. To postulate that it does is to postulate salvation by works which runs contrary to NT teaching.
Our study of Sheol in Part One of this series gives no scriptural reason to believe Sheol is or was a two compartment abode housing the "righteous" and "unrighteous" dead in a conscious state before the Christ event. Sheol is seen as the grave where dead bodies/souls are buried and nothing more.
1 Peter 3:18-19:
Some believe there is indication Christ spoke to the OT dead during the time between His crucifixion and resurrection.
1 Peter 3:18-20: For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water.
Peter makes it clear that Christ the righteous died for the unrighteous to bring the unrighteous to God. Peter speaks of Christ preaching to the "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." We saw in Part One of this series that OT souls went to Sheol upon physical death. The scriptures show Sheol as a place of no conscious activity. Peter speaks of Christ, through the Spirit, preaching to souls in prison. There is nothing in scripture that equates the word Sheol with the word prison. The Greek word translated prison has the basic meaning of confinement or to keep watch. Is Peter telling us that Christ preached to the unrighteous from Noah's time who were confined to Sheol? If, as we saw in Part One of the this series, those in Sheol have no consciousness, how could Christ preach to them? It, of course, is possible these souls in Sheol were resurrected at the time of the crucifixion and were thus able to hear what Christ had to say.
Some believe the passage in 1 Peter is not referring to humans but to fallen angels since 2 Peter 2:4 speaks of sinning angels sent to Tartarus followed by a reference to the time of the flood just as we see such reference in 1 Peter 3.
2 Peter 2:4-5: For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell (Tartarus), putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others.
What about Ephesians 4:7-10?
Ephesians 4:7-10: But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
Some believe Paul is saying that Christ descended into the abode of all those who had died prior to His crucifixion and led them into the heavenly realm. Others believe Paul is simply speaking of Christ going to the grave upon his death and after three days ascending to heaven and in so doing freeing all humans from death.
As can be seen, the passages from 1 Peter and Ephesians are esoteric. We can't be sure what they mean. Since their meaning is obscure, it is prudent to not try and use them to determine the time or manner in which souls who died prior to the death of Christ were resurrected. What we do know for sure is that first century Christians expected the resurrection to occur in their lifetime. As seen in the foregoing discussion of passages in Hebrews, 1 Corinthian and 1 Thessalonian, first century Christians were fully expecting Christ to return in their lifetime and facilitate resurrection and judgement. They held to these expectations because of what their leadership was teaching them and their leadership taught them what they had been taught by Christ.
When did Paul expect to be with Christ?
Philippians 1:21-24: 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.
Here we see Paul presenting a contrast between being in the body and departing the body to be with Christ. Did Paul expect to immediately be with Christ upon physical death? In a letter to Timothy, Paul appears to believe his being with Christ will be at the time of Christ’s return (His appearing) which Paul clearly is seen as believing was an event about to occur.
2 Timothy 4:7-8: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
The expression “on that day,” is an allusion to the appearing of Christ which is commonly understood as His second coming or parousia. Parousia is a Greek word that means presence. This word is translated as “coming” 18 times in the NT in reference to the anticipated appearing/presence of Christ. Most believe Christ’s appearing is a yet future event at which time resurrection to life will take place and Christians receive their crown of righteousness. If this is the case, Paul has not yet received his crown of righteousness nor has anyone else. Yet we clearly see in Paul's writings that he anticipated the appearing of Christ to be imminent and therefore his reward to be imminent.
We saw earlier how Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:1 speaks of how when our earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven. Paul says he was longing to be clothed with his heavenly dwelling, There are a number of sayings of Jesus Paul and Peter that allude to heaven as our destination after physical death.
Matthew 5:11: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven
Matthew 6:19-20: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
John 14:1-4: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God ; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Philippians 3:20-21. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
1 Timothy 4:18a: The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.
1 Peter 1:3-4:Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you,
These statements appear to indicate heaven is the destination for Christians following physical death. Since it is heaven where Christ resides and we see Paul looking to be with Christ where Christ is upon leaving this physical life (Philippians 1:24), this also indicates heaven is our destination upon physical death.
However, some believe heaven is not our destination. Some believe Jesus, when talking about preparing a place in John 14, is talking about preparing a place for us here on earth, a place that will be given to us at the time of a yet future resurrection. It is believed the place being prepared is the Kingdom of God which will be established on planet earth at a yet to occur return of Christ. It is believed there will be a millennial Kingdom reign of Christ for 1000 years after which a New Jerusalem will come down from heaven to this earth. Planet earth will become the permanent home of Christ and the resurrected saints. This perspective is based on a very literal interpretation of certain passages in the Revelation. Others believe these passages to be figurative of the establishment of the New Covenant and being born into the spiritual kingdom of God which is seen as having its location and governing authority in heaven, not on planet earth (See my Five Part series, "What is the Kingdom of God").
While it is apparent that Paul taught a transformation from mortal to immortal at the time of Christ's return, it is also apparent that a spiritual transformation of sorts from death to life takes place when one places faith in Christ and what He taught. This is reflected in what Jesus said as recorded in John.
John 5:24. "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.
John 8:51. I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death."
John 11:26: Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Apostle Peter wrote of being born again of imperishable seed while still in the flesh. This appears reflective of what Christ said in the above passages.
1 Peter 1:23: For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
All these statements appear to show that resurrection to life is not about biological bodies coming out of the ground but rather a spiritual transformation that takes place when we are reconciled to the Father through the Son. Upon physical death this transformation becomes a complete reality and we move to a new dimension of existence. Resurrection is seen in scripture as replacement of the Old Covenant system of death with the New Covenant system of life. This replacement began with the death and resurrection of Jesus and was completed by His return in judgement upon first century Israel which included elimination of the sacrificial system in the destruction of the temple.
All indications are that Christ returned in the first century as was expected. He returned to facilitate resurrection and thus consummate the Covenantal transition that began with His death and resurrection. This transition was calumniated with His second appearing which brought salvation (eternal life) to those who were waiting for Him.
Hebrews 9:28: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
If we are still waiting for Christ to appear a second time, then salvation has not yet been granted as the removal of sin and the granting of salvation is seen as tied to both the first and second coming of Christ. Christ initially came to bear the sins of the world and then returned to bring salvation by ending the sacrificial system in facilitating the destruction of the temple. Scripture shows salvation to be a present reality for the Christian which shows the second appearing of Christ was indeed a first century event that brought salvation.
To the Corinthians Paul wrote, "When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
Paul saw the about to occur transformation of perishable to imperishable and mortal to immortal as death being swallowed up in victory? Do we now have victory over death? Do we already have immortality resident within us because of the Christ event? Have we already moved from death unto life as Jesus indicated or must we wait for it to happen at the time of a future appearing of Christ and a future resurrection? Paul sees this happening in his time. We have two basic choices here. Either this transformation took place in the first century and because of it we are given a spiritual body upon physical death and translated into the heavenly realm, or we must wait for a future resurrection for this to happen which means we lay dead in the grave, not yet having received salvation.
All scriptural passages that deal with this issue indicate resurrection began in the first century and continues to this present day as the passing from death unto life which is salvation. As already discussed in this series, all humanity is reconciled to God through the Christ event. This reconciliation was accomplished through the death, resurrection and return of Christ. Death has been swallowed up in victory. In 2 Corinthians 5:5 Paul said God has made us for the very purpose of becoming immortal. Upon our physical death the immortality we have been granted because of the Christ event will be realized as we enter into a new dimension of existence that will last forever.
This concludes this series on “What Happens After Death.” I welcome constructive, evidence based response to this series.