Several surveys have revealed that most Americans believe in life after death. But, that being said, there are many different views about what form that life takes. Every man-made theory will miss the mark—being nothing more than a guess—but God has graciously given us the information we need in his Word. The apostle Paul writes, “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope”(1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We are not left to guess and speculate; we are not left in ignorance.
This portion of Scripture deals with the future of those who are God’s children and includes this admonition: “Comfort one another with these words”(18). These are the very words God has provided to give his people hope in the time of their sorrow.
A Confident Entrance
Human beings do not cease to exist. At the moment of death the child of God goes to be with the Lord. “We are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord…We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord”(1 Corinthians 5:6, 8).
To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.
Jesus said to the thief that was beside him on the cross, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”(Luke 23:43). There is no delay, no soul sleeping, no purgatory, but an immediate entrance into heaven for those saved by God’s grace through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. The sleep referred to applies only to the body, not the soul. What a moment that must be to see Jesus face-to-face! Here is a soul who was hearing about Jesus, trusting Jesus, and singing about Jesus for most of their life; and now they see him. All the battles are now ended, all the sorrows are over — no more struggles, no more tears.
Nothing now but eternal joy with the Savior.
A Consummated Resurrection
But Paul also informs us that for those who are now with the Lord there is a great event yet to come. Jesus Christ is coming back. “The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This truth of the resurrection of the body is vital, because Paul elsewhere says that “if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain, and ye are yet in your sins…But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Corinthians 15:16, 17, 20). God has predestinated his people to be conformed to the image of his Son and that work will be consummated at the resurrection when they are glorified. When they are born again they partake of his nature, through the ongoing work of sanctification they become more like their Redeemer, and finally when the body is raised there is complete victory over sin, Satan, and death. Although it is a natural body when it is buried, it is a spiritual body when it is raised. Surely it gives us great comfort in our times of bereavement to anticipate that great day that is coming. We can say with Paul, “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through out Lord Jesus Christ”(15:57).
A Comforting Recognition
Apparently some in the church at Thessalonica thought their departed loved ones would miss the return of Christ. But Paul declares that the Lord will bring them with him and the ones who are alive shall be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. The question is often asked, “Will we know each other in heaven?” Paul implies the comforting answer that those who had gone on to be with the Lord and those who are caught up at his return will be together. The idea of being together would mean nothing if there was no recognition. This understanding is further supported by the fact that David said when his child died, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me”(2 Samuel 12:23). When Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, they were recognized by Peter, James, and John and an introduction was not even necessary.
The idea of a resurrection would lose its meaning if we all lost our identity.
Certainly the most important and glorious thing about heaven is to be forever with the Lord Jesus, but it will surely be unspeakable joy to be praising him with loved ones, in a state of perfection.
An Incomparable Glory
Paul did not suggest that there would be no sorrow when our loved ones die; but it is not a hopeless sorrow, it is not despair. The grief can at times seem unbearable. A widow asks, “How can I go on without my husband?” The sadness a parent feels when a child dies is greater than words can describe. Through the years I have preached the funeral of babies, children, and teenagers. I have preached the funerals of soldiers killed on the battlefield, I have preached the funerals of family members, friends, and many a dear old saint who was blessed with a long life before going home. I have seen first-hand, and known personally, what it is to shed many tears with the realization that a loved one will be with us no more on this earth. But although there is sorrow when we are separated from family and friends for a time, how blessed we are, in the midst of the deepest of sorrow, to rejoice in hope. In days of youth that time of going to our heavenly home may seem far in the future, but the nearer we get to the end of the journey—or the more death claims our loved ones—the more our minds turn to thoughts of the glory to come. And in whatever trial we encounter or whatever heartache we endure, we need to remember—and trust in the truth of—Paul’s contention that “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us”(Romans 8:18). And old hymn expresses it beautifully:
Oh! Call it not death when loved ones depart, And leave us in gloom and sadness of heart, Although we have lost, to them it is gain, They’ve entered their home with Jesus to reign.
The place our dear Lord has gone to prepare, Is all that the soul could wish over there; To leave this old world of sadness and strife, And be with our Lord, yes, this is real life.