At the moment of death…what happens? (Heaven Better By Far Chapter 2)

Where do you go when you die and what is it like? Those two questions are on the minds of all people at some point. Someone we love dies and we want to know what has happened to them. We contemplate our own death and wonder what will happen to us. We want to know what is next.
In chapter 2 of Heaven Better By Far, J. Oswald Sanders tackles the questions associated with death and Heaven.
All those who follow Christ in this life will go to Heaven the moment they die. Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” This was not an empty promise but a statement of reality. And it is a statement for all who die in Christ. We will be with Him from the moment we take our last breath. II Corinthians 5:8 tells us that to be out of the body is to be present with the Lord.
But what will we be like in Heaven, before the resurrection? What will it be like when we step across from this life to the next?

1. We will still be personal.

Our personality will still persist after we die. Our soul survives the disintegration of our bodies. For a time body and soul will be separate. The body remains in the grave until resurrection, the soul goes to be with Christ.

2. We will still recognize each other.

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the story, the rich man and Lazarus both die. The rich man still recognizes Abraham and Lazarus.

3. We will still think and talk.

In Luke 16, the rich man carries on a conversation with Abraham. In fact, he tries to reason with Abraham to convince him to send Lazarus back to his house to warn them about the life to come if they don’t change.

4. We will experience all of this the moment we die.

Though some advocate a soul sleep until the resurrection, and others advocate a Purgatory to work through your sin, the Bible is clear that the moment we are out of this body, we are present with the Lord.

Sanders quotes John Gilmore who said, “During the interval we are in conscious existence, although we are not yet in our resurrection bodies. We are not floating around in space as invisible spirits, without the capacity for speech and action. Neither are we asleep or unconscious in a temporary or lethargic state. We are very much alive and near to Christ.”


8 Responses to “At the moment of death…what happens? (Heaven Better By Far Chapter 2)”

  1. Justin says:

    My favorite line: “Though some advocate a soul sleep until the resurrection, and others advocate a Purgatory to work through your sin, the Bible is clear that the moment we are out of this body, we are present with the Lord.”

    If the Bible is clear on the topic, why would there be various positions on the subject.

    Some scholars contend that Christ descended into hell or hades at his death, so how does that affect the conversation with the thief.

    Also since most of the support of this position seems to lie in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, will that mean we will be able to communicate to those who are in hell, and what would those conversations look like. And how would that be paradise if I can see and talk with friends and family in hell.

    And if we don’t have a body in this time of waiting before the resurrection, but Christ and perhaps Elijah and Enoch do have bodies, what kind of interaction will that be like?

    Really doesn’t seem all that clear to me. 😉

    • admin says:

      You bring up several good points to address.
      1. Clarity of subject and variety of opinion seem to co-exist in most areas of life. Because something is clear does not mean a person does not come to a different conclusion. They simply ignored or obfuscate the ideas that do not support their position. Even scholars and scientists (those who should be most objective) do this more often than we would like to believe. Take something like climate change. It is clear from science that some kind of climate change is occurring. But a man steps outside his house on a cold winter morning and says, ‘There is no climate change it is as cold as it ever has been.’
      2. You are right to critique Sanders position as relying too much on the story of Lazarus and the rich man. It is clearly a story. And we should always be careful not to draw too much from the story. To me the stronger arguments are made from others verses:
      Philippians 1:23-24 “I have the desire to depart and be with Christ – which is far better – but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
      II Corinthians 5:6-9 “Therefore, though we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight – yet we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord. Therefore, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to be pleasing with the Lord.”
      Also, the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11 are crying out to God. So, they are awake and in Heaven.
      3. What Jesus did during His death is a matter of speculation. However, He did not promise the thief a trip to Hades or Hell. He promised that the thief would be with Christ in Paradise. So we know that Christ was not soul sleeping in Paradise. Thus it is difficult to advocate for that position based on the promise given to the thief.
      We also know that the man was a thief and was executed for his crimes. Thus he would have had plenty to work through in Purgatory. It is difficult then to say that the man had to work out his salvation after death. Because Christ says, ‘Today.’
      4. Now as to the whole pre-resurrection body thing that is a challenge. We know from various accounts that people are recognizable, have conversations, feelings, and think. We know the personality is still there. We know they are not spirits floating around without substance. But how it looks I think is a matter of speculation.

      • Justin says:

        I think you are correct that clarity and opinion can coexist, but I do not think that is what you are arguing for in your post, nor does your example above work. It is clear that the climate changes, it is argued what is causing such changes. And I’ve never heard someone deny climate change on cold weather (for that in fact would be a change) I have heard people deny the opinion of global warming based on such observations.

        What is seems that you have done in your post is argued for clarity of one of three possible options, suggesting your opinion is the Biblically clear option. I see this in my theology students all the time, “My opinion is correct, the Bible clearly says so”. But again if the Bible clearly supports one of various options, there would be no need for opinions.

        For example, the Bible clearly teaches the need for salvation. Discussion of opinions, how does that work. Misuse of phrase= the Bible clearly teaches Calvinism. (If the bible clearly taught such then we would all be Calvinists)

        Clarity in the Bible is what we as Christians hold to as orthodoxy, or what beliefs make us Christians. Lack of clarity are all those secondary and beyond doctrinal issues that give us the thousands of Chtistian denominations. It’s just a pet peeve of mine that I wish we would erase from Theologicsl discussions among Christians.

        You could have said the Bible clearly teaches that there is existence after death. Discussion of opinions: instant, soul sleep, purgatory, etc.

        Clarity on this subject would be: When you die you will go here and it will be like this. But there is no chapter verse that I have found that does this. (Even the clear passages of Paul you mention could work just as fine supporting soul sleep, since one doesn’t actually experience the time “asleep”)

        The fact remains that the only thing clear is when we die, something will happen.

        I for one hope for soul sleep, as I need to catch up on my rest before an eternity of singing old hymns at the throne of God (doesn’t the Bible clearly teach that is what we do in heaven ?;)

        • admin says:

          A few thoughts:
          1. Obviously climate changes, but I am speaking of Climate Change. Unfortunately, I have met people who deny Climate Change (not just global warming). I have heard these people argue that because it is cold outside (colder than it has ever been), therefore Climate Change (as scientists have spoken of it) is not a valid idea. So my illustration might be disappointing, but I stand by it.
          2. As to the clarity of the matter of what the Bible says on the subject I still stand on the two verses I quote early (Absent with the body present with the Lord from II Corinthians. I have the desire to depart and be with Christ from Philippians 1.) Both verses seem pretty clear in their concept of what happens when I die.
          3. As to whether this is my opinion and I found verses to back it up. I had no set opinion before I encountered the Bible. In fact, when I was younger I leaned toward soul sleep until I studied the Bible. So the Bible shaped my belief, not the other way around. I never went looking for this belief, it came looking for me.

          • Justin says:

            2. These two verses still work fine with the position of soul sleep, since the experience would be the same. The difference of course is soul sleep solves the problem of judgement and resurrection bodies.

  2. Justin says:

    Plus for clarity’s sake ;), this seems pretty clear:

    John 11:11 (Jesus talking to his disciples regarding Lazarus’ death) “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I go that I may wake him up”.

    Which would at least give us explanation of why Lazarus doesn’t give us any insight as to what heaven was like for the four days he was there. He was soul sleeping 🙂

    Plus Paul also says clear things like this to the Thessalonians “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren (don’t you just love Paul, don’t be ignorant), concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” 1 Thess. 4:13-16
    And also see 1 Corinthians 15:12-28.

    So there is a story of Lazarus and two Pauline passages to match yours 🙂 At least in these verses there is a clear reference to sleeping 😉

    I like you held to a view (instant) until I read the Bible (and studied theology: so a quote from Grenz ” Lying behind the postulate of a postmortem abode for the soul is dichotomist anthropology dividing the human person into two substantial entities, soul and body, and elevating the soul as the true bearer of personhood. This anthropology risks placing our confidence for surviving death in the innate immortality of the soul. More critically, placing the soul in any state of conscious existence beyond death means that the disembodied soul participates in new experiences apart from the body (such as disembodied cognition of events happening on earth, disembodied relationships with other souls, or disembodied experiences of bliss or torment). But because the soul brings with it these additional postmortem experiences, the resurrected person who meets God at judgement is not identical with the earthly person.)

    So now I lean more to soul sleep.

    • admin says:

      Three more thoughts:

      1. The explanation of sleep in the Bible.

      All three of the passages you mention (John 11:11, I Thessalonians 4:13-16, I Corinthians 15:12-28) make use of a metaphor that was common, ie sleep as a euphemism for death. To take sleep as a metaphor for death does not do any harm to the interpretation of those texts.
      One of the passages, I Thessalonians 4 would read very strange if soul sleep was what happens between death and resurrection. 4:14 says, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” The phrase “with Him” is curious. Wouldn’t the soul be sleeping with the body and thus God would not bring them with Him.

      2. The case for a conscious state after death.

      Genesis 35:18 says that when Rachel died her soul departed. That is the literal translation.

      Ecclesiastes 12:5-7 says, “For man is headed to his eternal home, and mourners will walk around in the street; before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, and the jar is shattered at the spring, and the wheel is broken into the well; and the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

      Acts 7 says Stephen, as he was being stoned to death said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

      Luke 23:43 Jesus tells the thief “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” While cryptic as to where that is, it is clear Christ was not going to remain in the tomb at His death and the thief was also not going to remain where he was to be buried.

      II Corinthians 5:8 to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

      Philippians 1:23-24 Paul expresses his desire to depart and be with Christ. Hawthorne said of this passage, “Paul does not speculate on the nature of this ‘interim condition.’ He goes no further than to say that it exists and that it signifies union with Christ.” This condition does not replace the resurrection it anticipates it.

      Revelation 6:9-10 the martyrs are calling out to God asking, ‘How long?’ They are obviously conscious.

      3. Answering your Grenz quote

      Does Grenz believe that Christ went through soul sleep? Because that would seem to contradict His statement, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” So, if Christ could have a disembodied experience, couldn’t it be possible that we can as well? If it is not possible what should we make of the fact that the Christ who was buried had disembodied experiences and thus was “not identical with the earthly person” who died on the cross?

  3. Justin says:

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but are not metaphors used to often help describe abstract ideas. The Biblicsl writers know something happens at death, but unclear what that is so employ a metaphor of sleep. If they thought it was conscious existence sleep is a weird metaphor to use. I haven’t looked into lately but I think throughout the Bible death is equated to sleep over fifty or so times.

    2. Many of these verses are equally compatible with a sleeping soul, the soil/spirit could be with God in a state of unconsciousness. The two problem ones are the cryptic words of Jesus and the martyrs in Revrlation. Although I hardly think we can use the imagery of a Revelation as actual depiction of heaven/afterlife.

    3. Theology is complex when dealing with Chtisyvandvwsy above my intellect, but there is something unique about Christ since he is eternally prexistant, meaning there was s lot of time Christ exists without a body, but humans never have that, we are not immortal as Paul warns against, but we exist as body and soul.

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