Just a few months ago, we published an article regarding All Saints Day, called The article discussed how the saints who have died before us are with Christ in heaven, and we have a mystical communion with them through our mystical unity with Jesus Christ.
There was some disagreement among the comments that followed the post. Some suggested that heaven is what waits for Christians on the last day. Some suggested that Christians who die in the faith are already there. Rick Shull’s comment summarizes the disagreement and the confusion that might result:
You say that all who die in Christ, are present tense. With Christ in heaven. In the comments, Shirley says that no one has gone to heaven. Not until the last day. I ran across this same thing at a friends memorial mass. The priest said that the person was in heaven pleading for us, who are still alive, then later said she would rise and go to heaven on the last day. In both cases, you cannot have it both ways. I am trying very hard to understand the communion of saints.
Rick is right. You can’t have it both ways. If heaven waits for us on the last day, it can’t be where Christians are now. If Christians are in heaven now, what happens on the last day? To help clear up these questions, this article will discuss what the Bible says about eternal life and see how that affects our understanding of those who die in Christ. We’ll cover this subject in two posts. The first one will discuss the nature of life and death for the Christian. The second will discuss how the Bible describes eternal life.
Jesus gives us the promise of eternal life by his death and resurrection. Everyone who believes in him has eternal life now and when he returns. The question we are asking, however, is this: What is eternal life? There are two parts to the answer. What is life? What is eternal?
Let’s start with life. Like most things regarding the created order, we learn about life by reading the creation story in Genesis, chapter two, when God created Adam. The passage is short, but meaningful, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).The story tells us that God formed the body of the man out of the dust on the ground. He would have been like a doll made of dirt. He was a lifeless shell. Then God breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and he became alive.
The creation story defines what it means to be a living human being. There are two parts. The first is the body that God formed out of the ground. The second is the breath of life that God breathed into his nostrils. The common way for talking about human life fits this model. We talk about people having a body and a soul. Body and spirit.
The man was not alive when the breath was in God’s nostrils. The man was not alive when the body was just laying on the ground. It wasn’t until the breath entered the body, until the soul filled the body, that the man became alive. To be alive, then, means to have body and soul together.
Death, then, is the separation of the body from the soul. In 2 Corinthians 5, St. Paul describes the difficulties we face in this life, and how God has prepared for us a heavenly dwelling. He writes in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 “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. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” Paul describes death here as being away from the body and with the Lord.
We read something similar in Philippians 1:21-24, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
Paul contrasts between the “I” and the “flesh.” The “I” is his spirit, his soul, and the flesh is his body. When his soul and body are together, he has work to do among God’s people as an apostle. When his soul leaves his body, it will go to be with Christ.
Something similar happens when Jesus is on the cross. In Luke 23, one of the thieves on the cross turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Then, Jesus responded, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus tells the thief that he will be with him in paradise, today. Yet, the thief’s body remained on the cross. The soul must have gone to be with Christ while the body remained on earth.
When a Christian dies, therefore, his soul leaves his body to be with Christ. Jesus uses the word, “paradise,” but Christians have historically called this reality, “Heaven.” When a Christian’s soul leaves his body in death, it goes to heaven to be with Christ. Heaven, then, refers to a state of being where the Christian is with Christ without the body.
God promises eternal life, but is that heaven? To answer that, we have to remember what it means to be alive. A human is alive when the body and soul are together. A human is dead when body and soul are separated. When the soul is in heaven and the body in the ground, the person is not alive.
When Jesus died, he experienced the same thing. Because Jesus was fully human, he had a human body and a human soul. When he died on the cross, then, he died the same way the rest of us do. His soul left his body just after he cried, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Jesus commended his spirit to the Father, but his body was taken from the cross and was buried in the tomb.
God promises eternal life for his people. If heaven were the destination, it would not be life. It would be death. Heaven, then, is not the final goal for Christ and for the Christian. Eternal life is. God created us to be fully human, body and soul, and to live forever with him. In the next post on this series, we’ll discuss what the Bible says about it.
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