On Sunday while I was teaching our special All Soul’s Sunday seminar at church on what happens to a Christian when s/he dies, an interview with Christian Wiman, the award winning American poet, was being broadcast on the PBS show “Religion and Ethics.” Christian has an incurable and fatal blood disease. After a painful bone marrow transplant, Christian is in remission, but the future for him is uncertain. A young husband and father, Christian has lived with the fact of his mortality dangling over his head like the sword of Damocles’ for some time, and it has helped to focus him spiritually.
Raised a Southern Baptist out in West Texas, Christian has been on a pilgrimage that has now brought him to the Divinity School at Yale where he is a Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Institute of Sacred Music. He has narrated the journey of his soul in a 2007 article for The American Scholar he called “Gazing into the Abyss” (http://theamericanscvholar.org). In the interview that was broadcast on Sunday (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/) Christian said: “I don’t fear death, now for myself, it’s just a great tragedy to think of my family. I also believe that death is here to teach us something. And that we are not meant to fill up the content of the afterlife, and that we have to mostly be silent about it.” At first glance, that statement might sound like a contradiction and criticism of what I was doing on Sunday morning. In fact, I would argue that it’s why I did what I did in that special seminar on Sunday morning.
Christian Wiman’s statement underscores both the urgency and the difficulty of talking about what happens to us when we die. It’s urgent because it’s inevitable. That we will die, and that we know it, are two of the great defining facts of our existence as human beings. Dying haunts us all our lives (Hebrews 3:14-15). This is what Christian meant when he talked about the fear and tragedy of dying. The difficulty in speaking about what happens to us when we die with any degree of certainty is the central religious question in my judgment. How do we know anything about God? Who He is? What He wants? What He’s doing?
Leslie Weatherhead coined the phrase “the Christian Agnostic” back in the 1950’s to describe Christians of conscience and conviction who, while they are certain of some things, are not certain of all things. They are reluctant to speak beyond what they know as Christians, and what they know as Christians coalesces around Jesus Christ, who He is, what He said and did. This should be familiar terrain for us Disciples who “have no creed but Christ” and who have said that we are only comfortable “speaking where the Bible speaks,” and who are perfectly content to be “silent where the Bible is silent.” The theologian Gabriel Fackre has argued that two of the most important spiritual virtues that we can cultivate as Christians are “mystery” and “modesty.” We do not know everything, and so there must always remain room in our faith for mystery. And we need to admit it, to be able to say “I just don’t know.” That’s the kind of modesty that the theological enterprise demands. Of course, by embracing this approach to things, we are raising the prior question of our knowing.
When we say “I don’t know” we are making a statement about knowing! It can mean that I haven’t made the effort to know, or, it can mean that I don’t want to know (the Christian Philosopher Stephen T. Davis calls this the “Lifestyle Argument Against the Existence of God” in an essay on the Ascension of Christ found at http://www.rca.org that is worth taking a look at), or, it can mean that we just don’t think that it is even possible to know. Well, I think that it is possible to know. In contrast to the “grope” theory of knowing God (Acts 17:27) that has been made popular in our culture by the parable of the blind men and the elephant, I hold to the “spoke” theory of knowing God (John 1:1:18; Hebrews 1:1-3; I Thessalonians 2:13). It is succinctly stated by Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary –
The starting point for all genuinely Christian thinking is the existence of the self-revealing God of the Bible. The foundation of the Christian worldview is the knowledge of the one true and living God. The fact of God’s existence sets the Christian worldview apart from all others—and, from the very beginning, we must affirm that our knowledge of God is entirely dependent upon the gift of divine revelation. (http://www.albertmohler.com/)
If God has spoken and acted, thereby making Himself known to us in time and space, and if we have a reliable record of what God said and did to make Himself known to us, then we are not left with the hunches and guesses of our groping when it comes to knowing who God is and what God wants, we have the account of His own self-disclosure, what He “spoke.” This is what I believe I am holding in my hands when I open my Bible, and because I do, whatever I might say about a subject like “what happens to us when we die” must be rooted and grounded in Scripture. And this is what Sunday’s seminar was an attempt to do. I wanted the participants to open their Bibles to see for themselves what it says about what happens to us when we die. And when you do this you are confronted pretty quickly with the big question in the traditional Christian teaching about the afterlife.
At almost every funeral I conduct two passages of Scripture will make an appearance – Revelation 21 with its familiar and comforting promise: “And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (4); and I Corinthians 15 with its defiant shout: “’O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (55-57). It was because of passages of Scripture like these that Ben Haden, the pastor of Chattanooga’s historic First Presbyterian Church for so many years, said that “the world has a gurgle in its throat when talking about death, but we who are Christians can speak with total confidence.” When we speak where the Scriptures speak, we can speak of Jesus Christ’s final defeat of death and a future of wholeness and blessing. That’s the clear promise of the Gospel – life eternal and abundant. The big question in all of this is when do the promises of Revelation 21 and I Corinthians 15 actually begin? The clear trigger for the fulfillment of the promises in both of these texts that we read at funerals is not the believer’s death but the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:20-28; 51-54; Revelation 19). God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is not finished until Christ returns. That’s when the resurrection of our bodies (Romans 8:18-25; I Thessalonians 4:13-18) and the creation of the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21-22; 2 Peter 3:8-13) take place, and those things are the content of Christian hope in Scripture. And so, Biblically, we are left with a rather urgent question: “What becomes of those who die before Christ returns?” And this is what Sunday’s seminar at church was about.
It’s called the doctrine of the “Intermediate State,” and it refers to the period of time between an individual believer’s death and the final consummation of God’s work of salvation at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The New Testament only speaks with “whispers” on this subject. Dogmatism is certainly out of place. Modesty and mystery must be in full play. But just because we can’t speak with absolute clarity doesn’t mean that we can’t say anything at all. The most relevant texts from which the doctrine is built are –
- Luke 23:42-43 – The Good Thief – “Today in Paradise”
- Philippians 1:21-23 – Paul’s desire to depart to “be with Christ”
- Luke 16:19-31 – Lazarus and Dives in Death
- Mark 9:1-18 – The Transfiguration – Moses & Elijah
- Revelation6:9-11 – The Martyrs under the Altar of Heaven – “How long?”
- 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 – Being found “naked”
Biblical theology is what you do when you take everything that the Bible says about a particular subject and see how it all fits together as the product of a single mind – God’s. This is why Christians who agree that the Bible is both authoritative and inspired can hold different doctrines. They have come to different conclusions about how what the Bible says fits together into a whole. These are my conclusions based on the Biblical data –
- Death is the separation of the essential unity of the body and the spirit that is human existence.
a) Genesis 2:7 – dust and breath: life
b) Luke 23:46 – Into your hands I commit my spirit
c) Acts 7:59 – Stephen – “receive my spirit”
d) James 2:26 – the body without the spirit is dead
e) Ecclesiastes 12:7 – dust – earth; spirit – to the God who gave it
2. When this separation occurs, the body “sleeps.”
a) Matthew 9:24 – asleep
b) Acts 7:60 – Stephen – he fell asleep
c) I Corinthians 15:51 – we shall not all sleep
d) I Thessalonians 4:14 – fallen asleep in Jesus
3. When this separation occurs, the “spirit” goes to be with the Lord.
a) There will be a division – a “particular judgment” – in which the direction of our future will be established based on the decisions we have made in this life (John 3:16-21).
1) Paradise – “Blessedness”
2) Hades – Separation
b) It is a state of continued consciousness and identity. We continue to be ourselves. We will know others and we will be known by them.
c) Because our salvation will be incomplete until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, this “IntermediateState” will be temporary. While we will have the foretaste of what is to come for us, it will remain future – “not yet.”
There will be more to come.
It is this last thing that has led many Christian thinkers to speculate about what we will be doing in this IntermediateState. Since our “sanctification” will be incomplete when we die, and our final “glorification” awaits the consummation when Christ returns at the close of the age, many faithful Christian teachers have postulated that the IntermediateState will be a time of developing growth and discovery for us. And while I would be reluctant to be too dogmatic about it (my commitment to speaking where the Scriptures speak imposes a certain reserve on me and my speculations), I am nevertheless inclined to think that this will be the case. I am “taken” by what Richard Halverson wrote some 30 years ago –
God is not in a hurry to bring us to maturity…
He has forever…
The process is eternal.
We get hung up on time limitations…
As though everything has to happen today.
Despite our profession of faith in life after death,
we live much of the time as though everything has to happen this side of the grave…
Victims of the visible…
Bound by the tangible…
The tyranny of time and space.
The fact is – the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God
is directing the believer’s maturation process…
Growing into his image takes a lot longer than three score years and ten…
The best of us – by the time he reaches the grave –
Still has a long way to go.
I know where I’m going, how and where this journey I am on ends. My “justification” by faith in this life makes that sure and secure. But because “sanctification” is a gradual process that unfolds between “justification” and “glorification,” I will not be surprised in the least should I die before Christ returns to find that I am still on a journey of discovery and growth on the other side of the boundary that we call death. An old Wayne Watson Gospel song captures what I am hoping for now, then and forever –
One day Jesus will call my name.
As days go by, I hope I don’t stay the same.
I want to get so close to Him that it’s no big change,
On that day that Jesus calls my name!