Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where Do Christians Go When We Die?

Recently someone in our Grace Family asked me a question that grew out of a conversation with a co-worker who was from a different Christian tradition. The question was whether Christians go to be with Jesus when we die, or whether we "fall asleep" and await the last trumpet/rapture/resurrection to revive and go to heaven.

You may think that's a strange question, but if you were Seventh Day Adventist, you would believe this teaching, called "soul sleep." And since Kettering Health Network reflects its founders Adventist faith in a number of ways, we shouldn't be surprised that some of our neighbors and co-workers might hold it.

The view is based on a straightforward acceptance of the passages in the Bible that speak of death as sleep, especially for believers. In the OT, kings who died were said to have "slept with their fathers." Jesus said Lazarus was "asleep" when he was actually dead in John 11. In Acts 7:60, Stephen's death is referred to as falling asleep. And Paul often refers to death as sleep--see examples in 1 Corinthians 11:30 (the Greek text says "sleep," although many modern language versions say "have died"), 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13.

Is this correct? Have we misunderstood the Bible?

I don't think so, but before I go further, let me remind us all that while this is an issue of right interpretation, it is not an issue that would keep someone from Heaven. In short, while I believe that "soul sleep" is an incorrect understanding, it is not heresy that denies essential truth of our faith. Such believers may be wrong, but are not heretics.

Adventists teach that Christ is currently evaluating all people, from Adam onward, determining who will be raised to the resurrection of life, and who will not. Final judgment is completely future--awaiting Christ's return after he finishes this evaluative judgment in heaven. Therefore, they teach that no one can be in the presence of Christ yet, because that will only be revealed in the last day.

Here is how I would answer this teaching--knowing that more could be said, but this should suffice.

1. The Bible in many places speaks of death as a time of transition from one state of conscious existence to another--for example, the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 has 2 men dying and becoming aware afterwards--Lazarus in "the bosom of Abraham" (the name given by Jewish people to the Paradise where the righteous dead await resurrection) and the rich man in "Hades"--a place of torment and flame. In the OT, both Enoch and Elijah go to God's presence without dying--an exception, but still a troubling case for the soul sleep view. Moses and Elijah were alive and well when they appeared with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. And Jesus told the thief on the cross "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." The word "today," modifies the second half of the phrase, not the first, as Adventists try to explain.

2. The Bible says we are "away from the Lord while in this body, but to be absent from the body is to be "present with the Lord"--2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Clearly being "away" doesn't mean we are separated from God, but we are not in his presence.

3. Paul says in Philippians 1:23 that death is going to be with Christ, which is far better than living in this world. It is not falling asleep, which is a part of living here, but fully aware existence in Jesus' presence, which is superior to any nap!

4. Those who are "asleep" in Jesus--i.e., they died as believers, are those that are said to be with Jesus Jesus at the final trumpet--see 1 Thessalonians 4:14--why would the dead need to be brought with Jesus, by God, to the final trumpet and resurrection from the dead? If they are asleep in the grave, they don't need to be brought anywhere. See also Revelation 19:6-14 to see believers are with Jesus when he returns in final judgment.

5. "Sleep" as a euphemism for death is not just limited to the Bible in history. Other cultures used the same terminology without believing that the person was no longer consciously existing. People prefer softer terms for hard things, and we use many euphemisms for death, "passed," "went to the Great Beyond," "entered into rest" and so on as less jarring ways of saying, "he died." Because "rest" is a reward for believers, and death is most like sleep to the observer, it is not surprising the term would be used.

I believe that this is not only the correct understanding (and one that Christians have generally and universally held for 2,000 years), but it offers a much more concrete hope to believers as we face the deaths of loved ones who are Christians, and contemplate our own mortality. Falling asleep for decades, centuries, or millennia isn't awful, but it certainly doesn't rise to the "far better" level when compared to living here.