Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8NKJ
Question 86 of the Larger Catechism, asks, "What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?" It gives the answer, "The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day." Last week we looked at why Christians who have eternal life still die. This week we consider what happens to believers after death.
We have all heard the claims of people who were "dead" for three or four minutes on the operating table, who "remember" floating above their bodies, or going down a tunnel towards a light, or being taken into a place they thought was heaven and seeing departed loved ones or even "God." As people of God, people of the truth, we are not supposed to give credence to supposed experiences or unsubstantiated assertions. We are called to "test the spirits" and to judge all things by the Word of God (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11). Accordingly, the answer to today's Catechism question is really just a string of phrases taken right from the pages of Scripture. Thus, Heb. 12:23 speaks of heaven as the abode of "the spirits of just men made perfect"; where we dwell with God and "see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2); "face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12); and etc.
As we saw last time, when the believer dies, the only thing he truly and permanently loses is his sin nature. At death the believer passes immediately into glory and he is forever with the Lord. In fact, "to be absent from the body" is to be "present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). The Scripture gives no countenance whatsoever to "soul sleep" or to any kind of holding tank where departed souls must spend some amount of time before passing into the highest heaven. Jesus said to the robber on the cross "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). The moment a believer dies, no matter how great his sin debt, he is taken immediately to heaven to be forever with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17). If you are a Christian, Jesus paid for all of your sins on the cross and you received that forgiveness by faith. Thus, there can be no time of suffering in order to be fully purified from sin or guilt either in this life or after death. The suffering that we endure as believers in trials, tribulations, persecutions, and ultimately in death is not for the purpose of paying our sin debt but in order to glorify Christ in our obedience, as we take up our crosses and follow Him. We have been fully purchased, body and soul, by the blood of Christ, and at death our souls immediately return to their Lord.
The bodies of believers decay in the ground like all other dead flesh. The Catechism does not deny that fact. However, speaking after the manner of the Scriptures, the Westminster Divines tenderly refer to our corpses resting or sleeping in Jesus (1 Cor. 15:51; 1 The. 4:14). A sleeping person is treated with loving care because a sleeping person will wake up! So also believers in God will surely be reunited to their bodies, which will be new in so many ways; never to grow old, get sick or die again; but in some sense they will also be their old bodies, having been brought up from the ground to new life (John 5:28-29; 1 The. 4:16). How this exactly will be we cannot fully know, but the Scriptures clearly teach it in many places, and therefore we believe it as a sure and certain hope. As Jesus comforted Martha, who rightly confessed that her brother Lazarus would rise again at the resurrection on the last day: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26). Believe it Christian, for it is infallibly true!