There’s a cute story out there about a lady who passed away—and the frank reality was that she had been quite a “pistol” in her church. People had been a bit scared of her; her sharp tongue and scathing looks had terrified most of the children and even the deacons. But now that she was gone, the church was packed for the funeral . . . and likely some of those there were ashamed to admit that they were actually relieved!
It happened to be a gloomy day, with a cold, drizzling rain. As the parishioners thronged around the gravesite as they were lowering the casket into the ground, the skies suddenly lit up with lighting. An angry thunder rumbled through the scattered grave markers. One of the members who had known this woman quite well looked up at the skies and quipped: “Well, she got there all right!”
Here in Philippians chapter 1, it’s interesting that the Apostle Paul seems positively happy about death! It doesn’t frighten him. He’s not afraid of shipwrecks; he writes. Getting beat up and stoned, even to the point of death, doesn’t worry him. Even execution at the hands of the Romans is a matter of small concern to him. He simply is not afraid of death; in fact, he’s rather looking forward to it.
This brings up what for many of our fellow believers is a vexing theological question. For those of us in the Adventist community, it’s generally considered a settled issue. However, I want to go ahead today and reverently ask this question. What happens when someone we love dies? We have had funerals at this church. I have stood by the gravesite of people we all loved and watched as the casket was slowly lowered into the earth. We saw the dirt spaded back into the hole and later visited the grassy spot marked by a beautiful headstone. All right—but where is that loved one these months or years later? We all remember loved ones who have been asleep in the Lord for many decades now; where are they?
I don’t ask this question casually. The question of what happens to a person when they die fills up the Christian bookstores and the religious airwaves as much as any other topic. The Internet has some very intense back-and-forth debates between Christian apologists—not Adventist—who violently dispute each other’s convictions about what happens to a person’s “soul” when they pass away.
We as Adventists are very confident in our Bible-based view, even though it is a minority opinion within Christianity. And I want to suggest that we should be “humble and confident.” It’s true in a college math class that if the vast majority of student get a different answer than you did . . . well, they might be right! At the same time, if 18 of them copy off the other two, that might be why they all got similar replies. And if 20 casual students get the same wrong answer, it might be a “planned” wrong answer. In any case, we should be humble and trusting in the Lord as we study His Word.
Here are the verses, penned by Paul, which cause the debate. Philippians 1:18: “I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me [ending up in jail] will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Now he begins to write to his friends, and to us, about the possibility of death. Verse 21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Well, this is a “mouthful,” isn’t it? Adventist evangelists can preach for many consecutive nights on this very Bible topic. For this Sabbath morning, let me suggest that, as Christians, we can only start with very clear points and proceed from there.
Here’s Paul’s first assertion: Jesus Christ is everything to him! Jesus is his highest love and his highest priority. “For to me, to live is Christ.” Now, that’s not simply a great slogan; it ought to be a driving passion for each of us. It’s certainly mine today, and I wish it were much moremine than it is. Don’t you want to say today that Jesus is your everything, that “to live is Christ”? Paul would make any choice, offer up any sacrifice, choose any option if it would bring him closer to Jesus, if it would bring joy to Jesus, or bring a reunion with Jesus nearer. This is why his entire life and testimony declare that if Christ wanted him to live and work, even in jail, even through struggles and famine and stoning—well, that was perfectly fine with Paul.
Yet in verse 23, Paul goes beyond writing about hardships and cold showers. He goes so far as to say that there is the option of departing to be with Christ, which, of course, means death. He very seriously wrestles with the idea, thinking out loud, that it might actually be preferable to go ahead and die, the sooner the better. Why not? If he could immediately be with Christ, that would certainly be a choice which is “better by far.”
You know, we find some deep meaning here in his selfless decision to stay on, to “remain.” That choice to live, that sacrifice, spells condemnation for the Jim Joneses of the world, the David Koreshes, the Heaven’s Gate cultists who tried to “shed their containers” by committing applesauce suicide in Rancho Santa Fe a few years ago. A tragically twisted film with spiritual overtones, entitled The Rapture, told a story about a deluded mom who ended up killing her own daughter in order to “send her to heaven.” But getting to heaven sooner by suicide is not a choice you can find taught anywhere in the Word of God.
Here is the difficult question posed by this controversial passage of Scripture. Does the Bible teach us that the moment a person dies, they go in a conscious state to heaven? Paul says he will depart and be with Christ. Is it a given, then, that he will immediately be with Christ? Other churches in our town believe that to be the case. And this verse in Philippians chapter one is the key text which appears to support that belief. As a pastor, I have sometimes had thought-provoking discussions with neighbors and interested seekers who simply cannot view this verse in any other way than “die and go straight to heaven.” Philippians 1:23 is the strongest verse in the entire 66 books which lends credence to that doctrine. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”
However, it’s not wise or safe to draw our entire theology on a subject just on one verse or even on two or three passages. It’s not wise for our friends across the street who will be going to church tomorrow morning—and it’s not wise for us either.
Have you ever noticed this apparent contradiction? The Bible describes hell as “darkness” and also as “fire.” Now, how can both of those metaphors be accurate and true? Fire is the opposite of darkness. The Bible talks about the unquenchable fires of Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet those flames went out many centuries ago. So, even if this is a review topic for some of you, let’s ask today: what do all 66 books of the Bible teach about the soul and about death and about the resurrection of God’s saints?
What does Paul himself say in other passages, for instance? Or Jesus? Or the writers in the Old Testament? It’s true that good, dedicated Christians can read and study and dissect and travel down all of those avenues . . . and still disagree. So we have to keep loving each other and trusting in Christ for our salvation, not in correct and perfect doctrine. Still, we could hardly study the book of Philippians without discussing this very interesting question.
Here are two principles that I think we can all agree on. First, we all say a heartfelt amen when Paul tells us that Christ is everything. The doctrine of death doesn’t need to be a cause of fear to any person who trusts in Jesus, because God’s Word promises eternal life, not death, for all believers. We have had people in this church celebrate their 90th birthday—and without fear! Why? Don’t that many candles on the cake indicate that the end is near? No, because Christ is everything. A 90th birthday, or even death itself, is not something to fear.
Here’s the second thing. We’re all familiar with an Old Testament passage which very clearly states that when a person dies, he or she is unconscious. Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know NOTHING; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished.” Most of you know that verse well. There are other Bible passages in both Testaments which plainly teach this: that death is an unconscious state. Jesus Himself called it a sleep on several occasions.
Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus resurrected people, they never had an “NDE” – near-death experience – to report about. Consider these stories: Lazarus, the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, Dorcas, Eutychus. All of them died, lived again, and didn’t report going anywhere in the interim. In fact, we have one more compelling experience: that of Jesus Himself, who spent a weekend in the tomb without going to see His Father in heaven.
What else did Paul write about the topic of death besides this one mysterious verse here in Philippians chapter one? Fortunately for us, some of the clearest Bible teachings are on this exact subject. In both I Thessalonians 4 and also I Corinthians 15, we find landmark study chapters on the twin topics of death and resurrection.
In I Thessalonians 4, Paul writes to Christian friends for the specific purpose of giving them courage regarding death. “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” Beginning in verse 16, he carefully outlines, step by step, exactly what’s going to happen when Christ comes again.
“For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command”—“with a shout,” says the King James—“with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
So when Jesus comes again, at the Second Coming, still a future event, the saved who have died are going to be raised to life at that moment. We sing songs in this church about Resurrection Morning: this is exactly what Paul refers to. Notice verse 17: “After that, we who are still alive and are left”—wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were you and me?—“will be caught up WITH THEM in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage [or comfort] each other with these words.”
But now, here is the scriptural dilemma which Christians have wrestled with for so long. Here in Philippians 1, Paul talks about dying and then departing to be with Christ. But not many pages away from those words, in First Thessalonians four, we find very clear teaching, from the same apostle’s pen, that those who have died will be raised to life much, much later when Jesus comes again to this earth.
In I Corinthians 15, we find the same thing once more. Verses 22 and 23: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all WILL be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, WHEN HE COMES, those who belong to Him.” Let’s read verse 26: “The LAST enemy to be destroyed is death.” Or how about verses 51 and 52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, AT THE LAST TRUMPET. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
How do we explain the seeming contradiction between these passages? Does a person die and immediately go to heaven? Or does it happen in the end, when Jesus comes to take all of us home?
A long time ago, maybe you remember a strange sci-fi film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a story filmed in the 1960s. With all due respect to the futuristic visions of Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, you and I are there! And beyond. Most of the galactic ideas in that film never happened, but one point is rather interesting. The astronauts on board this manned mission were heading to a very distant planet. Because the trip was going to take so many years, they put three men on board in an unconscious state of deep sleep. Their heartbeats and their breathing were slowed down to something like two per minute.
Why? So that when the mission arrived at Mars after so many years, these men would feel like the trip had just taken a few seconds. They’d be resurrected, ready to go, without suffering any ill effects from the long sleep.
Now, is this a possible key to this Bible puzzle?
Here in Philippians 1:23, Paul writes almost longingly about the fact that if he were to die right now, he would then depart and be with Christ. Who among us wouldn’t want to do that? That option is “better by far” by Paul’s own testimony, except for his unselfish determination as a Christian missionary to stay and serve his fellow man.
However, whenever this same godly, inspired prophet of the Lord writes about the doctrine of the resurrection in I Thessalonians four and I Corinthians 15, he puts his emphasis on the fact that the dead in Christ aren’t going to rise until the second coming of Jesus. So this is a difficult Bible question. If a person goes to heaven right at the minute when they die, as in “depart and be with Christ,” then why does this same man, Paul, write over and over about the resurrection, and people coming up out of their graves, not now, but later when Jesus comes again? How can the same person be in two places at once?
There is a common answer provided by our evangelical Christian friends. And again, in a math class, if many people come up with the same answer, we have to take the possibility of that solution seriously. But many faithful, good Christians, undoubtedly the majority, understand the Bible to teach that when a believer dies, his or her SOUL, as an immortal entity, is what immediately goes to be with Christ. And they point to this verse in II Corinthians 5:6-8: We are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. In the King James Version it reads: “Present with the Lord.” Sometimes Christians say about a departed fellow believer: “He went home to be with the Lord.”
So in this new passage, Paul does seem to support this concept; there’s no question about that. This proposed teaching asserts that when Christ comes again the second time, that immortal soul, that disembodied spirit, comes down and is at that time reunited with the resurrected body.
So a Christian who dies could “depart and be with Christ” just as a spiritual entity, a soul, and then when Jesus returns again, receive his or her resurrected, glorified body. And that’s how these two conflicting ideas could be reconciled.
Our friends in other churches teach this doctrine, and we must respect their scholarly efforts. One thing is sure: our salvation doesn’t rest on resurrection doctrines, but on the resurrected Jesus Christ.
But let’s make two points in our own study. First, one word in I Thessalonians four is absolutely vital to this discussion. Let’s read verse 17: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to MEET the Lord in the air.” Paul says with great conviction that those who have died are going to meet Jesus, the Lifegiver, on that day. Not the moment they die. Not as a disembodied soul of some kind. No, they, along with those of us who are still alive, will MEET Jesus at that very moment, on Resurrection Morning.
Now, it’s frankly meaningless to talk about our departed loved ones meeting Jesus on that day if they’ve already been with Him in heaven for years or decades or centuries. “What do you mean, ‘meet Him’?” they would protest. “We’ve been with Him all along!”
Here’s our second point regarding the possibility that ghostlike souls up in heaven would come down and meet up with their resurrected bodies at that moment. We have to face up to the fact that the Apostle Paul never once, not a single time, says or suggests or even hints that something like that would ever occur. A soul reuniting with a body? He just never once refers to that happening.
In fact, the clear testimony of his own writing is exactly the opposite: the dead person will rise up on that day to meet the Lifegiver. The final verses plainly say that mortal people will receive immortality then. The perishable will be raised IMperishable then. Death will be swallowed up in victory then.
Here’s another verse to buttress our point. It’s found in II Timothy 4:6-8. Paul, now very near death, writes about “I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race,” etc. He rejoices that God has for him a crown of righteousness which Jesus will give to him. But when? “On that day.” And Paul is clearly referring to the Second Coming.
Let me reluctantly pose a hypothetical question for you this Sabbath morning. Suppose you were to die this very year. Now I certainly hope not! But let’s suppose. The good news is that you die with your faith in Jesus Christ, our solid Rock. Your salvation is absolutely secure.
Now, let’s further suppose that Jesus doesn’t return for another one hundred years. Time lasts until the early 2100’s. As the Bible clearly teaches, the state of man in death is exactly like the deepest of sleeps. You’re like those three astronauts on board that Space Odyssey rocket, in deep, dreamless hibernation. A full century goes by as though it was less than two seconds. A mathematical “point.”
You close your eyes and then, seemingly instantly, you open them up again and a hundred years has passed. Question: wouldn’t it be appropriate for you to say, in your dying moment, “Goodbye—I’m departing to be with Christ.” Because you’d know that in your next conscious moment, in two seconds, you were going to hear that trumpet blow and see the wonderful face of your Redeemer.
I have always cherished the story of convicted murderer Sam Tannyhill, who was sentenced to die in the electric chair and then was converted to Christianity by William Fagal and the Faith For Today ministry. He became a beautiful and transformed Christian man right there in Ohio’s death row. He loved the Bible and these great passages written by Paul. Still, he was executed clear back in 1956. He got to spend the last three hours of his life with Fagal, and when the dreaded hour of 8:00 p.m. arrived, he calmly shook hands with his pastor and said to him: “Goodbye, Pastor, I’ll see you in the morning.” Because, to him, as to Paul, the days or even centuries of death would seem as no more than a single night’s sleep.
As we close, let me ask this question. What’s the difference which way we believe? If we die—and go right to heaven—or die, and it just seems like we go right to heaven, how are those views different?
Well, there is frankly no difference except for this. With one model, you also get included the doctrine of immortal soul. The New Age movement is here and thriving because of a belief in the immortal soul. The Hindu religion and other eastern deceptions are with us because they believe in reincarnation and the immortal soul. Psychics and those who operate séances and other demonic activities are in business because of the belief in an immortal soul. Marshall Herff Applewhite and his Heaven’s Gate cult took their poison-laced applesauce snacks because they believed in an immortal soul.
So that’s the difference, and it’s not a small one.
Well, this is how we believe God’s Word teaches us. We can be thankful for Bible truth, can’t we? At the same time, we can be gracious and respectful for those of the Christian faith who have a different understanding. Sometimes when a person passes away, you might receive a sympathy card from a person of a different faith, and the card reads: “Grandpa is safe with Jesus now.” And that’s all right. I too believe that Grandpa is safe with Jesus. Even in this Adventist church, we sing together: “Safe in the arms of Jesus.” That is true, and always will be true.
Along with Paul, we can declare with humble joy: “For to me, to LIVE is Christ.”
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.