By Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca), Kingston, Ontario, May 2005
All Christians believe in the resurrection of our bodies. But some believe that death leaves us in the grave to await a future resurrection. That would mean that the first generation of believers have already waited 2000 years.
My wife, Mollie, died on October the 18th, 2004, and I have no doubt that she was immediately welcomed by Jesus to the joys of heaven. We put no tombstone to mark the remains of her earthly body. She already has her resurrection body, and what lies in the earth is not relevant.
The thief on the cross was assured "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:24, the Greek paradeisos is a Persian word meaning an enclosed garden). As we will see in a moment, there was no waiting period for him or a last judgment to settle his eternal destiny.
Paul faced the choice of continuing to serve in his present body or go to be with the Lord. "I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with the Messiah, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you" (Philippians1:23). Evidently he did not expect a delay in receiving his resurrection body. "We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens . . . He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee " (2 Corinthians 5:1).
Paul’s reference to the Holy Spirit is important because Jesus was assured of his own resurrection by the Holy Spirit, and it is the same Spirit that assures us of our resurrection. "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Romans 8:11).
The idea that we cease to experience the love of God till we are resurrected after a long period in the grave is unthinkable. "I am convinced that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:38-39).
As against all these texts, there is a passage that seems to suggest that we will only rise from our graves when Jesus returns. "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope. For since believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus God will bring (take) with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together (Greek hama, at the same time, in the same way?) with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Is there any way to reconcile this text with the references we have noted to the immediate receiving of our resurrection body when we die?
First we must grasp the language game (Wittgenstein’s term for the way a word is used in a particular form of life) for a "coming" of the LORD in the Bible. In the Psalms it is a metaphor for an intervention of the LORD in the ordinary course of events of a nation’s history.
"He bowed the heavens and came down . . . He came swiftly on the wings of the wind" (Psalm 18:9,10). "The LORD came from Sinai into the Holy place" (68:17). "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD for he is coming to judge the earth" (96:12-13, as in 98:9). "Bow your heavens, O LORD, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke" (144:5, as in Isaiah 64:1; 66:15, 18; Micah 1:3; Habakkuk 3:3).
In the books of Moses the LORD comes to deal with a nation in judgment or deliverance. "The LORD came down to see the city and the tower" (Genesis 11:5, 18:21). "God will surely, come to you, and bring you up out of this land . . . . So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here" (Genesis 50:24-25). "The LORD said . . . I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians" (Exodus 3:8).
The same language is used in the New Testament for the coming of the LORD in the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem (AD 70). "When the owner of the vineyard, what will he do to those tenants?" (Matthew 21:40). "What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). "As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man" (Matthew 24:37, 39, 42, 44, 50, Mark 13:26-30; Luke 21:20-32). For other examples see the article on this website, "Comings of the Lord among the Nations."
Now going back to our text, Paul is writing to encourage Christians who are grieving for their loved ones (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 18). It seems that our death is viewed as a personal coming of the Lord for us. "We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died" (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17). If this is the case, then we can see that the moment we die, the trumpet sounds, our ascended Lord comes to welcome us, and he immediately gives us the resurrection body that we need for the perfect environment of heaven.
Our text therefore seems a parallel to "We will not all die. But we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). In any case, as in the other texts we have quoted, Paul is assuring Christians of an immediate transformation to their resurrection body at death. He cannot be thinking of lying in the grave for the next two thousand or more years to await a future resurrection.
And he certainly does not picture us waiting to be raised to face a last judgment (as in Judaism Islam, and much popular Christianity). "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1).