From This Life to the Next

January 19, 2014

Yesterday’s post relied heavily on Tom Wright’s formulation of what happens when we die. In an attempt to gather all the data, he has come to the tentative conclusion (not having been there himself) that our entry into eternal life happens in stages, and that “eternity” itself—existence outside the parameters of time—actually doesn’t start until Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. In other words, life after death involves waiting. Mind you, one is waiting in a “good place,” paradise, but the culmination of God’s cosmic history is still in the making.

This period of waiting is not necessarily to be seen as punitive or even purifying, ideas attached to the concept of purgatory, but rather to an interim existence in a “place” (really, a condition) of conscious but restful abiding in the presence of God. Nor is this place to be seen as one’s final resting place, or heaven, because that all unfolds after the judgment (Revelation 20) and the joining of the New Heaven and the New Earth (Revelation 21:1-5). There, God’s people get to work to reign over all that has been made new, reclaimed from the throes of death, disease, mourning, and difficulty. The saints—believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—will share responsibility just as they were given the first earth to steward and manage as God’s agents (Genesis 1-2). This is the place and “time” of life after life after death, and it is truly the place of eternity (evidenced by no need for sun or moon, because the Lord’s glory is all the light we will ever need, Revelation 22:3-5).

I used to think that when a person died, he or she immediately entered the realm of eternity, because with God there is no time. Wright has caused me to reexamine that view, if for no other reason than this: God has operated within the framework of time ever since he created the world in six days. Not to say that God is limited to a timeframe, but the glory of the Incarnation is God’s willingness to enter our world within our parameters and become fully present within our limitations (Philippians 2:5ff). Is there something “future” for God? No; everything is as “the present” to him. But I think there is ample evidence in the Scriptures for God’s action attached to time, and this is something we should take into account as we investigate what happens to us when our time “on earth” is finished.

The passage from this life to the next (life after death) involves relinquishing a unique but flawed “tent” and taking up new residence in God’s benevolent presence, for now. The Apostle Paul used the analogy of his trade, tent-making, to describe the perishable body that goes into the grave versus the imperishable dwelling given by God in the next life (2 Corinthians 5:1-4). So yes, when we die, we can look forward to freedom from cancer, arthritis, pain and suffering, or whatever else ails; in fact, we look forward to basking in the presence of our Creator until all historical processes are complete and Jesus Christ declare his final victory over death itself.

I wish I could remember which Presbyterian pastor, speaking at an all-church conference decades ago, gave the following analogy. It was probably Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, but I could be wrong about that. In answer to the question, What is the nature of our passing from this life to the next, he told the following story:

A little boy, full of life and energy, played and played after dinner until he wound himself down. He curled up on the couch in the family room and fell asleep. At his regular bedtime, his father tenderly carried him, still asleep, from the family room to his bedroom, so that when he awoke the next morning, he was in his own room tucked into his own bed. Ogilvie likens our passage through physical death to this transition from one room to another: we “fall asleep” here (our bodies die) and we “awake” in paradise, alive to Christ in the room prepared for us as he promised.

That description has stood the test of time for me all these years, and I think it is consistent with Wright’s view, so what do you think? There’s more to the story, because we are doing theology together, but from a pastoral perspective, I can think of nothing more reassuring than this: “that my only comfort, in life and in death, is that I belong—body and soul—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q1).

We still have issues about dying, though, which I will continue to address in the days to come.


6 Responses to “From This Life to the Next”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Thank you, Mary, for this perfect lead into Lord’s Day worship. Now we go forth to worship God. Alleluia! Amen.

  2. Craig Pynn Says:

    Great stuff, Mary. This should be a sermon series.

    Wright’s “SbH” has had a significant impact in my view of “life after death.” (Perhaps this is partly because I read it mostly in the patient’s waiting room at John Muir Radiation Oncology during my nine weeks of treatment there.) Wright does a fine job harmonizing the various Pauline and Johannine descriptions of post-mortality existence into an appealing theory. But description, like our bodies, is constrained by the four dimensions in which we live, and I take them mostly as valiant attempts on the apostles’ part to describe the indescribable.

    I think that whatever awaits us after our physical death will be—as Wright’s title intimates—a surprise. And it will be a rich surprise containing far more substance than we can hope to imagine. As physics continues to probe the quantum world and astrophysics the universe, our increasing knowledge is not converging into a neat little comprehensible packages. Instead, both ends of the spectrum reveal only more of the unexpected and often inexplicable. What God has in store for us is even greater and more exciting than these mysteries of his creation.

    Or, to quote Steve Jobs’ last words, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”

  3. Jodie Says:

    My issue, I have to say, is not with being dead, or wondering about what life comes after death if any, but with the dying process itself.

    For some people, letting go of this life is as easy as falling asleep, and I hope when my time comes it will be that simple, but that is not the rule. Paul still calls death an “enemy”, and for me, the enemy is the process. If we go back to where we came from, or forward into something new, and if we remember it all or not, and if we meet our old friends and relatives and make new ones or not, I am OK with leaving all of that in God’s hands, to be made clear soon enough.

    But it is the >>process<< of dying that I object to. Most vigorously. It is a wonder to me that God chose or accepted to experience the worst way to die in recorded human history as part of His Incarnation. There is some comfort in knowing He knows. But still, he hasn't chosen to "fix" it. Maybe there is a reason for it, maybe even a good one, but I don't care. I still object.


    • revmary Says:

      Jodie, I agree with you…there is something so rude and outrageous about dying, and for all my speculation, we must not mute that. Thank you for articulating your objection; death is indeed the enemy and dying the outrage. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

  4. Maci Says:

    This is excellent and reminds us of the most important thing: we are the beloved children of a totally loving father. A very safe place to rest!

  5. Tina Says:

    Hi Mary. As Bob and I age we often talk of dying. Neither one of us likes the idea of the dying process, like your friend Jodie, but the one thing we’ve both come to see and even embrace, is that, since the fall our bodies are giving out – our eyesight goes, our hearing goes, it’s harder to walk, sickness takes over; all those things that confound and frustrate us with age! This makes it a bit easier to “let go” of this life here and relax our hold on the only thing we know and even embrace the unknown. Really, though, it’s not the unknown – it’s heaven, where God lives! I imagine the very best day of my life here on this earth and I think from Scripture it pales in comparison to what’s in store when I “unzip this body” and walk out into my life – the one for which I was created! I’m not crazy about the idea of dying, but actually, I’ve been doing that since I was born. However, with my aching knees, my poor eyesight and the colds, cancers and brokenness of my body, it makes it easier to relax and enjoy this time and look forward to seeing Him face to face!

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