What Happens When a Christian Dies? (1) (2 Cor. 5:1-5)
I’m dying. I don’t say that because I’ve just returned from the doctor with a fatal diagnosis, whether of cancer or heart disease, but I’m dying. So, too, are you. With each passing moment, no matter how vigorously we exercise and how nutritiously we eat, we are deteriorating physically. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “our outer nature is wasting away.” Nevertheless, and for this we praise God, “our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (v. 16).
But death is approaching, for some faster than others. Yesterday I attended the funeral service of a dear friend who lived only fifty years. She left behind a loving and faithful husband and a teenaged son. Much was said at the service about where she is now and what she is experiencing, all with a view to encouraging those present who must now face life in her absence.
So where is my friend? What is it, precisely, that she now sees and feels and experiences, or is she, as some would argue, “asleep”, unconscious, lifeless in the grave until the second coming of Christ? The most explicit answer to this question, in all of Scripture, is found here in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. We will devote several meditations to a serious consideration of this most important issue: What happens when a Christian dies?
I’ve witnessed a lot of death in my family in recent years: my father-in-law, a cousin, one uncle, and three aunts have passed away. All were Christians. Like you, I want rock-solid, revelatory assurance, not merely speculation, about where they are. Twice in this paragraph Paul speaks with unshakeable confidence, declaring that “we know” (vv. 1, 6) what has happened to them and where they are.
It’s important that we read 2 Corinthians 5:1 in the light of what has preceded in 4:7-18. Paul writes, “For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (5:1). The “tent” or “earthly home” (5:1), i.e., the physical body, is one example of the many “transient” things “that are seen” (4:18), just as “the building from God” (5:1) is one example of the “eternal” things “that are unseen” (4:18). Similarly, the “destruction” (5:1) of the earthly body is simply the ultimate outcome of what Paul described as his repeated encounters with death or his carrying about in himself the dying of Jesus (4:8-12).
What is this “building from God” that is ours following physical death? Among the many possible answers, four are most frequently suggested.
Some argue it is a reference to heaven itself, or an abode in heaven (cf. John 14:2), perhaps even the New Jerusalem. Others say it refers to the body of Christ, i.e., the church. On the other hand, it may be a reference to an intermediate body, i.e., a bodily form of some sort suitable to the intermediate state but different from and only preparatory to the final, glorified, resurrected body (cf. Matt. 17:3; Rev. 6:9-11). The fourth option is to see here a reference to the glorified, resurrection body, that final and consummate embodiment in which we will live for eternity.
There are two fundamental reasons for embracing the fourth option and understanding Paul as referring to the final resurrection body (cf. Phil. 3:21). First, the “building” or “house” in v. 1b stands in a parallel relationship with “home” in v. 1a. Since the latter refers to our “earthly, unglorified” body, it seems reasonable to conclude that the former refers to our “heavenly, glorified” body. Secondly, the description in v. 1b (“not made with hands,” “eternal,” and “in the heavens”) is more suitable to the glorified body (see especially 1 Cor. 15:35-49). Paul’s point would be that our heavenly embodiment is indestructible, not susceptible to decay or corruption or dissolution.
The major objection to this view is Paul's use of the present tense, “we have a building from God” (not “we shall have”). This seems to imply that immediately upon death the believer receives his/her glorified body.
But this would conflict with 1 Corinthians 15:22ff.; 15:51-56; and 1 Thessalonians 4-5, all of which indicate that glorification occurs at the second advent of Christ. Furthermore, frequently in Scripture a future reality or possession is so certain and assured in the perspective of the author that it is appropriately spoken of in the present tense, i.e., as if it were already ours in experience. Thus Paul's present tense “we have” most likely points to the fact of having as well as the permanency of having, but not the immediacy of having. It is the language of hope.
It has been argued that perhaps Paul uses the present tense because the passing of time between physical death and the final resurrection is not sensed or consciously experienced by the saints in heaven; and thus the reception of one's resurrection body appears to follow immediately upon death.
But against this is the clear teaching of Scripture that the intermediate state is consciously experienced by those who have died (as we will soon see in 2 Cor. 5:6-8; cf. also Phil. 1:21-24; Rev. 6:9-11). It is clear that the deceased believer has “departed” to be “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) and is therefore “with” Christ when he comes (1 Thess. 4:17). It would seem, then, that some kind of conscious existence obtains between a person's death and the general resurrection (this is why we refer to this time as the intermediate state).
Even though Paul appears to envision the possibility (probability?) of his own physical death, he still has hope that he will remain alive until Christ returns. Thus he writes:
“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened -- not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (vv. 2-5).
In these verses Paul speaks of his desire to be alive when Christ returns, for then he would not have to die physically and experience the separation of body and spirit, a condition he refers to as being “naked” (v. 3) or “unclothed” (v. 4). Paul's perspective on life and death may therefore be put in this way:
It is good to remain alive on this earth to serve Christ (see Phil. 1:21-26).
On the other hand, it is better to die physically and enter into the presence of Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21b, 23).
However, it is by far and away best to be alive when Christ returns, for then we avoid death altogether and are immediately joined with the Lord in our resurrected and glorified bodies.
Here in v. 2 (which is repeated and expanded somewhat in v. 4) Paul mixes his metaphors by speaking of putting on or being "clothed” with a “building”. But it is more than simply putting on a garment: it is putting on of a garment over another. The heavenly body, like an outer vesture or overcoat, is being put on over the earthly body with which the apostle is, as it were, presently clad. In this way the heavenly, glorified body not only covers but also absorbs and transforms the earthly one (see Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:53).
If he remains alive until Christ returns he will be found by the Lord clothed with a body (the present, earthly one), and not in a disembodied state (v. 3). To be without a body is to be “naked”. Clearly, Paul envisaged a state of disembodiment between physical death and the general resurrection (cf. "unclothed" in v. 4).
But what assurances do we have from God that he will in fact supply us with a glorified and eternal body that is no longer subject to the deterioration and disease we now experience? The simple answer is: the Holy Spirit! Paul’s statement in v. 5 is a reminder “that 'the earnest of the Spirit' is not a mere static deposit, but the active vivifying operation of the Holy Spirit within the believer, assuring him that the same principle of power which effected the resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead is also present and at work within him, preparing his mortal body for the consummation of his redemption in the glorification of his body" (Hughes).
For the Christian, death is not to be feared. For we know that whatever illness or debilitation we experience now, whatever degree of suffering or hardship we must face, there is promised to us by the Spirit a glorified, Christ-like, transformed and utterly eternal abode, a body in which there is no disease, no pain, no deprivation, and no decay.
“The best case scenario,” Paul seems to say, “is to be alive when Christ returns. That way I could transition instantaneously from this ‘garment’ (my current physical body) into that glorified ‘vesture’ (that is and will forever be my resurrected body). I don’t want to get ‘undressed’ but to put the garment of eternity over the garment of time in such a way that the former redeems and transforms the latter. But in all things I yield to the timing and purpose of God, and rejoice in the assurance, the rock-solid guarantee from the Holy Spirit, that physical death is not the end but the beginning.”
“Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).