What Happens When a Christian Dies? (2) (2 Cor. 5:6-8)
“Let us consider this settled,” said John Calvin, “that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection” (Institutes, 3.9.5). All non-Christians and, sadly, some professing believers, would regard that as a statement of unparalleled lunacy. For them, the “day of death” is something to dread, the prospect of which evokes fear and the avoidance of which justifies any sacrifice, even that of truth and virtue.
So how can it be not only a sign of sanity but of spiritual maturity to “joyfully” await and eagerly long for the “day of death”? It couldn’t, were it not for such remarkable passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Paul writes:
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
The point of the passage is simple enough: far from being an experience of dreary darkness and unremitting despair, death for the Christian means immediate entrance into the glorious light of the presence of Jesus Christ.
I vividly remember the first time I watched a person die. I had been called, on countless occasions, to the home or hospital room of someone who earlier had passed away, but not until I actually watched a man breathe his last breath did this passage in 2 Corinthians strike me with full force.
Not so much as a nanosecond beyond his final breath, he was gazing directly, joyfully, painlessly, and eternally into the eyes of his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Fully conscious and wholly free, he fell rapturously into the arms of the one who, from then and forevermore, would never let him go.
This is the rock-solid assurance, the blood-bought promise, signed, sealed, and delivered by the unshakeable guarantee of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:5), of every born-again believer in Jesus Christ. A close look at these three verses is clearly warranted.
We begin with the observation that while vv. 6 and 8 should be read together, v. 7 is a parenthetical explanation of v. 6b (more on this below). Paul couldn’t have said it with greater clarity: to be in the body (i.e., physically alive) is to be absent from the Lord and to be out of the body (i.e., physically dead) is to be present with the Lord.
Paul's point is that as one must be either in or out of his body (for there is no third alternative), so he must be either absent from or present with the Lord (for, again, there is no third alternative). To the question, “when a Christian dies does he/she immediately enter Christ's presence?” the answer must be Yes. Three things support this conclusion.
First, in v. 6, residence in a physical body is contemporaneous with absence from the direct presence of Christ, implying that when the former ceases so also does the latter. Observe the temporal indicators: “while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord.” And what v. 6 may only imply, v. 8 explicitly asserts: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
Second, according to v. 7, walking by faith and walking by sight are the only two possible ways of relating to Christ. When the former ends, the latter begins. We now walk by faith, in the sense that we can’t see him. But when we die, faith gives way to sight, not that we cease to believe in him but in the sense that we add to faith the experience of literal, visible communion. In other words, “the separation . . . is relative not absolute: though absent from sight, the Lord is present to faith, yet it is not until he is present also to sight that Christian existence will reach its true goal of consummated fellowship with him” (Harris, 397-98).
Don’t be misled by this verse. Paul is not suggesting that we are now bereft of communion with Christ or that it is merely illusory. It is simply incomplete or imperfect. Being physically alive is not an obstacle to true spirituality. We can still know Christ and enjoy him, as Peter makes clear in chapter one of his first epistle: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
The difference between the “dead in Christ” (believers who have died and gone to be with the Lord) and living Christians is not one of status, as if to say the former are “truly saved” or “more in Christ” than the latter. Rather, it is, first, a difference of disembodiment vs. embodiment. Second, it is a difference in “the quality of their fellowship with Christ and the degree of their proximity to Christ” (Harris, 402; emphasis mine).
Therefore, 2 Corinthians 5:7 is designed to soften the blow of v. 6b, or to explain in what sense being “in” the body entails “absence” from Christ. Our absence from Christ is only spatial, not spiritual (cf. Mt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:27; John 17:23,26). While in the body we do not literally see Christ (at least, most of us don't!), but rather we walk by faith in the physically absent and unseen Lord. Death brings us into spatial proximity and visible contact with Christ. Thus death, rather than severing our spiritual relationship with Christ, heightens and enhances it! Death brings us into the immediate vision of our Savior and the increased intimacy of fellowship which it entails.
Third, that physical death of the believer issues immediately in conscious presence with the Lord is the teaching of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24. There Paul describes the tension he feels between wanting, on the one hand, “to depart (i.e., die physically) and be with Christ”, and, on the other, remaining “in the flesh” (i.e., physically alive) so that he might engage in “fruitful labor” on behalf of the churches he has established. Adolphe Monod has beautifully captured the perspective of Paul, one that is often missing in the church today:
“The Apostle is asking here which is most worthwhile for him, to live or to die. Often has that question presented itself to us, and perhaps we like the Apostle, have answered that 'we are in a strait.' But I fear we may have used the words in a sense far different from St. Paul's. When we have wished for death, we meant to say, 'I know not which alternative I ought most to dread, the afflictions of life, from which death would release me, or the terrors of death, from which life protects me.' In other words, life and death look to us like two evils of which we know not which is the less. As for the Apostle, they look to him like two immense blessings of which he knows not which is the better.”
There are several important theological implications to be noted.
First, what becomes of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, according to which the Christian at death must endure additional purification from sin before entering the bliss of Christ's presence? Clearly it is eliminated. (For more on this, go to my website, http://www.samstorms.com/ and click on Theological Studies, then Roman Catholicism.)
Second, what does this mean for the doctrine of soul sleep, or psychopannychia, which asserts that Christians at death enter a state of complete unconsciousness, to be “awakened” at Christ's return? It, too, is eliminated. What, then, does the New Testament mean when it refers to death as “sleep” (see Mt. 27:52; Luke 8:52; Jn. 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30; 15:6,18; 1 Thess. 4:13)?
Several things come to mind. For example, sleep implies rest from earthly toil, the cessation of activity in this realm. Thus one is asleep to this world, but alive and very much “awake” in the next. The imagery of sleep is also used to describe death because the body does sleep, in a manner of speaking. In other words, the body is at rest, without activity or life. But nowhere does the Bible say that the “soul” or “spirit” sleeps or is unconscious. Finally, sleep is used to illustrate that the pain of death as a penalty for sin is gone for the Christian. Death for the believer, rather than something to be feared, is like dozing off for a nap (see Luke 16:19-31; Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 12:26-27; Rev. 6:9-11).
Calvin was right! We cannot claim to have progressed very far in Christ if we do not look forward with great joy and expectation to the day of death, for then we will see in unmediated vision and enjoy with unparalleled bliss the Jesus in whom, until then, we could but believe.
Finally, a word is in order for those who have suffered the loss of a believing spouse or child or friend or family member.
Countless are the times, following a funeral, that I have been asked: “Where are they now? What are they experiencing?” And it has been my great joy to say, with complete and unshaken confidence: “They are with Jesus, in his presence, beholding his beauty, enthralled by his splendor, breathless with unbroken joy, adding their voice to that of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders and the myriads of angels and the multitude of the redeemed, singing ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev. 4:8).