Christians are assured that there is life after death. This is a confident expectation based on the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:16-19).
While this hope is firmly rooted in Christ and His blood, even the ancient Jews understood that God provided His people eternal life in His presence. In Matthew 22:23-33, when a group of skeptical Sadducees challenged Jesus on the resurrection, He pointed them all the way back to the burning bush passage, where God introduces Himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). Jesus’ implication is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who had been physically dead for many centuries, were safe in the presence of God, who is the God of living ones.
In fact, a look through the whole Bible shows that the people of God have three things—identity, personality, and activity—as they continue to live with God beyond the grave. Samuel was still Samuel after he died, and he talked with King Saul about current events (1 Samuel 28:12-19). Moses was still Moses, and Elijah was still Elijah, and they talked with Jesus about His ministry (Matthew 17:3). When King David’s infant son died, David knew the infant could not return to his arms, but he expressed the confidence that he would one day go to the infant, reunited with him beyond this earthly life (2 Samuel 12:23).
While many New Testament passages refer to a Christian’s death as “falling asleep” (Acts 7:60, 1 Thessalonians 4:13), I argue that the purpose of this euphemism is to drain away fear from the prospect of death, not to make a detailed statement about the experience of those who are dead in Christ. Jesus testified that Lazarus was “being comforted” in the presence of Abraham (Luke 16:19-31), while the rich man “lifted up his eyes being in torment.” Those who teach “soul sleep” must dismiss this passage as nothing more than a parable, even though the passage has all the features of a real narrative. John saw those martyred for their testimony dwelling in the throne room of God (Revelation 6:9-11). Paul spoke of death as “gain,” as the opportunity to “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:21-26). Paul said that being “absent from the body” allows us to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
It seems to me that a Christian can expect to “walk with God” as Enoch did (Genesis 5:24). In fact, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:26).
Now, it’s undeniable that Christians still die. But while the body breathes its last and decomposes, the person himself continues, with identity, personality, and activity, “with the Lord” in some comforting fashion. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on … so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them” (Revelation 14:13).
By the way, that’s not to say that the Christian is done with his body. Greek philosophers taught a strictly dual human nature—spirit good, body bad—and that eternal existence is a disembodied ghostly thing. Christianity is special; it teaches resurrection—an embodied existence (John 20:17, 20:27, 21:9-14). The body is not bad, and it participates in the new creation (1 Thessalonians 5:23). When the last day comes, Christians shall have bodies—new bodies crafted in some way to experience Heaven forever (John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15:35-57, Matthew 22:30).
The mechanics of this process are a little hazy to me, and I hesitate to attempt a detailed timeline. I personally believe the Scripture hints at a change in the cosmic scheme of things upon Jesus rending the veil and entering the presence of God with His blood (Hebrews 9:8-15, 10:19-22, 11:39-40, Ephesians 4:8-10). So if I may speak circumspectly, I like to think that angels bear away Christians to the place of rest (Luke 16:22), where they joyfully bask in the presence of the Lord, waiting for the last trumpet to sound, when Jesus will come in judgment (Revelation 20:7-15) and the resurrection will take place (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), when the heavens and the earth will be replaced by heavenly Paradise (2 Peter 3:3-13), so that the redeemed in Christ may dwell forever in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-22:5).
You probably still have questions. So do I! Perhaps you’ll be encouraged to do some more reading, even beyond the references above. –John Guzzetta