The title question comes up an amazing number of times every year. I often wonder how so many ideas could possibly be running through the same religion (Christianity) for the same event. Over the span of time since I first discussed this in high school, or read of it in a Mark Twain novel (Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven), I’d guess I’ve heard 40-50 different scenarios–none of which make much sense when compared to Scripture. So, whether we agree about this or not, I don’t think this is a “top tier” doctrine, one that says we must not think differently about. When you finish this, toss it or pass it on as it suits you. But, may the Lord lead and bless your study.
[Please read and believe the Scriptures concerning this topic: not my few words about it. Here is a list of what is used: John 11:11-14; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor.11:30; 1 Cor.15: 6,18,20,51; 1 Thess. 4:13,14,15; 1 Thess.5:10,23; 2 Cor.5:6-8; Phi.1:23; 1 Tim.6:14-16; 1 Thess.4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:50-54; Col.3:1-4; Phi.3:20,21; Eph.4:8-16; Rom.8:18; 2Cor.4:17-5:4. This Scripture is from the King James Bible. Other versions diminish the ability to follow the progression of the explanation.]
When The Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross, He died for our sins. You say, “right, I know that.” But are you aware of all the results of this one single act of faith? As you sit and read this, untold millions of people have lived since that day and been the recipient of that very same single act of faith. That is, if they heard the “word of truth, the gospel of their salvation,” and placed their trust in Christ, they received the same eternal life as a gift just as you did. How many do you suppose there has been since AD33? When they died, what happened to them? Where did they go? Have they been waiting for the rest of us to get there? Is there no clock where they are? Are they impatient? Or, as this little treatise is going to explore, is there bible doctrine with which to show the answer and stop the speculation? I believe there are ample verses in our Apostle Paul’s written words to show what we need to know on the subject.
Beginning with Lazarus in John 11:11-14, on through Acts 7:60 and Stephen, and then right in to Paul’s epistles 1 Cor. 11:30; 15: 6, 18, 20, 51 and further to 1 Thess. 4:13, 14, 15 & 1Thess.5:10, there are fully 11 verses which declare those who had passed away and who knew the Lord as their Savior were and are…asleep.
Let’s just let those verses say what they say and not worry about what we don’t understand about this. Oh, you might say, but what about those other passages which declare them to be with the Lord? Well, let’s see,…I don’t know any. Two come close: 2 Cor.5:6,8 & Phi. 1:23.
In 2 Cor. 5:6, Paul simply states that “whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:” And in v.8, “We are…willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” If these were the only two verses of explanation concerning this question, I would say when we die, we go directly to be with the Lord. However, there are many more verses on the subject. And, besides, he didn’t say “absent from the body is present with the Lord,” did he? No, he said “we are willing…to be absent from the body[,]” and “(willing) to be present with the Lord.” (That little comma makes a lot of difference, does it not?)
In Phi.1:23, Paul stated his “desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:” Amen, Paul, I agree. I want that, also. But, the verse doesn’t show that when we depart we are in the presence of the Lord. Once again, if that was the only verse on this subject, I would have to say there is proof we go immediately to be with the Lord.
But, let’s take a longer look at even more Scripture: 1Tim.6:14-16 tells of Paul’s charge to Timothy about the ONE he is to proclaim, which is the Lord Jesus Christ, and where He is. In v.16, the ﬁrst phrase clearly states He, “only hath immortality,…” amounting to a ﬂat statement of fact that Christ, in His “dwelling” is “in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” That’s plain.
Yet the conclusion cannot be drawn that this says it all. Where are all the saved people? Oh, yes, they’re asleep. Still, that doesn’t even approach to the answer to 1Thess.4:13, 14, 15. When we go there, we hear Paul telling us God is going to bring those “which sleep in Jesus” with Him when He comes. SEE. Well, yes, I see. Then two verses farther down the passage I ﬁnd that those who are asleep in Jesus–matching the ﬁrst 10 verses concerning sleep to the “dead in Christ”–they “shall rise ﬁrst….” If they are going to rise, it doesn’t make it sound like they are “up there”, does it?
So we must ﬁnd a Scriptural explanation of who rises and who comes with Him.
In v.16, 17 of this passage, The “dead in Christ” rise, then, “we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them” who have risen ﬁrst, to meet the Lord in the air.
First, let’s talk about we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord. In 1 Cor. 15:51 & 52: “we shall be changed.” It’s a given, this is best. Let’s us work toward being here when Christ Jesus “descends from heaven with a shout” OK? (That means we get more and more folks to see their need for a Savior and show them that Christ died for them and was raised from the dead to justify the Father raising us up!)
The change which comes upon us seems to be tied to His glorious body which ours is going to be made like unto-Phi.3:21. In the 1 Cor. passage, it is shown as “mortal” putting on immortality. Mortal means “liable to die.” Immortal means “not liable to die.” We who are alive until then shall never die, but instead be changed–not be liable to die. This change causes us to “appear with him in glory” according to Col.3:4. It would seem that it would be best, then, to remain alive till He comes. Well, Paul thought so in 1 Thess.5:23.
But, doctrinally, we have that verse in 1Thess.4:15 showing we will “not prevent them which are asleep.” Let’s include these at the same time by having them re-constructed somehow. In the explanation of the mystery of what we call the rapture, 1Cor.15:52 says the “dead shall be raised incorruptible.” And the next verse says “corruptible must put on incorruption.” Corruptible means perishable and incorruption means unending existence. Well, if them which are asleep in Christ are already in heaven with him, as many believe, they are not corruptible and would have no need to put on incorruption.
To this point in this discussion, we haven’t found a way to ﬁnd anyone who has lived here on this earth who could possibly have died and gone to heaven. Let’s look at a passage that, as far as I am concerned, brings all this together to see the ﬁnished product which is the “perfect man” of Eph.4, appearing with him “in glory” in Col.3, and is the “glory which shall be revealed in us” of Rom.8:18.
Let’s look at 2 Cor.4:17 thru 5:4. The ﬁrst thing we notice is Paul referring to our present lives as a “light afﬂiction.” And it is, for the most part. But there are afﬂictions which do us much harm and consternation. These things disrupt our lives, cause grief and suffering, bring pain and agony, etc. Yet, this is relatively little to go through compared to what it all works out in the life “which is to come.” So, as the verse says, it works for us to have a “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”-v.17. The thoughts of this promise helps keep our focus on our walk of faith, on the things which are eternal. As Paul writes about these eternal weights, he continues into ch.5 to say if we die (“if our earthly house of this tabernacle” dissolves) we need not worry. We have a “building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Whoa! If our building of God, house not made with hands is in heaven and it is eternal it just makes sense that it must be brought to us. And what more perfect way to get the eternal “house” to us but to have the Lord himself bring it with Him!
So it looks like this: If we die before the Lord comes, our body is going to decay. But, not to worry, we don’t need this body, we have a new one coming to us from its maker and the Lord himself is going to deliver it. If we do not die before the Lord himself descends from heaven with a shout (and with all those bodies) our earthly house having not been dissolved, this same passage tells us how we (mortal or dying) will be “swallowed up of life”–that is, our bodies we’re walking around in get changed (as in 1Cor.15:51), He shall “change our vile body that it might be fashioned like unto his glorious body….”
He can do that. He is the Lord. The plan is His. I thank the Lord for it!
Jerry Lockhart 888 Landa St., New Braunfels, TX 78130 www.graceforall.net