|For the Lord himself will come down from heaven,
with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet
call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:16
2 Corinthians 5:1-9
For a long time, the traditional teaching and view of Christianity has been that, as soon as the true believer dies, he or she will immediately enter the presence of Jesus. This view has been rejected and denounced by such groups as the Jehovah's Witnesses and others who believe in the doctrine of "soul sleep". This short study will seek to determine, if possible, what the Bible teaches. The question before us is not, "Will there be a resurrection?" but, "Will Christians upon dying immediately be with Jesus?"
First, it must be asserted that the New Testament authors used the word sleep as a euphemism for death. Mostly, Jesus and Paul did this. This is not extremely relevant to the question being discussed, but may serve to clarify certain groups' careless statements.
Secondly, from the Philippians passage above, it is quite clear that Paul believed he, at least, would "be with Christ" soon after departing this life. The entire traditional teaching seems to rest on this one passage, perhaps bolstered by the 2 Corinthians statements. But, can such a teaching, that what Paul expected can be expected by all believers in Christ, be Biblically supported? To even ask the question is of course to imply the negative. Let us consider the negating passages.
In the Revelation, John twice observes the souls of dead believers:
|When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under
the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word
of God and the testimony they had maintained.
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. Revelation 20:4 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Revelation 20:5 Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. Revelation 20:6
In 6:9 and 20:4, John specifically qualifies the souls that he saw; they were the souls of martyrs. Nowhere does he state that he saw the souls of all believers. If all believers immediately resurrect (if only in the spirit) and join Christ after their death, where were the souls of those who had not died a martyr's death? To add to that, John further states in 20:5 that, "the rest of the dead did not come to life until after the thousand years were ended." No doubt, someone will offer, "but 'the rest of the dead' refers to the unbelievers!" This seems a plausible refutation. But, John is contrasting "the rest of the dead" who "did not come to life" with those who did. There is not a hint or a clue as to whether they were believers or unbelievers, but it would be strange in the context if he were contrasting believers with unbelievers. Essentially, he would be saying, "The martyred believers came to life to reign with Christ for a thousand years, but the rest of the (unbelieving) dead did not." His words, "the rest of" clearly indicate the remainder of the group he has been discussing, namely, believers. The "rest of the dead (believers) did not [then] come back to life (nor reign with Christ) until after the thousand years had passed. So, where were the un-martyred, dead believers all that time?
Before addressing that question, it is worthwhile to consider Revelation 20:6 in connection with a view widely held by the early Church. They believed that a martyr's death was tantamount to an automatic passport or entrance ticket to heaven. That this view was widely held and passed on for some centuries can be shown by the fact that Christians of the 7th Century influenced the new religious community of Islam to hold a similar view. The Moslems did not obtain such a view from the Jews, because at that time, the Jews did not espouse such a belief. For Christians, such a view was connected to Jesus' teaching that, "whoever will confess me before men, I will confess before the Father." Augustine explained that this meant certain, guaranteed salvation. Augustine even went so far as to state that the confessing testimony of an unbaptizedmartyr was a second means of salvation! The early believers taught that such a martyr's death guaranteed complete forgiveness of all sins, removing all need to fear the future judgment--as John states in Revelation 20:4-6. This connection lends further support to the claim that John saw only the souls of martyrs and not the souls of every believer. It also provides the basis for understanding Paul's words to the Philippians and Corinthians, since he plainly had already been prophetically informed of the manner of his future death by martyrdom.
Now we come to the relevant questions. If not all true believers are with Christ immediately after they die, where do they spend the intervening time between their death and their resurrection? And, when Paul said "we" (2 Cor 5:1), did he mean all Christians? Let us look at Paul's statements first.
Paul's discourse in Chapter 5 actually begins at least as early as Chapter 3. Read carefully the verses starting there and you will find Paul referring to "we" and "you" (plural) and thus making a distinction between himself with some other(s) and the Corinthians. This continues through Chapter 3 and 4. Who are the "we" of Paul's words. It is not difficult to perceive he is referring to himself and the other Apostles--who were also expecting to be eventually martyred for their testimony of Jesus. When he wishes to include the Corinthians (and one supposes, all Christians), he says, "we all..." (3:18). But in 4:1ff, he has again clearly returned to referring to the Apostles. Look especially at 4:12 where he again distinguishes between "us" and "you" (plural). Then we come to 5:1-9 which tradition and most readers carelessly apply to all Christians. In verse 10 Paul apparently returns to all Christians ("we...all..."), but in verse 11 he again returns to making a distinction between the Apostles and the Corinthians ("we...your..."). In verse 12, we find ourselves returned full circle to Paul's initiating question of 3:1. We see from this then, that the "we" references in Chapters 3-5 mostly refer to the Apostles--not Paul and the Corinthians. More especially, if by "we" (particularly in 5:1-9) Paul means all Christians, then from the "we...you..." distinctions, Paul must be excluding the Corinthian Christians from "all Christians". This is of course, quite unlikely.
If this analysis is accurate, what conclusions follow? That Paul (and the other Apostles) was expecting to be martyred and equally expected to be with Jesus soon after his death, though apparently without a physical body. That his statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians were not meant to apply to all Christians, or even to all Corinthian or Philippian Christians. Logically then, those Christians who do not die a martyr's death cannot and should not expect to immediately be with Jesus upon their death, nor to dwell with him from then until the final Judgment. To believe otherwise is to contradict the clear meaning of 1 Thessalonians 4:16--else, who are the "dead in Christ"? Even though such a conclusion contradicts tradition and what most believers think of as "their hope", nonetheless it seems consistent with a proper exegesis of the relevant scriptures.
So where will the multitude of non-martyred Christians spend the time from their death until Christ's return? Some Old Testament passages may help to explain. Genesis 2:7 defines for us what we are, namely, a combination of inanimate matter (dust of the ground) and God's "breath of life". This combination is called: nephesh (Hebrew), psyche (Greek) or living soul [2:7] or living creature [2:19] (English). It is noteworthy that the Greek word is the same used in English for "mind", i.e. psychology, psychiatry, etc. Although the word in Gen 2:7 for "breath" is n'shamah, in Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 and 12:7 it is ru-ach, which can also be translated "wind" or "spirit". The "Preacher" tells us that at death, our bodies return to the dust of the earth and our "spirit" or "breath" returns to God. This implies a separation of the two elements that make us a nephesh or psyche. This in its turn implies that our existence as a soul or creature comes to an end--until the Resurrection. This is also confirmed by the Psalmist (6:5) and Isaiah (38:18), as well as by the Preacher (Eccl 9:10).
But of course, such a complicated explanation is really not necessary.
The New Testament passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:16,
tells us quite plainly where the greater multitude will be until Christ
returns: waiting (unknowing and unconscious in the grave) for
the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God! And really,
does it matter? If we are unconscious until the resurrection, then
the next thing we'll know after our death will be the Lord's presence--as
if no time had elapsed. So, whether or not there is an intervening
time between our death and our presence with Jesus, from our point of view,
there will be no difference.
The somewhat related question about where the unsaved will spend eternity,
after the Judgement, needs a separate page and may be found: here.
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This page last updated 26-Nov-2002.