October 20, 2013
It is the day of the funeral. Your heart is filled with emotions, your eyes with tears. You see old friends who loved him as you love him, and now he is dead. The community gathers. Hymns are sung. Memories are shared. Some are funny, and we laugh. Others poignant and we feel a chill. All who gather loved him, but he is not here. His lifeless body is in a wooden box. We drive in caravan to a cemetery and lower that wooden box into the ground. He is gone.
Where? He could be husband or grandpa or brother or friend. Whoever he or she is, whomever it is that we mourn, where do they go in that moment that the doctor pronounces them dead? The body is right there and it is dead, but what about the spirit? Where do our spirits go in that moment when breath leaves our bodies?
In this series, we have examined some ideas about Hell. We have given thought to the eternal destiny of people in the world who never hear the Gospel. We believe people who put their trust in Jesus are with Him for eternity after the Judgment Day. But what about between now and the end of time and Jesus’ second coming? What happens in the moment when Christians die?
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
32 Two criminals were led out to be put to death with Jesus. 33 When the soldiers came to the place called “The Skull,”[a] they nailed Jesus to a cross. They also nailed the two criminals to crosses, one on each side of Jesus.
34-35 Jesus said, “Father, forgive these people! They don’t know what they’re doing.”[b]
While the crowd stood there watching Jesus, the soldiers gambled for his clothes. The leaders insulted him by saying, “He saved others. Now he should save himself, if he really is God’s chosen Messiah!”
36 The soldiers made fun of Jesus and brought him some wine. 37 They said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
38 Above him was a sign that said, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals hanging there also insulted Jesus by saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and save us!”
40 But the other criminal told the first one off, “Don’t you fear God? Aren’t you getting the same punishment as this man? 41 We got what was coming to us, but he didn’t do anything wrong.” 42 Then he said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into power!”
43 Jesus replied, “I promise that today you will be with me in paradise.”[c]
The temple leaders in Jerusalem have mocked Jesus. The Roman soldiers charged with carrying out the crucifixion taunted him (23:10-11). Now Jesus is on the cross with criminals on crosses alongside his. On one side, the convict, himself suffering the agony of crucifixion, used his last breath to pile insults on Jesus. “Save yourself and us while you are at it.”
His life was at an end. This is no escape and no rescue. With nails pounded through his hands and feet, the criminal’s suffering was unrelenting. The accused were crucified in a public place. If it was cold, then that discomfort was added to the other miseries. If it was hot, sunburn was a part of the suffering. They hanged naked for women, children, and all by passers to see. The only relief from this horror was death.
I wonder if such a sorrowful and painful ending brings clarity of thought. It certainly is a defining moment. How did the criminals handle it?
Jesus, falsely accused, prayed that God would forgive those who injured and those who added insult to injury. In this enormously hurtful hour, his heart still beat with love for people, even those who maliciously wounded him.
One of the others, in this defining moment, stooped low. About to discover exactly what happens to his spirit at death, he used his last breaths to get in a dig. He had no belief in Jesus at all. The best he could come up with was an uncreative repeat of the insults others had thrown Jesus’ way. He lived a life of shame, stupidity, and loss. He died as ignominiously as he lived.
The other criminal, though, found something else in that last hour. He saw the heart of Jesus in the face of the storm and raging of the people. He saw the malice in the priests who condemned Jesus. He saw the wickedness of the Romans. He saw his own sin. He knew that he deserved the cross on which he hung. We all do. He said to his partner in crime, “Do you not fear God? We are getting what we deserve, but this man, Jesus, has done nothing wrong” (v.40-41).
In that moment, the criminal on the cross found faith. He wondered as much as you or I would, what’s coming? What will be next for me, after my body dies? He decided he did fear God. On the day of death, this is a good thing to understand. It is far better not to wait for the day of death. We don’t know when death comes. We don’t all have hours of hanging on a cross to decide if we want to go out muttering cheap curses or if we want to go out with words of faith. Go through the decision process now. Decide now what you’d like your stance with God to be when the day of death comes.
The criminal on the cross had the opportunity, considered what he had seen, and put his trust in Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He believed Jesus would be resurrected in victory. And he believed Jesus had the power to bring him along. He did not have a detailed understanding of what it meant to say Jesus was God in human flesh. The disciples did not have that yet. Certainly this criminal on the cross was theologically limited. But with what knowledge he had, he put his trust in Jesus. He believed in a far-off future, Jesus would bring him to life in the end time resurrection.
But it would not be a distant future. Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” The New Testament is quite clear that at the last judgment there will be a resurrection, a bodily resurrection. These bodies will rise to new life. It does not matter if one is eaten by a shark or cremated or blown away by a bomb or decayed in the ground. We will be raised in incorruptible bodies that are tangible and can eat and drink and embrace, but cannot be hurt or injured. That will happen in the future. What about people who die between now and then as most of us will? Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The ancient scholars who translated the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Greek used the Greek word ‘paradise’ as a way of referring to the Garden of Eden. The term is actually borrowed from ancient Persian and refers to an idyllic place, a beautiful, walled-in garden. Do we suppose that immediately upon his death, Jesus went to a dreamy garden? Or do we think he literally went to the Garden of Eden?
My own view is that the bits and pieces about life and existence we get in the New Testament are not enough for us to make very many definitive statements. First Peter 3:19 says when Jesus died he went to speak with “the spirits in prison.” First Peter 4:6 says the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead. These references show his mastery over death and his intent to share salvation with as many as who will receive it. Is there a chance for people to turn to Christ after death if they died not believing? My reading of the New Testament as a whole leads me to think choices made in this life matter and if we die saying no to God, God will honor that “no.”
However, these verses from 1st Peter as well as many other references suggest there is much activity going on in unseen places. And Jesus’ statement to the criminal, “today, you will be with me in Paradise,” suggests something other than a deep sleep that waits the final resurrection. I do not think any of the New Testament authors intended to draw an Afterlife road map. We should leave unsaid what the Bible leaves unsaid. The story is that a criminal trusted in Jesus and Jesus promised him paradise.
The story of the two criminals on crosses alongside Jesus is our story. Each one of us will die. Jesus did nothing to relieve the suffering of the one who spoke in faith. When the criminal said, ‘remember me in your kingdom,’ Jesus did not miraculously pull him off the cross. He did not heal the nail-holes in the man’s hands. All Jesus gave him was a promise. That promise is all we get.
Is it enough? Do we believe? Today, you will be with me in paradise.
Is it a ghostly spiritual existence, our bodies in the ground, our spirits floating with Jesus somewhere? British scholar N.T. Wright thinks, “It is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ” while awaiting the final resurrection and judgment.[i] I don’t know that much more can be said.
When the doctor’s ability to help the patient is exhausted, the doctor tells the family, ‘there’s nothing more we can do.’ If the family is Christian, they may ask the pastor to come and represent the presence of God as the person passes from life.
I have been present these moments several times. All are memorable, but one stands out. Vicki Seng gave me permission to share this. We were all present, her, David, her daughters and sons-in-law, and grandchildren. Vicki’s mother was in the bed in the living room, unconscious. Her family expressed their appreciation for her life and their deep love. I said prayers and read Bible verses. I don’t know what she understood, but the final words of this woman’s life were words of deep affection and the living word of God.
At one point in our bedside vigil, Vicki asked, “Rob, what happens right at the moment we die. Do we go to be with Jesus in Heaven or is there a waiting period.”
I said, “Vicki, I am not sure. But I am sure that if we trust in Jesus, whatever comes is a blessing and there is no more suffering.” It was OK for me to say, “I’m not completely sure.” And Vicki was OK with that too. All around her mother that night was a palpable sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not all questions need answers. One question then and now demands a response – where do we stand in relation to Jesus? Vicki’s mom stood as His disciple and as a daughter of God. That night is among the memorable and beautiful experiences of my life.
In this series on the afterlife, I have thought about that experience. I thought about my Dad reading Psalms to his Mother-in-Law as she passed. “Where do we go in the moment we pass from life?” I believe that our spirits go to be with Jesus in Paradise. I can’t say much about what Paradise is like. It is not the final resurrection. That will be better still. But Paradise is walking in Eden alongside Jesus. That is what’s immediately next for all who follow Him.