The Believer's Hope at Death
Rev. Houck is a home-missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
There are many troubles and tribulations which come upon the believer in this "valley of tears," but none of them is so disturbing as death. Death is something which strikes fear in the strongest heart, for death is the end of this earthly life. In death the body dissolves and returns to the dust, and with this dissolution of the body all that belongs to our earthly life is destroyed.
Moreover, there is no escaping the grip of death. With the exception of those who live at the time of Christ's return, everyone must die. God says, ". . . it is appointed unto men once to die . . ." (Hebrews 9:27). This is true of the young as well as of the old. We do not know the day nor the hour when God will say to us, "This night thy soul shall be required of thee" (Luke 12:20). Any of us can die at any moment.
All of this makes death a very frightening thing. For most people it is something to be dreaded. The very thought of death fills their hearts with terror. The anticipation of death brings such feelings of despair and hopelessness, that people will do just about anything to avoid its inevitability.
For the believer, however, things are different. He does not fear death. With the Psalmist he says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil . . ." (Ps. 23:5). Even though he is walking through the "valley of the shadow of death" he does not fear. He knows that for him death is not the end of everything. He does not die like the beast of the field. He does not die as one without hope. By grace he believes that God has given eternal life to him and death is the means whereby he passes into a more glorious experience of that life. "Death is swallowed up in victory" (I Cor. 15:54).
The believer's hope is fixed upon the day of our Lords return and upon the resurrection of his body from the dead. Even though his body returns to dust, it shall not remain in that corruption. He shall be raised from the dead. The corruptible shall put on incorruption and the mortal, immortality. "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise . . ." (I Thess. 4:16).
This is one of the reasons the true believer eagerly seeks the coming of Christ. He longs for that day when he shall be changed "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump" (I Cor. 15:52). In that wonderful moment all the people of God shall be glorified and enter into the blessedness of the new heavens and the new earth. Thus the daily prayer of every child of God is, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20).
But that is not all. The hope of the believer is not only that he shall be raised from the dead when Christ returns, but that after death he shall immediately enter into the presence of Christ. The child of God looks for Christ to come at death to take him to heaven just as much as he looks for Him to come at the end of time. Even though the body returns to the dust and is not raised until the last day, at death, the soul is taken to heaven. At death, the believer consciously enjoys the blessedness of being with His Lord and Savior.
Although this truth is very comforting, it is denied by many who profess to be Christians. For instance, the Roman Catholics believe that at death the souls of most believers go to purgatory and remain there for a considerable time before going to heaven. Before the believer can go to heaven, he must bear the remainder of the temporal punishment for his sins.
There are some evangelical Protestants who believe that the Old Testament saints did not go immediately to heaven at death, but rather to a different place which they call "paradise" or "Abraham's bosom." Only after the death and resurrection of Christ were the souls of the Old Testament saints released from this place and taken to heaven. Still others believe in what is called, "soul-sleep." At death the soul enters into a state of sleep in which the person is not conscious of anything, He remains in this sleep until the resurrection day when once again his soul is united to his body.
The Bible, however, makes it very clear that none of these views is correct. Every believer may be comforted in the fact that when he dies, immediately his soul goes to heaven.
We see this from the words spoken by Christ to the thief on the cross. Jesus said, "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
Jesus did not say that the thief would be. with Him in paradise after a long stay in purgatory. Nor did He say that the thief would enter into some kind of sleep until the resurrection. No! Jesus made it very clear that the thief would be with Him in heaven on that very day in which they both died. At death, the thief would go to heaven.
The apostle Paul likewise believed that at death the believer goes immediately to heaven. In II Corinthians 5:1he says, "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
When our "earthly house"—the body and all that belongs to earthly life—is dissolved in death, we will not be left unclothed. There is a "building of God" in heaven in which we will dwell. This is not the resurrection body, but a heavenly state of glory which the believer enters at death. At death he does not enter purgatory or some abode other than heaven. He does not sleep either. At death, the believer enters into the glory of heaven.
It ought not to surprise us, therefore, that the apostle should also say, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).
What gain would there be if at death the believer went to purgatory? What gain if his soul entered a state of unconsciousness? But since the soul of the believer goes to heaven immediately after death, death is gain. For the believer, death is the passageway which takes him out of this "valley of tears" into the glory of heaven.
Oh, how glorious is heaven.
In heaven the believer will experience sin, suffering, and sorrow no more. For the cause of all these things will be gone. There will be no old man of sin anymore. Finally the believer will be completely free from his wicked nature so that it will be impossible for him to sin. With the end of his sin will also come the end of all that sin brings—the suffering and sorrows of this life.
Since he is in heaven rather than on earth, he will no more face the persecution and cruelties of the wicked. His soul will be at rest, even as the voice from heaven proclaims, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest .from their labours; and their words do follow them" (Rev. 14:13).
In heaven the believer will experience the blessedness of fellowship with all the other saints who have died and gone to heaven. Jesus says, ". . . That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 8:11).
Think of that!
When the believer dies he will go to "Abraham's bosom" where he will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the saints that have gone before him. He will be reunited with his loved ones who have died in the Lord. Heaven will be like a great banquet in which the people of God enjoy one another's company and rejoice together in the blessedness of their salvation.
The hope of heaven, however, is much more than fellowship with the saints. In heaven the believer will experience the blessedness of fellowship with Christ, and in Christ fellowship with God.
The apostle teaches us that "whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord" (II Cor. 5:6). That is because the Lord is in heaven and we are on earth. But "to be absent from the body" is "to be present with the Lord' (II Cor. 5:8). When the believer dies and goes to heaven, he enters into the presence of Christ. He sees Christ everywhere and always. He sees Him as he has never seen Him before, for he shall see Him face to face.
Thus at death the believer enters into a greater experience of the covenant of grace. He knows the love and grace of God as he has never known it before. He walks with God and talks with God in a most intimate and loving way. He knows beyond a shadow of doubt that God is his God and that He dwells with him now and forever more. His heart is filled to overflowing with praise and adoration of God.
This is not to imply that at death the believer enters into his final state of glory. We must remember that at death the body of the believer is still in the grave, the heavens and earth have not yet been made new, and the saints of God have not all been gathered. Yet this intermediate state of the soul is the beginning of that eternal glory that awaits us. It is something that ought to give all of Gods people great comfort. In the midst of all the sorrows that belong to death, the believer has a most wonderful hope. He knows he is going to heaven.