Between Death and Resurrection
By David Feddes
If you heard someone say, “I’d be better off dead,” what would you think? You’d probably figure they were depressed, miserable, maybe even suicidal. Why else would they say such a thing? They must hate life and think it’s not worth living.
But what if there’s another possibility? What if a person loved life and found each day exciting and worthwhile—and still would rather die than go on with life the way it is? I can tell you of someone who felt that way. This person valued his life and work, but he said “to die is gain.” He said it would be “better by far” than the life he was experiencing.
The person I’m talking about is the apostle Paul, and he said these things in some of his writings that are now part of the Bible. The center of Paul’s life was his relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. As a missionary and teacher, Paul loved working for Jesus. He loved helping others to follow Jesus. But as much as he loved working for Jesus, he longed even more to be with Jesus in heaven. Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Is it sick for a person to be so excited about religion that he thinks he’d be better off dead? No, Paul’s longing wasn’t sick at all. It had nothing in common with the depression of people who feel miserable and useless and hate life. It had nothing in common with the fascination some people have with death, a morbid urge to find out what it’s like to die and enter the unknown. Paul treasured life, and he considered death an enemy. He wasn’t eager to leave his life’s work, and he didn’t like the prospect of having his soul torn away from his body. And yet, despite the downside of dying, Paul still said he’d be better off dead if it meant being with Jesus in heaven. Can you echo him? Are you glad to be alive but looking forward to what comes after?
What happens after you die? At death the soul is separated from the body. The soul is the non-physical you: your mind, your personality, your deepest self. Body and soul were created to be together, but death breaks that union, and the soul leaves the body. We know what happens to the body at that point: the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, the brain stops working, decay starts to set in, and the body is buried or cremated. That’s what happens to the body—but what happens to the soul?
The Soul’s Escort
If you belong to God, the first thing that happens after you die is that you meet a squadron of angels. They come to welcome and encourage you and escort your soul to your new home. The Bible says angels are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14), and one way the angels serve you, according to Jesus, is by carrying your soul to the home of God’s people after you die (Luke 16:22). What a joy to be met by such a dazzling welcome committee! What a comfort to have such mighty protection on your soul’s journey!
The moment children of God die, they meet the angels Jesus has sent for them, and they find that death was really nothing for them to fear. Jonathan Edwards, a Christian of an earlier era, said in one of his great sermons: “Death was once a terrible enemy, but now he has become weak. He spent all his strength on Christ; in killing him, he killed himself; [death] was conquered then, and has now no power to hurt [Jesus’] followers.” In fact, death hardly deserves to be called death at all. Jesus said, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Why are some Christians still afraid of death? Not because death can actually harm us but because we are still weak and immature. Little children are often afraid of the dark even where there’s no real danger. When was the last time a shadow actually harmed anybody? Shadows may look terrible, but shadows can’t do anything terrible. When the Lord is your shepherd, you may still tremble in the valley of the shadow of death, but even if the shadow frightens you, it can’t actually hurt you.
The situation is different if you haven’t put your faith in Jesus. You have every reason to fear death. When your soul leaves your body, it won’t be welcomed by angels but seized by demons. You won’t be escorted to heaven but cast into the fire of hell. Dying without Jesus is horrible, so if you don’t know Christ, death ought to terrify you.
But if the Lord is your shepherd, you don’t have to fear any evil, for he is with you, and he sends his angels to take your soul home to him.
What a homecoming that will be! Your soul will arrive at the gates of heaven, accompanied by the angels who brought you. The gates will be thrown open, and you will be welcomed by the souls of God’s people who have gone there before you, by the hosts of angels, and by the Lord himself.
It will be a celebration like nothing you’ve ever known. The Bible says there’s joy in heaven every time a sinner repents and comes to know Jesus by faith—and if there’s that much joy in heaven when you start your journey with Jesus, just imagine the joy in heaven when you complete the journey and arrive at your final destination, free from sin, perfect in purity and love.
The other souls in heaven will embrace you. Your arrival will bring them joy, and their glad welcome will bring you joy. There may be parents or pastors or Christian friends whom the Lord used in a special way to build your faith. They will have a special joy in greeting you, and you will delight in being reunited with them and thanking them for their part in helping you along to such a splendid destiny.
You may also meet the souls of people whom God gave you the privilege of helping. They will welcome you and pour out their love for you. In the Bible Jesus says, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). At death you must leave everything in this world behind, but if you’ve use your worldly resources to serve others in Jesus’ name, the people you’ve helped will give you a huge welcome in heaven.
Along with meeting people who were dear to you in this life, you’ll meet the souls of people you never knew before. Some will be famous people from the Bible and history whom you’ll have the delight of meeting for the first time. Others will be hidden heroes who never made any headlines but held true to the faith in dark times and passed the gospel along to later generations. All souls in heaven have one thing in common: they are there because Jesus bought them with his blood and won their hearts through his Holy Spirit.
Your arrival in heaven will mean rejoicing with other souls in God’s great salvation, and adding to the celebration will be the fact that the angels will rejoice along with you, especially those whose task it was to defend and help you throughout your life (Psalm 91:11). In the course of your life there may have been times where you felt especially protected and almost sensed angels nearby, but you didn’t actually meet them. Most of the time we have no idea what the angels are doing, but the Bible says they are constantly helping us. After you die and go to heaven, you may meet these angels firsthand. They may introduce themselves and tell you exactly how they helped you. Won’t it be a thrill to meet these hidden helpers and to discover how God’s secret agents were beside you all along? You will rejoice to meet and thank them, and the angels will have the glad satisfaction of another mission accomplished, another immortal soul brought into direct enjoyment of the God whom angels adore.
The joy of other souls and angels will be tremendous, but the greatest joy will be in the welcome of God himself. You will rejoice to be with him, and he will celebrate over you. You’ll see what the Bible means when it says, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
The arrival of a soul in heaven is an event the Lord has been planning for longer than you can imagine. The longer something is planned, the greater the joy when it is finally accomplished. A coach who wins a championship enjoys it all the more because he’s been planning and working at it for so long, ever since the pre-season. God has been planning the glory of his chosen ones, not just for a brief season, but from all eternity. So when a soul arrives in heaven, the Lord celebrates a victory that he’s been planning since before he created the world, and that makes his joy all the greater.
Another measure of joy at reaching a goal is how much hardship a person is willing to endure to reach that goal. The Bible says that “for the joy set before him,” Jesus was willing to be nailed to a cross and go through hellish agony (Hebrews 12:2). Now, if his suffering was so awful and yet Jesus counted his future joy to be far greater than the suffering, then that joy must be immense. When your soul arrives in heaven, Jesus enjoys the sweet fruit of his suffering. He paid for you with his blood so that he could welcome you and rejoice over you as his precious jewel, his dear child, his beloved bride. You won’t know what a real celebration is until you see Jesus celebrating!
And as Jesus rejoices over you, you’ll be overwhelmed with joy in him. In our present state, even the most sincere Christian often feels far from Jesus. Even though we’ve had a glimpse of his goodness, our hearts still have much hardness and coldness. But in heaven any hardness, coldness, dimness, or distance will be removed. Jesus will be right there before us. We will be astounded and delighted at his majesty, his beauty, his kindness, his power, his holiness, his love.
The thrill some people feel here on earth when they meet a great person or a celebrity will be nothing compared to the thrill of meeting the mighty and magnificent Lord Jesus Christ. We won’t just see Jesus at a distance or far above us. We won’t just shake his hand and get his autograph. He won’t just wave to us and leap into a limousine and leave us lowly people behind so that he can head off to more important things. No, although Jesus is so great and so glamorous—in the best sense of being glamorous—all his greatness and glamour won’t separate him from us. Jesus will draw us close to himself.
Even though he is the all-powerful Ruler of heaven and earth, Jesus will be as a brother and friend to us. On earth Jesus made himself a friend to people by coming down to our level and living a life like ours. In heaven he will make us his friends by lifting us up to his level and giving us a life like his. First the king came down to live like a servant; then he will raise up servants to live like kings. The Bible says that he makes us royalty to reign with him (Revelation 22:5), so that we even share in judging the world and judging the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). We will forever marvel that one so great would stoop so low to rescue us, and we will forever marvel that he raised us so high to make us reign with him. We will enjoy thrilling fellowship with him, and he will pour his limitless resources on us for our happiness and his glory.
Better Off Dead
Now can you see why the Bible says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13)? No wonder Paul could say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (1:21,23).
But what about leaving your body behind and existing without it? That doesn’t sound fun. Paul didn’t like the thought of being bodiless, either, but the loss of a body was outweighed by the gains he would experience. Paul wrote,
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands… Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
When you die and your soul goes to heaven, you have to exist without a body for a while. That’s hard to imagine, and it doesn’t sound appealing. God designed us as embodied persons, not disembodied souls. Indeed, our final destiny is the resurrection of the body. Eventually, when Jesus returns to earth at the end of the world, the bodies of everyone will be resurrected and reunited with their souls. The Lord will raise your body from the dust and make it splendid and immortal. Meanwhile, though, between the time you die and the end of the world, your soul will live on in heaven without yet having its glorified resurrection body.
Will that make you unhappy? No, once your soul gets to heaven, you’ll be too delighted with Jesus to be unhappy over the loss of your body. Instead of being grumpy that things still aren’t quite as good as they will be after the resurrection, you’ll enjoy the riches of Christ that are already yours, and your joy will increase as you realize that even greater delights await you when you receive your glorified body.
The Lord will be for you a fountain of ever-increasing joy. You will always be completely happy in heaven, and yet somehow that happiness will keep increasing. It will increase every time the angels escort another child of God into heaven, setting off yet another celebration of God’s glory and love. It will increase when you finally get your glorified body at the resurrection, so that in body as well as soul, you can fully enjoy Jesus. Indeed, your joy will keep increasing for eternity.
How can that be? Picture yourself as a container to hold the joy that comes from Christ, the fountain. Will you start out in heaven partly empty and then gradually have more joy poured into you? No, the joy of Christ will fill you to overflowing the moment you reach heaven. If your joy keeps increasing, it won’t be because the container is partially empty and becoming fuller but because the container itself keeps growing in its capacity. The longer you’re with Jesus and experience the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the greater your capacity for his blessings. As God’s fountain of life and light and wisdom and love floods your being, your joy keeps increasing because the container keeps getting larger and larger.
To put it another way, you will keep growing closer to Jesus and becoming more like him. You’ll never actually catch up with him because he is infinite and you are finite, he is divine and you’re not, but for all eternity you will be drawn more and more deeply into the life of the blessed Trinity. Although you’ll never have a divine nature, “you may participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
These things are too much to describe or even imagine, but if anything I’ve said turns out to be mistaken, it won’t be because I’ve exaggerated but because the reality of being with Christ will be far greater.
The apostle Paul had an encounter with the risen Christ and a glimpse of heaven, and he considered everything else rubbish compared to knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:7-14). If you could have just one short glimpse of Jesus right now, if you could feel even the smallest touch of his love in the Holy Spirit, you would count it worth more than everything you have, worth more than life itself. You would join Paul in saying that dying is gain, that it’s better to be absent from the body if it means being at home with the Lord.
Why Are You Still Alive?
Now, if you’re eager for heaven, does that mean you should sit around wishing you would die soon? Not at all! If God chooses to leave you on earth for awhile, in spite of the fact that heaven is so wonderful, then God must have work for you to do. The apostle Paul wrote to some fellow Christians and said,
I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (1:23-26).
That’s the attitude of a true follower of Jesus: better off dead, but glad to be alive, helping others along the road to heaven and serving the Savior.
If you’re still living here on earth, God is keeping you alive for one of two reasons. One possibility is that he still has work for you to do here. If you belong to Jesus, you’d be better off in heaven than on earth. You’d be better off dead, so if you’re still alive, God has a purpose for you here. Strive to please him, help others, and lay up treasures in heaven.
If you’re old and in failing health, you may look forward to heaven, but don’t just sit around wondering why God doesn’t take you home. That’s God’s business! If you’re still here, you’re here for a reason. Are there people God wants you to pray for? Are there friends or grandchildren God still wants you to touch? Do God’s work while he gives you life, rather than complaining that he hasn’t yet ended your life on earth.
Even when we don’t fully understand God’s purpose for keeping someone alive, we may be sure that he has one. I’ll never forget a conversation with a middle-aged Christian man whose elderly mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. As her mind crumbled in confusion, the son wondered why God would let his mother go on living. Wouldn’t this old saint be far better off in heaven with Jesus? She was no longer any earthly good, was she? It made no sense!
At last his mother died. At his mother’s funeral, he met a nurse from the nursing home where his mother spent her last years. This nurse said that she had not been a Christian. By the time she met the old lady, the Alzheimer’s had done much damage. The patient couldn’t carry on a conversation or remember much of anything. About all she could do was keep repeating a verse from the Bible which she had memorized long ago: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
The nurse took that as a message from God, and she trusted Jesus with all her heart. She saw the old lady who kept trusting the Lord even when her mind lost understanding, and that nurse received eternal salvation. The old lady’s son told me with tears in his eyes: “I didn’t see any reason for my mom to keep living. I didn’t know why God wouldn’t just let her die. But God knew best.” Even an Alzheimer’s victim can do God’s work.
If you’re still alive, one possible reason is that God still has important work to do through you. But perhaps you’re not doing God’s work at all. In that case, perhaps God has a very different reason for keeping you alive. Perhaps it’s because you’re not ready to die. You’re still far from Christ, and God knows you wouldn’t be better off dead. God knows that if you had died last night, you’d be in hell right now, suffering forever with no escape. You’re alive right now because God in his mercy is giving you more time to reject your sin and seek his mercy in Christ. But some day your time will run out. Only God knows when.
Don’t waste the opportunity the Lord is giving you. You’ve heard God’s wonderful promises of heaven. What a shame it would be to hear all this, only to shrug and walk away and end up dying without Christ. Don’t be foolish. Set your heart on the Lord. Set your desires on spending eternity with him. Plead for God’s mercy until he grants it. Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Honor him as your supreme satisfaction in life and in death.
If you’re not ready to live for Jesus, you’re not ready to die. But once you are ready to die, you’ll also be ready to live for him, fearlessly and joyfully. Once you know you’d be better off dead, you also know God must have an important purpose for keeping you here for awhile yet, and you serve him with all your heart. May God grant you grace so that you can truly say, “I’d be better off dead, but I’m glad to be alive, serving him. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.