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To Be Absent From the Body: What Happens When We Die

A picture of the sunset with the words of 2 Corinthians 5:8 overlayed.

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8 NIV)

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 NIV)

The Bible seems to give two versions of what happens to us when we die. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, the Apostle Paul says to be absent from the body (to die) is to be with the Lord. We die, and we immediately go to be with Jesus. This version fits with what Jesus told the criminal who was being crucified with Him and who asked Him to remember him when He comes into His Kingdom. Jesus told him, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43 NIV)

But in 1 Thessalonians, chapter 4, the same Apostle Paul paints a picture of those who have fallen asleep in Christ (who have died) sleeping until they are awakened and raised from the dead at Jesus' second coming. Here Paul says we shall all be raised to meet Jesus in the air in the same event, someday. This version fits with what Jesus told the disciples when He got word that Lazarus was deathly ill. He told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” (John 11:11 NIV)

So which is it? Do our souls go to be with the Lord the moment our bodies die, or do we sleep in death until the second coming? The first option seems more comforting to me. But on further reflection, I think the experience would be the same. You see, when we sleep, we are not aware of the passing of time. When I first awaken from sleep, I don't know if I have slept 20 minutes or six hours. So it could be that I will sleep in death, even for centuries, and awaken at the call of the last trumpet, with the sense that only a split second had taken place since my death.

The best commentary on any single verse of Scripture is the rest of Scripture. And the best way to understand any single Biblical doctrine is to consider it in light of the whole of the Bible. On deeper reflection, I have come to believe that Paul is not contradicting 2 Corinthians 5 when he writes 1 Thessalonians 4. In fact, since I believe the Holy Spirit was working in Paul and all the other writers of the books of the Bible to reveal God's truth to us, I believe apparent contradictions can often be reconciled to each other with a view of the bigger picture.

That being said, I do not believe these two versions of what happens to us when we die are an either/or set of options, with one being true and the other being false. Rather, I believe they reflect the same reality from two different points of view. Could it be that the belief we go to be with Jesus immediately is the view from heaven - from eternity where time has no meaning? And could it be that the teaching we sleep in death until Christ's return is the view from earth - where we are time-bound and have a past, a present and a future?

If that is the case, then from earth's point of view, we continue to experience the passing of time after the death of a loved one, and are given the promise of the awakening of the "sleeping" soul at the sound of the last trumpet. And from heaven's point of view, when we die we enter eternity, where all things are "present" to God, and we immediately experience the last trumpet call, rising to be with the Lord in that eternal instant.

Faith in the Jesus Christ, who conquered death, says this: Whichever of these two versions of our dying is the mechanics of what takes place, the experience will be the same. We die, and by our faith in Jesus, we go to be with the Lord for eternity. That is our sure hope. What Paul is saying in 1 Thessalonians is that our loved ones who have died will be with Jesus, and so will we, if we happen to be living when Christ returns. It seems to me to be a bit awkward to tell someone, "Be encouraged. Your loved one who has died with faith in Christ will now sleep for centuries, waiting for Jesus to return and call them to eternal life."

So I live and walk by faith. And faith tells me to be absent from the body is to be with the Lord. I believe that is what Scripture teaches about what happens when we die. And I believe the understanding that those who have fallen asleep in Christ will be called from the grave at the last trumpet is a different facet of the same diamond, not a contradiction.

One day Jesus will come for me. Whether it is at His second coming or at the moment of my death does not matter. Death has been conquered. I will go to be with Jesus. And there, in eternity, death can never touch me again. All glory and thanks be to God!


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