Last night a motorcyclist had an accident only feet from my front door that took his life. And his death provided yet another opportunity to consider the post-life world for the Christian.
There have been a number of such occasions in recent months. In February, I attended the memorial service for the beloved Howard Hendricks, a mentor to thousands, including me. In March, we lost the cat that had been part of our life’s rhythm for more than seven thousand days. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Roy Zuck entered his reward. He had officed next to me at Dallas Seminary and was a dear brother and editor on whom I depended. Last month, the DTS community gathered to celebrate the life of Dr. Steve Strauss, another colleague and a world Christian. And a little over a week ago, I learned that my seven-time co-author, mentor, and beloved friend, Dr. Bill Cutrer, passed suddenly into the arms of Christ.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the afterlife. And my questions have driven me to the biblical text for a fresh look.
Will we be married in the resurrection? My daughter asked this recently. And I had to tell her that Jesus said no: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30 ff). That’s why our wedding ceremonies have the phrase, “Till death do us part.”
Nevertheless, love endures; only the institution of marriage ends. That earthly picture of Christ and the church will be enfolded into a far greater reality in which we collectively become the spotless bride, presented to the groom we adore, followed by the party of all parties. Our best moments in earthly marriage are a mere shadow of this fantastic substance to come.
Do all non-human earthly creatures live on? Let us hope not. Imagine every roach and spider and snake that has ever lived—before we even add all the Fluffies and Fidos. Perhaps those other creatures could have their own planet? I do hope my childhood dog is there. And I certainly hope we will get to hold our cat again.
But the Bible is silent on the subject of whether animals have souls. The third Nicene Council decreed unanimously that animals do not possess them. And I hesitate to question church fathers. But at that particular meeting, I’m told, they also came close to saying the same thing about women.
Whatever we want to call it, when animals are alive, they do have an immaterial part that’s like human “breath,” unlike plants. Does that immaterial part have an afterlife? I don’t know. But based on God’s kindness, mercy, and pattern I wouldn’t be surprised. In the future, the existing heaven and earth will become a new and improved version. Marriage gets exchanged for the heavenly bride and bridegroom. And if this pattern tells us anything, perhaps our cats will come without needing kitty litters?
We do know that such creatures will be alive in the Millennial Kingdom. Our Lord rides a white horse (Rev. 19:11), and the wolf and lamb shall lie down together (Isaiah 11:6).
So will I see my pets again? I suspect so. But more importantly, will we be satisfied in heaven with or without our furry creatures? Completely.
Is the afterlife for the Christian a state of total bliss? I think not—yet. The most-cited proof-text for paradise being a state of pure joy is Revelation 21:21ff: “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea…. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” But notice when this series of “no more” stuff takes place: it’s after the new heaven and earth appear, which is after death dies. Not yet.
Many believe that the “cloud of witnesses” described in Hebrews 12 refers to the saints who have gone before us standing in an arena and aware of our “race.” These witnesses long for us to align ourselves with God’s will, praying for us and screaming cheers when we trust and obey.
But we could just as easily understand the reference to the “cloud of witnesses” as referring to the testimonies of past saints that spur us on rather than they themselves.
I lean toward the former, though. Because we also read in Rev. 6:9 that the martyred believers during the tribulation ask God how long he will wait to avenge their deaths. And that suggests they remember their earthly lives (including the pain) and they recognize people who are still on earth. It also suggests that they still exist in time, with sequence. And they ask questions because they don’t yet perfectly understand all of God’s ways, but they long for God’s ultimate will to be done.
You’ll recall that Jesus said the angels have a party in heaven when one sinner on earth repents (Luke 15:10). These heavenly creatures are aware of the spiritual battles fought, delayed (Dan. 10:12ff), and won on earth. And if the angels know, why not also the dustlings who have actually experienced redemption?
Whatever the case, these redeemed ones are still limited by space. That is, they don’t become part of the universe and thus omnipresent. In that sense they are not “with” all of us at one time. We never see anyone in the Bible praying to a departed person—only to God alone. Perhaps these saints at rest walk among us in a heavenly dimension we cannot see, pray over us, and travel among us. Whatever they do, they are with Christ, which is far better than our earthly reality.
Regardless of where our sanctified imaginations take us, our desire must never be to please the departed Christians whom we love, but to please Christ our Lord and our God. But should we try to stop loving them? Never. For “love never fails.”
Now, if the dead in Christ actually entered some sort of dormant soul-sleep till the last trumpet, Paul would have said it was better to stay with the Corinthians than sleeping. But his choice was between being with them and being with Christ, concluding, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It's one or the other.
And being at home with the Lord is far better than all loves of earth combined, a mind-blowing concept. In 2 Corinthians, Paul (who was transported to the third heaven, which was too amazing for words) writes about deciding which is better—to stay alive on earth for the benefit of the Corinthians or to depart and be with Christ (5:8). He concludes that being with Christ is better than better—it’s far better.
If today I could have just five minutes back with my friends who have joined the cloud of witnesses, no doubt they would urge me in the most adamant of terms to throw off every hindrance and run with endurance the race set before me. They would remind me that the suffering on this planet is not even worthy to be compared to the glory that will follow, citing the ultimate example of Christ, who endured the cross on His way to his seat at the right hand of God. He’s the one on whom we need to fix our eyes. And doing so, we must—by the power of the Spirit—run like heaven in order to finish well.